Ushering in the “Era of Happiness”?*

Mar 14, 2012

By Sung In Marshall

10 A 12-meter-tall, gold-plated, rotating statue of former Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov. A neutrality arch. A theme park—Turkmenbashi’s World of Fairytales—named after the “Father of All Turkmens.” A 400-page book of history, myth and philosophy meant to bolster a spirit of national consciousness among ethnic Turkmen, called the Ruhnama (The Book of the Soul). Giant posters of Niyazov in every public space across the country. Renaming the month of January Turkmenbashi and April after his mother. Turkmenistan certainly has its fair share of bizarre, eccentric manifestations of the cult of personality that surrounded its former leader. But underneath this fantastically absurd self-obsession, lies decades of repression. Under its current leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, things are not much different in this Central Asian country.

When Turkmenistan became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Niyazov abandoned his Communist roots and rebranded himself Turkmenbashi. In the ensuing years of his rule, from 1991 to his death in 2006, Niyazov created one of the most obscene personality cults in human history and instilled a highly repressive regime. He banned opera, ballet and the circus, gold teeth, long hair or beards for men and playing recorded music. He also ruled with a heavy hand, crushing all opposition and controlling all branches of government and the media. In 1999, the Parliament in Turkmenistan voted to allow Turkmenbashi to serve as president for life, thereby eliminating any accountability he may have had to his own people. As a result, upon his death the “Father of All Turkmens” left behind a grim legacy:  a crumbling infrastructure, egregious human rights abuses, and a poor quality of life (including rumors of starvation outside the capital) despite the country’s vast natural gas reserves.
 
Turkmenbashi 2.0
 
Berdymukhammedov took over the presidency in December 2006, prompting many to hope that he would open up the country by lifting restrictions on the freedom of its citizens and easing access for foreign investors. In his inauguration speech he vowed to continue the work of his predecessor, while also calling for change and suggested the possibility of increased openness. He also promised to encourage entrepreneurship and allow private ownership, reform the educational system, offer access to the Internet, improve health care, and restore pensions. At first, it seemed promising that Turkmenistan’s new ruler would indeed do so. He moved to dismantle the Niyazov cult of personality by removing hundreds of the ubiquitous photographs of Turkmenbashi and by removing Turkmenbashi’s face from all banknotes but the 500 manat note. He restored pensions for the elderly and established a new oversight commission for law enforcement agencies. He signed a decree changing compulsory education from nine to ten years and opened Ashgabat’s first internet cafe. He lifted the previous bans on opera and the circus, and also suggested restoring the names of the months
 
But these “reforms” proved to be measures that were two steps forward, one step back. Turkmenbashi's photographs were replaced by ones of Berdymukhammedov. He has adopted an honorific title – Arkadag, the Turkmen term for “protector.” Internet cafes were hobbled by erratic connections, prohibitively expensive fees, and the presence of armed guards at the door. More disconcerting has been the lack of change in the spheres of political and press freedoms. The only legally registered political party is the government-sponsored Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (formerly the Communist Party of the Turkmen Soviet Republic). Independent media outlets remain stifled as the government maintains near-total control over the media. Despite the cosmetic changes, as time has passed, Berdymukhammedov appears to be following closely in the footsteps of Niyazov, creating his own dictatorial regime rather than choosing to open up his isolated country.
 
Democracy, Turkmen-style
 
“Building a truly unassailable cult of personality requires an ever-ascending process of glorification and affirmation,” writes EurasiaNet. Niyazov became unassailable by manufacturing election results to affirm his “leader for life” status. His first “election” was in 1990, when he ran unopposed and took 98.3 percent of the vote with a 96.7 percent voter turnout. In the next elections in 1992, when he also ran unopposed, he garnered the support of 99.5 percent of the 99.8 percent of voters who turned out. In a 1994 referendum he achieved an impossible 99.9 percent of 100 percent turnout. Berdymukhammedov’s popularity, by comparison, is a far cry from that of his predecessor, receiving only 89.2 percent of voter support in the 2007 election. However, such results put him more or less on par with his Central Asian peers; in their most recent reelections, Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov won 88.1 percent, while Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev won 95.5 percent
 
Despite his authoritarian image, Berdymukhammedov has made efforts to create at least an appearance of a competitive contest for the recent presidential elections in February. His first move was to sign a law that (in theory, at least) would allow new political parties to emerge. Moreover, in these elections—the second presidential election in Turkmenistan's 20-year history as an independent state to feature more than one candidate—Berdymukhammedov faced not just one, but seven opponents (although all were from the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan and have refused to ask the public to vote for them. Instead, they have praised the president and his achievements). Thus, the February 12 presidential election was not a question of who would win, but by which margin Berdymukhammedov would choose to do so: would he choose to win with an impossibly overwhelming majority, such as 99 percent of the vote, or with a more “modest” figure of 70 or 80 percent?  
 
