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Change or Continuity for Turkmenistan?


Mecca, New York and now Brussels – Turkmenistan’s new president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is on an unprecedented (for Turkmenistan) world tour to get to know the movers and shakers in the world’s power centers. A stream of international leaders and delegations has visited his isolated capital, Ashgabat, not previously on the diplomatic circuit.

But feting him as the new Gorbachev bringing openness and restructuring to his repressive and isolated country would be wrong. When the veteran autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov died unexpectedly last December, all of Turkmenistan was hoping the nightmare of stifling control, vindictive repression and a grotesque cult of personality would be over. Hopes were high that Berdymukhamedov would usher in wide-ranging change.

People were prepared to forgive him that he was installed in behind-the-scenes machinations that avoided the nation’s constitutional order of succession. The people, of course, had nothing to say about it. Still, they were prepared to forgive him for being part of the repressive regime of the past. Turnout at the election that endorsed his power was genuinely impressive. Enthusiastic voters even used the reverse side of the ballot paper to give him ideas on how he should reform the country.

As announcement followed announcement – the restoration of a tenth year of school education, wider access to the internet, removal of travel restrictions and the many checkpoints that scarred the country – citizens dared to hope that a page had been turned. Unlike his infirm predecessor, Berdymukhamedov – like Gorbachev in the 1980s – is relatively youthful and dynamic. He appeared open.

Yet the honeymoon was short-lived. Citizens feared a return to a cult of personality with the reemergence of presidential portraits in April. Portraits were displayed in all schools at the beginning of the school year on 1 September. Books by and about him started to appear. It became clear that Berdymukhamedov pays close attention to how his image is promoted around the country.

Yes, some 9000 prisoners were freed in a mass amnesty in October, but that was a policy already introduced by Niyazov. Many of those freed had to swear their repentance and the oath of loyalty to Berdymukhamedov publicly. So no change there. Many local people were horrified that serious offenders like drug-traffickers with 20 year sentences were freed less than a year after being imprisoned. Such arbitrary releases do little for law and order.

Internet access turned out to be neither as easy nor as cheap as many had hoped. Those internet cafes allowed to open remain expensive and underused.

The blacklist of those banned from leaving the country remains, even though exit visas have been abolished. Flights to Moscow and Almaty are routinely delayed as the secret police check through the would-be passengers. Indeed, it is often only at the airport that people discover they are on the secret blacklist.

Religious communities, NGOs and trade unions have not been set free of stifling control. Government-organised public organisations have mushroomed, doing what local people describe as “quasi-activity” on social issues in a “quasi-independent” manner. But they suffer from a lack of will to change the situation and constant rotation of their leaders.

Teachers and other lower-ranking government officials are forced to toil in the cotton fields – often unpaid – if they are not to face dismissal. They leave children untaught and specialist work undone.

One of the biggest bugbears – Niyazov’s abolition of pensions for many pensioners – was reversed, but not properly. Many who are entitled to pensions do not yet receive them again and Berdymukhamedov’s proclaimed increase has not been given. Even those of working age lucky enough to have jobs still face delays in receiving their often-meager salaries.

More fundamentally, the secret police and the ordinary police have not lost their power. People remain afraid.

So it turns out that “humanisation” – the president’s own word – of society was to be strictly limited. Berdymukhamedov is no Gorbachev bringing the Soviet Union out of its isolation, repression and decay. Nor is he a King Juan Carlos bringing Spain out of Franco’s dictatorship into the modern world.

The Turkmen people are still excluded from the political process – that remains the preserve of the nation’s shadowy elite and, at its top, Berdymukhamedov. Those in Ashgabat who have tried to contribute to the birth of a public debate of future policy have been slapped down. Government politicians have declared privately that no amendments are planned to any of the restrictive laws on trade-union or non-governmental organisation activity. No fundamental legal changes have been instituted to improve the climate for small business. The outdated methodology of school teaching remains unchanged. One chemistry teacher in a remote region bewails the continuing use of Soviet-era chemistry textbooks (though at least they are free of Niyazov propaganda, unlike many recent textbooks in other subjects).

While the people of Turkmenistan have had long enough to realise that Berdymukhamedov is not the answer to their problems and will not reform the fundamentals of the autocratic system he inherited from Niyazov, the international community remains alarmingly willing to take the new president’s claims and promises at face value.

Yes, a succession of international delegations has visited Ashgabat. Yes Berdymukhamedov has reversed the isolationist policy of his predecessors. But he has not engaged on substantive reform. Tellingly, all these trips have been get-to-know-you meetings. Those wanting to discuss serious issues have been rebuffed. When United Nations Human Rights Commissioner visited Ashgabat officials denied to her face the many human rights violations so visible to all.

Yes, the world has to get to know Berdymukhamedov. But more important he has to get to know his own people before he presents any ideas he might have to the outside world and the outside world also needs to get to know the people of Turkmenistan and what they need to see changed. Turkmenistan’s people need to come in from the cold.

Felix Corley and Rachel Denber contributed to this post.

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