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TURKMENISTAN


 

 

Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 6,010 7,672 4,000 110
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 1,120 1,200 950 131
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

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Update No: 377 - (26/06/12)

Turkmenistan's autocratic leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has pledged to create a multi-party system, following an election in which he gained 97% of the vote. He has also allowed a Red Cross delegation access to its notorious prison system, freed a political opponent and sent a delegation to the UN Human Rights Committee meeting on the state. Is change afoot? The rest of the president's antics, which involve the furthering of his personality cult and ongoing repression of political freedoms, particularly related to press freedom, would indicate not.

Turkmenistan's President, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has overseen this reclusive gas-rich state since 2006. He was re-elected in February with 97% of the vote, in a trip to the polls unattended by OSCE monitors, which could only be described as a one-man race. Berdymukhammedov's Democratic Party of Turkmenistan is effectively the state's only party; the opposition is for the most part exiled. The regime is a repeat offender in terms of civil rights abuses and quashing media freedom. Reporters without Borders, the French advocacy group for journalists, has ranked Turkmenistan third from the bottom in its annual press freedom index every year for the past five years. There have been signs recently of some overtures towards international bodies and the regime has also declared that it has embarked on a process of democratization. Whether these gestures will yield any concrete results, is another matter.

Two days before his inauguration, President Berdymukhammedov appeared on public television with a pledge to create "the conditions for a multi-party system in Turkmenistan". The February election continues to attract international attention for its complete shirking of democratic principles: the opposition candidates actually endorsed the country’s leader and it was reported that individuals who attempted to register as independent candidates were harassed and intimidated. In an interview with RFE/RL, Robert Blake, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, expressed doubts as to whether there is any hope for the advent of political pluralism. "Almost all the candidates, to my knowledge, endorsed the president himself, so I don't consider that that was a serious, democratic effort.” The president has clearly responded, at least rhetorically, to international calls for the improvement of democratic standards. "The creation of a multi-party system in Turkmenistan corresponds with our aims to democratise society and undertake major social reforms," said the President, who refers to himself as "Arkadag," or "The Protector." On March 27, the creation of two parties, an agrarian party and one for entrepreneurs, was announced. Analysts are, however, sceptical. Details remain nebulous - no date has been given as to when they will be formed and many have wondered how parties borne out of autocracy can be anything but a cog within it. A system of 'managed democracy' as seen in Russia, is perhaps the model being used.

Berdymukhammedov 's style of leadership is very much of the flamboyant 'supreme leader' ilk inherited from predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in office suddenly in 2006. It has been challenging for Berdymukhammedov to establish his own personality cult give that that his predecessor’s was so well entrenched. Some observers noted with surprise that Berdymukhammedov has only just had his first monument to himself erected in Ashgabat. The statue shows Berdymukhammedov clad in the attire of a traditional Turkmen tribal chief holding a dove, a traditional Turkmen symbol of luck. He has been remarkably tenacious in all other fields of self-mythologising; the trained dentist frequently garners media attention for his publicity stunts which reflect varying degrees of eccentricity. In response to the naming of Niyazov’s time in office, known officially as “The Golden Era,” Berdymukhammedov has established his own 'Era of Power '. This behaviour has continued in April. On Health Day, April 7, the President, with his habitual showmanship, visited the state's car race-track for its first auto race and was "permitted" to participate in the event. Unsurprisingly he won, recording the best time in the time-trials. The car he drove now resides in the capital's Sports Museum. This event crowned the "week of happiness", another of his creations. The first week of April is marked with a series of public shows and sports events celebrating physical prowess and health. It includes the staging of plays called “The Inspirational Era of Happiness” and “The Era of Power is Illuminated by Happiness.” The main event of the week is the traditional mass march up the Walk of Health — an eight-kilometre concrete staircase built into mountains near the capital. To show his love of sports knows no bounds, the President has also proposed creating an ice hockey team, a somewhat unusual plan for a desert nation where temperatures reach 50 degrees in summer. Keen to assert that his leadership encompasses the moral health of the nation too, Berdymukhamedov fired a key member of his cabinet, Energy and Industry Minister Yarmukhammet Orazgulyev, on April 14, for being a negligent father after one of his sons was involved in a car accident. Orazgulyev was seen on state television asking the president’s forgiveness for failing to “inspire the members of my family with the teachings and directions of the Protector.”

