The sudden death of President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov in December 2006 marked an end to an eccentric and authoritarian rule, raising modest hopes for social, economic, and political reform. Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, a deputy prime minister and Niyazov loyalist, was named interim leader and then became president in a government-orchestrated “election” in February.
Pledging limited changes, Berdymukhammedov made limited improvements: opening Internet cafés but blocking access to critical news sites, restoring 10-year compulsory education but retaining Niyazov’s propaganda-filled guide for living as required reading, traveling widely abroad while insisting his country was free. The circumstances surrounding the 2006 death in state custody of journalist Ogulsapar Muradova remained unaddressed, despite repeated calls by international human rights and press freedom groups for an investigation.
The outcome of the February presidential election was predetermined. The country’s highest legislative body, the People’s Council, named six candidates including Berdymukhammedov, all members of the ruling party. In the run-up to the balloting, Berdymukhammedov vowed to restore pensions abolished by Niyazov, to improve the educational system, to provide public access to the Internet, and to honor the country’s energy contracts. At the same time, he said he would continue the political course set by his tyrannical predecessor, and that the election would “conform to Niyazov’s concept of democracy,” according to local and international press reports.
As a testament to those words, Turkmen authorities did not allow any exiled opposition members to return to the country and participate in the balloting, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported. On February 14, Berdymukhammedov was sworn in as president after receiving 89 percent of the vote.
The new leader immediately introduced a number of changes, but he stuck to Niyazov’s policy principles. Within a day of his swearing-in, Berdymukhammedov signed a decree reversing his predecessor’s reduction of compulsory education from 10 to nine years. In March, he abolished an obligatory two-year period of work before citizens could enroll in a university. At the same time, however, Berdymukhammedov kept the Rukhnama (Book of the Soul), a 400-page guide written by Niyazov, as a must-read in all spheres of Turkmen society—from elementary schools to government offices. The Ministry of Education stated that the Rukhnama would be a core subject in schools, raising questions about the validity of any educational reforms. Rife with historical inaccuracies and nationalist hyperbole, the Rukhnama denies any influence from other cultures on Turkmenistan’s development and claims that Turkmen invented writing.
On February 16, authorities opened Turkmenistan’s first Internet café, in the capital, Ashgabat—a landmark for a country whose access to information had long been strangled by the state. RFE/RL quoted Berdymukhammedov as saying that “Internet cafés are starting to open in Ashgabat and other cities. At this moment, we are working on a program to extend Internet access to every school.” This new accessibility, however, was marred by a variety of limitations: The cafés were initially guarded by armed soldiers, connections were uneven and the per-hour fee costly, and authorities monitored or blocked access to certain Web sites. RFE/RL reported in April that authorities had blocked the regional news sites Ferghana, EurasiaNet, and Centrasia, as well as opposition Web sites.
The government recoiled after taking a tentative step toward interactive communication with its citizens. RFE/RL reported in October that Turkmen authorities had allowed the public to post comments on the official Altyn Asyr (Golden Age) Web site. Just four days later, after comments criticizing the government were posted, the feature was removed without explanation.
In May, state media trumpeted a presidential initiative to provide national television broadcasters—all government-run—with the latest technological equipment. Content, though, remained under tight control. In June, the president sacked Minister of Culture Enebai Atayeva, who had been reprimanded for being too liberal in loosening controls on television broadcasts, according to CPJ research. As the news Web site EurasiaNet pointed out in a May analysis: “The state owns all domestic media, appoints all editors, and approves all content. Imports of print news are limited, so residents seeking more comprehensive coverage must either add to the country’s mushrooming number of satellite dishes or tune in to foreign-funded radio programming.” Satellite dishes might not remain so plentiful. In a November 30 televised statement, Berdymukhammedov said he ordered his Communications Ministry to remove satellite dishes from apartment buildings in Ashgabat. He said removal of the dishes would beautify the capital, RFE/RL reported.
The Russian agency ITAR-TASS was the only foreign news organization to maintain a bureau in Turkmenistan in 2007, journalists said. Prior to the presidential election, Turkmen authorities placed restrictions on foreign and domestic journalists covering the vote, prompting protests from CPJ and others.
Oguljamal Yazliyeva, director of RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, said harassment of the news network’s stringers continued under the new leadership. Authorities cut off their land-line and mobile phone service, placed them under close surveillance, and harassed their families, Yazliyeva said.
The U.S. government-funded RFE/RL was the only other international broadcaster maintaining even an informal network of correspondents in Turkmenistan. Long harassed by the government, RFE/RL lost its Ashgabat correspondent in September 2006. Ogulsapar Muradova died in state custody after being sentenced to a six-year term on spurious charges in a closed-door trial. More than a year after authorities handed over Muradova’s battered body to her family, the circumstances surrounding her death remain unexplained. The government continued to resist international calls for an independent investigation and failed to release official autopsy results. Neither did it release any information on Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khadzhiyev—the two human rights activists who had been sentenced to seven years each in the same closed trial.
Speaking as if Muradova’s killing had never happened, Berdymukhammedov insisted during a visit to the United States in September that Turkmen citizens enjoy free press and free speech. In a talk given at Columbia University in New York, he stated that “there was never in Turkmenistan any pressure on the press,” RFE/RL reported. Protesting the press freedom conditions in Turkmenistan, CPJ urged U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to include Muradova’s case on the agenda for her meeting with Berdymukhammedov, who was in New York to address the U.N. General Assembly. In a written response to CPJ, the U.S. State Department said the case, as well as other press freedom and human rights issues, were on the American agenda.