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Central Asia news

Turkmenistan: new leader stands for old ways

20.12.2007 14:52 msk

Political scientist Ajdar Kurtov

Analytics Turkmenistan

President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov passed away on the night on December 21, 2006. His demise generated a furor. Turkmenistan had been the least open country in the whole Central Asian region for years, and the obscure always attracts. Moreover, Niyazov's demise occurred when the struggle over Central Asian hydrocarbons was becoming definitely vicious. Rulers, their personal sympathies and antipathies and even whims, have always been the decisive factor in the East, the factor destinies of their subjects and even international accords depend on. Predictably, Niyazov's death generated a great deal of comments and forecasts.

Most comments and forecasts were offered by the experts who did not really care what to concentrate on - France today, Mozambique tomorrow. Why not Turkmenistan as well? The republic was overwhelmed with fantastic assumptions and hypotheses. The implications some of them suggested were staggering. Some experts predicted a civil war and bloodshed caused by infighting between the Turkmen clans aspiring for power. Others maintained in all earnest that the dark period was finally over and that what changes were in the wind for the country could only be changes for the better. They stated that the population of Turkmenistan finally free of Niyazov's tyranny could now enjoy freedom and all benefits of free enterprise and democracy. Some specialists even came up with a nice theory concerning existence of some "shadow Turkmen junta" that was about to move in and rule the state using the president as a mere puppet. Promoters of all sorts of geopolitical alliances had their field day too. Some assumed that Turkmenistan would shortly join the Eurasian Economic Cooperation Organization and CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization, others confidently predicted rapid rapprochement with NATO.

The reality proved to be much duller as it usually does. The new regime in Turkmenistan was installed without bloodshed. The volunteer detachments of the tribes whose existence some experts had confidently predicted must have decided against a cavalry charge at Ashkhabad. With neither the regular army nor any other security structure producing a Turkmen Qaddafi, the army revolt theory expired soon. High hopes for people's activeness proved illusory. The population remained passive, frustrating all attempts of the Turkmen opposition abroad to make use of the unique opportunity and arrange a revolution.

Turkmenistan presented the international community with something unprecedented. The political establishment in a potentially volatile country survived the emergency and did so without any particular loss. The regime took the developments in stride. The situation was always in hand, and the hand was not that of any shadow military junta.

Joint meeting of the Security Council and Cabinet decided on the stability-maintenance measures in the country on December 21 morning. Along with everything else, it scheduled the meeting of the Halk Maslahaty (the supreme representative body) for December 26. What counts, however, is that the joint meeting made Deputy Premier Gurbankuly Mjalikgulyevich Berdymuhammedov acting president and put him in charge of Niyazov's funeral. In a word, the successor was selected right away, without traditional infighting and intrigues.

The law was nevertheless bent. Under the acting Turkmen legislation, it is chairman of the Mejlis or parliament who was to be made acting president. Parliaments do not play any significant part anywhere in Central Asia (save for Kyrgyzstan perhaps, but the situation is changing even there). Their chairmen are therefore mere talking heads wielding no real power or clout. It apparently never even occurred to decision-makers in Turkmenistan to put a man like that in charge of things at so crucial a moment. At least indirectly, it disproves the hypotheses that Niyazov's death was not natural. Unlike Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, Niyazov had never given a thought to what would happen after his death and never set up a mechanism of devolution of power to the successor.

And yet, his demise was sudden and unexpected. That is why Atayev, chairman of the national parliament who had never even for a brief moment entertained the idea of becoming the ruler (acting ruler actually, but that does not matter), was made a scapegoat. Atayev had to go, and it was promptly orchestrated with actually laughable charges of inflammation of trial hatred pressed against him. The prosecution stated that Atayev had allegedly prevented a marriage between his stepson and a girl from Nokhur tribe and that the girl had allegedly taken her life. As a formal excuse not to make Atayev acting president, it sufficed. This single episode showed that the regime in Turkmenistan remained in control, that it would brook nothing it did not want, and that it would not hesitate to throw the book out the nearest window whenever it needed anything done its way. The Mejlis swallowed the tall tale, sacked Atayev, and replaced him with one Nurberdyeva.

No need here to elaborate on why Berdymuhammedov, an obscure Minister of Health Care and Medical Industry and a former dentist, was chosen for succession. Some rumor-mongers suggested that Berdymuhammedov was Niyazov's son born out of wedlock but that was a canard, of course. Niyazov had established a totalitarian system where he alone was the decision-maker and prime mover. He alone was quite secure in this system. Every state official (there were no public politicians in the totalitarian Turkmenistan as this term is understood in the West) could lose everything literally any moment - his position, career, even freedom. Making a list of potential successors under the circumstances was therefore a chore.

