Cracks in the Marble: Turkmenistan’s Failing Dictatorship
Cracks in the Marble: Turkmenistan’s Failing Dictatorship
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
What the EU Should Expect from Turkmenistan
What the EU Should Expect from Turkmenistan
Report 44 / Europe & Central Asia

Cracks in the Marble: Turkmenistan’s Failing Dictatorship

More than a decade after their independence, each of the Central Asian states is on its own particular path of political and economic development. While most have achieved at least partial integration within the international community, one stands out as an exception: the remote former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, on the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

More than a decade after their independence, each of the Central Asian states is on its own particular path of political and economic development. While most have achieved at least partial integration within the international community, one stands out as an exception: the remote former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, on the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea.

The isolation of Turkmenistan results from the increasingly authoritarian and idiosyncratic policies of President Saparmurat Niyazov, who has ruled since independence in 1991. Having declared himself Turkmenbashi (Head or Father of All Turkmens), he has taken sole personal control of political and economic resources, and built up a personality cult to match that of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. But he now faces growing internal and external opposition and the country an uncertain future.

Under Niyazov’s repressive rule, alternative political parties have been outlawed, there are no free media outlets, access to the Internet is severely restricted, and non-official religious groups are persecuted. Constant changes in personnel by a leader concerned about any opposition and his idiosyncratic management style have made state institutions increasingly dysfunctional. Private business and foreign investment have dwindled, unable to operate in an unpredictable and corrupt environment, and forced out of lucrative sectors by Niyazov-controlled companies. Grandiose marble buildings dominate the capital, Ashgabat, funded by the potentially lucrative oil and gas sector. But poverty and unemployment have reached mass levels.

Too often the international community has simply not taken Niyazov seriously, treating him as a rather bizarre eccentric, who creates revolving statues, or renames months after himself. The reality is much more sinister and dangerous. Turkmenbashi’s continued rule is not merely a somewhat comical despotism but a serious threat to stability in the whole region. The frequent assessment that the regime is unpleasant but fairly stable needs review. Internal and external opposition to Niyazov continues to grow. The prospects for a peaceful transition are very poor, and will only worsen.

There are five main sources of conflict that could, if not dealt with properly, accelerate Turkmenistan’s disintegration:

First, the underground political struggle within the country, which could lead to a change in regime and an unpredictable transition. There is a growing opposition in exile, albeit severely weakened by internal divisions and the arrest, inside Turkmenistan, of one of its leaders that followed an apparent attempt on President Niyazov’s life on 25 November 2002. But there are also forces within the country itself that could challenge Niyazov. This political struggle involves the Presidential Guard, which is closely associated with Niyazov; the intelligence service (the KNB), which was severely purged in 2002; army officers, who are increasingly disinclined to support the regime; and finally the people, who have begun to voice their opposition more publicly.

Secondly, serious economic problems. Turkmenistan holds some of the world’s largest reserves in oil and natural gas and has built its economy almost entirely on those two commodities. The revenue is directly under the control of the president, and little trickles down to the population, which increasingly lives in extreme poverty. Grandiose construction projects in Ashgabat give an impression of prosperity that does not reflect the deep poverty and economic despair of most of the population.

Thirdly, the increasing weakness of the state. Weak and dysfunctional states provide opportunities for widespread corruption, and allow criminal and terrorist groups to act with little hindrance. Turkmenistan has become a major drugs transit state, with the connivance of the authorities, including President Niyazov himself. The government’s close relations with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, combined with corruption in the security forces, has reportedly allowed Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters to escape from Afghanistan across the border. Further decline will merely increase the risk of Turkmenistan becoming a failed state that poses a serious threat to regional and international security.

Fourthly, the destruction of society. A decade of Niyazov’s dictatorial rule has left society with little hope. Poverty, unemployment, and collapse of the education and health systems have dramatically degraded living conditions, as reflected in reduced life expectancy and widespread prostitution and drug consumption. The cult of personality has largely replaced regular education, with schoolchildren brought up mainly on Niyazov’s own quasi-spiritual guide, the Ruhnama. A further decade of his rule will produce a dangerously isolated and uneducated generation, unable to comprehend the challenges of a changing world and increasingly sucked into a vicious circle of drugs trafficking and abuse, and organised crime.

Fifthly, the clan and ethnic divide. Turkmens are a nomadic nation that never experienced statehood before the twentieth century, and loyalty to regionally-based clans is still strong. Niyazov’s policy of divide-and-rule has exacerbated differences among the various clans now competing for political or economic power, and there is a danger of conflict. Minorities, particularly the 10 per cent of ethnic Uzbeks, face permanent discrimination. This increases tension domestically and with neighbouring Uzbekistan.

