Turkmenistan: What Chance of a Thaw?
Cautious optimism that Saparmurat Niazov’s heirs will slowly begin moving forward towards reforms.
Turkmenistan: What Chance of a Thaw?
Cautious optimism that Saparmurat Niazov’s heirs will slowly begin moving forward towards reforms.
The results of next month’s election in Turkmenistan may be a foregone conclusion, but it is far from clear how the situation will develop thereafter. Some analysts and no doubt the country’s interim rulers believe the system created by the late president Saparmurad Niazov can be changed through a process of gradual evolution.
Others argue that stability is by no means assured, saying that in a country with a short history of statehood, there are centrifugal forces — mainly in the shape of regional interest groups — that could challenge Niazov’s successors.
In Turkmenistan, the transition has got under way remarkably quickly, with acting president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov offering the electorate health and education reforms, plus more access to the outside world — tantamount to an admission that the Great Leader’s policies were not, after all, without flaws and could be improved, even reversed.
For this report, IWPR has drawn on the expertise of a wide range of experts, including Turkmen analysts and activists now living abroad. We have also used our contacts inside the country to gauge opinion at this time of uncertainty.
Our interviews showed some consensus among the experts that things would begin changing, albeit slowly. Niazov’s entourage in the government and security services rapidly took control of the transition and are counting on remaining in charge once the February 11 presidential election is out of the way and Berdymuhammedov installed as leader.
Insofar as they are able to direct the process and muster resources from gas and cotton sales abroad, they will spend money to improve welfare, health and education provision, while cutting short any attempt at creating a more pluralist political system. That will be facilitated by their ability to block access to vocal opponents outside the country, and continue clamping down on signs of dissent at home.
Reversing some of Niazov’s social policy decisions or mitigating their effects will ensure public support for the new authorities, although the likelihood of popular protests is seen as remote in any case.
In the absence of political parties and other kinds of formal social organisation, it is possible that informal regional groupings led by local power-brokers will attempt to challenge the Ashgabat-based elite which is now in charge. There are indications that the authorities recognise the need to be more inclusive, but they may also resort to sheer intimidation to keep region interests at bay.
In terms of foreign relations, IWPR’s interviewees suggested that Turkmenistan may make overtures to the West, which was strongly critical of Niazov’s human rights record. But Russia will, if anything, be in a stronger position than ever to influence the country through its control of existing gas export pipelines.
FROM COMMUNISM TO TURKMENBASHI-ISM
Niazov became head of Soviet Turkmenistan’s Communist Party branch in 1985, and in 1992, a year after the country became independent, he ran unopposed for election the following year and won 99.5 per cent of the vote, according to official figures. He crushed the nascent political opposition, so that his only vocal critics now are to be found in the diaspora, he created a subservient state media, and clamped down on non-government groups.
In place of Communism, Niazov shaped a Turkmen nationalist ideology centred on himself, assuming the title Turkmenbashi or “leader of the Turkmen”.
The country earns substantial hard-currency revenues from its two major resources — cotton and gas — but much of this wealth has gone to fund white-elephant projects such as palaces, statues and other monuments to the president’s power.
The economy’s reliance on export commodities has tended to reinforce statist policies which have curbed the growth of enterprise, although there has been some success in attracting investment in textile manufacturing. Economic performance may also have been constrained by the quality of government. Niazov was constantly sacking ministers after accusing them of incompetence and corruption, and whatever the truth of these allegations, the constant turnover of officials made for disjointed management.
A RAPID TRANSITION
Across the eastern states of post-Soviet Eurasia, most national leaders have stayed in place since Communist times, so there is little experience of what happens when a powerful head of state dies. The only close comparison is with Azerbaijan, but there the long-serving president Heydar Aliev was replaced by his son Ilham over a period of time which allowed any turbulence within the ruling elite to be resolved.
In the case of Turkmenistan, observers interviewed by IWPR instead drew parallels with the events that followed the death of Stalin in 1953, the analogy being about how heirs to an autocrat wielding unlimited power cope with his death — shifting from one-man to collective rule, rolling back the worst excesses of tyranny while continuing to pay lip-service to the system that underpins their own legitimacy.
Following President Niazov’s death from heart failure early on December 21, it took only a few hours for Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov to emerge as the elite’s temporary leader, and then as their choice to become the next head of state.
