Freedom in the World
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov oversaw the passage of a new constitution in 2008, but the political system was changed more in form than in substance. While the country continued to inch away from the bizarre and repressive legacy of long-ruling president Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in late 2006, progress toward a more free society remained minimal. New contacts with the outside world were generally limited to business and political leaders vying to secure access to Turkmenistan’s massive natural gas reserves.
Turkmenistan gained formal independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Saparmurat Niyazov, the former head of the Turkmenistan Communist Party, had been the sole candidate in elections to the newly created post of president in October 1990. After the adoption of a new constitution in 1992, he ran unopposed again and was reelected for a five-year term with a reported 99.5 percent of the vote. A 1994 referendum extended his term until 2002. In the December 1994 elections to the Mejlis (National Assembly), only Niyazov’s Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT), the former Communist Party, was permitted to field candidates.
In the 1999 Mejlis elections, every candidate was selected by the government and virtually all were members of the DPT. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), citing numerous procedural inadequacies, refused to send even a limited assessment mission. The Mejlisunanimously voted in late December to make Niyazov president for life.
In November 2002, Niyazov survived an alleged assassination attempt in Ashgabat. The incident sparked a widespread crackdown on the opposition and perceived critics of the regime, drawing condemnation from foreign governments and international organizations. Early elections for the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council), a second legislative body, were held in 2003, and Mejlis polls were held in 2004. As in previous elections, candidates for both chambers were preapproved by the administration.
Niyazov’s rule was marked by frequent government reshuffles, the gutting of formal institutions, the muzzling of media, and an elaborate personality cult. The Ruhnama, a rambling collection of quasi-historical and philosophical musings attributed to Niyazov, became the core of educational curriculums. Limited information about the true state of affairs in Turkmenistan pointed to crises in health care, education, and agriculture.
Niyazov’s death in December 2006 from an apparent heart attack was followed by the rapid and seemingly well-orchestrated ascent of Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to the position of acting president. The succession appeared to circumvent constitutional norms, as criminal charges were brought against MejlisSpeaker Ovezgeldy Atayev, who would have become acting president according to the constitution. Berdymukhammedov subsequently cemented his formal status, easily besting five obscure ruling-party candidates in a February 2007 presidential election that was not monitored by any international observers.
Berdymukhammedov removed Niyazov loyalists from high posts in 2007 and appeared to be firmly in control by 2008. He also took steps to phase out the cult of personality that had taken shape around his predecessor, ordering the removal of public portraits and a reduced emphasis on the Ruhnama. In August 2008, the Halk Maslahaty voted without public debate to approve a new constitution, effectively dissolving itself and dispersing its powers to the Mejlis and the president. Elections for an expanded Mejlis were held in December, but all of the nearly 300 candidates were preapproved by the presidential administration.
Berdymukhammedov changed Niyazov’s isolationist foreign policy, visiting Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, the United States, and the European Union and improving long-strained ties with Azerbaijan. In April 2008, he attended a NATO summit in Romania, where he met with U.S. president George Bush amid reports of possible cooperation to support NATO operations in Afghanistan. Natural gas sales dominate Turkmenistan’s relations with the outside world, with China building a new pipeline link to the country even as Russia strives to maintain control over the bulk of its gas exports and the European Union seeks access. An outside audit in 2008 confirmed the extent of Turkmenistan’s gas reserves, ensuring continued fierce competition among foreign companies and governments to curry favor with the country’s ruler.
Turkmenistan is not an electoral democracy. The late Saparmurat Niyazov wielded virtually absolute power, serving as “president for life” until his death in 2006. None of the country’s elections—including the February 2007 vote that gave Niyazov’s successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, a five-year term in office—have been free or fair.
The Halk Maslahaty, a legislative body of 2,500 elected and appointed members, voted in August 2008 to approve a new constitution. In doing so, it dissolved itself and returned legislative power to the Mejlis (National Assembly). That body expanded from 50 to 125 members in the December 2008 elections. The new constitution also gives citizens the right to form political parties, although only one political party, the DPT, is officially registered at present.
