Turkmenistan is a repressive authoritarian state where political rights and civil liberties are almost completely denied in practice. Elections are tightly controlled, ensuring nearly unanimous victories for the president and his supporters. The economy is dominated by the state, corruption is systemic, religious groups are persecuted, and political dissent is not tolerated.
- The first elections to the new 56-member Khalk Maslahaty, the upper chamber of parliament established by constitutional amendments passed in September 2020, were held in March. The indirectly elected body is composed of 48 members elected by local councils in the country’s five provinces and the city of Ashgabat in addition to 8 presidential appointees.
- The government continued to deny the presence of COVID-19 in Turkmenistan throughout the year. This denial directly contradicted independent evidence of increased respiratory ailments and deaths in the country, as well as the government’s introduction of measures such as mandatory mask wearing, school closures, and restrictions on public events.
- President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov promoted his son, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, to a variety of top government positions during the year, including that of deputy prime minister for economic and financial issues in July. Analysts have suggested that the promotions are intended to prepare the younger Berdimuhamedov to succeed his father as president.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||0.000 4.004|
The president is directly elected for an unlimited number of seven-year terms, extended from five years under a 2016 constitutional revision. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the incumbent, was reelected for a third term in 2017 with 97.69 percent of the vote amid turnout of over 97 percent, according to official results. His eight token opponents were either nominees of state-backed parties or members of the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT) who ran as independents. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) criticized the election process for failing to present voters with a genuine choice and noted that it took place in a strictly controlled political and media environment.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||0.000 4.004|
The bicameral parliament, the National Council of Turkmenistan (Milli Geňeş), includes a lower chamber, the Mejlis, as well as an upper chamber, the 56-seat Khalk Maslahaty. In September 2020, the parliament and president approved amendments to the constitution abolishing the previous Khalk Maslahaty, a 2,500-seat body that included Mejlis members as well as a variety of unelected officials and community leaders.
The Mejlis is composed of 125 members directly elected from individual districts to serve five-year terms. Elections to the Mejlis are tightly controlled by the state and feature no genuine competition from opposition candidates.
In the March 2018 elections, the DPT won 55 seats, the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and the Agrarian Party each took 11, and candidates nominated by groups of citizens secured 48. Voter turnout was reported to be approximately 92 percent. The OSCE found that the elections “lacked important prerequisites of a genuinely democratic electoral process.” Observers said that while there was a semblance of pluralism, all parties and candidates supported the president, and the absence of media diversity interfered with citizens’ ability to make a free and educated choice.
The first elections to the new Khalk Maslahaty were held in March 2021. Local councils in the country’s five provinces and the city of Ashgabat elected 8 members each, filling 48 seats in the chamber; the remaining 8 seats were filled by presidential appointees. The constitutional amendments creating the new chamber also designate its chairman as interim successor in the event that the president was to become incapacitated.
Analysts have speculated that the constitutional amendments are related to plans for the president’s son, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, to succeed him as president. Throughout the year, the president promoted his son to a variety of top government positions, including that of deputy prime minister for economic and financial issues in July.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||0.000 4.004|
The legal framework for elections is neither fair nor impartially implemented. The Central Election Commission (CEC) is appointed by the president and operates with little transparency. The law allows virtually no opportunity for independent fundraising or campaigning. In the 2017 presidential and 2018 parliamentary elections, the CEC organized and funded all campaign activities, according to international monitors.
The constitution and electoral code were amended in 2016 to remove the upper age limit of 70 for presidential candidates, extend the presidential term from five to seven years, and eliminate the right of public associations to nominate presidential candidates.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||0.000 4.004|
The party system is dominated by the ruling DPT and controlled by the executive branch. The 2012 law on political parties specified the legal basis for citizens to form independent parties, but barred parties formed on professional, regional, or religious lines, and those created by government officials. Nevertheless, Berdimuhamedov subsequently announced plans to form two new groups—the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and the Agrarian Party. Both were then openly organized by sitting members of the DPT and formally registered in 2012 and 2014, respectively. The Agrarian Party won its first parliamentary seats in 2018.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||0.000 4.004|
Turkmenistan has never experienced a peaceful transfer of power between rival parties through elections. Berdimuhamedov had served in the government of his late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who in turn had ruled the country since before its independence from the Soviet Union. The Soviet-era Communist Party became the DPT in 1991 and remains in power to date. All genuine opposition groups operate either illegally or in exile.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||0.000 4.004|
The authoritarian political system offers voters no meaningful alternatives to the ruling party. At an informal level, politics within the regime are thought to be influenced by regional patronage networks, or “clans,” that control different parts of the state and economy.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||0.000 4.004|
Members of the ethnic Turkmen majority and the president’s tribal subdivision in particular are favored for leadership positions. While women and members of ethnic or religious minority groups formally have full political rights, no segment of the country’s population enjoys the practical ability to engage in independent political activity. About a quarter of candidates elected to the Mejlis in 2018 were women.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||0.000 4.004|
The president, who is not freely elected, has ultimate decision-making authority. The executive branch determines laws and policies with no meaningful input or oversight from the rubber-stamp legislature, which mainly serves to endorse the president’s decrees and policies.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||0.000 4.004|
There are no independent institutions tasked with combating corruption, which is widespread in Turkmenistan. Anticorruption bodies have allegedly been used to extort revenue from wealthy officials and businesspeople. Crackdowns on corruption are typically selective and related to conflicts within the ruling elite.