Few doubt that he will win a resounding victory on February 11, not least because the electoral system is not geared towards fair elections — the head of the Central Electoral Commission Murat Garryev has publicly lent his support to the favourite.
The other candidates are less substantial figures, their diverse geographical origin a nod in the direction of broader regional interests rather than a real attempt to coopt major figures from the provinces.
Information about behind-the-scenes politicking is sparse, but Berdymuhammedov seems to have the late president’s cabinet behind him. Some analysts believe he is no more than a nominal leader picked by a clique of security-sector figures, the so-called “siloviki”.
Contrary to some fears, the interim administration has held onto power and kept the country under control. This is largely because Berdymuhammedov and other key actors, notably Presidential Guards commander Akmurad Rejepov, rapidly forged a deal allowing them to hold onto the reins of power and keep outsiders out — at least for the moment.
But Niazov’s heirs have to grapple with a range of paradoxical issues before the regime can truly be considered to have bedded itself down.
·There is talk of liberalisation — but future rulers cannot rapidly disown the Niazov legacy which is their source of legitimacy.
·With no prospect of democratic reforms, the hierarchical system will be perpetuated, but questions remain about how that will work in the absence of an all-powerful autocratic figure. As Turkmen analyst Shohrat Kadyrov put it, the politicians and oligarchs who form the elite “don’t need another Turkmenbashi”.
.The administration will be forced to acknowledge and deal with regional concerns, but it may find it hard to shift from its present reliance on one group, the Teke tribe of Ahal region.
THE EMERGING POWER STRUCTURE
The last time Turkmenistan held an election was in 1992, when Communist Party chief turned nationalist leader Niazov won 99.5 per cent of the vote.
From the morning Niazov’s death was announced, his close associates moved quickly to arrange the process that would lead to a new election. It has taken some engineering. As deputy prime minister (President Niazov himself fulfilled the role of prime minister), Berdymuhammedov was not the automatic choice.
Under the constitution, the speaker of the parliament or Mejlis, Ovezgeldy Ataev, was next in line to Niazov and should have become interim president. However, the powerful State Security Council and the cabinet convened a joint emergency meeting, ruling that Ataev could not take on the job because state prosecutors had filed criminal charges against him. It was not clear when this prosecution was brought. Ataev was later formally sacked.
However, as caretaker leader, Berdymuhammedov was automatically excluded from running for election. To resolve these issues, the Halk Maslahaty, a supreme legislative body which stands above the Mejlis, convened in emergency session on December 26 and approved his interim leadership, gave him the green light to run as a candidate, and lowered the constitutional age limit from 50 to 40 so that, at 49, he could become president.
On December 28, Central Election Commission chief Murat Garryev named the other five candidates: one deputy minister plus four local government officials drawn from a variety of regions.
Apart from Berdymuhammedov, the candidates are:
·Amanniaz Atajikov, deputy governor of the northern Dashoguz province;
·Orazmurat Garajaev, mayor of Abadan, a town in the central Ahal region;
·Muhammetnazar Gurbanov, head of the Karabekaul district, in the eastern Lebap region;
·Ishanguly Nuriev, deputy minister for the oil industry and mineral resources;
·Ashirniaz Pomanov, mayor of the western port city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) in the western Balkan province.
It is notable that no full minister is standing, and no provincial governor — the most important post below national government.
The opposition has been calling for free and fair elections, with émigré politicians allowed to stand. There was never much chance of this happening — the Berdymuhammedov administration appears keen not to invite other political actors inside the country to join the process, let alone those in the diaspora. Plans by opposition members to fly into Turkmenistan on a chartered plane were blocked.
Thus, it looks very much like an inside job, in which Niazov’s immediate entourage — previously dismissed by external observers as toothless as a result of frequent cabinet purges — grabbed hold of the reins of power and set a succession process in motion to exclude outsiders. By outsiders, we mean major players within the country as well as the opposition in exile.
“Key figures are currently excluded from the power struggle,” said Mars Sariev, a former Kyrgyz ambassador to Ashgabat who remains a keen observer of political developments there. “Those taking part in the presidential race are of secondary importance. It’s a controlled process.”
Sources in Turkmenistan told the IWPR-funded news agency NBCentralAsia that superficially, at least, all the candidates have been given equal rights. Newspapers print all their pictures the same size with the same amount of accompanying text, and they all hold similar meetings with the voters.
