Svetlana Dzardanova: Turkmenistan: analysis of Gurbanguly Berdyimuhamedow’s reform
“After coming to power of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the international community had high hopes about the new president of Turkmenistan, including the hopes for democratization, improved human rights situation in the country, economic cooperation and openness. A number of decrees and actions taken by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov at the beginning of his reign, in fact, were aimed at eliminating errors and experimentation of the past. However, it soon became clear that these hopes were unfounded”, – political scientist, coordinator of Research and Training of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Svetlana Dzardanova discusses the results of the reform made by the Turkmen President exclusively for CABAR.asia.
In 2015, only 913 people were able to get a tourist visa and visit Turkmenistan, a country whose closeness does not decrease, but rather fuels the interest in it. The country remains closed for a simple layman, for researchers and for people involved in the decision-making process.
Having received independence simultaneously with the other republics of Central Asia, Turkmenistan, however, went much further than its neighbors in building its statehood and self-isolation in an attempt to isolate the country from external influences. This was made possible largely thanks to the rich reserves of hydrocarbons (natural gas – 17.5 trillion cubic meters and oil – 0.6 billion barrels in 2013), the status of permanent neutrality, geography and a relatively small population (about 5.5 million people according to the data in 2016).
Providing the population free of charge with such social benefits as gas, electricity, water and salt, subsidizing fuel prices, the government remains absolutely uncontrolled and unaccountable to their people, continuing the practice of nominal elections, in which the incumbent head of state, according to the “tradition” established by the past President, received 97.14% of votes in 2012. In the absence of the civil society in the country, the population remains an outside observer of the processes occurring in the country, without any opportunity of participation and influence on the ruling elite. The transfer of power took place relatively peacefully in Turkmenistan in 2007, when Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov replaced the deceased Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbashi).
Almost a decade later, it would be appropriate to assess his activities at the post of the President of the country. What path of development and which strategy did the President choose? Is he trying to achieve success based on the experience of Singapore and China? The international community had high hopes about the new President of Turkmenistan, including the hopes for democratization, improved human rights situation in the country, economic cooperation and openness. A number of decrees and actions taken by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov at the beginning of his reign, in fact, were aimed at eliminating errors and experimentation of the past. However, it soon became clear that these hopes were unfounded.
Resources and power
The reign of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is characterized by more pragmatic approach and is based on economic feasibility. This is evident in the selectivity with which he adopts new laws, as well as in the support or cancellation of decrees of the former President. Unlike Turkmenbashi, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is not an orphan and comes from the most numerous clan of Teke. If Saparmurat Niyazov relied on a staff rotation system, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov built a clan system. To strengthen his position, he immediately appointed family members and members of the clan to key positions and focused core assets in his own hands. In particular, the new law of Turkmenistan “On hydrocarbon resources”, adopted by the Mejlis of Turkmenistan on August 20, 2008, gave almost the entire industry under the control of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, abolishing some specialized agencies and creating instead the State Agency for Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources, which is fully accountable to the President.
After the signing of the new Constitution in 2008, the People’s Maskhalaty (People’s Council), a fictitious and bulky body (2500 members) performing the fictitious function of people’s participation in decision-making, was abolished. The powers of People’s Maskhalaty were given to the President and the Majlis (Parliament).
Continuing the trend of facade changes, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov ostentatiously seeks to create a multi-party social and political system, adding in 2014 the Agrarian Party of Turkmenistan to the existing Democratic Party and the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. However, according to many observers, the country is divided into spheres of influence between the President’s relatives. His son in law is a representative of the Turkmen State Agency for the Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources in London. His nephews control the market of household appliances and construction business. According to the newspaper Gundogar, his son Serdar, who was previously in the shadow, has recently become a more prominent figure, recently received his doctorate degree and today, he is the head of the “Turkmengalla” Association under the Ministry of Agriculture of Turkmenistan. It is expected that soon he will be promoted to the position of the Deputy Minister of Agriculture.
In spite of this, Serdar is unlikely considered by the President as his successor. This role is prepared for his grandson Kerimguly, who is now 12 years old and is very popular with the local media. President frequently brings him to official receptions and meetings. This concern about the numerous representatives of the President’s family is by no means incompetent, because Article 74 reads: “Provision, maintenance and protection of the President of Turkmenistan and his family are made at the expense of the state”. To further strengthen his position, another constitutional reform was initiated in 2016, which, among other changes, already made a proposal to extend the presidential term (from five to seven years), and to lift the maximum age limit for the performance of duties of the head of state. No wonder, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov himself chairs the meetings on the “improvement” of the Constitution.
