Summary: Turkmenistan’s self-ordained ‘protector’, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, wields immense power in this oil-rich Caspian nation. With enviable gas resources (the fourth largest deposits in the world) the state has managed to maintain a secure geopolitical foothold, being wooed by Asia, Russia and the West with its exports and its involvement in the North-South corridor line since 2007 which will assure transit of freight from South Asia across to Europe and the West via the Caucasus and Central Asia. This wealth however cannot mask a striking poverty in rights and freedoms among citizens; particularly any who dare to question the regime.
Our own World Audit (www.worldaudit.org) ranks Turkmenistan at 149 out of 150 in the world in the democracy tables, conceding the absolute worst place only to North Korea. In its annual Democracy Index 2012, the Economist Intelligence Unit placed Turkmenistan a woeful 6th from the bottom with a score of 1.70 out of 10, to be followed only by Saudi Arabia, Syria, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, and North Korea. This places it irrevocably in the category of authoritarian regimes. In the US watchdog Freedom House’s latest edition of “Freedom in the World” index, Turkmenistan was also to be seen in last place of the 47 countries designated as Not Free, with fellow rights offenders Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Uzbekistan. In that NGO’s annual report on “The World’s Most Repressive Societies”, Turkmenistan was named as the second most repressive country in the world, to be followed only by Uzbekistan. Domestic NGOs are virtually unheard of and those that remain, such as the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation, operate in exile. It is in short, a monstrous regime.
That criticism of Berdymukhammedov is unacceptable in the nation is unsurprising, given the efforts which the President has made, to institute a cult of personality. Some of the protector’s antics would make even the most committed megalomaniac balk. The second “Week of Health and Happiness”, an exercise festival designed by the President last year, took place at the start of April. The festival involves coercing students and state employees into physical exercise. This year’s motto. “Turkmenistan is a land of health and lofty spirit,” indicates to some extent the timbre of the programme. The president’s attempts to install himself in every aspect of citizens’ lives are mind-boggling. His image alone is inescapable. A recent report from RFE/RL suggested that newlyweds are obligated to include the portrait of the president in their wedding photos due to the sheer ubiquity of his image in wedding palaces.
The dictator’s personality cult also comes at considerable public expense. Teachers are obliged to make collections in schools for the new portraits of their protector. In March, in advance of a presidential visit, residents of Dashoguz were ordered to paint their houses white and roofs green at their own cost, and to landscape the area around the local airport. The same month, a decree was signed by Berdymukhammedov ordering government ministries to plant 3 million trees in 2013 to transform the country into a “blooming garden and further enrich its beautiful nature in the era of power and happiness.” It fell upon 465,000 public-sector employees, including those working at schools and universities in the country to take a day off work and spend the day planting the 755,000 trees. The project was initiated under late President Saparmurat Niyazov (whose cult of personality apparatus Berdymukhammedov has inherited and ‘enhanced’), who established the project in an attempt to tackle desertification. The regime’s emphasis on physical labour as a work of national servitude reinforces the master-servant binary inherent in its operations.
The state’s economy is almost equally antiquated, largely resembling the state controlled Soviet model. Nonetheless, back in November of last year, the government announced it would introduce a privatization programme, raising eyebrows since the majority of its assets are state controlled. After limited activity in the privatization field, on March 9, a food-production plant, a shopping centre and one chain of auto-repair shops in Ashgabat were put up for sale as part of the programme, which is expected to continue until 2016. “Our privatization programme is just in line with our plans of gradual transition to a market economy,” said Berdymukhamedov, though it seems highly unlikely that any oil and gas companies would be subject to privatization. In other attempts to modernize the nation, the country now plans to introduce international accounting standards next year and hopes to join the World Trade Organization, which President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov says will bring “real dividends in economic success.”
The U.S. has welcomed the state’s attempts to join the WTO and there is evidence generally that relations between the two state are strong. Washington seems to be optimistic of warming relations with Turkmenistan. At the third annual Turkic American Alliance meeting held in Washington on March 12 – 13, entitled “Energy, Trade and Development,” US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake said that, ”relations between the United States and Turkmenistan have never been stronger.” Washington is hoping to keep ties with Turkmenistan (and indeed all the other Central Asian states) strong as it prepares for a safe exit from Afghanistan next year. Relations with Russia however, are certainly less warm. Whilst there has been cooperation between Moscow and Ashgabat on the subject of ecological preservation in the Caspian area, tensions are rising over energy exports.
Turkmenistan’s burgeoning relationship with Ukraine is a particularly sore spot. Ukraine is disgruntled with its energy agreement with Russia, which involves increasingly costly gas imports, and is seeking a more favorable deal with Ashgabat, to Moscow’s discomfort. Turkmenistan’s energy resources are frequently employed as a means of gaining strategic power and the country is making attempts to secure lucrative deals with energy-hungry Asia. It is planning a new pipeline to China and to Iran, also an on-off-on pipeline across Afghanistan to Pakistan and eventually India, and hopes to triple gas production potential to 250 billion cubic meters a year by 2030. It will start production at the world’s second-largest gas field, Galkynysh, in upcoming months in an attempt to achieve this goal.
Turkmenistan has recently made a number of attempts to asserts its standing at least within the near abroad. On March 20 in Ashgabat, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan to construct a 400km railway line connecting the three states. Building work will begin in Turkmenistan in July. In addition, this year Turkmenistan capitalised upon the celebrations of Novruz Bairam, the spring holiday celebrated by most parts of the Turkic world, to make the capital a host city for a plethora of heads of state. Among them was Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Pakistan’s Asif Ali Zardari, Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, the President of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhamov, Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations Organization, Kasymjomart Tokayev, Turkey’s Energy Minister, Taner Yildiz and members of delegations from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. The event provides an opportunity for the president to enjoy bilateral sideline talks with all the above, and offer the kind of histrionics for which he has become famous, including traditional performances and equestrian shows in the valley of Akhai.
Many rights observers have noted with dismay that the regime’s energy stocks and its geo-political strategizing seems to immunize it from the level of criticism it should face for its abuses of rights and the political opposition. It is however one of the least accessible nations on earth –since centuries ago it provided a stretch of the Silk Road, it is not now ‘on the way to’ anywhere else- its frontiers with Iran and Afghanistan are both in obscure parts of those nations, which is one reason that Russia cannot ‘lean on it’ as it can and does with many, perhaps most other FSU states.
The country’s strong economic growth, fuelled by petrodollars, has contributed to its confidence and the level of impunity with which the self-serving president, who must now be one of the richest men in the world, exercises his authority.
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