However, local commentators say the constituency meetings are a sham. The National Security Ministry, MNB, monitors the process to ensure that the participants toe the line. To exclude troublemakers, the electorate is drawn from factory workers and other solid citizens “volunteered” for the role. According to a local journalist, even the questions they ask are written in advance and handed out to them.
“Few people believe there will be changes if the election campaign is anything to go by,” said an analyst based in Ashgabat. “MNB personnel poke their noses in everywhere, phones are tapped, remarks by voters are censored, and undesirables are kept away from the meetings…. People are afraid to speak out in support of any of the candidates other than the acting president.”
One bank employee told the following story, “I was asked to speak in support of one candidate, deputy oil and gas minister Nuriev, and my speech was published in a newspaper. Next day I was summoned by my manager and told to write a letter of resignation. Turns out I should have supported the acting president.”
A factory worker in the city said he and his colleagues would also have backed the deputy minister given half a chance. “We wanted to speak out in favour of Nuriev, but we were warned that we had to support Berdymuhammedov,” he said
As a result of such intimidation, newspapers are struggling with their strict instructions to respect a new-found political pluralism. “Our editorial office is under an obligation to carry three comments from the public for each of the candidates every week,” said a journalist. “We have been doing our very best, but no one wants to speak in support of the others.”
The interim administration may be exhibiting reformist leanings in some areas of policy, but it its clearly far from ready to give up the well oiled mechanisms of repression just yet.
Niazov’s death was followed by a higher level of surveillance and control than usual, as the interim administration tried to head off any potential sources of trouble.
The border with Uzbekistan was closed. Relations with Tashkent have been difficult since Niazov accused Uzbek officials of assisting an assassination attempt against him in November 2002. Other reports suggested the army had been placed on higher alert in frontier areas.
The internal security services, too, were out in force. MNB officers were sent out to the regions from Ashgabat — suggesting that their local colleagues needed some galvanising. The NBCentralAsia agency was told that special squads deployed to Turkmenbashi in the west and Mary, a city in the southeast, were calling in civil-society activists and journalists to give them a stern talking-to. The targets, he said, were “people who’ve come to the attention of the security services either by meeting foreigners, or by going abroad to participate in conferences, and who are suspected of conducting civil-society activity”.
He concluded, “It is not the opposition based abroad that they fear, but domestic protests.”
According to Farid Tukhbatullin of the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, “Surveillance has been increased on the homes of individuals whom the authorities consider unreliable, relatives of political prisoners, and people with links to dissidents abroad.”
This heightened sense of nervousness seems to have prompted the detention of Nurberdy Nurmammedov, head of the opposition Agzybirlik movement, who was reported missing in Ashgabat on December 23. In the north of the country, police continued to hold Andrei Zatoka, an environmental activist arrested in Dashoguz four days before Niazov died.
Such heavy-handed measures are a worrying sign. Yet they may not be a wholly accurate reflection of what is to come. They may instead reflect an instinctive reaction, a desire to clamp down on all areas of life in a period of uncertainty and turbulence.
In a further hint that the regime feels vulnerable, the Turkmen foreign ministry put out a statement condemning Russian media reporting on the transition and insisting that the situation was calm, wages were being paid, and food available everywhere. Past practice has generally been to ignore foreign criticism of the way Turkmenistan is run.
SUSTAINABILITY BEYOND THE ELECTION
Assuming Berdymuhammedov sails through to the presidency, is it safe to assume that he and his colleagues will create a sort of “Turkmenbashi-lite” system, keeping the trappings of their predecessor in place while quietly curbing the system’s worst excesses and allowing liberalisation in some areas of life? That, judging by his public statements as an election candidate, would appear to be the plan.
It all depends whether the system and structures of government as created and left behind by Niazov are sustainable. Niazov reshaped the old Soviet mechanisms of administration, planning and control into a system that revolved almost entirely around himself, so that he was simultaneously monarch, demigod and executive director. Cabinet ministers came and went regularly — often sacked during televised meetings in which the president recounted their crimes and personal failings, and then packed them off to jail.
Will this one-man system work without Niazov? Among IWPR’s interviewees, the jury is still out.
Murat Esenov, a Turkmen émigré in Sweden who is editor-in-chief of the journal Central Asia and the Caucasus, thinks the mechanisms of power have survived their creator.