Genuine checks on nepotism and conflicts of interest are lacking. In May 2021, an investigative report released by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) revealed that a company owned by Khadzhimurat Redjepov, the president’s nephew, had been awarded a $27.5 million government contract to import subsidized food products as part of a policy to alleviate food shortages in the country. The report alleges that Redjepov used part of the funds to build a luxury home in Ashgabat for his family.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||0.000 4.004|
Decisions on monetary policy, large-scale contracts with foreign companies, and the allocation of state profits from hydrocarbon exports are largely opaque and ultimately controlled by the president, without effective legal limits or independent oversight. Government officials and state-owned companies are not required to disclose their basic financial information to the public.
Throughout 2020 and 2021, the government repeatedly denied the presence of the COVID-19 virus in Turkmenistan, and failed to publish any data regarding the number of cases and deaths in the country. This denial directly contradicts independent evidence of increased respiratory ailments and deaths, as well as the government’s introduction of measures such as mandatory mask wearing, school closures, and restrictions on public events. Following a World Health Organization (WHO) mission to the country in July 2021, a senior officer in the organization stated that “it’s unlikely that the virus is not circulating in Turkmenistan.” Throughout the year, unofficial reports claimed that the rate of COVID-19-related infections and deaths in Ashgabat had risen, overwhelming the city’s hospitals, and that a number of government officials had contracted and died from the illness. Further signs of the true status of COVID-19 in Turkmenistan emerged in June, when the World Bank approved a $20 million loan to Turkmenistan’s government to combat the virus, and in August, when the president dismissed several Health Ministry officials for “serious shortcomings” in their work.
|Are there free and independent media?||0.000 4.004|
Press freedom is severely restricted. The state controls nearly all broadcast and print media, and the state-run internet service provider blocks websites that carry independent news coverage or opposition-oriented content. Some citizens are able to access foreign satellite broadcasts, but the government continues efforts to remove receivers from houses in the countryside.
Independent journalists, particularly those affiliated with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), are subject to harassment, detention, physical abuse, and prosecution on trumped-up charges. The families of independent journalists working abroad are also sometimes subjected to harassment and threats; between March and May 2021, several family members of exiled journalists Rozybai Jumamuradov and Devlet Bayhan were questioned by security officers and threatened with incarceration.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||0.000 4.004|
Legal restrictions, state monitoring and harassment, and the risk of penalties including fines and imprisonment have virtually extinguished the ability of individuals to freely practice religion. A 2016 law on religion maintained existing bans on religious activity outside state control, imposed a higher membership threshold for the registration of religious groups, and required all registered groups to reapply for registration. Senior Muslim clerics are appointed by the government, and Muslims who do not follow the officially approved interpretation of Islam are subject to persecution, including lengthy prison terms.
Members of unregistered religious minority groups continue to face raids, beatings, and other forms of harassment. Turkmenistanis who conscientiously object to compulsory military service for religious reasons risk imprisonment. Between January and March 2021, 16 conscientious objectors were jailed for refusing military service.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||0.000 4.004|
The government places significant restrictions on academic freedom, limiting research on politically sensitive topics and imposing onerous obstacles to the recognition of degrees from foreign institutions. Curriculums in schools and universities are controlled by the government.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||0.000 4.004|
Private discussion and the expression of personal views are highly restricted due to intrusive supervision by state security services, including physical surveillance, monitoring of telephone and electronic communications, and the use of informers.
In recent years, the government has employed increasingly sophisticated methods to monitor the population. Authorities have reportedly used special software to eavesdrop on voice over internet protocol (VoIP) calls, operate computer cameras remotely, and record keystrokes. Social media users who post critical comments about the government are subject to intimidation and imprisonment, and restrictions on social media sites, cloud storage services, and VPNs have intensified. In August 2021, RFE/RL reported that the authorities have allegedly forced some Turkmenistani internet users to swear on the Quran that they will not use VPNs. The government also reportedly monitors the online contacts and posts of its citizens abroad.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||0.000 4.004|
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and the 2015 Law on Assemblies defines the right of individuals and groups to hold peaceful gatherings with prior authorization. However, the law grants officials broad discretion to block assemblies, and the authorities do not allow organized antigovernment demonstrations.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||0.000 4.004|
Onerous registration and regulatory requirements effectively prevent most independent NGOs from operating legally or receiving foreign funding, and activities by unregistered groups can draw fines, detention, and other penalties. Individual activists face intimidation and harassment, as do the family members of human rights activists working in exile.