Corruption is widespread, with public officials often forced to bribe their way into their positions. Profits from gas exports were entirely opaque under Niyazov, and the outcome of a financial audit ordered by Berdymukhammedov is unknown. The government announced the creation of a stabilization fund in October 2008 but provided no further details. Turkmenistan was ranked 166 out of 180countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech and the press is severely restricted by the government, which controls all broadcast and print media. Berdymukhammedov has promised universal internet access, but the country’s few internet cafes are prohibitively expensive, and a government-run service provider controls access and reportedly blocks undesirable websites. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) contributor Sazak Durdymuradov was held in a psychiatric hospital for two weeks in the summer of 2008, and reported that he had been beaten and tortured in custody. The authorities have yet to allow a thorough investigation of the suspicious death of RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova, who died in custody in 2006.
The government restricts freedom of religion, and independent groups face persecution. While Niyazov declared in 2004 that practicing an unregistered religion would no longer be a criminal offense, it remains illegal, with violators subject to fines. Despite the 2007 release of former chief mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, who had been serving a 22-year prison sentence for treason, there has not been noticeable improvement in the state of religious freedom.
The government places significant restrictions on academic freedom, and the Ruhnama is still used throughout the school system. Reforms in 2007 undid some of the damage Niyazov had inflicted on education, but the concerted effort needed to reverse the situation has not yet been evident.
The constitution guarantees peaceful assembly and association, but these rights are severely restricted in practice. Sporadic protests, usually focused on social issues, have taken place; an increase in gasoline prices in February 2008 caused small demonstrations. While not technically illegal, nongovernmental organizations are tightly controlled, and Turkmenistan has no civil society sector to speak of. Valery Pal, a computer expert who assisted rights activists, was arrested in February 2008 and subsequently sentenced to a 12-year prison term for embezzlement, though he was released in an amnesty in December. Former political prisoner Gulgeldy Annaniyazov returned to Turkmenistan from Norway during the year, only to be arrested for illegally crossing the border.
The government-controlled Colleagues Union is the only central trade union permitted. There are no legal guarantees for workers to form unions or strike, though the constitution does not specifically prohibit these rights. Strikes in Turkmenistan are extremely rare.
The judicial system is subservient to the president, who appoints and removes judges without legislative review. The authorities frequently deny rights of due process, including public trials and access to defense attorneys. The new constitution bars judges and prosecutors from membership in political parties.
Prisons suffer from overcrowding and inadequate nutrition and medical care, and international organizations are not permitted to visit. Human Rights Watch reported in September 2008 that while the government has released some two dozen political prisoners since Niyazov’s death, no coordinated review of cases has taken place. Nothing is known about the condition of jailed former foreign ministers Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdyev. Rights activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev have remained behind bars since their 2006 convictions on dubious espionage charges.
Turkmenistan is a smuggling corridor for drugs from neighboring Afghanistan, with Niyazov-era reports suggesting the involvement of high-level officials in the narcotics trade as well as a growing problem of drug addiction within Turkmenistan.
Employment and educational opportunities for ethnic minorities are limited by the government’s promotion of Turkmen national identity, although some of the more onerous Niyazov-era restrictions on the educational and cultural institutions of ethnic minorities were eased in 2007–08.
Freedom of movement is restricted, with a reported blacklist preventing some individuals from leaving the country.
A continuing Soviet-style command economy and widespread corruption diminish equality of opportunity, although some changes are taking place. The new constitution establishes the right to private property, but it remained unclear how this would be implemented. The government unified the commercial and official exchange rates in May 2008; while this was a necessary reform, it significantly reduced the value of the population’s savings. Bread shortages in the capital were briefly reported in the second half of the year.
Traditional social and religious norms and a lack of employment prospects limit professional opportunities for women, and anecdotal reports suggest that domestic violence is common.