Orazgulyev's dismissal may have related to more pragmatic matters than his allegedly lax parenting. Turkmenistan's energy sector is at the core of the regime. According to data from BP, Turkmenistan holds 4.3% of global natural gas reserves, which puts it joint fourth with Saudi Arabia in terms of reserves, behind only Russia, Iran and Qatar. Recently Berdymukhamedov chastised his energy officials for failing to prioritise the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline and the development of the Galkynysh natural gas field, (otherwise known as South Iolotan) which is the world's second largest. Turkmenistan has exploited its energy reserves to carve a strong partnership with China, whose gas needs it almost entirely meets. Tajikistan, which normally receives all of its supplies from Uzbekistan, is now looking to secure some gas reserves from Turkmenistan. If already fractious relations between energy-poor Tajikistan and Uzbekistan worsen, Turkmenistan may be in a position to profit, though the lack of a common border poses challenges. Countries in Europe which are, for political reasons, seeking to reduce their dependence on Russian energy have shown willingness to engage in talks with Turkmenistan. Ukrainian officials for example, recently made a visit to Ashgabat, in order discuss plans to buy Turkmen gas. Berdymukhammedov's visit to Ukraine in March was the first for a Turkmen leader in a decade. The two nations are also planning cooperation in the pipeline sphere. Ukraine's president Viktor Yanukovych has pledged Kiev's willingness to consider helping in the construction of building a second pipeline for Turkmenistan's Malai-Bagtyyarlyk project and participating in the TAPI pipeline. It is hoped that a deal on the US-backed 1700-km pipeline, which would bring Turkmenistan gas to India and Pakistan, will be signed by July 31. The project, which has been subject to fits and starts (partly over security concerns related to the Afghan leg) continues to offer the central Asian state a strategic importance for regional energy concerns.

Not all of Turkmenistan's citizens stand to gain from their nation's energy wealth. At the end of March, it was announced that owners of trucks, buses and tractors will lose the right to receive free petrol supplies as of July, due to 'fraudulent activities and reluctance to pay taxes properly." This is by no means atypical in a state where citizens' rights adhere to no kind of framework or structure and are subject to the whims of a despot. One of the aspects of the Berdymukhamedov regime that is consistently raised as a concern by NGOs is its prison system. Overcrowding specifically is a major cause of disquiet. A 2010 report by foreign-based Turkmenistan's Independent Lawyers Association and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights has estimated that there are around 8,100 inmates, though it is difficult to gain access to exact numbers. In March the UN Human Rights Committee noted an increase in reports of torture and abuse of detainees. It also voiced concern at the lack of independent investigations into police brutality and that the government denies NGOs access to prisons, where disease is apparently rife. The ranks of prisoners are of course swollen by the leader's enemies. Major General Tirkish Tyrmyev, the former commander of the country's border forces, is one such example. He was recently sentenced to seven more years in prison after a closed door hearing. Members of his family have complained that they have not been allowed to see him or communicate with him since the summer of 2002 and have no idea of the exact location of his prison. This degree of opacity is apparently typical. However, a positive sign came in April, when a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross was allowed to visit a prison, the first time Ashgabat has allowed a Red Cross delegation to do so since Turkmenistan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Human rights observers, such as Human Rights Watch, have not been allowed into the country since 1999. Although no specific results were yielded, the move still demonstrated that some sort of dialogue has commenced. In March, at the UN Human Rights Committee's meeting on Turkmenistan, Turkmenistan's decision to allow the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion to visit the country was praised as a sign of increasing transparency. Apparently it was announced during the meeting that Turkmenistan's former speaker of parliament, Ovezgeldy Atayev and his wife had been released from custody. Atayev had been tipped to become president after the death of Niyazov in December 2006. His incarceration, and that of his spouse, was widely believed to be a matter of political persecution. Observers have welcomed the move to free them. The report issued by the UN's Human Rights Committee noted some degree of 'willingness' on the regime's part to engage in right talks with positivity, but also highlighted many areas in which it has not made improvements: developing a legal definition of torture, detention standards, protecting minorities, human trafficking. Veronika Szente Goldston, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, said the meeting demonstrated that the Turkmen government’s approach to its human rights record is characterized by “complete denial.”

The country's commitment to press freedom remains almost completely non-existent. The 2012 edition of IREX's Media Sustainability Index Europe and Eurasia placed Turkmenistan at the bottom again. The state consistently lurks at the bottom of ratings by Reporters without Borders.
RFE/RL's Turkmen service became one of the latest victims of harassment by the state, when they were accused by the government of working in the country without proper accreditation. This issue was raised at the UN meeting of March 16, when Turkmen Deputy Foreign Minister Vepa Hadjiyev refused to countenance complaints raised by the right experts present on the RFE/RL issue. "If they think their actions are journalistic work, then these types of activities are not in accordance with the current law," said the minister. The experts also highlighted the harassment of independent press organizations, including Radio Azatlyk. The case of Ogulsapar Muradova, an RFE/RL reporter who died in prison in September 2006 revealed some cracks in the official line on her death. It is believed by rights groups that Muradova was murdered - at the time the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation called her death a “political assassination.” The regime has always maintained that she committed suicide. At the hearing Hadjiyev spoke of her death 'by natural causes'. This did little to assure experts that the government does anything but harass and even murder journalists with impunity and then fabricates official versions of how they met their fate.

Almost all observers are unconvinced that Turkmenistan's willingness to cooperate in some areas demonstrates anything other than a desire to quell international concern about the regime through a few, largely rhetorical, gestures. The well-timed freeing of a political rival, when the regime is under the spotlight of the UN human right’s committee, does little to convince the regime's critics that it has anything but a fleeting, superficial interest in political pluralism. Piecemeal gestures by the flamboyant leader are simply histrionics, scenes in the grand spectacle, of which Turkmenistan's citizens are sadly the captive audience.

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