The 99 percent?
 
Facing only token opposition from the seven other presidential candidates, Berdymukhammedov was re-elected with 97 percent of the vote, in elections that the OSCE refused to monitor. In its December 2011 report, the OSCE/ODIHR Needs Assessment Mission concluded that “Turkmenistan’s continued limitations on fundamental freedoms, its failure to allow genuine political competition, and the government’s lack of progress in bringing the country’s legal framework into line with OSCE commitments to democratic elections left no space for an election observation to add value.” 
 
If the Turkmen president was holding elections in order to reaffirm its legitimacy, why did he choose to win with an improbably high margin of 97 percent? If Turkmenistan sought to give the veneer of a democracy, why not do more to bring its system into line with OSCE commitments to democratic elections?
 
In manufactured elections, says Joshua Keating in a recent piece for Foreign Policy, “the 90 percent mark seems to be a useful line to distinguish between the authoritarian governments that care about the international perception of their elections and want to present the appearance of having an opposition, and those that care only about demonstrating their absolute control to their own citizens.” By this barometer, Berdymukhammedov seems to be using his 97 percent victory to remind his suffering citizens that he is their undisputed leader and will be for years to come. But do the election results also mean that Turkmenistan’s government doesn’t care about the international perception of their elections or government? Surely, it does not. The fact that elections were held at all is, at the very least, a nominal measure to create the impression that Turkmenistan is abiding by international norms. This matters because with its abundant natural gas reserves, Turkmenistan is eager to diversify its export routes.
 
Bloated with Gas
 
For Turkmenistan, which is estimated by BP to hold the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas and the South Yolotan natural gas field (the world’s second largest, with an estimated 21.2 trillion cubic meters of gas reserves) no issue is more sensitive—or more important—than energy export, the primary driver behind the country’s foreign policy. Turkmenistan’s vast natural gas reserves place the country squarely in the sights of China, Russia, Iran and the West in an ever-tightening race for energy security. 
 
Russia has done its best to dominate Turkmen gas exports, but Berdymukhammedov seems to have broken Gazprom’s near-monopoly. China began importing gas from Turkmenistan through the Central Asia-China pipeline in 2009, and a second gas pipeline to Iran was opened in 2010. Although Russia and China are the biggest buyers, the European Union is also seeking a share. The EU has been exploring its options and has offered to finance construction of a gas export pipeline from Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea in exchange for access to South Yolotan. However, the EU has thus far refused to offer Turkmenistan an official partnership and cooperation agreement due to the abysmal human rights situation. "The European Union in particular continues to press forward with a Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (PCA) with Turkmenistan, frozen since 1998 over human rights concerns, without requiring any human rights reforms in exchange," said Human Rights Watch in its World Report 2012. Nevertheless, the EU’s intentions are clear: it wants Turkmen gas. This is largely because Turkmen gas is crucial for the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline project that would deliver gas to Europe, while circumventing Russia. 
 
Turkmenistan is proving to be a real regional lynchpin for the energy infrastructure in Eurasia. Dubai-based Dragon Oil, Malaysian state oil major Petronas and other foreign oil firms have reportedly invested roughly $3 billion in off-shore production sharing agreements (PSAs) since 2010 as a result of Turkmenistan’s relative openness in inviting foreign oil companies to invest in the exploration or production of its off-shore reserves. Moreover, Turkmenistan has been advancing other projects (albeit to varying degrees of success), including the Trans-Caspian (Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Europe), Trans-Afghan (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India, or TAPI) and Caspian (Turkmenistan-Russia, via Kazakhstan) pipelines. Energy aside, Turkmenistan has also been building key ties with its neighbors on other issues. It has bolstered mutual economic and trade cooperation with Iran and has begun multilateral talks with neighboring Kazakhstan and Iran to build a north-south railway, essentially linking Russia to the Persian Gulf. 
 
Far from just being an eccentric, zany cult of personality state, Turkmenistan is a key player in Eurasia with economic and political ties to regional heavyweights from Russia and China to Iran and Afghanistan. Berdymukhammedov holds some extremely valuable cards in his hands, and sees very little reason to bend to Western demands to clean up its human rights act in exchange for improved relations (or for Nabucco). Consequently, while the Arkadag might be ushering in the “era of happiness” in Turkmenistan, it seems strikingly similar to the “golden age” of Turkmenbashi. 
 

* Turkmenistan has declared that it has entered a new "era of supreme happiness of the stable state" in the wake of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's landslide reelection victory. His first term was dubbed the “great era of rebirth”.

 

Sung In Marshall is a research intern at the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS.