Turkmenistan at TwentyFive: The High Price of Authoritarianism
Turkmenistan’s political model appears far more fragile than the record after twentyfive years of independence might lead one to believe.
Twentyfive years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan holds the title of the most authoritarian of all former Soviet states. Saparmurat Niyazov, the country’s last Soviet and first postSoviet leader, created a political system based on repression and hydrocarbon wealth. He used the proceeds from Turkmenistan’s vast natural gas reserves to finance an internal security apparatus, an omnipresent propaganda machine, and a measure of material wellbeing for the population through deep subsidies for the basic necessities of life.
His successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, has followed in Niyazov’s footsteps faithfully, perpetuating the system he inherited and making it more oppressive and closed wherever possible. Freedom of speech, the press, association, and religion remain curtailed in Turkmenistan to such an extent that Freedom House puts the country in the same category of dictatorships as North Korea, Sudan, and Syria, at the very bottom of its 2016 Freedom in the World index. The ability of Turkmen to travel overseas is restricted, and the country remains largely closed off to most foreigners, making it the most isolated of all former Soviet states.
But the hermit kingdom financed by gas revenues is facing big challenges as the security environment deteriorates and the country’s financial resources dwindle. There has recently been instability along the AfghanTurkmen frontier, and Turkmen security forces have reportedly had difficulty pushing back militant incursions across the border. Meanwhile, low commodity prices have taken their toll on all of Eurasia’s hydrocarbon exporters, but Turkmenistan’s political isolation and reputation as one of the most oppressive regimes compound the country’s problems.
Over the past decade, Ashgabat has grown increasingly dependent on Beijing—now the only real export market for Turkmen gas. China is also the country’s main source of foreign loans. Both provide China with enormous leverage over Turkmenistan. The prospect of a prolonged environment of low hydrocarbon prices, the country’s outstanding debt to China, and competition from other global gas producers make Turkmenistan’s economy increasingly troubled.
Due to fractious relations with Moscow and the desire of the Turkmen government to keep its citizens isolated from the outside world, migrant labor opportunities in Russia have been closed off. That has denied struggling Turkmen the escape valve other Central Asians have relied on to feed their families and remain above the poverty line. Turkmenistan has already experienced reduced revenues from gas sales, a steep devaluation of its currency, high inflation, and shortages of basic goods, raising concerns about food security. There have been isolated instances of socioeconomic protest in recent years, which is unusual for a population living under such repression and in an information vacuum. The Turkmen model appears far more fragile than the record of the first twentyfive years of independence might lead one to believe.
The Turkmen Political Model
Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s first president, found himself running an independent country by chance, not design. Trained as an engineer in St. Petersburg, then Leningrad, he came to power in 1985 when then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev installed him as first secretary of the Communist Party of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic with a mandate to curb corruption there.
Niyazov, however, was a conservative Soviet official, and Turkmenistan in the late 1980s was a conservative place. Like most of Central Asia, the republic produced no largescale popular independence movement during Gorbachev’s perestroika years. The population was not eager to break away from Moscow. Turkmen voted overwhelmingly in a March 1991 Soviet Union–wide referendum to preserve the union. In keeping with that conservativism, Niyazov remained silent throughout the August 1991 coup when hardliners attempted to overthrow Gorbachev and save the Soviet Union.
Turkmenistan therefore did not experience the political liberalization that swept across most of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. In 1990, Niyazov banned the nationalist Unity movement, which urged a revival of Turkmen culture at a time when civil society and other national revival movements were not only tolerated but blossoming in other parts of the Soviet Union. Because the people of Turkmenistan had never experienced either political or cultural liberalization, when the Soviet Union finally broke up, Niyazov had little difficulty transforming Turkmenistan from oneparty Communist rule to oneparty rule of the newly renamed Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the successor to the Communists. This enabled Turkmen elites to preserve the power and institutional capacity of the Communist Party. They merely changed the ideological cover from socialism to a newly discovered reverence for Turkmen nationalism, with Niyazov as its chief proponent. That nationalism eventually led to the glorification of Niyazov as Turkmenbashi, the leader of all Turkmen.