Given the nature of the Turkmen regime, political prognoses are highly problematic. Niyazov holds significant levers of power, political, security and economic, and could stay in control for several years. But the now widely observed economic decline, growing dissatisfaction in society, and wider opposition both inside and outside the country, make him much less secure. The danger of a palace coup, or an open explosion of popular frustration, perhaps aided from abroad, cannot be discounted. The alleged assassination attempt in November 2002 may have been a reflection of these growing tensions.

The international community has little leverage, but if nothing else, interested states should be prepared for a possible transition that may not be peaceful. There is no provision for a normal succession, and the prospects of violent conflict in the case of disputed succession are real. A collapse of the state into violent conflict would have repercussions throughout this unstable region, including in Afghanistan.

If Niyazov remains in power, the international community needs to take a more active stance. There is little likelihood that systemic change can be produced by positive engagement but isolating Niyazov through sanctions or other external measures would only worsen the plight of the Turkmen people. There should be far more public pressure on the regime to fulfil its international commitments, an end to security assistance, and consideration of political factors in assessing government and IFI support for pipelines and other major infrastructure projects.

Turkmen society both within and without the country needs as much outside engagement as possible to stem the alarming social decline. This should include aid for a growing diaspora to ensure that Turkmen intellectual and cultural groups are preserved in exile, and to prepare opposition groups for potential return to government in the future.

In the long term, there is no other way to achieve systemic change and stop the dangerous spiral of decline than for Niyazov, one way or another, to leave. The regime will not improve with time, or soften under increased engagement. On the contrary, the longer it continues, the worse things will get, and the higher the likelihood the state will collapse from its own contradictions. Engagement with Turkmen society is crucial, but regime change and a managed transition should be the goal.

Osh/Brussels, 17 January 2003

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

What the EU Should Expect from Turkmenistan

Commission President Manuel Barroso and three senior European Commissioners received Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov in Brussels on Monday (5 November). Beyond the smiles and formal statements, one hopes they took the opportunity to remind the Turkmen leader that the EU's friendship has a price.

One year ago, the European Parliament's International Trade Committee made that price clear, setting out the conditions under which the EU would be willing to work with the Central Asian state. The Parliament would only give its approval to an Interim Trade Agreement "if concrete progress on the human rights situation is achieved".

About a month later, Turkemnistan was thrown into shock with the death of Turkmenbashi -- or "Father of All Turkmen", as the late president, Saparmurat Niyazov, forced an entire nation to call him.

With the passing of the megalomaniacal leader, there was a sliver of hope that a new team would pull the country in a more positive direction. Indeed, after Niyazov had ruined the education and public health sectors, chalked up an exceptional record of human rights abuses even in a region known for them, jailed thousands of political prisoners, and nearly destroyed the economy despite rich energy exports, Berdimuhammedov could hardly do much worse.

Sadly, however, one can so far see no trace of any significant improvements. Berdimuhammedov may not commission gold statues of himself or change the names of months in the calendar to match his as Niyazov did, but apart from avoiding these comical excesses, it is pretty much the same oppressive regime familiar from the Turkmenbashi days.

Some Western voices, overly eager for signs of anything positive, have been grasping at the most meagre of straws. The opening of a single internet café in Ashgabat was thus hailed as great progress -- ignoring, of course, its prohibitive price for customers in this poor country and the intensive effort the state makes to filter out outside internet sites, not to mention the soldiers stationed at its doorways.

Others point to the end-of-Ramadan release of 9000 prisoners as a sign of softening attitude towards the opposition, but the move was so sudden and random, it seems to have been almost a whim. And none of those set free is known to have been a political prisoner. Some former victims of political repression were allowed to flee the country, but that seems more an attempt to silence opposition within the country than a signal of any new freedom to travel abroad.

Still, the relatively fresh change of administration is an opportunity for the Europeans to seize. If handled smartly and consistently, renewed contacts with the Turkmen leadership could help produce some actual changes on the ground.

The EU must maintain its insistence on its basic conditions before there can be talk of signing an Interim Trade Agreement with Turkmenistan, the preparation of which was undoubtedly the goal of Berdimuhammedov's state visit as well as a step towards a full Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.

Discussion of a trade agreement suddenly came to a halt last year after the International Trade Committee of the European Parliament adopted the resolution outlining its basic conditions: the International Committee of the Red Cross should be allowed to work freely in Turkmenistan, the educational system should be realigned with international standards, all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience should be released, government restrictions on travel abroad should be abolished, independent NGOs should be allowed to work unhindered, and UN human rights bodies should be permitted to operate freely in the country to monitor any progress.

The conditions are clear, verifiable and easy to meet. The International Committee of the Red Cross can testify on their ability to work freely in Turkmenistan, as can UN agencies. Human rights organisations can provide detailed lists of political prisoners to be released.

There is absolutely no reason today to back down from these basic, indeed fairly minimal, conditions. A change of leadership is not enough.

By inviting Berdimuhammedov to Brussels, the EU showed it believes change is possible. Following this visit, it should be clear to Turkmenistan's president that the next step is his.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.