Turkmen Opposition Considers Election Offer. Interview with Khudaiberdy Orazov


By IngaSikorskaya – News Briefing Central Asia

A leading opposition figure from Turkmenistan has given a guarded welcome to a suggestion from President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov that political groups based abroad could take part in future elections.

Berdymuhammedov made the offer at a July 8 cabinet meeting.

Referring to “groups that describe themselves as the opposition”, he said, “If any of their representatives wishes to take part in the next presidential election, they are welcome to come to Turkmenistan. I guarantee that they will have the same conditions and opportunities to take part in the election that citizens of our country have.”

Berdymuhammedov’s term in office will expire in February 2012, five years after he succeeded the late Saparmurat Niazov.

NBCentralAsia asked Khudaiberdy Orazov, once a deputy prime minister under Niazov and now head of Vatan, an emigre opposition group, to comment on the president’s offer.

Like all opposition figures who are not imprisoned in Turkmenistan, Orazov abroad, in his case in Sweden.

NBCentralAsia: What do you make of Berdymuhammedov’s offer?

Khudaiberdy Orazov: I take a positive view of it – as long as it’s sincere and he backs it up with real action. But the very fact that guarantees come from the president rather than from the law shows just how much he is in charge, and suggests he plans to stay in charge beyond the election.

Phrases like “I invite” and “I guarantee” come from a life lived within a totalitarian state. Instead, this needs to take place within a legal framework.

Opposition members abroad would have to be invited to participate in elections through international intermediaries like the OSCE. It’s important for the opposition and Berdymuhammedov to start trusting one another, but as long as that trust isn’t there, mediation will be needed.

The authorities will also need to put many things in place before the opposition can return. It should pass laws on political parties and on opposition. Berdymuhammedov should present an [honest] account of Niazov’s dictatorial rule, so that it becomes clear why the opposition ended up abroad, and why some members were sentenced to life imprisonment. The activities of those involved, and their responsibility, need to be assessed objectively. That would increase confidence in his words.

NBCentralAsia: Nevertheless, is the opposition planning to field a candidate in the presidential election?

Orazov: I see no obstacles to us [various emigrée opposition parties] coordinating to field a common candidate. We are working on this now.

NBCentralAsia: The Turkmen constitution requires presidential candidates to have lived in the country for the previous 15 years. This automatically disqualifies opposition figures in emigration, many of whom have been prosecuted or convicted by the regime, often in absentia. Would the opposition be able to field a candidate living in Turkmenistan?

Orazov: I wouldn’t rule that out. But there are also plenty of people abroad who haven’t been convicted and who would be able to stand for president. This is where legislative guarantees come in. Working within the current framework means acting within the parameters of a totalitarian state and subordinating oneself to it. That’s why we are talking about international mediation to oversee the process.

NBCentralAsia: Is it possible other candidates will come forward in the election?

Orazov: There will be some, purely for decorative purposes. The authorities will prepare a show for the international community, although the form this will take is unclear. The sham candidates that stood in the last election all suffered some kind of persecution subsequently. [Reference is to pro-regime candidates put up against Berdymuhammedov in 2007 to create impression of a competitive ballot.] Next time, such sham candidates will be afraid of taking part in the pretence.

NBCentralAsia: Would the Turkmen public be prepared to vote for an alternative candidate?

Orazov: Of course it would. I am sure that if the proper legal conditions were created, and international mediators were involved, voters would lose their fear and exercise their electoral rights.

NBCentralAsia: What kind of president does Turkmenistan need?

Orazov: Parliamentary democracy is the most appropriate way of governing our state. I think the country needs a president who could put this idea into practice and lead the country through substantive reforms.

Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR senior editor for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, based in Bishkek.

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