And yet, the choice of Berdymuhammedov was not exactly the worst. It did abate social tension. Like Niyazov, Berdymuhammedov belonged to Teke tribe - the most populous tribe in Tajikistan. He had outlasted very many people in the corridors of power. As a matter of fact, his relative obscurity and absence of evidence corroborating his involvement with the least palatable aspects of Niyazov's reign (including repressions, for example) were actively an advantage. It enabled the powers-that-be to make full use of the promises to alter the Turkmen policy. Plus, it helped maintain stability which as we know now was one of official Ashkhabad's priorities at the moment. Official Ashkhabad accomplished it and did so smartly. It never said it would do without presidential election even though it could have got away with it. The president of Kazakhstan got away with anti-constitutional disbandment of the parliament and outright usurpation of state power. In Turkmenistan, it was not usurpation as such.

Of course, the Turkmen opposition will probably challenge these elaborations and their validity. As far as the opposition is concerned, Berdymuhammedov did usurp state power (albeit without bloodshed) in the course of an election whose outcome was rigged, an election that was neither free nor fair. Without questioning this assumption, let us instead ask ourselves if it was possible for Berdymuhammedov to do without election at all. It certainly was! That the authorities chose to run the election (where the population was offered at least semblance of choice) is important. Let us get it straight. Nobody is saying that the new Turkmen regime is something wholly new and necessarily progressive. It is not. Bearing Turkmen totalitarianism in mind, however, let us capitalize on what the new regime could have done but never did and also on what it did.

Berdymuhammedov did not show himself as an advocate of revolutionary reforms in his first year in the driver's seat. Shall he be castigated for it? Let us recall what happens to radical reformers in the East. Ataturk did reform Turkish society but his was a rare example of successful reforms of this kind. He owed this success to a great extent to the fact that the world powers in the wake of WWI were trying to do away with the Turks as a nation altogether. Aware of the danger and compelled by self-preservation instinct, the Turks closed the ranks around the leader in whose determination they saw a possible salvation. All too frequently, however, reformists in the East discover that they have bitten off more than they can possibly chew and end up in trouble. Iranian Shakh Mohammed Reza Pehlevi launched what he thought would be the so called White Revolution, a cycle of undeniably progressive reforms. What he did foment, however, was the Islamic revolution and overthrow of the monarchy that had lasted 2.5 thousand years. The East never hesitates to strike back and shed blood. It is reforms that it hesitates to accept or put up with.

Berdymuhammedov was cautious and prudently. Instead of being a revolutionary or reformist, all he wanted was becoming Niyazov's successor and Niyazov's successor he did become. He changed practically nothing in supporting constructions of the Turkmen totalitarianism. Amendments of the Constitution, adoption of the law on election of the president - these were but minor changes some of which had been intended by Niyazov himself. Moreover, the day eventually came when Berdymuhammedov began talking continuation of his predecessor's policy of constitutional reforms. Adoption of new laws in the meantime (say, the law on farming) is beyond the sphere of political relations. In other words, Berdymuhammedov permitted minor reforms in the social, cultural, and even economic spheres but left the political sphere alone, pretty much the way it had been.

Only methods were altered every now and than, which is important too but not as important, say, as redistribution of power among state structures would have been. For example, Berdymuhammedov began his presidency will easing the lot of some political prisoners including former deputy premiers Jolly Gurbanmuradov and Dortkuli Aidogdyev. On the other hand, at least Gurbanmuradov and Aidogdyev are not exactly political prisoners. Both senior state executives were tried and sentenced for financial fraud. With Niyazov on the throne, however, it did not matter because sentences like that could actually be used as a cover for purely political motives. In any event, both Gurbanmuradov and Aidogdyev drew 20 years imprisonment with confiscation. Both were tried and convicted in 2006 (when Niyazov's era was drawing to its end without anyone being aware of it) and, also importantly, neither had ever been noticed having anything to do with the opposition. In other words, they were not enemies of the regime as such, and their pardon therefore cannot be viewed as abandonment of the practice of repressions against the political opposition.

That was just the first amnesty under Berdymuhammedov. In August, he ordered an amnesty applied to eleven prisoners including businessman Iklymov and ex-Imam Nasrulla ibn Ibadulla. The widespread opinion is that the latter was thrown behind the bars precisely for the temerity to challenge some actions on Niyazov's part that collided with the Islamic norms.

Berdymuhammedov also amnestied several thousand criminals afterwards. All enemies of Niyazov's regime, however, all those imprisoned in connection with the attempt on Niyazov's life in 2002, were left in prisons. It was the regime's message to everyone that its enemies should beware and that prosecution would be swift. It was, as the later developments showed.

