WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 480, 30 January, 2006
TURKMENISTAN: WHAT CHANCE OF A THAW? Cautious optimism that Saparmurat
Niazovs heirs will slowly begin moving forward towards reforms. By Dadodjan
Azimov in London
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TURKMENISTAN: WHAT CHANCE OF A THAW?
Cautious optimism that Saparmurat Niazovs heirs will slowly begin moving
forward towards reforms.
By Dadodjan Azimov in London
The results of next months 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 countrys 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 Niazovs 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 Leaders 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. Niazovs 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 Niazovs 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, IWPRs interviewees suggested that Turkmenistan
may make overtures to the West, which was strongly critical of Niazovs 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
FROM COMMUNISM TO TURKMENBASHI-ISM
Niazov became head of Soviet Turkmenistans 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
The economys 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 Niazovs death from heart failure early on December 21, it
took only a few hours for Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov to emerge as the elites
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 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 presidents 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 Niazovs 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 dont 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 Niazovs 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
- 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
Thus, it looks very much like an inside job, in which Niazovs 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. Its 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.
Niazovs 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
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 whove 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
He concluded, It is not the opposition based abroad that they fear, but
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
systems 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 IWPRs 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
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 weve 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 hes gone.
Its 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 dont, no one can force them
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.
Mamedovs 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 dont think theres going to be a repeat of this kind of
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
I think it depends whether the new leaders will want to continue with Niazovs
cult or wherther they would want to gradually downgrade it, he said. It took
three years or more before Stalins cult began to be dismantled. I dont expect
them to do that immediately
..Gradually, peoples 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.
Berdymuhammedovs 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 Berdymuhammedovs 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
didnt 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
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
doesnt 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 dont think hes a puppet. But he lacks Niazovs ability
to intrigue and set one group off against another. Berdymuhammedov lacks that
possibility, so now hes 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 Niazovs 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
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 its 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 presidents relationship with Rejepov and other
security-sector chiefs, many would agree with Sarievs 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 whos
running the state the Security Council, which appropriated extraordinary
REGIONALISM A FORCE FOR DIVISION?
Most of IWPRs 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 havent 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 countrys 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 Kadyrovs view, Niazovs 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 Turkmenistans 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 countrys 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 countrys 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
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
Turkmenbashis 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.
Niazovs 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 Khruschevs attempt to create a more liberal or at least less brutal
political system after Stalins death.
Apart from attempting to insulate his people against outside influence and
imposing his idiosyncratic world view on them, Niazovs 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.
Niazovs 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 Berdymuhammedovs 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. Its the only option. There
will be something like Khruschevs Thaw. But it will be a process managed by
Berdymuhammedov has promised reforms of pension, healthcare and education if he
wins the February 11 election, and other presidential candidates have expressed
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, lets talk about the real isues now
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 dont 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,
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 arent 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
In Mamedovs 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
theres an understanding of that at the top. But they cant do anything right
now, as theres a
. large tier of conservatives, who need to be handled very
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 cant 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 whove grown up under Turkmenbashi are a
particular kind of people. In principle, theyd be prepared to accept a leader
similar to Turkmenbashi
..Paternalistic attitudes prevail. Most of the
population have become accustomed to this kind of life; thats 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 wont happen very quickly.
ABROAD, BUSINESS AS USUAL
As he took up the post of interim head of state, Berdymuhammedov moved quickly
to reassure Turkmenistans 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 countrys main gas exports go to Russias 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 Gazproms 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
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
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. Theres
already evidence of this in a visit by the OSCEs ODIHR [Office for Democratic
Institutions and Human Rights]. Its 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 Niazovs legacy, there are already signs it is
prepared to make incremental changes. These are likely to involve
redistributing a greater share of the countrys 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.
Turkmenbashis 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 Niazovs line on domestic and foreign policy. Yet the
system is going to change, and I think in the next three months well see how
its going to change. To be honest, Im hoping for some kind of move in the
direction of democracy, or at least a shift away from Niazovs 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.
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