New president of Turkmenistan follows in the steps of his predecessor
Waiting for serious changes in Turkmenistan under its new President Gurbankuly Berdymuhammedov, experts and commentators have been searching for and founding indications of a new course. Practically all of them decided that the reforms would be slow but irreversible and that the former system established by the late Saparmurat Niyazov or the Turkmenbashi would be greatly transformed.
The very essence of the regime established in the first 16 years of sovereignty meanwhile does not allow for any serious transformation or reforms in the sociopolitical or economic spheres. All the same, Berdymuhammedov's every statement and every visit abroad were scrutinized for indications of the reforms already under way, the reforms aiming to do away with the Turkmenbashi's legacy. As a matter of fact, all these expectations - logical as they are from the standpoint of society - are really a waste of time. Expected as they are, changes are not taking place. General contours of the new president's conduct, both domestically and in foreign affairs, have already taken shape. They are:
- a demonstrative multi-vector policy in international affairs, based as it is on the traditional use of hydrocarbons as an instrument of dealing with partners abroad;
- a marked allegiance to the neutral status the Turkmenbashi once proclaimed to strengthen his own regime and secure support from the foreign countries promoting their own interests in Central Asia; and
- promises of democratization, transition to free market relations, and war on corruption - empty so far since not one has ever been backed by any practical step.
Berdymuhammedov is about to make a trip to the United States, and official Ashkhabad attaches considerable importance to the visit. Officially, the president of Turkmenistan is going there to attend a session of the UN General Assembly. Actually, the visit will be centered around meetings with US Department of State officials and, hopefully, with the US president himself. Promises to launch economic reforms and establish the institutions necessary to facilitate financial-economic transition to free enterprise were taken abroad with optimism - just as Ashkhabad had expected. In fact, even some representatives of the opposition swallowed the bait. The Turkmen leadership made it. Critics and adversaries of the system established in the country are put in the standby mode, waiting for the changes, and their voice will be ignored both in Turkmenistan and abroad should they ever become too restive.
The authorities' actions in the sphere of national economy plainly show that nothing could be farther from their mind than reforms. Promises of reforms in the obsolete agricultural sector have never been kept. Cotton-picking is still using forced labor, a method the USSR invented and Niyazov happily applied. The last year situation with the disappointing crops is unlikely to change, and absence of subjective statistical data leaves the impression that the regime is afraid of exposing performance figures for certain sectors of national economy. Hydrocarbon reserves remain a deep dark secret, and so do what the regime pocketed through export of raw materials. Size of gold and hard currency reserves remains unknown to general public, and so does the inflation rate. There is no exact data even on the population - discounting the fantastic figures on its growth revealed by Niyazov once he had all but dismantled the national health care framework.
Berdymuhammedov and his closest associates bet on the atmosphere of expectations both in Turkmenistan and abroad. The authorities never miss a chance to point out that the reforms are too serious an undertaking to proceed at a fast rate and that Niyazov's legacy cannot be abandoned all at once due to certain local specifics. It is a ploy, of course, necessary to buy the authorities time to adapt the existing system to their own needs. This is the only true motive behind Berdymuhammedov's foreign political activeness. As a matter of fact, this style was also typical of Niyazov who perfected this "policy of promises" while establishing his own authoritarian-totalitarian regime.