Economy and Education
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov understands that while the political situation is completely controlled by him, the further economic development of the country depends on the quality of experts involved in the most important sectors of the economy. Therefore, almost immediately after his taking office in 2007, his first decrees brought back a 10-year school system and abolished the requirement of compulsory two years of work experience before entering the universities. In the academic year of 2013/2014, there was a transition to a 12-year school system. Given that the raw material policy requires highly qualified personnel, as well as the desire to reduce dependence on foreign experts, the new administration also supports the training of local specialists abroad on a number of majors in countries such as Malaysia and Turkey.
New universities were established: the Turkmen State Institute of Oil and Gas, the Turkmen State University of Architecture, Civil Engineering Institute and the International University of Humanities and Development (2014). New majors have also been introduced in universities. However, the education abroad, which does not meet the government’s needs, remains problematic.
So in 2010, the government restricted freedom of movement of Turkmen students studying at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek. These students could not continue their studies after the summer holidays. In addition, the pressure was exerted against the remaining students abroad to get them back home. Another decree dissolved Turkmen-Turkish schools in 2011, and their students joined local secondary schools.
A similar depressing situation remains in the field of research about Turkmenistan inside the country because of the limited regime for entry. The concern expressed by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov recently on the foreign research only confirms it. In his opinion, “Foreign researchers must publish their research only after verification by the Ministry of Culture and the Scientific Council of the Academies of Sciences of Turkmenistan”. Such signals of the Turkmen authorities call into question the effectiveness of the education reform. With excellent technical equipment of educational institutions, the access to information on the Internet however is limited. Internet is available primarily through mobile apps at the popular social networking sites such as Odnoklassniki and Vkontakte. In addition, there is an acute problem of developing curricula and textbooks, lack of qualified teachers and researchers, the cause of which was rampant migration during the reign of Saparmurat Niyazov. And despite the obvious fact that Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is trying to build more thoughtful educational policies, compared to the first Head of state, in order to make fundamental changes, he will need more political will than resources.
Neutrality: foreign and security policy
Last year, Turkmenistan magnificently celebrated the 20th anniversary of international recognition of permanent neutrality. Considering all the pros of this status, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov continued to promote the idea of non-interference in foreign policy and wisely used it for building a peacekeeping authority of the country, ensuring a peaceful neighborhood with Afghanistan and maneuvering between Russia, China and its Western partners.
But current realities are forcing to think about the country’s readiness to cope with the growing security threats, and cast doubt on the effectiveness and acceptability of the doctrine of neutrality, especially in light of the alarming situation in the Afghan-Turkmen border. Turkmenistan has not only begun to strengthen its borders and increase defense spending, but also adopted a new military doctrine in January this year. It, however, does not bring any changes regarding the status of neutrality, and moreover, according to the President, “is aimed at strengthening the world peace and development of friendly, brotherly and good-neighborly relations with all countries”.
External concerns related to the neutrality of Turkmenistan and its defense capabilities are still exaggerated, because, although neutral position excludes participation in military alliances, it neither deprives the State of the right to self-defense, nor limits bilateral agreements on security. It should also be remembered that Turkmenistan managed to maintain friendly relations with Afghanistan even during the Taliban regime, maintaining a diplomatic presence, accepting refugees, without interrupting electricity supplies and humanitarian aid, preventing thus an open confrontation with the Taliban. Gradually increasing the military power, the combat readiness of the army to protect the borders and adhering to the already proven good-neighborly policy, Turkmenistan, in our opinion, is able to avoid conflict this time, too.
Personality cult and tightened authoritarian regime
After coming to power, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov did not even try to change the authoritarian regime and denounced the personality cult of Turkmenbashi, only to replace it with his own personality cult. Ruhnama was replaced by the books written by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, numerous portraits of Turkmenbashi suffered the same fate, and the epithets used in relation to the former President, such as Turkmenbashi ( “Head of the Turkmen”), Serdar ( “leader”) and Eternally Great Saparmurat Turkmenbashi were replaced by another more comprehensive Arkadag title (“patron”). In addition, the President was awarded the title of the person of the year in 2010, but this time ccording to the version of the Institute of International Relations and Economic Cooperation of Romania.