“The system is actually functioning quite successfully without Niazov,” he told IWPR. “After his death, many people expected there to be chaos and a power vacuum. But we’ve seen neither of these things happening. In other words, over the years that he was in power, Niazov was able to establish power structures that remain more or less functional even though he’s gone.
“It’s a sustainable system. Only the figures who come to power after the presidential election will be in a position to change that system, If they want, they can change it for the better; if they don’t, no one can force them to.”
That view was shared by Vyacheslav Mamedov, who heads the Democratic Civic Union, a Turkmen group based abroad, who said the administration “withstood the test of that most difficult of times, when Niazov died”.
Mamedov’s prediction is that in the short term, the administration will be “focused on itself” as it adapts to life without Niazov and tries to win command of the power it needs to govern the country.
Arkady Dubnov, a reporter on the Moscow paper Vremya Novostey and a veteran Turkmenistan-watcher, thinks the system cannot remain as it is.
“The Niazov system worked when he was at the top of the pyramid. Without him, it is no longer functional. That would require the emergence of a new leader who ran the country through fear permeating all parts of society,” said Dubnov, concluding, “I don’t think there’s going to be a repeat of this kind of leader-cult.”
Michael Denison, who lectures at Leeds University, said it would take time for any new leaders to distance themselves from the overpowering presence of the late president.
“I think it depends whether the new leaders will want to continue with Niazov’s cult or wherther they would want to gradually downgrade it,” he said. “It took three years or more before Stalin’s cult began to be dismantled. I don’t expect them to do that immediately…..Gradually, people’s memory will fade and they will look forward.”
BERDYMUHAMMEDOV AND HIS ALLIES
With the departure of the man who claimed, as Turkmenbashi, to embody his entire nation, some analysts have been discussing whether regional interests will now play a greater, possibly divisive role.
One powerful centripetal force is the monolithic Soviet-style system, and specifically the security agencies that maintain order.
Many analysts believe either that Berdymuhammedov has allied himself in a marriage of convenience with top security-sector officials, or that he is an insignificant figure created by them.
Berdymuhammedov’s track-record is one of loyalty to Niazov, shown by the length of time he was in office — since 1997 as health minister and 2001 as deputy prime minister — in a cabinet where jobs often only last a few months before the incumbent is sacked in disgrace. As health minister, he presided over disastrous cuts which reduced hospital provision and replaced orderlies with army conscripts. He has now hinted he would like to improve health provision — an implicit criticism of his old boss.
Dubnov said Berdymuhammedov’s role meant he never had access to resources such as oil and gas revenues, so he lacked the means to build up a power base and potentially threaten the president. “Niazov had no need to fear him as he didn’t threaten his authority or engage in intrigue,” he said. “These qualities have proved very important in making him the confidant of General Akmurad Rejepov, who clearly played the major role in crowning him leader.”
Most analysts believe that Rejepov, who heads the Presidential Guards force, has played a key role as behind-the-scenes kingmaker.
According to Shohrat Kadyrov, a Norway-based expert on politics and ethnic identity in Turkmenistan, “Berdymuhammedov is there because of a confluence of events and because of this… ethnic hierarchy, as he represents the Ahal-region Teke grouping.”
Some observers regard Berdymuhammedov as no more than a front man for Rejepov and his associates, who plan to control Turkmen politics from behind the scenes.
“I think the existing elite are securely empowered,” said Denison. “That doesn’t mean Berdymuhammedov is necessarily secure. He might be quite a weak figure and he might be fulfilling the functions of the Presidential Guard and security apparatus. So I think we will see a greater influence from people in the security sector.”
Esenov does not agree that Berdymuhammedov is necessarily weak, citing his long tenure as minister. “I don’t think he’s a puppet. But he lacks Niazov’s ability to intrigue and set one group off against another. Berdymuhammedov lacks that possibility, so now he’s working in consensus with other structures,” he said.
THE SECURITY MEN
The main players in the security sector are:
·Presidential Guards commander Akmurad Rejepov. His paramilitary security force enjoyed Niazov’s confidence and assumed the elite status and some of the powers of the MNB.
·Defence Minister Agageldy Mamedgeldyev, who controls a large but ill-equipped military, whose conscripts are often deployed for civilian labour work.
·Minister of National Security Geldy Ashirmuhamedov. The MNB is the successor to the Soviet KGB and as such a powerful instrument for control and repression. But it has been weakened by shakeups and its role as the elite watchdog of the state partly taken over by the Presidential Guard.
