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Ready for (no) change: Pitfalls of Staying in Power in Turkmenistan

Constitutional reforms have already become traditional mechanisms for strengthening power in Central Asia. In an article specially for CABAR.asia, expert Svetlana Dzardanova analyzes tactics and possible scenarios for the transit of power in Turkmenistan.


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On September 25, a year after president Berdymuhamedov announced his plans for constitutional reform, Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council) heartily approved all necessary amendments, paving the way for the possible hereditary power transition in the country. The reform happens amidst a full-fledged economic and healthcare crisis, nearly-total dependence on Chinese loans, as well as growing frustration and protest within and outside Turkmen borders. What tactics does the Turkmen leadership employ to stay in power and what do these arrangements entail for regime survival, regional players, local elites, state structures and, more importantly, the country’s population?

Is the era of Might and Happiness over?

The combination of hydrocarbon abundance and instrumental policies allowed the Turkmen leader to maneuver between big regional players and enjoy (largely on his own) the declared Era of Might and Happiness.[1] Despite endemic corruption the energy sector revenues were still enough to satisfy the population’s needs, appetites of elites and growing demands of the president’s cult of personality. However, as the energy prices went down and economic crisis hit the state in 2017 it was fast to expose a poorly managed resource-driven economy, corruption, nepotism, and a failure to avoid dependence and diversify routes, markets and economy. The situation has been gradually unfolding for the local population starting with Ashgabat canceling free gasoline in 2014 and devaluating national currency the following year, while simultaneously introducing restrictions on the purchase of foreign currency and cash withdrawals. Short on cash, Berdymuhamedov looked for means to refill the state treasuries and fund big pompous projects the administration took on when gas prices and revenues were still generous. For instance, the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games hosted in 2017 became the burden for ordinary Turkmen citizens as the state was collecting “voluntary contributions,” which were actually simply deducted from civil servants’ salaries.[2]  Finally all social benefits and subsidies were abolished under the pretext of a booming economy and people’s demand.

Until recently residents have been traveling abroad selling local or imported goods in neighboring Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and even taking some food products to Istanbul to earn some money as well as withdraw cash, which is difficult to do at home.[3] The outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated the situation for Turkmen citizens with land and maritime borders closed, income dropping and food prices rocketing. People are hardly fooled by the upbeat positive attitude of Turkmen state media broadcasting harvests, celebrations and other manifestations of projected prosperity and development. There are continuous reports of people standing in long lines to cash their paychecks and buy basic goods like eggs, bread, sugar or oil.

While independent media reported a growing number of infections and COVID-19 related deaths in Turkmenistan, the country’s government has been sending mixed signals. Turkmenistan was repeatedly declared coronavirus-free, people were fined for wearing face masks for “causing unjustified public panic”[4], but then preventive measures were suddenly introduced, including the suspension of passenger railway traffic, social distancing, and mask-wearing to combat what was officially called ‘dust’. Turkmen government was cautious and resistant to let in the World Health Organisation (WHO) mission for a checkup and delayed providing the necessary paperwork. As soon as the delegation arrived the president and the entire government went on a month-long holiday.[5] Although the 10-day visit resulted in no confirmed cases, the country received a shipment of personal protective equipment and the head of the delegation, Catherine Smallwood, urged that “Turkmenistan should take the same public health measures as if COVID-19 were circulating in the country.”[6]

Turkmenistan preferred boosting its international image and sending humanitarian aid to neighboring Iran, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and the Astrakhan region of Russia, while turning a blind eye on the suffering of its own people when a hurricane and later heavy rains and a flood hit Lebap and Mary provinces causing numerous human casualties and severe damage to property and infrastructure.[7] These tragic events (as many before them)[8] received no attention from the state or state-affiliated media, but rather the police went after residents who filmed or shared videos of destruction.[9]

The dire healthcare and economic situation, natural hazards, skyrocketing unemployment, cash shortages and growing food insecurity led to an increase in the activity of the Turkmen opposition, frequency of protests outside Turkmen borders and growing animosity inside the country. Opposition activists abroad tried to draw attention to what has been going on in the country by protest actions held in several US cities, Turkey and North Cyprus. Inside the country, desperate and hopeless people were also pushed to the streets to protest over food shortages and inaction and ineffectiveness of authorities. On May 13 about 1000 people gathered in Turkmenabad to what could be called one of the most massive protests in the history of independent Turkmenistan.[10] Smaller rallies also took place in the Dashoguz region and Mary. Moreover, there have been accounts of circulating leaflets and banknotes with anti-government messages or calls for protest.[11] 

