Turkmenistan: tyranny mutates into dynasty
Through a clearly fraudulent election held on 12 March, Turkmenistan’s authoritarian president enthroned his son as his successor. This dynastic succession took place in a gas-rich country with a state-controlled economy that channels resources towards a corrupt elite, while the majority lives in poverty. It seems unlikely that the political succession will bring any positive change in a context where freedoms are systematically repressed. Ultimately, political change may end up coming from desperate people mobilising simply to try to survive in the context of a protracted economic crisis that the government is unable or unwilling to tackle.
If anyone thought the three-day delay in announcing the results of Turkmenistan’s 12 March presidential election meant that votes were actually being counted or the result was in the balance, they couldn’t have been more wrong. The reasons behind the unusual wait will likely never be disclosed – as is the rule for all political decisions in one of the most secretive and tightly controlled countries in the world.
But there was never any chance this election would bring political change. The president’s party, the ironically named ‘Democratic Party of Turkmenistan’, enjoys uncontested power; alternative parties exist merely to provide the appearance of multi-party competition.
For what it’s worth, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, son and heir of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, was declared the winner with an implausible 72.97 per cent of the vote. His nearest rival, Khyrdyr Nunnayev, obtained a meagre 11 per cent.
Turkmenistan has now had six presidential elections since it split from the dissolving Soviet Union in 1991. Not a single one has had the slightest patina of democratic legitimacy. The first post-independence president, Saparmurat Niyazov, first extended his term by referendum before appointing himself ‘President for Life’. When he died in 2006, Berdimuhamedov senior was picked to succeed him – with 98 per cent of votes cast. This was no surprise. He had been Niyazov’s vice-president since 2001, and when he became acting president following Niyazov’s death, he was in the perfect position to hand himself a handsome result.
Once in power, he changed all the rules – on term limits, presidential terms, age limits – to make sure he could stay for as long as he wanted. When he was re-elected in 2017, he scored more than 97 per cent of the vote: to acknowledge a figure lower than his early days, when he was not yet crowned as the nation’s ‘Father Protector’, would have felt tantamount to defeat.
An engineered succession
Barely a month ago, President Berdimuhamedov made a shock announcement: he said the country should be run by younger people, implying it was time to step aside. The timing was no accident – it came just in time for the president’s son to take his place, as he had recently reached 40, the minimum age required.
President Berdimuhamedov had been grooming his son for dynastic succession for years. Berdimuhamedov junior had risen through a series of increasingly prominent government positions to become deputy prime minister, directly reporting to his father.
But it is unclear why Berdimuhamedov senior decided to push his son forward so soon. He is only 64 years old, young by the standards of long-running dictators. Given the opaqueness of his regime, there is only room for speculation. According to observers, his reasons might include health issues as well as recent large-scale protests in neighbouring Kazakhstan, which may presage unrest in Turkmenistan, given the severe economic crisis that has been hitting people hard for years.
On 12 February, the Assembly, the lower legislative house, passed a resolution scheduling an early election for 12 March. Berdimuhamedov senior prepared for the handover by accumulating other positions; he said he would stay on as speaker of the Senate and chair of the Security Council, giving a clear indication of his intent not to let go of power fully.
Voices from the frontline
Farid Tukhbatullin is the founder and director of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), a civil society organisation based in Austria; no independent civil society groups are allowed to exist in Turkmenistan. TIHR collects information from sources inside Turkmenistan to report internationally on human rights and civic space violations and advocate for democratic change. Farid spoke to CIVICUS just ahead of the 12 March election.
There is no reason to believe this election will trigger real political change in Turkmenistan. No one doubts that on 12 March the younger Berdimuhamedov will become the country’s next president. But his father is not going to give up the reins. In violation of the constitution, he is now both president and leader of the People’s Council. After the election, he will retain his second position. Moreover, it has already been announced that changes will be made to the constitution. We have no details yet, but changes will surely create further opportunities for father and son to lead the country in tandem.
Turkmenistan not only lacks anything resembling real civil society – it also does not meet the minimal preconditions for its emergence.