·Interior Minister Akmamed Rahmanov, whose department controls the uniformed police, criminal investigation officers and other areas.
In this group, Rejepov is seen as the key figure. Dubnov and others argue that he chose to play the role of eminence grise rather than seeking high office himself because he was aware that the power-structure created by Niazov recruited mainly from the Teke tribe of Ahal province, to which both the late president and Berdymuhammedov belonged.
“Rejepov is not a Teke and could never aspire to power,” said Dubnov.
Coming from Lebap region in the east, Rejep is effectively barred from claiming the top job. But he became a regime insider by affiliating himself with Niazov, not regional interests.
“He was always loyal to the Niazov regime, operating behind closed doors,” said Kadyrov.
Some analysts have speculated that the security agencies might compete for power with one another. However, there are suggestions that in recent years Rejepov has put his own men in place in the MNB and defence ministry, thus neutralising their influence as separate agencies, and that the security sector as a whole is now backing Berdymuhammedov.
“I think it’s unrealistic to predict a power struggle between the security agencies as the state they are in means they are unable to influence either the [political] power struggle or public life in general. I mean structures like the interior and defence ministries,” said Dubnov. “The only serious institution left is the special Presidential Guards service led by Rejepov, the main security-sector strongman.”
Whatever the acting president’s relationship with Rejepov and other security-sector chiefs, many would agree with Sariev’s view that “there is an arrangement between Berdymuhammedov and Rejepov; most likely a junta involving the defence and interior ministries and the MNB, and it is they who are directing the process”.
One of the constitutional changes made by the Halk Maslahaty in December granted significantly more authority to the security sector in general, in the shape of the State Security Council, which brings together the heads of security agencies and the prosecution service, and high-ranking officers. The council is now empowered to convene Halk Maslahaty meetings if the Turkmen president is unable to do so.
Lawyers interviewed by NBCentralAsia noted that this gave the Security Council a role in state governance and legislation, rather than its traditional functions of defence and protection of the state.
The analyst Mamedov commented, “The constitutional modifications showed who’s running the state — the Security Council, which appropriated extraordinary powers.”
REGIONALISM — A FORCE FOR DIVISION?
Most of IWPR’s interviewees agreed that if any force were to challenge the current transitional administration and the one Berdymuhammedov will lead after the election, it would represent regional leaders or interest-groups who currently feel marginalised from power — and cut out of the profits that political insiders can gain.
Tribal divisions historically played a significant role among the Turkmen, and kinship-based and regional identies remain a potent political factor despite Soviet and post-Soviet efforts to forge a united nation.
“It [tribal influence] even persisted in the Soviet period, when harsh measures were used to combat tribes and clans. It persisted under Niazov and will now play some kind of role,” said Tukhbatullin.
Tribal affiliation may offer people a sense of identity, and perhaps different perspectives on Turkmen history, but these days, a wider regional identity matters as well. One of the three biggest tribes — the Teke, Yomud and Ersari — generally predominates in each of the five provinces. Then there are several other significant tribes, and beyond them countless small groupings.
“Given the lack of civil-society institutions, clans and regional elites constitute the only form of social organisation,” said Sariev.
A Turkmenistan-based analyst who did not want to be named told IWPR, “There will be a conflict between clans, although Niazov destroyed the original ones. The new ones haven’t raised their heads yet but they do exist, with a membership probably based more on common regional origin than kinship.”
Ahal province is home to the capital Ashgabat and many of the country’s top politicians hail from there. Shohrat Kadyrov, an expert on tribalism and Turkmen politics, has argued persuasively that Niazov built his authoritarian system around members of the Teke tribe to which he belonged, specifically those from the Ahal region.
He told IWPR, “The hierarchy of the Ahal group emerged because they lived around the capital and more [resources] simply came their way. Their cohesion comes from their being the privileged group in Ashgabat, not because they have any great fondness for one another.”
In Kadyrov’s view, Niazov’s legacy can be seen as not one but two intertwined systems operating in parallel, “on the one hand an ethnic [Teke] hierarchy and on the either a highly centralised state”. He argues that the conflict between the state in this form and groups that feel marginalised by it is “the fundamental problem that Niazov left behind him”.
