Turkmenistan after Niyazov
Asia Briefing N°60
12 Feb 2007
The death of President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan from heart failure was announced on 21 December 2006. His two decades in power bequeathed ruined education and public health sectors, a record of human rights abuses, thousands of political prisoners and an economy under strain despite rich energy exports. While official results are not expected to be announced for several days, there is little doubt they will show that his interim successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, easily won the carefully choreographed presidential election on 11 February from which genuine regime opponents were excluded. The strategically important country is quiet for now, and Berdimuhammedov – partnered by the security strong man, Akmurat Rejepov – has promised limited reforms. It is unclear, however, whether the new team genuinely intends meaningful changes. The international community should avoid temptations to give them the benefit of the doubt but instead make it clear that serious trade and aid relationships and an end to Turkmenistan’s isolation require its new leaders to take the first steps to reverse Niyazov’s most egregious socio-economic policies and improve human rights.
International commentary often ridiculed the Niyazov personality cult but behind the gold and marble monuments was a grim reality. Niyazov’s Turkmenistan was one of the world’s most repressive and isolationist regimes. No opposition was tolerated, and the president’s word was law. Regular purges of all levels of government kept potential challengers off balance.
Niyazov left a country on the verge of a grave humanitarian and socio-economic crisis. Funding for educational and medical institutions has been drastically cut. Foreign degrees have been declared invalid, and the study programs in schools and universities shortened, with ideology an ever-growing part of the curriculum. Access to health care has been increasingly limited. With most money from hydrocarbon exports disappearing into off-budget and offshore accounts controlled by Niyazov – the current status of which are unknown – the economy had come under increasing strain. Agriculture has been left in disarray. Little or no regard was ever given to the environmental sustainability of Niyazov’s schemes. Citizens’ rights were routinely violated. In a particularly egregious case in 2006, a 58-year-old journalist and human rights activist, Ogulsapar Muradova, was arrested, along with two colleagues, and apparently tortured to death. Street crime and drug abuse are increasingly obvious, especially outside the capital, Ashgabat.
After Niyazov’s death, a group centring on Berdimuhammedov, the deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, and Rejepov, chief of the Presidential Guard, took what appears to be an uncontested hold on power. Niyazov’s son and daughter have been sidelined, the military is underfunded and poorly equipped in comparison to the security services, and the political opposition is mostly in exile. Challenges from local elites or radical Islamist groups are unlikely at present.
While five tame candidates were allowed to stand against Berdimuhammedov in the presidential election, his victory was always certain. No opposition candidates were permitted, and all official structures worked to ensure the outcome. During the campaign, Berdimuhammedov promised improved education, higher pensions and salaries, greater attention to agriculture and free internet access. There have been hints that other changes might be in the works, though there have also been reports of continuing human rights abuses, including a reported massacre of inmates at the Owadandepe political prison.
It is uncertain whether the promised reforms are more than election demagoguery. Nothing concrete has yet been done. It does seem, however, that Berdimuhammedov and his allies realise that Niyazov’s course cannot be maintained. The international community should welcome and encourage the promises of reform and be ready to assist, provided the new government truly acts. In the meantime, it should:
express concern over the undemocratic nature of Berdimuhammedov’s assumption of power and condition improved relations and new assistance upon the implementation of such reforms;
urge the new government to consider an amnesty for the political prisoners of the Niyazov era;
track down and freeze Niyazov’s overseas assets, releasing them only on the strict proviso that they be used to implement reforms; and
maintain and where possible expand existing aid programs intended to improve educational opportunities for Turkmen citizens, as well as other measures aimed at improving their lives.
The new government of Turkmenistan will need to carry out numerous and extensive reforms, many of them radical and requiring considerable time, if it means to repair the damage the dead president did to his country. There are a number of immediate initiatives, however, which it could easily take without threatening its position and which would demonstrate its serious intent and show goodwill, to its own people and to the wider world from which Niyazov so isolated them. In particular, it should rapidly:
abrogate the 2003 decree invalidating academic degrees earned abroad;
give the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to places of detention in accordance with its mandate;
review the convictions of Niyazov-era political detainees and allow them access to relatives and international observers and the right to appeal their convictions and sentences;
end restrictions on travel abroad; and
facilitate a full, independent and public accounting of the death in custody of Ogulsapar Muradova and the current whereabouts and condition of her colleagues, Annakurban Amankylychev and Sapardurdy Hajiyev, and of the reported massacre at Owadandepe.
Bishkek/Brussels, 12 February 2007