There are no independent media outlets in Turkmenistan. Not surprisingly, in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, the country constantly ranks second-to-last or last, next to North Korea. People who dare express opinions critical of the government publicly, through YouTube or on social media, end up in prison. Special services also harass relatives of activists who are working or studying abroad and run opposition blogs from outside the country. They try to silence them by threatening their families back home.
This is an edited extract of our interview with Farid Tukhbatullin. Read the full interview here.
As Turkmenistan went through the motions of its election, analysis by Chronicles of Turkmenistan, TIHR’s online media arm, exposed the implausibility of official voting figures. According to official sources, turnout exceeded 97 per cent, with 3,362,052 registered voters allegedly casting their ballots at 2,577 polling stations. However, for these figures to add up, an average of 1,304 people would have to vote at each polling station, including rural ones, during the 12 hours they were open – which translates to 108 voters per hour, or about two per minute, all day long. On the ground, however, turnout was visibly low; voting stations were mostly deserted.
If there was any need to further confirm the sham status of the election, the congratulatory messages the new president received soon provided it. The first to call was Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, no stranger to fake elections, who first congratulated the outgoing president and then spoke to his son to extoll his ‘convincing victory’. The sycophant choir was quickly joined by the leaders of China and Turkey, plus those of the neighbouring authoritarian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
As closed as they get
Turkmenistan offers no space whatsoever for political opposition or civil society: its civic space is consistently closed. All national media are controlled by the state and there is a single internet provider; access to the web is slow, expensive and heavily censored, with many news and social media sites arbitrarily blocked. Criticising the government and its leader is a criminal offence.
It’s no wonder that Turkmenistan always places at the bottom of international assessments of the freedom of expression. In the latest edition of Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, only North Korea and Eritrea score worse. Turkmenistan is similarly placed in Article 19’s Global Expression Report, with a score of one out of a hundred, ahead only of North Korea. Needless to say, corruption soars in the dark, and in Transparency International’s latest edition of its Corruption Perception Index Turkmenistan is ranked 169 out of 180 countries.
In these conditions journalism requires a lot of courage, and the few reporters who continue to work clandestinely for foreign-based media outlets are systematically harassed. In recent years, several have been arrested, tortured, physically attacked or otherwise forced to stop working. As a result, foreign-based media reporting on Turkmenistan increasingly rely on citizen journalists, who have therefore increasingly become the targets of repression.
While there has never been an environment conducive to the exercise of civic freedoms in Turkmenistan, recent developments point to a scaling up of repression, in what appears to be a response to a surge in criticism of the government on social media and the emergence of a protest movement in exile.
Turkmenistan not only lacks anything resembling real civil society – it also does not meet the minimal preconditions for its emergence.
In August 2021, the long arm of state repression reached exiles protesting outside their country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Turkmenistani diplomats found a willing partner in the Turkish police, who dispersed protesters, falsely claiming they did not have the required permit to assemble. Ten were detained and held in a deportation centre for several days. Protesters were also exposed to a violent counterprotest orchestrated by Turkmenistani authorities, and at least one exile needed medical help after being beaten.
Another way in which exiled activists are increasingly being targeted is through the harassment of relatives who remain in the country. A case in point was that of Turkey-based blogger Farhad Durdyev, who was approached by two men on his way to the Istanbul consulate. He was offered a ride to the protest site but was instead forcefully taken into the consulate and handed over to staff who held him for several hours. He was pressured to apologise to the president for posting videos critical of the regime and beaten until losing consciousness. Durdyev was also intimidated through the publication of a video of his mother tearfully begging him not to engage in ‘destructive’ activities.
Exiled organisations have come under renewed pressure, including through cyberattacks and a state-led campaign against virtual private networks (VPNs), which people inside Turkmenistan use to access independent sites, social media platforms and blocked online resources. As part of this campaign, citizens were reportedly forced to swear on the Qur’an that they would not use VPNs when applying for internet connections.
The authorities also recruit informants to report on people who have recently returned from abroad and seek to make an example out of people who cooperate with exile-based media or civil society by prosecuting them on trumped-up criminal charges.
Mocking the tyrants
Political humour is as old as politics itself. It is a classic form of social and popular commentary that attacks the powerful, subverts official narratives and symbolically destroys authority. As George Orwell put it, jokes are ‘tiny revolutions’ that turn the established order upside down. Under totalitarian regimes, they function not only as escape valves but also as tools of subversion.