Constitution and legislature amendments

While these disturbances did not bring even a slightest change in Berdumuhamedov’s manifested behaviour, he did take some steps to secure his power status quo. Consecutive amendments to the constitution in 2008 and 2016[12] not only put the country’s natural resources under direct presidential control but also eliminated the 70-year age limit for candidates, opening prospects for Berdymuhamedov to stay in office for life. The recent constitutional reform, however, might signal attempts to put succession-friendly legislation in place before the next elections happen. The bill to enter into force in January 2021 sets up a two-chamber parliament and a separate People’s Council yet automatically reserves the seat in the upper house of National Council for every former president. The bill states that the president can be: “removed from office ahead of schedule if he is unable to fulfill his duties due to illness”[13] It also provides for the head of the upper house to be second-in-line for the presidency.  This could be evoked by Berdumuhamedov’s alleged health issues or inspired by the success story of      the peaceful power transition in Kazakhstan, where president Nazarbaev managed to step down without losing his actual power.[14] 

Intimidation and reshuffles

Despite the perceived shift in approach, the current leadership does and will continue to do everything to stay afloat and in power. In their article How Autocracies Fall, Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz offer a thorough overview of ways for autocrats to leave the office: being removed “due to actions and decisions of regime insiders, including coups”, being forced out as a result of mass mobilization and finally due to a death in office.[15] Berdymuhamedov seems quite aware of these options and acts accordingly. Building on the permanent neutrality status inherited from the previous administration, Berdymuhamedov’s continued pursuit of isolationist foreign policy is instrumental in keeping the international community and neighbours at arm’s length. He has also been quite strategic in weakening the checks and balances on state power by co-opting elites, providing subsidies to the population, pushing out international organizations, harassing local and foreign media and civic activists, and concentrating and distributing powers among numerous family and clan members.[16]

Individual activists in Turkmenistan get routinely harassed and detained based on false accusations. Activists abroad also get threatened and intimidated directly or via threats against relatives residing in Turkmenistan, which is exactly what happened to protesters in Istanbul. The local police were informed about the rally on 19 July and detained 72 Turkmen nationals to later hand over their personal information to Turkmen authorities.[17] One of the protesters – Dursultan Taganova was threatened with deportation and held longer than others. She was later released and applied for asylum after a number of human rights organizations expressed concern and called for Turkey to act in line with its international obligations.[18] In Turkmenistan her relatives were persecuted, while she “was included in the list of “betrayer of the nation” and was declared “wanted”.[19] Although protests make the hardships of the Turkmen population visible to the international community they have little to no effect on      the regime as the geography of the country and resources of the Turkmen authorities are more than sufficient to contain or suppress possible protests within the country, also due to the highly organized and far-reaching security and law enforcement structures. Hence, it would be naïve to consider protests at this point any real threat to regime survival. 

To suppress and control the country’s business and political elites outside his clan and strengthen his grip on power Berdymuhamedov heavily relies on security and defence agencies.[20] Combined with tight control over all communication and media channels, prosecution of journalists and dissenters makes multiagency security structure useful in keeping masses suppressed and incapable of revolt. However, as in other personalist autocracies, it is not the masses that the ruler should fear the most, but “regime insiders”. Such interplay and codependency creates power balance issues and makes Berdymuhamedov vulnerable as military and security seniors are more likely to have the necessary means and networks to ouster the ruler.[21] Hence, he (much like his predecessor) appoints and reshuffles key officials and systematically resorts to demonstrative public humiliation, reprimands, dismissals and arrests in all sectors of country’s administration. These help keep in-country opposition non-existent and his rule uncontested.

Box: Reshuffles in the security sector, October 2019-October 2020

In the course of the last year, Berdymuhamedov has been deliberately after the country’s strongmen, starting with the long-time survivor Interior Minister Isgender Mulikov,[22] who was told off and fired, only to be later arrested and convicted of abuse of power and corruption. In February this year, Berdymuhamedov dismissed his National Security Minister Yaylym Berdiev, cotinuing the clean-up.[23] Over the few recent months he was not particularly happy with the performance of the Interior Minister Mamethan Chakyev and the head of the State Customs Service Maksat Hudaykulyev and many others from the education sector, energy industry, and judiciary.[24] Turkmen TV has established a tradition of showing former high- and middle-profile officials cuffed, crying and admitting charges of (usually) corruption. With confessions aired on national TV channels, the president kills two birds with one stone. First of all, he sends out clear signals to anyone thinking of plotting against him that no one is safe, no matter how powerful and immune they consider themselves to be.[25] Second, for the public he creates an image of the leader devoting all his time and energy to building a prosperous society and struggling with low-skilled poorly performing neglectful and corrupt officials on the way.

