The United States said Wednesday it wants to see an inclusive process to choose a new leader in Turkmenistan, and that the Central Asian country has a long way to go to achieve that goal. Opposition groups complain of being shut out of the process to choose a new president to succeed the late authoritarian ruler Saparmurad Niyazov, who died December 21. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The Bush administration says it is urging Turkmenistan to hold an inclusive, free election to replace the late president, and it is suggesting that the succession plan now in place falls well short of that goal.
The State Department comments follow an appeal by an exiled Turkmenistan opposition leader for the United States and other Western countries to step up and demand far-reaching reform.
In a Washington Post commentary Wednesday, the founding chairman of the Republican Party of Turkmenistan in exile, Nurmuhammet Hanamov, said Western governments must not waste what he said was an historic opportunity to press for democracy.
If that effort failed, Hanamov warned, energy-rich Turkmenistan would be left with public discontent and an illegitimate government, and become what he termed an anti-Western lost cause.
Asked about the appeal at a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the political future of Turkmenistan is ultimately for that country's government and people to decide, but he said the United States has been urging democratic reform in both public and private contacts with Turkmen authorities:
"We would hope that as part of this succession process that there would be free, open, fair elections," said Sean McCormack. "Now Turkmenistan has a long way to go from where it stands right now to that goal. And they are going to have to make their own decisions about how their political process unfolds. We would hope and encourage, and stand ready to assist in any way, should they want to move to a political process that is inclusive of all the voices among the Turkmen political spectrum. We believe that that is to the benefit of Turkmenistan and the Turkmen people and to the rest of the world."
Mr. Niyazov, a former Soviet communist party official who became the country's first president on its independence in 1991, ruled with an iron hand - banning political parties other than his own and jailing or driving opposition figures into exile.
Last week, the country's government-controlled legislature selected six candidates to run in a February 11 election to succeed the late president.
However, exiled opposition figures were excluded, and are being barred from returning to the country by the interim leader, Kurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, for whom the opposition says the election is being rigged.
Hanamov said in his newspaper commentary the plan amounts to a coup d'etat, and that the United States must send a clear message to the interim leaders that they will not have U.S. support unless they agree to hold elections that all citizens, including exiles and political prisoners, can take part.
The United States was a frequent critic of the Niyazov government's wide-ranging human rights abuses, and bilateral relations were cool.
Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Richard Boucher, who attended the Niyazov funeral, met interim leaders and said the United States was open to a new beginning to the relationship.