Turkmenistan: Slow Reforms, No Dissent the Oil-Rich Former Soviet Republic Mixes Brezhnev-Era Political Controls with the Development Goals of a Gulf Sheikhdom

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A PLANE flight away from the political chaos now roiling in Russia and a boat ride across the Caspian Sea from the ethnic wars that plague the Caucasus, the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan basks in sunny stability.

The tree-lined streets of Ashkhabad, a modest city of two- and three-story buildings, are clean and tranquil, with barely a hint of the menace that lurks on every Moscow corner. The Russian and Ukrainian wives of Army officers shopping in the market evince no fear of the majority Turkmens, a nomadic people who have roamed this desert land for centuries.

Aside from its traditional bazaars, there is no evidence in Turkmenistan of the free-market tumult of Russia's private shops and sidewalk kiosks. The drab state-run stores still operate here, offering a minimum of basic goods but at prices a tenth of those in Russia, subsidized by the revenues from Turkmenistan's rich reserves of oil and gas.

Presiding over this island of calm is the genial, round-faced President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, one of a handful of Central Asian Communist leaders who have managed to survive the transition from the Soviet Union to independence. Under his rule, Turkmenistan is a curious cross between the Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev and an Arab sheikhdom in the Persian Gulf.

The Turkmen president arrived in the United States this week on an unofficial visit aimed at convincing American businessmen and politicians that his brand of slow economic reform without political democracy is working. Stung by charges that Turkmenistan's tiny opposition has been suppressed, Mr. Niyazov counters that the only alternative to his relatively benign authoritarianism is the kind of civil war that has torn apart the neighboring former Soviet republic of Tajikistan.

However a Western audience might respond to his claims, it was almost impossible to find anyone to demur in four days of travel around this sparsely populated expanse of sand dunes.

"No war and we have bread," says Rahman, a taxi driver in the city of Chardzhou, explaining why he supports Niyazov. "It's not like Tajikistan where they are shooting each other."

The price of stability is the absence of political pluralism. The Communist Party, which Niyazov headed since 1985, remains in place, having only changed its name to the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. Personality cult

A minor-league cult of personality is rapidly being built around the president. Niyazov's smiling visage, wavy silver hair in place, graces government offices and streetside billboards, spaces previously occupied by Communist slogans and pictures of Soviet leaders.

Also reminiscent of the Soviet era is the systematic suppression and harassment of the small opposition movement, Agzybirlik. US officials here say that Niyazov, in his Washington visit, will not be received by any senior Clinton administration official unless he gives permission for three activists to attend a human rights conference in Wisconsin.

"It's worse now than under the Brezhnev regime," says Mukhamedmurad Salamatov, editor of Dayanch, the only independent journal here and one of the three invitees. He has been tried three times, resulting in fines, for various alleged offenses. After several issues of his journal were published in Moscow but confiscated upon arrival here, "my experiment in a free press has finished," he says.

In a three-hour near-monologue with a small group of correspondents last week at his sandstone palace, Niyazov went to great lengths to defend himself against Western criticism.

"Why should I create something just so you can call me a democrat," he asks rhetorically. "The society is not yet ripe enough for creation of political parties," he adds, arguing that such changes must wait until economic reforms create a new class of private owners and a new generation free of the communist mentality. …