Turkmenistan, a nation the size of California, and home to 5.5 million people who live atop some of the world’s largest natural gas reserves, recently held presidential elections. The outcome was never in doubt: President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was reelected with over 97 percent of the vote. A licensed dentist, Berdymukhamedov came to power suddenly in December 2006, through a series of extra-constitutional maneuvers after the death of former president Saparmurat Niyazov. Western diplomats in Ashgabat report that he is widely rumored to be Niyazov’s illegitimate son.
No meaningful political opposition exists in Turkmenistan—attitudes other than sycophancy toward the nation’s leader are unwelcome, and critics are quickly silenced. The country’s higher-education system has been carefully dismantled, and students who travel abroad to seek a college degree quickly find themselves labeled enemies of the state and placed on secret lists for apprehension at border posts. (The tactics make sense on one level: anyone who had a college education or had experienced a whiff of life outside Turkmenistan probably would be inspired to seek change.) Médecins sans Frontières withdrew from the country in 2009, after finding that doctors were not permitted to diagnose and treat tuberculosis or HIV, both of which are widespread, because Ashgabat could not accept the idea that such diseases existed in Berdymukhamedov’s dream kingdom.
The election has set the stage for the further development of the personality cult around Berdymukhamedov. The nation’s Council of Elders recently bestowed upon him the title of Arkadag (“the Protector”), and his visage now smiles down from posters throughout the country. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports this momentous news:
State-run media in Turkmenistan have declared that the Central Asian country has entered a new “era of supreme happiness of the stable state” in the wake of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s landslide reelection victory. RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service reports that the theme of “supreme happiness” over the president’s second term in office was suggested during an official meeting in Ashgabat on February 25.
It’s wonderful knowing that while threats of war hover over Iran, the E.U. despairs over the fate of the Euro, and America copes with rising internal demand for theocracy, Turkmenistan has found a solution to all temporal problems.
In fact, Turkmenistan provides the world with a useful example. It reminds us what a state with totalitarian aspirations accomplishes for its people: poverty, ignorance, and the collapse of public wealth, all wrapped in a pervasive culture of fear. Foreign observers may well watch and have a hearty laugh at Turkmenistan’s expense, but for the Turkmen people, a nightmare is unfolding.