Turkmenistan has never had an election that offered its citizens any semblance of choice. Niyazov ran for president unopposed in 1992, winning an implausible 99.5 percent of the vote. In 1994, he became the first leader of a former Soviet state to extend his term in office by holding a referendum to prolong his rule until 2002 —setting a precedent that Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan would all follow. Niyazov was then proclaimed president for life in 1999, doing away with presidential elections until his sudden death in 2006.
During Niyazov’s time in office, all dissent was brutally suppressed and pushed underground. The media remained under tight state control, freedom of movement restricted, and access to the outside world highly constrained. In an effort to promote Turkmen nationalism and reduce Russian influence in the country, Niyazov discouraged the use of Russian, closed Russianlanguage schools, reduced Russianlanguage instruction to one hour a week, and blocked Russianlanguage media. He later curtailed access to Russianlanguage material in the national library. These moves effectively cut the country off from outside information and reduced Moscow’s ability to influence Turkmen culture and information space.
Secondary education under Niyazov was reduced by one year—a move that caused longterm damage to the quality of education in the country, weakened the qualifications of Turkmen secondary school graduates, and cut off opportunities for Turkmen to study in Russia or elsewhere overseas. Ethnic Russians were dismissed from workplaces, while those holding dual RussianTurkmen citizenship were given three months to renounce their Russian citizenship in 2003 or face the confiscation of their property and forced departure from the country. Foreigneducated Turkmen citizens—including those with Sovietera degrees from institutions elsewhere in the Soviet Union—were dismissed from their jobs in 2004.
In the same year, the government fired 15,000 healthcare professionals, replacing them with military conscripts with little medical training. In 2005, Niyazov ordered the closure of all regional hospitals. These moves further weakened the education and healthcare systems in Turkmenistan, undermined the effectiveness of the country’s institutions, and led to a massive brain drain of ethnic Russians, some Russianspeaking Turkmen elites, and minority groups. That caused friction with Moscow and further tarnished Turkmenistan’s image abroad.
With the population isolated from the outside world, the regime tried to transform a clan and tribebased society into a nation centered on a single political leader through the creation of Niyazov’s personality cult. The regime’s propaganda arm instructed the population to revere the leader, his family background, and his alleged achievements. The capital of Ashgabat, like many other towns, was redeveloped and decorated with gold images of the leader, expensive imported marble, and elaborate fountains—a wasteful misuse of water in a desert country that has too little of it. When the names of the months were changed in honor of Niyazov’s family members, the cult went from lavish to outright bizarre. Library collections were purged and most libraries were eventually closed, limiting public access to books and information from the Soviet era. Instead, schoolchildren were required to read the Rukhnama, Niyazov’s collected thoughts on culture, history, and morality.
While the state propaganda machine built up an image of Niyazov as a godlike figure leading a revitalized Turkmen nation, the population received social benefits: free water, gas, and electricity as well as subsidized bread, gasoline, and public transportation. In case the propaganda and subsidies failed, the personality cult was accompanied by the buildup of a powerful domestic security apparatus. Turkmenistan in effect became a police state more reminiscent of the Stalin era than anything seen in the later Soviet period.
Turkmenistan’s adoption of permanent neutrality—confirmed by the United Nations in 1995—helped reorient the security services and military focus away from the danger of external aggression toward internal threats to the regime. An intense focus on preserving the regime and protecting it from internal threats has likely degraded the Turkmen military’s ability to identify external threats and protect the country from them. That is now a problem, given rising instability in northern Afghanistan near the Turkmen border, fears of the presence of the selfproclaimed Islamic State, and Russia’s propensity of late to use its military power in Eurasia and the Middle East.
Niyazov appeared wary of any potential challenger from within the political elite—a fear that led to frequent purges of government officials to prevent any one person or faction from gaining too much political or economic power. Due to these purges, it was common for former senior government officials to find themselves out of favor, ultimately either in jail or in exile. The end result was that even a notional opposition could exist only outside the country.