He predicts that this will lead to trouble, “Ethnic, inter-clan and regionalism — all these factors will be present in this [power-] struggle.”
Each of Turkmenistan’s five regions has a distinct economic profile — resulting in a particular focus on various natural resources, and grievances about being denied more of a share of the national income. Balkan region in the west, for instance, produces most of the country’s natural gas, and the major Caspian port of Krasnovodsk is located there. But the province has little agriculture. By contrast, Lebap (formerly Charjou) benefits from the waters of the Amu Darya and is the stronghold of cotton growing and processing industries — a major export sector for the Turkmen economy. Dashoguz to the north is also agricultural, though starved of good-quality water.
Regional analysts have been watching Mary province — better known as Merv — with some interest in recent weeks. With a mixed economy, Mary is similar to its neighbour Ahal in many ways, and the Teke tribe is strongly represented there – but despite this it is seen as a poor and disgruntled cousin. The announcement last year that the South Yolotan field contained massive amounts of natural gas will, if the reserves are proven, transform Mary from an underresourced area into the country’s premier gas-producing zone.
Dubnov said it was important for the new regime to attend to Mary since the region had been “done down” in the past. “But at the same time one most bear in mind that it is the Teke, and specifically those from Ahal region, who will always carry weight in Ashgabat and are the tribe to which Niazov and, significantly, Berdymuhammed belong,” he said.
The candidates standing in the presidential election hail from various regions of Turkmenistan. However, Berdymuhammedov secured his nomination not in his home Ahal province, but in Mary. Analysts have speculated that this unusual step was designed to stop any strong local figure from trying to put his name forward.
“A struggle can only take the form of clans,” argued Sariev. “The swift actions the authorities have taken show they are aware of this problem. After Turkmenbashi’s death, they moved quickly to take control of Mary region. The Teke of Mary region are the most visible pretenders to power. There will be a renaissance of the clans, as the most viable format for a power struggle.”
Other analysts are not persuaded that regional/tribal elites are able to compete for power with the current grouping led by Berdymuhammedov and Rejepov, or that they will be allowed to do so.
“Niazov’s rule was distinguished by its destruction of any organised force — not only the opposition but the regional clans too. Anything that had the potential to oppose the authorities was smashed,” said Esenov. “So it doesn t make sense to talk about opposition coming from the clans. They were virtually destroyed under Niazov.”
Mamedov took a similar line, saying that, for now at least, “they [regional forces] have absolutely no chance. The system of intimidation and tough action will continue, and any form of dissent — and that includes clan-based dissent — will be punished”.
Provincial interests would only become more important, said Mamedov, if the key post of regional governor was filled by election rather than by appointment, as is now the case.
According to Mamedov, all players — national and regional — have a strong interest in keeping the system going as long as they get a slice of the profits. “The security agencies which brough Berdymuhammedov to power will maintain the system as it is. Keeping it going will allow anyone connected with the authorities to continue taking a share of the national ‘cake’, and pocketing the money,” he said.
HINTS OF LIBERALISATION
None of the analysts interviewed by IWPR believed things could get worse than they were under Niazov, and most believed that a new administration would address some of the problems created by the late president even as they continued to praise him. Some drew comparisons with the “Thaw”, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev’s attempt to create a more liberal — or at least less brutal — political system after Stalin’s death.
Apart from attempting to insulate his people against outside influence and imposing his idiosyncratic world view on them, Niazov’s most damaging policies included drastic cuts in public-sector spending, justified by government revenue shortages. At the same time as public-service workers were being sacked, the regime was spending millions of gas and cotton export dollars on grand public construction works.
“Niazov’s departure was timely. The system had run to its logical conclusion,” said a sociologist in Turkmenistan who did not want to be named. “The political system and the economy are in deep crisis. The new team may begin reforms – they may be forced to…. The new president must start afresh if he wants to remain in power.”
Denison agreed that change was more than likely, saying, “I would expect some changes to be taken at the top of government. I would expect these changes to be undertaken relatively cautiously. But I think that there is a recognition that some changes are needed.”
Speaking of Berdymuhammedov’s pledges on education, pensions and internet access, Tukhbatullin said, “These words have been uttered, and some steps will be taken, because the new authorities must win some kind of authority. More serious steps will follow. As a human rights advocate, I hope they will amnesty political prisoners, above all prisoners of conscience.”
Others agreed that the Berdymuhammedov administration would be forced by circumstances to adopt some limited reforms.
