Thursday, March 29, 2007

Change afoot in Turkmenistan

Once a week the Turkmenistan Project (part of George Soros's Open Society Institute) posts digests of the news from that Central Asian country. The news of late has been very positive, on a relative basis. Since the death at the end of last year of president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov and the inauguration and then "election" of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the country has already been opening up:
  • Berdymukhammedov has abandoned daily recitation of the oath to the leader, which is now for special occasions only, and replaced the word "Turkmenbashi" with "President";
  • The year of secondary schooling dropped under Niyazov has been readded, 23,000 teachers rehired, and foreign languages put back in the curriculum;
  • Pensions which had been dropped to veterans, agricultural workers and others as well as maternity benefits are being restored;
  • The Academy of Sciences will reopen;
  • Health clinics outside Ashgabat (closed by Niyazov--actually by Berdymukhammedov when he was Health Minister under Niyazov, not that he had a choice) are to be reopened;
  • Internet cafes have opened, and seem to be relatively free in terms of content, but are too expensive for most Turkmen;
  • The president has restored communication with Azerbaijan after eight years of silence and is restoring ties with others as well.
While it is certainly more boring to read the digests than it was when Turkmenbashi was ruling, the Turkmen people have every reason to celebrate. The negatives: the blatantly rigged election (inevitable) and the detention of an opposition leader in Bulgaria after a Turkmen request to Interpol. The goal of Berdymukhammedov is probably to establish a stable authoritarianism as elsewhere in Central Asia, but really, who knows?

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