Ex-Chief of Presidential Secret Service Lieutenant General Akmurat Rejepov and his son Nurmurad Rejepov, officer of secret services, were sentenced to imprisonment several month after Berdymuhammedov's election the president this February. It does not really matter whether the verdicts were fair or justified (they probably were because the very nature of totalitarianism encourages abuse of power). What counts is that it did not take Berdymuhammedov long to learn the lesson and start using his predecessor's methods of repressions and regular staff purges.

Analysis of all aspects of Berdymuhammedov's reign shows that what he has actually accomplished does not amount to too much. On the one hand, he did order the notorious Ovadan-Depe jail torn down. On the other, the overall number of prisoners in Turkmenistan did not go down that much.

On the one hand, some progressive changes did take place in the sphere of education. The curricula were extended, some subjects Niyazov had ordered abolished as "superfluous" restored. On the other hand, the sphere of education never shed the totalitarian shackles. Education never became open and available to all. Some goes for science. The Academy of Sciences was restored - but without the academic freedom enjoyed by analogous structures abroad. The president permitted establishment of Internet-cafes but in such a manner that the people of Turkmenistan were not any better off from the standpoint of access to information.

Berdymuhammedov ordered amendment of the odious pension rules and returned pensions to the oldsters deprived of them by Niyazov. Good for him. Even that, however, does not make Berdymuhammedov a true reformist. Restrictions on movement within Turkmenistan were abolished in summer 2007. Some state structures were permitted to subscribe for foreign media outlets.

Finally, Turkmenistan did become a more open country under Berdymuhammedov. The new president himself extensively travels Moslem countries (Saudi Arabia, Iran), America, Europe (Belgium), and the Commonwealth (Tajikistan, Russia, Kazakhstan).

Foreign delegations make frequent trips to Turkmenistan, so frequent in fact that official Ashkhabad experiences difficulties in coping with all this diplomatic activity. All the same, not even all these visits have engineered a genuine breakthrough. Turkmenistan retains neutrality and refuses to join international alliances. Berdymuhammedov made cunning use of the revived interest in Turkmenistan (his predecessor would have been proud). He played several games at once, promising gas to each partner. Confirming the agreement with the Chinese signed by his predecessor in spring 2006, Berdymuhammedov allegedly agreed to sell gas cheap ($90 according to Reuters). In a word, form alone changed in foreign policy of Turkmenistan under the new president, not content.

In the middle of 2007 or so Berdymuhammedov turned conservative and authorized (or at least stopped objecting to) a return to the past in certain spheres. Turkmen media outlets once again sing hosannah to the skills and talents of the national leader and his efforts. Additional funds immediately found for a campaign in the media praising the unique Turkmen experience. (In fact, some reels appeared even in the broadcasting schedules of Russian TV networks.)

A short while ago Berdymuhammedov ordered removal of dish antennae from buildings in Ashkhabad. That his motives were purely aesthetic is highly doubtful. Practice of national projects was resumed. Tourist zone Avaza on the Caspian coast is one of these projects. Ordering it to proceed at full speed, Berdymuhammedov permitted foreign companies to up oil production on the Caspian shelf. Projects like that are usually incompatible. Experience of Kazakhstan and particularly Azerbaijan plainly shows that a choice has to be made: either oil production or ecology and tourism. The area off the coasts of Baku and Sumgait is the worst polluted part of the whole Caspian Sea. Ecologists say that concentration of oil products in sea water there is 8,500 (!) times more than the maximum concentration limit. Forget fish and ecosystems. Tourists are unlikely to want to swim in oil and wastes. Shortly speaking, once again decisions at the state level are made by a single man, without a thought spared to expertise or consequences.

In other words, what positive changes in the life of Turkmenistan initiated by the new regime we've listed above are being quietly annulled and voided, on the way to becoming history altogether. All these changes were minor in the first place, never affecting the very paradigm of the political processes in Turkmenistan as they had been shaped in the 1990s. Reinforcing the totalitarian regime when the oil and gas prices throughout the world are more than favorable for Turkmenistan, official Ashkhabad may now abandon primitive methods of outright violence in favor of more devious but not any more civilized methods of authoritarianism.

Nothing compels the Turkmen authorities to mount genuinely important and profound reforms. The regime is under no domestic pressure from the political opposition or civil society just because neither exists in Turkmenistan. Berdymuhammedov's experience in dealing with foreign politicians and officials convinces the Turkmen leader that it's absolutely all right for him to remain within the framework of the existing totalitarian system and that it will never land him in trouble with the rest of the world. One year on the throne is too brief a period of course to make the final diagnosis, but the trends already displayed are not particularly encouraging.

Ajdar Kurtov
Ajdar Kurtov
Political scientist Ajdar Kurtov. Exclusively for Ferghana.Ru