Preparing a successor

In parallel with intimidating and harassing higher echelons, Berdymuhamedov provided his son Serdar with multiple opportunities to boost his already remarkable career and enhance his public governance expertise. For quite some time Serdar was out of the picture and Berdymuhamedov’s grandson Kerimguly was widely viewed as the most likely successor. While outside the political spotlight, Serdar graduated from the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and later the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) in Switzerland. He then has been on the fast track building up his political profile moving around different government branches representing his father during high-profile events abroad, serving as Deputy Foreign Minister, governor of the Ahal province and finally being appointed the Minister of Industry and Construction.[26]

The turbulent political and economic context the country has been recently operating in can prove Berdymuhamedov’s strategy of equipping a successor wise and visionary. Power transition in dictatorships still resembles ancient Egypt funerary practices when the dictator’s downfall also entails murky prospects for family members and the entourage. Given the history of power change in the region (ranging from death in the office to revolutions and exclusively rare elections), the best possible scenario for Berdymuhamedov’s clan and regime survival is Serdar taking office with his father still in power to ensure a peaceful transition and avoid any surprises.

Serdar will not only inherit power,  an extensive network of relatives and clan members to rely on and available resources. He will also face the issues facing the regime such as corruption, a dire economic situation and unemployment, malfunctioning healthcare and education systems, only to mention a few. The new leader might adhere to keeping the status quo domestically and internationally, but could as well be inspired (less likely) by Shavkat Mirziyeev, who in spite of being the product of Karimov’s political system and the Prime Minister under Islam Karimov’s for 13 years, managed to attract international attention and investments with the mere attempts of liberalization. For instance, everyone praised Mirziyeev decision to open up, resume cross-border movement and trade with Tajikistan and other neighbours as well as ease access for foreigners, allowing cash inflow. However, so far the available evidence shows that although the younger Berdymuhamedov has all the means and the necessary skillset to pursue the course of long-awaited democratization, chances are high these hopes won’t come true just as when the international community too-readily placed them on his father in the onset of his presidency. 

Conclusion

Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive, corrupt, censored states in the world often referred to as the North Korea of Central Asia. Its president maintains tight control over the country’s elites and population. Berdymuhamedov has been in office for long enough to witness a range of regime change options in the region. Some of them he understandably might view as less attractive than others. Although there is nothing new or innovative to tactics employed by the Turkmen leadership for regime survival, they have worked so far. Amending the constitution is what all other Central Asian states did, in some cases more than once. His Tajik colleague’s preemptive measures might as well prepare his son as a possible successor. Berdymuhamedov is also cautious about the opposition and does not keep people in office for long, making sure they cannot form coalitions to coordinate and act against him. State posts come with the risk of not only being removed but also jailed. The president and his clan control all the vital monetary flows and are more accountable to Chinese investors than to the country’s population. The once economic dependence on Russia has gradually moved to China, which in the long run might be more dangerous for authoritarian Turkmenistan. Although Russia tried to win some of its control back when Gazprom resumed gas purchases in 2019 after a three-year standoff, China remains country’s major customer with revenues partly spent to repay Beijing for its infrastructure loans. This makes Chinese influence virtually unrivaled in Turkmenistan and in the case of any power shifts; it will easily preserve its leverage in the foreseeable future. Other regional players and international partners, will probably see no difference if Berdymuhamedov Jr. takes office and keeps up with his father’s course. International organizations still allowed in the country have learned to act in accordance with the state demands and try to preserve whatever access they have. Democratization is unlikely, and the prospects for the local population remain murky as the people have been gradually and strategically stripped of all the rights and freedoms in return for the promise of economic miracle and prosperity and have now effectively lost mechanisms for exercising their political will. Also recent events in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan confirming the findings of Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz reveal that even when people can organize their grievances into massive protest this rarely leads to democratization or desired results. Regime insiders can use the protest sentiment for a coup just like it happened in Bishkek or protests can be brutally suppressed for months, which is scenario that Ashgabat has all resources to undertake.


