An unprecedented law guaranteeing immunity for Turkmen presidents who step down is being seen as a move by the present incumbent, Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, to safeguard his future should he ever decide to go – or is pushed.
On July 4, the official press published the first ever piece of legislation defining the president’s role while in office. Most of the 20 articles in the law reflect the powers the head of state now has.
What is new, though, is that provision is also made for presidents to retire. They get the free use in perpetuity of a government-owned house, summer cottage and car for permanent use, plus bodyguards, assistants, free healthcare and a monthly pension.
Crucially, the law grants immunity to ex-presidents. However, should the chief prosecutor recommend that immunity be lifted because the former president is accused of a serious crime, this can be approved by the Halk Maslahaty or People’s Council – Turkmenistan’s supreme legislative body which operates as a kind of congress rather than a sitting parliament.
No such legislation has previously existed in Turkmenistan. Before he died in December, the late Saparmurad Niazov had the status of president for life.
NBCentralAsia experts see this unexpected development as an attempt by Berdymuhammedov to ensure his own safety in the event that he leaves office.
“It shows that Berdymuhammedov is not certain about his future,” says Vyacheslav Mamedov, who heads the Civil Democratic Union of Turkmenistan, an émigré group.
Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Fund, another émigré group, agreed, saying that contrary to the expectations of the population, there has been no tangible liberalisation – the authorities have not amnestied political prisoners, human rights violations continue to be hidden from view, and there is no freedom of speech or movement.
“He’s trying to secure his position,” said Begmedova.
However, according to another NBCentralAsia analyst, it would be unwise for a retiring president to bet on these legal guarantees being honoured – the successor could change the rules.
The expert explains that the possibility that the law will be changed by the next head of the state should not be ruled out. Under the constitution, the president enjoys broad powers - he heads the Halk Maslahaty and the cabinet of ministers, and he appoints the top military leadership, the head of the Supreme Court and the prosecutor general.
“Berdymuhammedov himself violated the Turkmen constitution when he stripped [Ovezgeldy] Ataev of his post as speaker of the Mejlis and imprisoned him on a fabricated charge,” said the analyst. As chairman of parliament, Ataev should have stepped in immediately as acting head of state after Niazov’s death. Instead, Berdymuhammedov moved in and Ataev was summarily pushed aside and disgraced.
(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)