Democracy in Turkmenistan needs U.S. push

January 18, 2007|By Robert Arsenault

NEW YORK CITY -- Three of the world's most notorious dictators - Chile's Augusto Pinochet, Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Turkmenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov - died last month.

The first two were well-known, out of office and no longer able to terrorize their former subjects. The lesser-known tyrant, Mr. Niyazov, died suddenly while still serving as president-for-life of Turkmenistan, the natural-gas-rich former Soviet republic that borders Afghanistan and Iran.

The future of Turkmenistan and its more than 5 million people is up for grabs, and the United States has a splendid opportunity to use its diplomatic influence to effect a democratic outcome.

Turkmenistan became one of the world's most repressive states after receiving its independence from a crumbling Soviet Union on Oct. 27, 1991.

Dissent was quashed with opponents arrested, tortured, denied fair trials and summarily sentenced to long prison terms. There were periodic purges.

Mr. Niyazov's 20-year rule in Turkmenistan was exemplified by megalomania. A golden statue of him still stands in the capital city of Ashgabat - rotating with the sun to reflect his supposed glory. He even renamed the days of the week and months of the year after himself and his family members.

His "cult of the personality" also incredibly distorted daily life: The media were heavily controlled, medical care defunded and education subject to intrigue-laden politics. His disastrous social and economic policies may require years of intensive intervention to reverse.

Turkmenistan's puppet legislature already has selected an interim president by ignoring the constitutionally mandated procedure - unanimously endorsing the candidate from the one political party currently permitted.

To signal real change in human rights and a commitment to fair and open elections, the government should be pressured to free all political prisoners. Other forms of harassment that could chill any attempt at free elections - including intimidation and arrests of dissenters, raids on houses of worship and restrictions on freedom of movement - should also be ended.

If Turkmenistan is to become a functioning democracy, the United States must take the lead, starting with a strong public statement calling for the interim government to swiftly end the retrograde policies of the Niyazov regime. America should stand up and demand the release of all political prisoners, an end to arbitrary limits on the activities of civic and religious groups, the establishment of legitimate political parties, and respect for the basic rights of association and assembly. The post of U.S. ambassador should also swiftly be filled.

The United States should use all international mechanisms at its disposal - including the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Group of Eight - to urge Russia not to meddle in Turkmenistan's politics and to call on Turkmenistan to live up to the international human rights agreements it has signed. Russia's energy interests must not compromise Turkmenistan's development into a stable and democratic state.

The Turkmenistan elections scheduled for next month must be fully free and fair - allowing candidates and voters complete freedom of information, media, assembly and movement. Political exiles must be allowed to return and participate in the electoral process. International observers must be put in place as election monitors.

So far, U.S. rhetoric has emphasized stability, cooperation and education. These are important issues, but U.S. officials must engage the international community to underscore respect for basic freedoms.

As Turkmenistan charts its course, bold but reasoned action by the international community to protect human rights is desperately needed.

Robert Arsenault is president of the International League for Human Rights, which publicizes and seeks to end human rights abuses in Turkmenistan and other countries. His e-mail is barsenau@oscltd.com.

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