A New Beginning For Turkmenistan

By Nurmuhammet Hanamov
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Last week Turkmenistan buried its brutal dictator, Saparmurad Niyazov. His ruthless reign spanned two decades, during which time his policies became increasingly irrational and unpredictable. The long list of Niyazov's crimes against our people includes: banning all political parties except his own and jailing his opponents; preventing thousands of "disloyal" citizens from traveling abroad; persecuting religious and ethnic minorities; outlawing opera; and shutting down regional hospitals, firing thousands of doctors and nurses. Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan became a corridor for heroin trafficking from Afghanistan to the West and gained for itself one of the highest heroin addiction rates in the world.

Above all, Niyazov was a selfish and kleptocratic despot, stashing billions in proceeds from the sale of the country's enormous natural gas resources in personal accounts in Western banks. He used this money to fuel his outlandish personality cult, building opulent palaces and golden statues of himself even as his people were deprived of basic necessities and suffer one of the world's lowest life expectancy rates. The West's indifference was striking compared with the relentless criticism by the United States and the European Union against the more benign regime of Alexander Lukashenko, president of gas-poor Belarus.

With Niyazov gone, the West has a historic second chance to help our country make a peaceful transition to democracy. Turkmenistan's interim rulers have unfortunately pledged to continue Niyazov's policies (even ordering new statues of him), and their efforts to grab power amount to a coup d'├ętat. The former health minister -- under the de facto control of Niyazov's Presidential Guard -- has arrested the speaker of Parliament, who constitutionally is next in the line of succession. He has sealed the country's borders and, using other unconstitutional measures, has set the stage for his own unchallenged victory in presidential elections scheduled for Feb. 11.

The United States must send a clear message to Niyazov's holdouts in the "interim government" in Ashgabat: that they will not have its support unless they agree to hold free and fair elections -- ones that allow all citizens of Turkmenistan, including exiled opposition leaders and political prisoners, to take part.

We know that the United States has tried to help the people of Turkmenistan in recent years, and thanks to American educational exchange programs, there is a thriving community of bright Turkmen students and intellectuals who are living in Western countries and are ready to return and help rebuild their country. This community is largely held together by the efforts of Khudaiberdy Orazov, a former chairman of the National Bank and an accomplished and energetic leader who was forced into exile several years ago. He was unanimously nominated to be a candidate in the February presidential elections by a broad coalition of opposition groups inside and outside of Turkmenistan. According to a recent poll, Orazov's candidacy would have the support of a majority of Turkmen voters. Until Orazov and other opposition candidates are allowed to contest the February elections, the United States and the European Union must refrain from recognizing the junta in Ashgabat and freeze all personal accounts of Niyazov and his cronies abroad. We hope that members of Congress and other government officials will visit Turkmenistan soon to personally deliver that message.

We must rebuild our country, and with the help of our friends and neighbors we can do it in an open and transparent way. Priorities for a democratically elected government during the initial post-Niyazov reconstruction must be to release all political prisoners, conduct open tenders and allow Western companies to bid for a stake in developing Turkmenistan's oil and gas fields; to consider new ways of getting our gas and oil to Western markets; to restore private property that Niyazov confiscated from Turkmen citizens; and to create a reconstruction fund using Niyazov's personal bank accounts and proceeds from the sale of oil and gas to revive the health-care and education systems.

The United States is spending billions of dollars trying to turn Afghanistan and Iraq -- both deep in the throes of civil war -- into democratic nations while all but abandoning their peaceful post-Soviet neighbors to the north. Turkmenistan is ready for a new beginning, and the West must finally step up to the plate. To do otherwise would waste a historic opportunity and allow yet another case of popular discontent with an illegitimate government to become an anti-Western lost cause.

The writer is the founding chairman of the Republican Party of Turkmenistan in exile. Before announcing his opposition to President Saparmurad Niyazov's regime and going into exile in 2002, Hanamov served as Turkmenistan's ambassador to Turkey and Israel and chairman of Turkmenistan's State Planning Committee.

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