Thursday, December 21, 2006

What will be the U.S. Response to Turkmenbashi’s Death?

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There are numerous people in the U.S. government who have been following the situation in Turkmenistan closely enough to provide well-informed input on how the U.S. should react. The question is whether the U.S. will take the initiative to use such people in order to engage the situation or whether it will decide to play it safe. The safe position is to say that the U.S. regrets the passing of a world leader and hopes that Turkmenistan will adopt a non-violent and democratic means of naming a replacement to the great leader. This has essentially already been said by the State Department. But, if it is in the interest of the U.S. (which I think it should be) that next steps include a “De-Turkmenbashification” of society and a gradual introduction of democratic reforms, more needs to be done. The U.S. needs to take a strong stance now on the developing situation before a new Turkmenbashi takes shape. Not doing so will likely only strengthen the influence of Russia in the succession process. With the gas at stake in Turkmenistan, Russia is without a doubt ready to influence the course of the succession struggle.

In an attempt to be provocative, here are a few suggestions:

1) Send in a high-level envoy to Turkmenistan now to meet with various government insiders and carry a message that the madness of Turkmenbashi’s cult of personality must be reversed and that the U.S. is ready to assist with the facilitation of gradual but real political reforms. The players in a potential succession struggle need to know that they have the option to work with the west on reform before they cast their lot fully with Moscow.

2) Issue an official State Department call for the release of the many political prisoners that were incarcerated under Niyazov and encourage a mediated conference of all political forces inside and outside the country to discuss succession and the possibilities of an interim government.

3) Encourage the OSCE to be closely involved in how Turkmenistan deals with the question of succession. If Turkmenistan decides to stick to its constitutional requirements of holding a new election within two months, ensure that the OSCE has a sufficient election monitoring mission and that technical assistance is offered to Turkmenistan in the electoral process.

4) Encourage the interim government in Turkmenistan to begin discussing the excesses of Turkmenbashi’s cult of personality and to open up the media environment. This should also include assistance to the Turkmen government in tracking the present location of Turkmenbashi’s financial assets.

Unfortunately, the reality of the situation in the U.S. government is that a political crisis in a country like Turkmenistan during the holiday season is unlikely to solicit the interest needed to take such moves. By the time the holidays have ended, it is likely that Russia will already be fully engaged in Turkmenistan and any opportunity for the U.S. and the E.U. to influence the situation for the better will have been lost.

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