by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick*
At a meeting of cultural workers on February 26, following his landslide reelection victory on February 12, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov announced that the Era of Might and Happinesshas officially begun in Turkmenistan. Thus ends the Era of Great Renewal, as the Turkmen leader dubbed the first five years of his reign. That in turn was preceded by the Golden Age of the late president for life, Saparmurat Niyazov. Evidently, no more reform is needed, and the people are supposed to be happy with what they have.
The independent news site Chronicles of Turkmenistan described inauguration rehearsals so long and grueling that on the day of the show, some people fainted from exhaustion. Rows of rhythmically clapping elders in their bushy sheepskin hats stood for the president, crying “Glory to Arkadag,” or Protector, as Berdymukhamedov is known.
At his swearing-in ceremony, the Turkmen leader first kissed the flag of Turkmenistan, then pressed its folds to his forehead. Bedecked in a large medal with Turkmenistan’s state symbol, he approached a table with two ornate tomes. According to unofficial reports from Ashgabat, for some reason the president put his left hand on the constitution of Turkmenistan, yet didn’t place his other hand on the Koran at his right. Back in 2007, at his first inauguration, he had placed his right hand on the constitution, and bowed in respect to the Koran and Niyazov’s cult book, the Ruhnama. This time the Ruhnama was missing entirely, and the president’s attitude toward Islam was less clear.
Turkmenistan Golden Age, February 17, 2012
Certainly Berdymukhamedov has been no friend to religious liberty. After releasing the former chief mufti from jail during his first term, he has been willing to put many other believers of various faiths behind bars. Under international pressure, Protestant pastor Ilmurad Nurliev was freed as part of a Flag Day amnesty on February 19, having been convicted on dubious charges of extortion in 2010. But no new law has been passed to guarantee religious freedom.
During Berdymukhamedov’s first administration, officials in the United States and Europe were eager to support reform and gain access to Turkmenistan’s considerable hydrocarbon reserves. They heaped undeserved praise on the new president’s superficial gestures, such as the opening of a few tightly controlled internet cafes. Soon these gestures were undone by draconian reversals. For example, hundreds of students were prevented from studying abroad, and only after intensive intervention by the United States were some of them finally allowed to leave a year later. Fearing the spread of both “color revolutions” and the Arab Spring, Turkmen authorities continue to restrict travel and block popular internet sites like YouTube. In December 2010, the president discontinued a contract with the Russian mobile-telephone service company MTS, effectively cutting off 2.4 million people—the vast majority of all users—from phone and internet service. Meanwhile, a large minority of Russians fear they may be trapped in Turkmenistan by new regulations abolishing recognition of dual citizenship.
A new law on political parties was recently passed, but the president announced it five days after registration was closed for this year’s election. In any event, under the new law on the presidency, nominees must be employed in state organizations and have lived in Turkmenistan for 15 years, ruling out any political challenge from private businesspeople or exiles.
Among the many mysteries of this closed society are the fates of two foreign ministers. One, Boris Shikhmuradov, was arrested and sentenced for participation in an alleged coup plot in 2002, and has not been heard from since. The other, Rashid Meredov, was just reappointed to his post despite the removal of every other member of Niyazov’s cabinet. Where else can a well-known foreign minister completely disappear, and one associated with a supposedly repudiated former dictator remain in place?
Why did Berdymukhamedov even go to the trouble of orchestrating such a phony election? Nurmuhammed Hanamov, exiled leader of the Turkmen Republic Party, believes the show was intended for the West. But the Turkmen leader doesn’t appear to worry about what critical foreigners think of his lack of democratic credentials. He has resisted every remonstrance and reneged on every promise related to democratic reform, such as a pledge made after a meeting with French president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010 to introduce alternatives to the unchallenged ruling party, the ill-named Democratic Party. Curiously, after the embarrassment of a devastating arms depot explosion in Abadan last July, Berdymukhamedov called for exiles to return and take part in the election. The invitation was never formally extended, however, and it was forgotten once the wreckage from the disaster was cleaned up.
Predictably, the United States and the European Union were unimpressed by the election. They supported the stance of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which decided not to observe the voting given the absence of alternative parties and free media. By contrast, monitors from the Commonwealth of Independent States hailed the sham balloting as “a significant step in the country’s movement on the path of progress and development, in the implementation of new democratic reforms.”
This difference in responses is telling. It shows that in addition to displaying his power to his own people, the Turkmen leader is interested in competing with his authoritarian Central Asian neighbors—not with the world’s advanced democracies. Indeed, Berdymukhamedov wants to prove he can put on a better performance than his fellow autocrats. His 97.1 percent victory tops not only his first election, when he won with only 89.2 percent of the vote, but also those of Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, who won with 95.5 percent last year, and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, last elected in 2007 with 90.8 percent. The laggard of the region, Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon, won by only 79.3 percent in 2006.
In this parallel universe, elections and “democracy” have entirely different meanings, and Berdymukhamedov appears as determined as his predecessor to prevent any intrusion by the realities of the wider world. As long as he succeeds in doing so, outside observers will continue to be baffled and disappointed by Turkmenistan’s authoritarian eccentricities.
* Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is a New York–based freelance writer, Russian translator, and consultant on Eurasian affairs.