On this occasion, People’s Writer of the Republic Gozel Shagulyev composed an ode to the President and his merits. The Renaissance period (the official name of the reign of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov) is characterized by the unlimited power of the President, all his decrees albeit informal are implemented unconditionally.
For example, since the beginning of the year, in the sale of cigarettes was unofficially banned in the country immediately after the mass destruction of a contraband tobacco batch (under the anti-smoking campaign). Price for a pack of cigarettes on the black market reached 50 manats (14.7 US dollars). In the border areas, such as Kazakhstan, people were forced to cross the border just to buy cigarettes. According to locals, this was done to ensure that the cigarette business passed into the hands of the sister and nephews of the President. At the moment, prices have returned to within the normal range of about 10 manats per pack (2.9 US dollars), and cigarettes are again available for sale in stores.
Another decree deprived people of an opportunity to buy currency, and now it can be sold only at the official exchange rate. The population remains hostage to the political will of the President and his immediate environment, without having the right to say something. There is not any political opposition in the country. A small opposition in exile does not affect the course of events in the country. All three parties, as before, are unanimous in showing support for the Head of State.
Local television shows meetings, hay harvest and dancing following the best traditions of Soviet propaganda. It is difficult to get into the country, and it is difficult to leave it. Any expression of criticism or interference in the affairs of state is punished. A striking example is the expulsion of ‘Doctors Without Borders’ international medical humanitarian organization from the country in 2010, which has consistently pointed to the problems in the local health care system. The authorities and local media remain silent about numerous cases of tuberculosis, AIDS and other infectious diseases in the country. Furthermore, Peace Corps volunteers were also forced to leave the country because of the constant reduction of the places of work, as well as permanent obstacles at work, especially in the field of public health. In most cases, the activities of international organizations and representative offices are limited to seminars and trainings on capacity building in different areas and are strictly controlled by the government.
Results and forecasts
During his term in office, the new leader of Turkmenistan has managed not only to strengthen his position, surrounding himself with relatives and organizing a strong rear, making the necessary constitutional reforms, but also managed to strengthen and diversify the economic ties. The rich oil and gas reserves have contributed to such a course of development. The new leadership team has made efforts to increase the flow of foreign investment, particularly in the energy sector, which provided it with the necessary financial support for the further consolidation of power. The President acts strategically, positioning Turkmenistan as a reliable and more or less predictable partner with clear rules of the game for the countries, with which it has close economic ties.
Much of what is happening in the country is working for the image of the President and is intended to demonstrate the wealth and development of the state both to outside observers and to the local population. Ashgabat is changing and growing every year. This white-marble city is known for its wide streets, numerous parks and even more numerous fountains, which seem to reflect the successes of the country’s ruling elites and fast economic growth. Turkmenistan is actively preparing for the Asian Games – 2017, which implies even greater investment in the appearance of the city. Unfortunately, despite the huge number of hotels and a relatively developed tourist zone on the Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan remains closed to visitors.
Despite doubts about the strength of the status of neutrality of Turkmenistan and its ability to maintain it in the current difficult international environment, this neutrality and the friendly signals broadcast outside in conjunction with bilateral agreements to ensure the security will be able to ensure the necessary international support for Turkmenistan in case of aggravation of the situation.
We cannot forget about the progress related to the status of neutrality, as well as the attempts to establish itself in the peacekeeping operations in the diplomatic field. Turkmenistan was a platform for the UN and other international forums dealing with humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping in Afghanistan several times. In 2007, the headquarters of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA) was established in Ashgabat, in order to assist the region in maintaining peace and security. However, it is difficult to say that Turkmenistan is strongly concerned about criticism from international organizations, such as the UN and the OSCE and others, about the deteriorating situation with democratization, freedom and human rights.
 Turkmen president calls to restrict foreign academics (15.08.2015) http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2015/08/15/turkmen-president-calls-restrict-foreign-academics.html
Аuthor: Svetlana Dzardanova, political scientist, coordinator of Research and Training of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek
The views of the author do not represent those of Cabar.asia and OSCE Academy