In March 2021, two activists were arrested and detained for distributing antigovernment leaflets in Ashgabat, though criticizing the government is not officially a crime in Turkmenistan. Turkmenistani activists abroad also face pressure from the government. According to reports from RFE/RL and Memorial, a Russian human rights NGO, in September, a number of Turkmenistani activists living in Turkey were detained by Turkish police and threatened with deportation for their public criticism of the Turkmenistani government.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||0.000 4.004|
Workers have a legal right to join trade unions, but there are no protections against antiunion discrimination, and strikes are prohibited. The government-controlled Association of Trade Unions of Turkmenistan is the only union organization permitted to operate.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||0.000 4.004|
The judicial system is subservient to the president, who appoints and dismisses judges unilaterally. In practice, the courts are commonly used to punish dissent and remove potential threats to the president’s political dominance.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||0.000 4.004|
Arbitrary arrests and detentions are common, particularly for dissidents, members of unapproved religious groups, activists, and journalists who work with foreign organizations. The authorities frequently deny defendants’ basic rights of due process, including public trials and access to defense attorneys.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||0.000 4.004|
Prison conditions are extremely harsh, and security forces routinely use torture to extract confessions or punish inmates, which can result in deaths in custody. Turkmenistanis are also subject to enforced disappearances; in 2019, the Prove They Are Alive! human rights campaign identified 121 people who remained missing after they had been forcibly disappeared. Physical abuse and hazing in the military has reportedly led to several deaths among conscripts in recent years.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||0.000 4.004|
Employment and educational opportunities for members of non-Turkmen ethnic minorities are limited by the government’s promotion of Turkmen national identity, and activists who advocate for minority rights have faced persecution. Traditional social and religious norms help to restrict women’s access to education and economic opportunity; there are no legal protections against sexual harassment in the workplace.
The law does not protect LGBT+ people from discrimination, and sexual activity between men can be punished with up to two years in prison. In September 2021, a Turkmenistani human rights NGO reported that 30 men accused of “sodomy” were being held in a detention center in Turkmenabad; they remained in custody as of the end of October.
Homeless people are routinely forcibly removed or detained by police, often ahead of state celebrations. In September, police rounded up 176 homeless people in Turkmenabat and detained them in a psychiatric facility.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||0.000 4.004|
Freedom of movement is restricted, with frequent reports of individuals being barred from traveling abroad; officials are reportedly instructed to prevent citizens under the age of 40 from leaving the country. The government is known to prohibit the families of dissidents and prisoners from leaving. Internal passports and a residency permit system also obstruct travel within the country. Despite these restrictions, unpublished government statistics suggest that nearly two million people emigrated during a 2008–18 reporting period, with many of them seeking to escape the dire economic situation.
Additional restrictions on the freedom of movement imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic were removed in April 2021, but reimposed in some regions in July.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||1.001 4.004|
The constitution establishes the right to property ownership, but the deeply flawed judiciary provides little protection to businesses and individuals, and the president’s relatives monopolize key sectors of the economy that are not directly state controlled. Arbitrary evictions and confiscation of property are common.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||1.001 4.004|
Domestic violence is reportedly common, but few victims file complaints with the authorities, and the government has not made significant efforts to monitor, prevent, or combat the problem. Reporting and prosecution of rape are similarly limited. While polygamy has long been illegal, it apparently persists in practice; a 2018 law was meant to reinforce the ban.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||0.000 4.004|
The government forces thousands of students, public employees, and other citizens to participate in the annual cotton harvest with little or no pay. Impoverished residents of rural areas are especially vulnerable to trafficking abroad for forced labor or sexual exploitation, and the government does little to address the problem. In March 2021, police in Mary Province were reported to be arbitrarily detaining citizens with a “disheveled appearance,” accusing them of being homeless, and sending them to work on state farms. Turkmenistani men between the ages of 18 and 25 are required to serve in the military for two years; in June, dozens of graduating students were reportedly removed from schools immediately following their final exams and forcibly conscripted into the army.
The state’s mismanagement of a weak economy, including soaring inflation, has inhibited opportunity and imposed hardship on the population. Persistently low oil and gas prices have driven down vital export revenues in recent years, leading to reports of unpaid wages and shortages of basic goods. To raise funds, the government has at times increased various fees, cut subsidies, and pressured officials, businesspeople, and ordinary workers to make “voluntary” contributions. In June, authorities in the Lebap region reportedly banned citizens that owed debts on natural gas from buying subsidized food products.
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Global Freedom Score2 100 not free