This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or the donor.


[1] Kilner, James, March 1, 2012 Turkmenistan declares an era of happiness, The Telegraph https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/turkmenistan/9115790/Turkmenistan-declares-an-era-of-happiness.html

[2] Pannier, Bruce. Turkmen Authorities Giveth and Turkmen Authorities Taketh Away, October 5, 2016 // http://www.eurasianet.org/node/80816.

[3] Turkmens Get By on Piecemeal Sales and Cash Withdrawals in Uzbekistan 31.07.2019 https://en.turkmen.news/spotlight/turkmen-sell-piecemeal-uzbekistan-cash-withdrawals/

[4] A visit by a delegation from the World Health Organization

ended in Turkmenistan http://theopinion.net/a-visit-by-a-delegation-from-the-world-health-organization-ended-in-turkmenistan?action=print

[5] http://tdh.gov.tm/news/articles.aspx&article23432&cat11

[6] See: https://centralasia.media/news:1632450

[7] Read more: https://www.hronikatm.com/2020/05/hurricane-that-happened/

[8] Turkmenistan has a history of underreporting or concealing unsettling information on disasters, political events, public health issues etc. etc.

[9] Rachel Denber. Turkmenistan Government’s Deafening Silence After Hurricane

Storm Survivors Need Help, Not Censorship https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/05/04/turkmenistan-governments-deafening-silence-after-hurricane

[10] Read more: https://rus.azattyq.org/a/analysis-a-troubled-government-and-rare-protests-in-turkmenistan/30620584.html

[11] https://turkmen.news/news/anti-berdimuhamedov-protest/

[12] Constitution of Turkmenistan adopted on May 18, 1992 has been subsequently changed in 1995, 1999, 2003, 2006, 2008 and 2016.

[13] See: http://turkmenistan.gov.tm/?id=20497 and https://www.hronikatm.com/2020/09/constitution-v-9/

[14] Standish, Reid, Nazarbayev Is Giving Up Presidency, Not Power, in Kazakhstan, March 19, 2019

 https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/03/19/nazarbayev-is-giving-up-presidency-not-power-in-kazakhstan/

[15] Andrea Kendall–Taylor & Erica Frantz (2014) How Autocracies Fall, The

Washington Quarterly, 37:1, 35-47, DOI

[16] Unlike late Saparmurat Niyazov, Berdymuhamedov has extended family, involved both in power vertical and business.

[17] Turkey hands over the list of Turkmen nationals who tried to hold a protest in Istanbul to the Turkmen authorities https://en.hronikatm.com/2020/09/turkey-hands-over-the-list-of-turkmen-nationals-who-tried-to-hold-a-protest-in-istanbul-to-the-turkmen-authorities/

[18] Turkey: Turkmen Activist Faces Deportation https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/10/12/turkey-turkmen-activist-faces-deportation

[19] The Turkmen authorities declare the activist Dursoltan Taganova “wanted” and persecute her relatives https://en.hronikatm.com/2020/10/the-turkmen-authorities-declare-the-activist-dursoltan-taganova-wanted-and-persecute-her-relatives/

[20] The country’s security providers include Security Service of the President, Ministry of National Security, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Internal Affairs, State Migration Service, State Border Guard Service and State Customs Service all formally under the State Security Council umbrella.

[21] Andrea Kendall–Taylor & Erica Frantz (2014) How Autocracies Fall, The Washington Quarterly, 37:1, 35-47, DOI

[22] Iskander Mulikov was in office between 2009 and 2019.

[23] Turkmen President Fires National Security Minister Weeks After Rebuke, February 13, 2020 https://www.rferl.org/a/authoritarian-turkmen-president-sacks-national-security-minister-weeks-after-rebuke/30432164.html

[24] See for instance: https://rus.azathabar.com/a/30887102.html and https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistan-reprimands-galore

[25] Pannier, Bruce. A Niyazov Classic Remade For Contemporary Turkmen State Televisio,. October 7, 2019. https://www.rferl.org/a/a-niyazov-classic-remade-for-contemporary-turkmen-state-television/30203242.html

[26] Turkmen president promotes son to role of industry minister,  February 8, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkmenistan-president-son/turkmen-president-promotes-son-to-role-of-industry-minister-idUSKBN2020AP

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