“The entire course of events indicates that they are determining how the situation develops, but the situation itself will gradually force the regime to move towards a democratic process,” said Sariev. “[The regime] will be forced to gradually liberalise conditions in the republic. It’s the only option. There will be something like Khruschev’s Thaw. But it will be a process managed by Niazov’s circle.”
Berdymuhammedov has promised reforms of pension, healthcare and education if he wins the February 11 election, and other presidential candidates have expressed similar intentions.
Denison noted that Berdymuhammedov had also offered to open up access to the internet. “I found it a vey interesting statement, because there is no need to actually do that,” he said.
“It seems from the television reports that the candidates say that they want to continue the policies of Turkmenbashi the Great, etc– but then they quickly move on. So it is almost a symbolic issue, like continuing the work of the Great Leader [but then] ‘right, let’s talk about the real isues now’… the debate has moved on relatively quickly in some respects.”
Esenov predicts a reduction in repression, but says liberalisation will take place within strict limits.
“I don’t think they will make things even tougher; rather they will back off, take a few steps back, because they cannot keep on clamping down any further,” he said.
On the prospect of broader political reforms, Esenov was more pessimistic, “I doubt that Turkmenistan will undergo a political liberalisation, By liberalisation, I mean allowing opposition parties, freedom of the press….”
However, like many experts to whom IWPR spoke, Esenov predicts some improvement in economic and social policy.
“Changes in the economic and social sectors are to be expected,” he said, noting that Berdymuhammedov and the other candidates are being “fairly bold in proposing changes to the economy and the social sector…. Everyone understands that the economic and social systems created under Niazov aren’t working”.
Analysts say the government should be in a position to raise funds to expend on the social sector by redistributing revenues it earns from the sales of natural gas and cotton.
According to Denison, “Quite a large percentage of revenues went to off-budget accounts that were personally controlled by Niazov. I think that there would be some pressure to introduce some of these revenues back into the state budget.”
Asked whether this would mean more money for health and education, he said, “I think some resources might go into that. I would expect a more rational form of government.”
In Mamedov’s view, such measures will be well received. “They will issue welfare benefits, which will please people greatly. The authorities face the dual task of pleasing both the people and the international community,” he said.
Kadyrov argues that the new leadership has “no other option” but to liberalise the system, but he cautions that they will need to tread warily to sell the idea to their own colleagues, “They need to strive for decentralisation and satisfy the ambitions of regiional elites. The system has to be changed, and there’s an understanding of that at the top. But they can’t do anything right now, as there’s a…. large tier of conservatives, who need to be handled very carefully.”
LITTLE PUBLIC PRESSURE TO REFORM
Given the absence of free elections, independent media and alternative political voices over the last 15 years, it is hard to gauge the popular mood in Turkmenistan, and to guess how people would react if Berdymuhammedov did allow some greater freedoms, however limited.
Asked whether change would come top down or from pressure from below, Denison said, “I think a little bit of both. If people are given a little bit of freedom, they would certainly like more and you can’t really push them back.”
One local analyst said a popular revolution of the kind seen in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan was out of the question in Turkmenistan. “Civil society is too amorphous and inert for that,” he said. But he drew a distinction between younger people in rural regions who have not experienced anything except life under Niazov, and an urban population whose members are more likely to have traveled abroad and seen other ways of life, and have higher expectations as a result.
“I doubt there will be pressure from below,” said Sariev, reflecting the views of many experts. “The Turkmen who’ve grown up under Turkmenbashi are a particular kind of people. In principle, they’d be prepared to accept a leader similar to Turkmenbashi…..Paternalistic attitudes prevail. Most of the population have become accustomed to this kind of life; that’s natural since it is a traditional society.”
Esenov added, “The people were alienated from politics in Soviet and post-Soviet Turkmenistan; that is, they were alienated from power and the political process for a very long period of time. Even if the people are drawn in, it won’t happen very quickly.”
ABROAD, BUSINESS AS USUAL
As he took up the post of interim head of state, Berdymuhammedov moved quickly to reassure Turkmenistan’s commercial partners that the state would continue to honour all contracts and obligations.
“Economically, they will create greater opportunities for investment so as to make [Turkmenistan] attractive to the West,” said Sariev.