The largest collection of political jokes currently available was bequeathed by Soviet regimes. Starting with Stalin and well into the Gorbachev era, it was forbidden to tell jokes in the USSR. It was against the criminal code and anyone who told jokes was accused of promoting anti-Soviet activities. A person could end up in jail for telling jokes or not denouncing those who told them.
It is not clear the role humour is playing in such a personalised one-party regime as Turkmenistan. The nature of the regime makes it difficult to judge the state of public opinion and popular reactions to a cult of personality that day after day pushes the limits of ridicule. People in Turkmenistan have been fed a daily dose of evidently fake shows of physical, intellectual and artistic prowess by the outgoing president, always surrounded by applauding cabinet members.
But exiled civil society has indeed exploited the absurdity at the heart of autocracy to use humour to their advantage, as interviewee Farid Tukhbatullin explains:
In 2007 we started making YouTube videos. This format has allowed us to use humour effectively as a political tool. For instance, in August 2017 we published one of our many satirical videos about President Berdimuhamedov, based on official state TV footage of his meetings with military personnel Rambo-style. The video instantly became a meme on social media and was republished by leading global media outlets. The president with the ‘hard-to-pronounce last name’ became a YouTube star and we gained millions of viewers.
The popularity snowball effect reached the USA with Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show, which in February 2018 awarded President Berdimuhamedov the prize for ‘best performance by a dictator in a propaganda video’. And in August 2019, it further snowballed when John Oliver reused our content in a Last Week Tonight episode about the Turkmen president, amassing 10 million clicks. Finally, in December 2019 Netflix released the action movie ‘6 Underground’, about the overthrow of the dictator of the fictional state of Turgistan, which very much resembled Turkmenistan.
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov | Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Turkmenistan’s leader wants everyone to know he’s alive | The Daily Show
Any chance of change?
The question now is whether dynastic succession will make any difference. Will the son allow any easing of total control, opening up space for democratic dissent and mobilisation?
Serdar Berdimuhamedov is inheriting an all-powerful political position, and throughout his political career has shown no sign of being any less authoritarian than his father. It might be hoped that, having spent time abroad, he might have less of an isolationist mentality – but much of that time was spent in Russia, which might only reinforce his alignment with Putin’s authoritarianism.
Being younger, perhaps he might be more open to the possibilities of new technologies. But any hope that he could be more amenable to change comes up against the reality that his father retains a major degree of control as the power behind the throne.
In the end, change isn’t going to come from the top. It may not come either from the small band of committed democracy activists – but rather from desperate people mobilising simply to try to survive.
The new president is powerful, but the economy he controls is in trouble. Turkmenistan is a gas-rich country with a state-controlled economy that channels resources to the elite, leaving everyone else living in poverty. The social and economic situation has long been dire and has only been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, which the government chose to deny: it has continually claimed it has no COVID-19 cases, even as people have been watching their loved ones die. Unemployment is estimated to be as high as 60 per cent, and alongside political exiles, millions have left the country to make a living: as many as 2.8 million have emigrated, out of a population that stood at six million.
The government has so far adopted the same cover-up approach to the economic crisis as the pandemic: as shortages translated into long queues outside state stores selling basic goods at subsidised prices, it sought to eliminate the queues rather than deal with the shortages. But at some point it will have to make a choice: to either distribute its gas wealth more fairly or face an explosion of popular anger.
Most of the country’s close international partners – notably China and Russia – have no interest in democracy or human rights, and the government isolates itself from more democratic partners. But democratic states must support exiles, call for economic change and greater openness, and hold the dynastic government to account, in the hope that one day Turkmenistanis will be able to exercise their fundamental rights.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The new president should prove his independence from his predecessor and demonstrate that he is more than just a new face. He must show that generational change means a new way of tackling persistently unresolved issues.
The international community should call out Turkmenistan’s persistent rights violations and amplify the demands of exiled civil society for political change.
Donors should support exiled civil society and ensure their protection from attacks.
Cover photo by Central Election Commission via Chronicles of Turkmenistan