Turkmenistan backs multi-party politics for first time

AFP/September 26, 2008

Ashgabat - The hermetic state of Turkmenistan formally endorsed political pluralism and market economics for the first time Friday, approving a new constitution that opens the door to ties with the West.

Some 2,500 tribal elders and local officials at a meeting of the People's Council in the capital Ashgabat raised their hands to give unanimous approval to the new constitution, proposed by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

The reform marks a dramatic change for this long isolated and highly authoritarian ex-Soviet Central Asian state that has signalled it wants to open up to the West to encourage investment in its huge untapped gas reserves.

Turkmenistan is strategically located on the Caspian Sea between Iran and Afghanistan and is seen by Western officials and multinational corporations as a potential key energy source that could reduce dependency on Russian reserves.

"The new constitution corresponds to all international and democratic norms. By adopting it, we will show our country's authority at an international level," Berdymukhamedov told the People's Council ahead of the vote.

He also said the old constitution was "outdated" and did not fit with Turkmenistan's "progress," a reference to timid reforms he has introduced since coming to power after long-time dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006.

"Our country is now open and supports cooperation with every country in the world," Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov told the People's Council session.

But experts quoted by Russia's Nesavisimaya Gazeta daily warned the new constitution had major faults such as the absence of a constitutional court and was aimed at pleasing Western partners instead of bringing true reform.

"A constitution for the West," read a headline in the newspaper, which quoted Turkmen political observer Batyr Mukhamedov as saying: "Berdymukhamedov came up with it for export... The constitution is oriented to Western values."

One expert, Farkhad Ilyasov, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta: "As far as democratic norms are concerned, as long as there are political prisoners, as long as there are no opposition parties and no free media, these are just words."

The new constitution allows for the formation of multiple political parties in a country that currently only has one party. The Democratic Party headed by Berdymukhamedov is in practice the successor to the Soviet-era Communist Party.

Also on Friday, the Turkmen president said parliamentary elections would be held before the end of the year. The last elections were held in December 2004 and were won by the Democratic Party with 100 percent of the vote.

The People's Council, which was created by Berdymukhamedov's predecessor Niyazov to reduce parliament's authority, will now become a purely consultative body and the country's parliament will be enlarged from 65 to 125 seats.

The constitution also enshrines market economy principles for the first time in this largely Soviet-era command economy, confirming the "right to private property" and support for the development of small businesses.

"Turkmenistan is developing its economy and is striving towards a market economy based on private, state and other forms of ownership. The state encourages and supports entrepreneurship," the new constitution said.

Turkmenistan was largely isolated from the rest of the world under Niyazov, who ruled as president-for-life, instituted a bizarre personality cult and strengthened ties with Russia, the main export route for Turkmen gas.

During his 21 years in power, which stretched back into Soviet times when he was Turkmenistan's Communist leader, Niyazov crushed all opposition to his rule and kept a tight personal grip on the country's economy.

After his death, Turkmen dissidents called for democratic reforms from his successor. There are three main exiled opposition groups -- the Republican Party, the Vatan party and the United Democratic Opposition of Turkmenistan.

Since coming to power, Berdymukhamedov has dismantled some of the personality cult surrounding Niyazov and has invited a growing number of Western investors to take part in energy projects in the country.

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