NBCentralAsia experts say that the dictatorial system created by the late president Sapurmat Niazov is already showing signs of cracks and that a gradual shift towards democratic reform is inevitable.
In the last week, the interim authorities in Turkmenistan have surprised observers by releasing political prisoners, closing a controversial jail and making plans to allow unrestricted travel for all citizens, according to various unconfirmed reports.
Ecologist Andrey Zatoka, was arrested a month and a half ago, was released on probation on January 31. The authorities reportedly freed former deputy prime minister Yolly Gurbanmuradov the following day, although placing him under house arrest.
Furthermore, Deutsche Welle reports that the authorities have started to dismantle the notorious Ovadan-Depe prison and have transferred political prisoners to other jails where their cases will be reviewed.
Rumours that the authorities intend to take action on the penal system have been spreading throughout Turkmenistan’s prisons. The wife of one inmate told NBCentralAsia that when she last visited her husband, he told her she need not come to the prison again as he would soon be released.
NBCentralAsia sources have also been told by sources in Turkmenistan’s migration agency that the security services will soon abolish a blacklist containing around 30,000 names of people deemed to be unreliable and therefore barred from leaving the country. These individuals are expected to be granted free movement within Turkmenistan and possibly the right to travel abroad.
If these reports are confirmed, it will prove that the Turkmen authorities are taking the first steps towards liberalisation. NBCentralAsia commentators believe that this move has been prompted by a bid for votes in the February 11 election, and also by pressure from the international community to break with many of the practices of the Niazov era.
The entire system of power revolved around Niazov until his death on December 21. Mars Sariev, an NBCentralAsia expert on Turkmenistan, said that now that Niazov is dead, “everything is beginning to fall apart. His entourage will not be able to hold the old system together by force, so they will be compelled to embark on gradual democratic reforms.”
“These steps [taken by the authorities] are logical and inevitable. I think they will gradually loosen the reins and free [from prison] people who present no real danger,” he said.
According to Tajigul Begmedova, who heads the Turkmen Helsinki Fund, an émigré group based in Bulgaria, if the reports of positive change are true, then they demonstrate a “kind of compromise”.
“There’s just too much evidence of grave human rights abuses in prisons and secure psychiatric hospitals. Given the international community’s unwavering attention [on the penal system] and its calls for the International Committee of the Red Cross to be allowed access, the new authorities may have decided to take these actions,” she said.
(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)