Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan Trying to Put on a Good Show

by Nathan Hamm on 1/26/2007

When Turkmenistan’s Acting President, Kurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, took the helm after Turkmenbashi’s death, the old “the more things change…” adage seemed to apply. But on the campaign trail, the former dentist, has made more than a few interesting promises of reform on the campaign trail as well as some unexpected decisions as acting president.

Berdymuhammedov’s latest statement, as discussed at neweurasia, is that Turkmenistan’s government should seek to build a multi-party system. Turkmenistan has also allowed Western election observers to monitor the February 11th presidential election (though the decision is designed to be almost all pluses for the regime) and is also late, giving the OSCE too little time to prepare well). He has made social pledges as well. These promises include improving the health care and education systems, both of which suffered under Turkmenbashi. He also pledges to periodically raise salaries and continue providing free gas, salt, water, and electricity. And Peter at neweurasia mentions talk of free speech and professional choice.

Uzbekistan has also been talking liberalization lately. The government has trumpeted recent laws and proposed laws, such as the new media law and the proposal on strengthening political parties, as democratization. In Uzbekistan’s case, it has been clear that the laws really change nothing for the average citizen, and that they have far less to do with democratization than they do with strengthening the state. Nevertheless, these much-ballyhooed reforms have provided ample fodder for UzA and UzReport to write the occasional story quoting foreign academics praising Uzbekistan’s democratic credentials.

If Uzbekistan’s claims of democratic reforms are not to be believed, what to make of Turkmenistan’s? I believe that it is Arkady Dubnov who has been cited in recent reports on these promises of reform saying that it is impossible for politicians in Turkmenistan to be genuine democrats. The proposed reforms are not exactly hollow, but far from sweeping. But it is possible that Berdymuhammedov, after he officially becomes president, will be noticeably more, even if not by much more, liberal than his predecessor. There is really nowhere else to go but up, after all.

Tricking the West?

But if neither government really is prepared to move far along the path of democratization, why are they making a point of repeatedly saying that they are?

Roger McDermott recently argued that Uzbekistan is offering up claims of reform to entice the West into rapprochement. He cites UzReport articles quoting European politicians who have praised Uzbekistan’s proposed constitutional amendment on strengthening political parties. He says that Karimov is trying to cast himself as a forward-looking reformist to give him opportunities to take advantage of Western interest in Central Asian reform. And why would he want to do that, considering how much he chafed at liberalization programs championed by the US? While McDermott does not touch on it, many others have argued, correctly in my opinion, that Karimov’s government is getting cold feet about being so close to Russia and that it is seeking some balance.

In Turkmenistan, Berdymuhammedov’s message is at least partially directed at Western audiences as well. At neweurasia, Peter explains that Berdymuhammedov has successfully communicated a number of messages during his campaign. He has signaled to the West and to Turkmen citizens that he will make limited reforms while also delivering the seeming contradictory message of continuity with Turkmenbashi.

Europe is exploring strengthened ties with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and the US has shown some interest in Turkmenistan since the death of Turkmenbashi. But are these claims of democratization really all that important to the West’s decisions? In other words, are they reall fooling anybody?

In Turkmenistan’s case, there is a bit more reason for genuine hope, and it appears that the West is cautiously optimistic. Berdymuhammedov has not promised the moon, making what he has actually proposed — a fairly limited set of reforms — a bit more believable. He also has the added benefit of not having backed away from promises to reform the way Islam Karimov has. So far, the West has played a cautious hand, but that very well could change after the February 11th election.

UzReport quotations from European politicians notwithstanding, it seems that no on really is fooled about what the Uzbek government is up to. Or at least I would hope no one is fooled. Islam Karimov made far more convincing indications of intent to reform in the early stages of Uzbekistan’s strategic partnership with the United States only to not follow through. One would hope that European policy-makers would be aware of the lessons of this relationship and look for something a little more solid than proposed constitutional reforms. Maybe a halt to arrests of activists or to slandering them in the press for a good long while would be a bit more convincing.

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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