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International benchmarks key to reform says report

[Turkmenistan] The cult of the leader. IRIN
The Turkmen media promote Niyazov's personality cult
The International Crisis Group (ICG) has called for the adoption of specific benchmarks by the international community to bring about positive change in Turkmenistan, Central Asia's most reclusive state. "We would like to see a joint commitment of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) member states to a list of benchmarks that everyone can commit to - such as lifting restrictions on NGOs, permitting access to Russian media, [and] less restrictions on travel and education," David Lewis, director of the ICG's Central Asia project told IRIN from London on Monday, describing the current international response as weak and poorly coordinated. "It should be made clear to the Turkmen government that failure to meet these benchmarks would result in selected and graduated political and financial sanctions, such as travel restrictions for officials and restrictions on their financial accounts abroad." His comments come less than a week after the ICG released its latest report entitled "Repression and Regression in Turkmenistan: A New International strategy", highlighting the country's worsening plight and the world's failure to take a strong stand against widespread human rights abuses. The current regime of Turkmen President Saparmurad Niyazov had failed to respond to quiet diplomacy, so international organisations and concerned governments now needed to agree to a list of benchmarks and start working much more actively for real change. The international community had placed short-term economic and security benefits ahead of longer-term regional security, the report said, noting despite vast energy reserves, the largely desert, hermit-like state, risked possible economic and political turmoil. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, President-for-Life Niyazovhas ruled Turkmenistan's 5.5 million inhabitants with an iron fist, making discussion of possible succession virtually impossible, providing fertile grounds for potential turmoil. The main issues were the high authoritarian political system in which no dissent was permitted and which made any eventual succession extremely problematic, Lewis said, citing a continuing deterioration of education, employment, health care and other social norms, within the country. With Niyazov gone, an increasingly ill-educated, ideologically indoctrinated generation would be ill-prepared to take on the responsibilities of running the country afterwards, he warned. And while scenarios were difficult to predict, one of the most likely scenarios was that the leadership would continue with its policies until the president's death, at which point a struggle for power would break out. "A period of subsequent chaos, possibly violent, in which an ideologised, uneducated population is manipulated and drawn into a political struggle, is possible. This could provoke outside intervention and a wide conflict could ensue," the ICG official claimed. "Other scenarios are possible, but it is difficult to draw up an optimistic scenario under which a normal, functioning state that answers the need of its people emerges." Regarding current international pressure, Washington had been more critical than others, but its stance had been made ambiguous by its security and geopolitical issues, he said, adding, however, it had pushed harder than the European Union (EU), which had actually reduced criticism while the situation worsened. Additional criticism was also placed on Russia, however. "One of the key issues is the attitude of Russia," Lewis maintained, noting as the report states, Moscow's attitude was determined by its receipt of cheap gas from Ashgabat. If Russia wanted a long-term and respected presence in Central Asia rather than just a short-lived post-colonial dominance, it needed to take a more critical approach and start working on a wider range of issues in Turkmenistan, Lewis noted, including but not limited to the rights of ethnic Russians and the Russian language. "Sometimes it seems as if Western states care more about the status of ethnic Russians in Turkmenistan that does Russia itself," he maintained.
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