An alleged assassination and coup attempt against Niyazov in November 2002 led to a purge of the political elite and security services and reinforced the regime’s penchant for isolation from the outside world. While the details of the plot remain murky, the regime implausibly accused Azerbaijan, Russia, the United States, and Uzbekistan of complicity. The minister of defense, former minister of foreign affairs, head of the security services, and head of the presidential administration, among others, were all put through show trials and sentenced to long jail terms. Dispatched to prison camps, many of them have not surfaced since. They are the highestprofile victims of Turkmen totalitarianism, but many others have also disappeared into the country’s prison and labor camps.
Few Changes Under the Second President
Niyazov died of a heart attack in December 2006. Despite expectations that his demise would unleash political instability, the transition to his successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, was remarkably smooth—but nontransparent. A minister of health and a deputy prime minister, he was not in the formal line of succession and came to power through behindthescenes maneuvering within the elite. Officially, the parliamentary speaker was supposed to become acting president, but he was arrested and imprisoned shortly after Niyazov’s death. A quickly amended constitution enabled Berdimuhamedov to become acting head of state. He was confirmed as president in a highly flawed February 2007 election, and returned to power in 2012 with an unrealistic 97 percent of the vote.
In 2016, Berdimuhamedov pushed through constitutional amendments extending the presidential term to seven years and removing a mandatory retirement age of seventy for the president, essentially setting himself up to serve as head of state indefinitely. The next presidential election will be held in February 2017, with the current president certain to win once again, despite the fact that two new political parties are also fielding candidates. Berdimuhamedov replaced Niyazov’s cult with his own, based on the same blueprint. Portraits of the second president are now ubiquitous throughout the country on billboards and in offices. Berdimuhamedov enjoys his own honorific title of “arkadaq” or protector. He has become a frequent author; one of his books recently became mandatory reading in the country’s schools, while his predecessor’s Rukhnama has been dropped from the curriculum.
A gold statue of the second president was erected in Ashgabat, purportedly following the will of the Turkmen people. The reconstruction of the capital continues unabated with little regard to property rights or the environment. Much of the construction consists of prestige projects, such as the new USD 2.3 billion Ashgabat airport—a costly and wasteful building for a country that restricts the movement of its citizens and has virtually no foreign tourism and few foreign investors. Despite the high price tag, the airport is marred by shoddy construction. Opened only in September 2016, the building already has sagging foundations and failing communication cables.
This troubled airport will welcome athletes for the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat—an international sports event of which most of the world is unaware. Held only once before in South Korea, the games in Turkmenistan will cost an estimated USD 5 billion—another questionable prestige project. The government is also building a lavish tourist zone on the Caspian Sea, even though it is very hard for foreign tourists to gain visas to the country.
Freedom of movement is tightly controlled. Although Berdimuhamedov took away exit visa requirements for citizens to travel abroad, he allegedly replaced them with a secret blacklist of those—most likely regime critics— who are banned from traveling abroad, even to Russia. Furthermore, most ordinary Turkmen cannot afford the costs of regional, let alone international, travel.
Turkmen civil society remains repressed, as does independent journalism. The media space is fully controlled by the government, which also banned satellite dishes in 2015 in an attempt to impede foreign media broadcasts into Turkmenistan. The few independent journalists who continue to work in the country are harassed, attacked, and arrested, including local Turkmen employees of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other international news outlets.
Internet penetration is estimated at 14.9 percent of the population—a figure that places Turkmenistan far below the average for former Soviet states and even 5 percentage points behind Laos, Myanmar, and Nepal. Opposition websites and socialmedia platforms based outside the country are blocked, although Internetsavvy Turkmen can access them through proxy servers. To prevent the flow of unsanctioned information, the state at times also causes Internet and cellular service outages. The high costs of accessing the Internet and careful monitoring of Internet use in cafes and homes further limits its availability. Given these preclusions, Freedom House does not even provide a rating for Turkmenistan in its Freedom of the Net index.
Corruption remains widespread, encompassing all levels of government and the elite around the president. Foreign investors often have to pay to play, ensnaring several European companies in international corruption probes. Turkmenistan ranks 154 out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption and poor adherence to the rule of law damage the country’s investor climate, as does the government’s refusal to allow foreign ownership of equity stakes in upstream oil and gas fields.