The country’s main gas exports go to Russia’s Gazprom, which is not only a world-class producer and exporter to European markets, but is also politically close to the Kremlin. Gazprom has a deal giving it rights to a substantial share of Turkmen gas exports over a 25-year period, and would not want that jeopardised by a period of prolonged political uncertainty.
Russia has a strong interest in stability being maintained by a leadership that is if not democratic, then less erratic than Niazov, who appeared to snub Moscow by, for example, ordering people with dual citizenship to give up their Russian passports, and backing away from the Commonwealth of Independent States.
“Everyone understands that if Turkmenistan blows up, it will destabilise the entire region,” said Sariev. “So neither the Central Asian republics nor Moscow has any interest in instability. There will be destabilisation if the opposition in exile becomes involved, with the backing of the United States and Europe, and demands democratic elections. Then there will be chaos and the inter-clan struggle will come to the fore.”
While Gazprom’s control of existing pipelines gives it a virtual monopoly over Turkmen gas exports, Niazov was keen to look at other export routes, signing a deal with China which would see a new export pipeline going east via Kazakstan. The EU recently voiced renewed support for the Transcaspian Gas Pipeline, a route which would allow Turkmen gas to bypass Russia. Finally, discussions continue on a projected pipeline which would take gas southwards to energy-hungry Pakistan and on to India. That, of course, is contingent on Afghanistan regaining a measure of stability, which currently seems a long way off.
If the new Turkmen government continues to float such alternatives, Moscow may be less than happy.
“I think Gazprom wants to make sure that at least the onshore gas [is] still routed through Russia, because Russia itself depends on these gas supplies to meet the terms of its contracts, and it will not give up these gas supplies without a lot of persuation,” said Denison.
But as Dubnov pointed out, the Russians have a strong hand to play, “Russia will work through its contractual relationship if it believes Turkmenistan is not meeting its obligations or is blackmailing [Moscow] by threatening to sell its gas to other customers. But right now, Turkmenistan has neither the ability nor the resources to engage in blackmail. It has onlytwo export routes — Iran and Russia.”
Turkmen gas exports to Iran remain modest, in part because Niazov was well aware of the United States’ opposition to such deals.
Many analysts believe the Berdymuhammedov administration will do what it can to repair relationships with the West, where there has been much criticism with regard to human rights concerns in the country.
“I think Ashgabat will make efforts to open a dialogue with the West. There’s already evidence of this in a visit by the OSCE’s ODIHR [Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights]. It’s pretty obvious they agreed to this mission visit, which shows they want to revive the dialogue,” said Dubnov.
An OSCE mission visited Ashgabad on January 7-10 to assess the possibility of sending a limited team of observers to monitor the February 11 vote. The Turkmen authorities have indicated that the OSCE and some other unspecified countries and organisations will be welcome to monitor the polls.
Overall, the consensus of opinion among the analysts interviewed for this report was that while a Berdymuhammedov-led government will seek to maintain the appearance of continuing Niazov’s legacy, there are already signs it is prepared to make incremental changes. These are likely to involve redistributing a greater share of the country’s export revenues to the population, but they will stop well short of allowing alternative political voices to emerge.
“I must admit I am a little optimistic at the moment,” said Denison. “I think it will remain the same in the short term but is likely to improve in the long and medium terms.”
“Turkmenbashi’s associates — the so-called military junta led by the MNB and Rejepov — will continue to control the situation and seek to direct developments according to their preferred scenario,” said Sariev. “The situation will develop slowly… it will be an gradual, evolutionary process, with no abrupt changes.”
Russian journalist Dubnov concluded, “As time goes on the Niazov legacy will increasingly become a mere shell — essentially it will come down to keeping the flag the same colour and all that kind of thing….[but ] the system created by Niazov will not persist without him.”
Tukhbatullin, too, is cautiously optimistic, saying, “All the candidates have said they will pursue Niazov’s line on domestic and foreign policy. Yet the system is going to change, and I think in the next three months we’ll see how it’s going to change. To be honest, I’m hoping for some kind of move in the direction of democracy, or at least a shift away from Niazov’s policies.”
Dadodjan Azimov is a London-based Central Asia analyst. John MacLeod, IWPR senior editor in London, contributed to this report, as did analysts in Turkmenistan who cannot be named because of concerns for their security. Inga Sikorskaya, Turkmenistan editor for the Bishkek-based News Briefing CentralAsia news agency, provided additional interview material.