On February 12, Turkmenistan will hold its second presidential election since independence in 1991. With tight restrictions on democratic competition and the media, only one recognized political party, and most opposition figures either living abroad or afraid to speak openly, the outcome is easy to predict. The incumbent, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, looks set to win a landslide on par with the 89 percent he won in 2007.
While it is almost certain that President Berdimuhammedov will be re-elected, Turkmenistan’s future is less predictable. Turkmenistan is sitting on the world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas and substantial oil resources. It is situated in a geo-strategically significant location between Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea. Because it is reclusive and neutral—Turkmenistan is not much of a player on the global scene—it could be vulnerable to changes in the region. Furthermore, as Turkmenistan seeks to diversify its export markets for natural gas, it will, on the one hand, be in a strong position to court its suitors, yet on the other hand, it may be forced, to open itself up in order to attract them. This will enable the regime to continue to hand out goodies to its people, but it may also let in a whiff of freedom that could be intoxicating.
After 69 years as part of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan declared independence on October 27, 1991. The leader of the former Soviet Republic Saparmurat Niyazov remained in power and increased his influence to the point of becoming “president for life” in 1999. During his rule, Niyazov developed a peculiar personality cult and became famous for his autocratic rule. As Türkmenbaşy, the leader of the Turkmen people, he promoted a traditional Turkmen culture (praising himself along with the country’s beautiful horses and carpets), and isolated his country from the outside world.
After Niyazov’s sudden (and some say suspicious) death in December 2006, Mr. Berdimuhammedov was elected as the new president in February 2007. Since then, he has made some steps towards opening up the country and has rolled back some of his predecessor’s harshest policies. Nevertheless, the modest reforms have not led to a liberalization of the country, and power remains concentrated in the president’s hands.
In addition to being president, Mr. Berdimuhammedov also leads the only political party in the country, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. All other parties are banned, and Berdimuhammedov did not fulfill his pledge to ensure the adoption of a new law on political parties. Most of the active opposition figures are living and acting outside the country because they distrust Berdimuhammedov’s promises of safety.
The 1992 constitution was amended in 2008 by the Peoples’ Council, which is the highest representative body in the government; they chose to abolish the Council itself and pave the way for a multi-party system. In 2010, President Berdimuhammedov spoke in favor of these amendments and the possibility of registering new parties in a televised speech. He then approved the registration of the Farmers’ Party, though to date the Democratic Party remains the only officially registered one.
A new presidential election law was adopted in 2011, bringing certain elements of the legislation closer to international standards. However, crucial aspects are still not regulated, according to the OSCE ODIHR’s Needs Assessment Report, including undue restrictions on the right to be a candidate; defamation provisions limiting freedom of expression; and a lack of process guarantees on complaints and appeals. Not seeing any added value, the ODIHR refrained from deploying an election observation mission for February 12.
There is almost no freedom of the press. Print and electronic media are state-controlled, and internet access remains limited and also controlled by the state. A recent law aims to ban all satellite dishes for “aesthetic reasons;” however, it is said that the administration wants to promote cable television, which is subject to greater state control. In 2010, Turkmenistan’s Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs presented the inaugural issue of Rysgal, the first privately-owned newspaper in the country. However, the first issue of the paper featured on its front page an article written by the president “congratulating Turkmen businessmen for publishing their own newspaper and promising his full support to private entrepreneurs.” The level of independent news coverage from this newspaper remains to be seen.
Despite reforms in the legal and constitutional framework concerning election law and party registration, President Berdimuhammedov’s authoritarian rule remains, for the moment, entrenched. Due to the absence of a fair political competition, he is likely to stay in power.
Gas: Blessing and Vulnerability
However, the president’s survival in office will depend on his success in rewarding officials and balancing competing interests within the country. Restrictions on freedom are counter-balanced by generous state subsidies for gas, water, electricity and rents. Such subsidies are possible thanks to major exports of natural gas, which account for most of the state’s budget.
But this resource also makes Turkmenistan vulnerable. In 2009, gas exports to Russia were halted in a disagreement about pricing. This hit Turkmenistan hard. Since then, the government has sought to diversify its exports and seeks greater foreign direct investment to create the necessary infrastructure. China began importing gas from Turkmenistan through the new Central Asia-China pipeline in 2009, and a second gas pipeline to Iran was opened in 2010. The European Union is also exploring its options, although it has so far refused to offer Turkmenistan an official partnership and cooperation agreement due to the poor human rights situation.
Turkmenistan’s location is also a blessing and a curse. It is strategically situated along key licit and illicit trading routes (for example, neighboring Iran and Afghanistan). It has wisely chosen to pursue a policy of “permanent neutrality,” recognized by the UN-GA in December 1995; it has even kept its distance from regional initiatives, and downgraded its participation in the Commonwealth of Independent States from member in 1991 to “associate member” in August 2005. But it will have difficulties keeping itself immune from instability in Afghanistan, Iran, or any of its Central Asian neighbors.
David Muckenhuber is a consultant at the International Peace Institute in Vienna
Above photo: President Gurbanguly Berdimuahmmedov