Furthermore, Turkmenistan’s economy remains centrally planned and tightly controlled by the state. The country is ranked 174 out of 178 countries in the Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom. Only Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe have lower rankings.
A Gas Powerhouse Feels the Pinch
The Turkmen economy’s key sector is energy, mainly gas and oil, which reportedly account for 31 percent of GDP. A decline in hydrocarbon revenues has forced the government to cut back on subsidies, social spending, and public infrastructure. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has noted a steep slowdown in Turkmenistan’s GDP growth, which dropped from 14.7 percent in 2011 to 10.3 percent in 2014, and again to 6.5 percent in 2015, although the country’s penchant for secrecy calls into question these and all economic figures. The ADB’s growth forecast for 2016 and 2017 is 5.5 percent.
Turkmenistan has the world’s fourthlargest natural gas reserves, but its geographic and political isolation limit its ability to export this resource, except to a handful of markets. Its neighbors—Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan—all have ample supplies of gas of their own and compete with Ashgabat for access to gas markets, as does Russia. These countries generally have more favorable geographic locations for exporting hydrocarbons than Turkmenistan and are concentrating on building their own pipeline infrastructures to export their gas rather than work out gas transit arrangements with Ashgabat for the transshipment of Turkmen gas to the same markets.
As a result, Turkmenistan has become fully dependent on China for its gas sales, a dependence that has grown from zero in 2007, when the China National Petroleum Company first received a license to explore and extract onshore gas in Turkmenistan. It remains the only foreign company ever to acquire such rights. Ashgabat’s reliance on Beijing is based not on gas sales alone but also on Chinese financing for the energy infrastructure that extracts and exports gas via pipeline from Turkmenistan to China. Ashgabat reportedly took out USD 8 billion in loans in 2011 and another undisclosed sum in 2013, making Beijing its largest lender.
Chinese companies profit handsomely from these deals. They are actively involved in constructing pipeline and extraction infrastructure, often employing Chinese workers, who have clashed with locals who resent being relegated to secondary positions. In 2009, the China National Petroleum Company dismissed Turkmen workers who protested against wage arrears. Such Chinese practices limit the benefits of gasindustry development for most Turkmen workers.
China’s economic influence in Turkmenistan far exceeds that of all other countries. Turkmen exports to China totaled USD 8.65 billion in 2014, while exports to Turkey—the country’s second most important market—amounted to a mere USD 567 million. Ashgabat is paying off its large debt to China by providing Beijing with gas at severely depressed prices. This is clearly seen when one compares the prices of China’s two leading providers of gas: Turkmenistan is China’s top supplier, reportedly selling Beijing gas at USD 185 per 1,000 cubic meters. By contrast, Australia—Beijing’s secondlargest supplier—sells natural gas in its liquefied form (LNG) to China at USD 220 per 1,000 cubic meters.
Beijing clearly enjoys enormous negotiating leverage over Ashgabat. But with Turkmenistan’s economy in sharp decline, China has to exercise caution in how it uses that leverage. Reduced inflows into the Turkmen state budget have resulted in a devalued currency, wage arrears, food shortages and rationing, and the cutting of subsidies. The government imposed currency controls as an anticrisis measure, but the move led to inflation and huge blackmarket trade in dollars.
Unemployment is soaring. Officially, the unemployment rate is 10.5 percent, although unofficial estimates put the real figure at around 50 percent. Underemployment is a vexing problem, particularly in rural areas where many Turkmen are engaged in subsistence farming.
The economic downturn in Turkmenistan has led to growing popular dissatisfaction and occasional outbursts of socioeconomic protest and dissent—rarities considering the oppressive nature of the government. Given its economic equities in Turkmenistan, China should weigh the risks of receiving cheap gas and recouping its loans, on the one hand, versus the potential for social and political instability in the country, on the other.
(To be continued)
About the author: Paul Stronski is a senior associate in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, where his research focuses on the relationship between Russia and neighboring countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus.