On October 26, 1991, Turkmenistan held a referendum on independence. Over 97 percent of eligible voters turned out to answer “Yes” or “No” to two questions, the first dealing with the republic’s independence, the second seeking approval of President Saparmurad Niyazov’s political and economic program. Over 94 percent of participants voted for independence; almost as high a percentage of voters voiced backing for Niyazov. On October 27, an extraordinary session of Turkmenistan’s Supreme Soviet declared independence.
Most republics of the former Soviet Union declared independence soon after the August 19, 1991 coup attempt. The much-delayed declaration by Turkmenistan’s conservative government aimed at putting the republic on an equal footing with the other republics as negotiations among them and what remains of the center continue towards an uncertain conclusion. But Niyazov has made it quite clear that Turkmenistan’s leaders will not countenance Baltic or Russian-style political pluralism on the road to independence. Equally clear from statements by the republic’s official spokesmen and from the prominence of Iranian guests in Ashkhabad during the referendum is that Turkmenistan will pursue a regional foreign policy, oriented primarily towards developing good relations with its neighbors.
Helsinki Commission staff traveled to Turkmenistan to observe the October 26 referendum. The Commission has been observing elections and referendums in the Baltic States and Soviet republics since February 1990. Except for monitoring the voting in the March 1991 All-Union referendum in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, however, the Commission has not been to Central Asia. The trip to Ashkhabad thus marks the beginning of a geographical expansion of Commission activity. U.S. policymakers have tended to neglect the region — a habit that can no longer be afforded as the USSR dissolves and these republics become independent states and enter the world community. The trip’s purposes were therefore not only to observe the balloting in the referendum but also to establish contact with the republic’s leadership, to gain a sense of the leadership’s plans, its attitude towards the CSCE and its commitments, and to meet with representatives of opposition groups.