Consolidated Authoritarian Regime
DEMOCRACY-PERCENTAGE Democracy Percentage 0.00 100
DEMOCRACY-SCORE Democracy Score 1.00 7
Last Year's Democracy Percentage & Status
1 100 Consolidated Authoritarian Regime
The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. The Democracy Percentage, introduced in 2020, is a translation of the Democracy Score to the 0-100 scale, where 0 equals least democratic and 100 equals most democratic. See the methodology.

header1 Score changes in 2020

  • Local Democratic Governance rating declined from 1.25 to 1.00 to reflect the complete lack of independent decision-making at the local level, and the deepening economic crisis further evidenced by slashed subsidies outside the central Ahal region.
  • As a result, Turkmenistan’s Democracy Score declined from 1.04 to 1.00.

header2 Executive Summary

Turkmenistan’s authoritarianism became further entrenched in 2019. Known for his surreal public stunts, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (in office since 2006) showcased his skills as an athlete, horse connoisseur, writer, singer, and so forth. However, he failed to accept responsibility for the country’s plummeting economy and instead identified convenient scapegoats among the country’s public officials. Utilizing a tightly controlled media space, the president regularly broadcast stagy performances of government officials confessing guilt, acknowledging their corrupt personalities, and asking for forgiveness, while shifting focus away from his own shortcomings and his family’s unlimited power. Although Turkmenistan has institutions that could, in theory, provide checks and balances to presidential power, in reality, they merely pay lip service to such duties. The legislative powers of the Mejlis (parliamentary assembly) have effectively been dismantled, while the president controls the judicial system to advance his personal interests. At the end of 2018, Berdimuhamedov dismissed Kerim Durdymuradov, the 104th deputy prime minister in Turkmenistan’s 27 years of independence.1 Among the ex-ministers, no fewer than 30 have been charged with criminal offenses and put on trial. Even so, the 2019 dismissal of internal affairs minister Isgender Mulikov, an influential figure who had held the post for more than a decade, came as a surprise.

Given the regime’s secrecy and the lack of independent media, freedom of speech, or access to information, the Turkmen people are left largely in the dark and forced to speculate on important issues affecting their lives. For instance, rumors spread about the death of President Berdimuhamedov when he mysteriously disappeared from public view for most of July and into August.2 Government officials and the state media took no action to either confirm or refute the claim.

In September, the president proposed constitutional and parliamentary changes that would create a bicameral parliament with extended powers, which he argued would “serve the interest of all social levels of the country.” As experts suggest,3 Berdimuhamedov may step down as head of state but remain in control of the nation’s affairs, and the proposed changes were widely seen as a move towards that end. Moreover, Berdimuhamedov, in consolidating his family’s political power by appointing his son, Serdar, as hakim (mayor) of the important Akhal region, may be setting up a dynastic succession.

Berdimuhamedov’s penchant for nepotism is not limited to the political realm. Turkmenistan’s economic affairs have effectively become a family-run business, where the remaining 3 million Turkmens function as a de facto service staff to satisfy the president’s whims and his family’s wishes. The president’s family funnels public funds through state-affiliated companies such as Nusay Yollary, owned by the president’s brother-in-law Annanazar Rejepov, which is overseeing the multibillion dollar Ashgabat-Turkmenabat highway construction. The president himself approves all construction projects undertaken by both domestic and international companies, which has allowed him to earn $20–25 billion in bribes through construction projects alone during his presidency.4

While the country’s 2019 motto was “Turkmenistan—Homeland of Prosperity,”5 authorities regularly misreported growth and continued to waste public funds on vanity projects as the majority of the population experiences chronic shortages of basic goods, rationing, long lines, lack of cash, rising prices, cuts in benefits, and increasing unemployment. As a result, two million people have already emigrated from Turkmenistan in the past several years. Rather than fixing the country’s socioeconomic problems or helping people survive the protracted crisis, the government tries to keep people from leaving the country by denying and delaying the issuing of passports, forcibly removing people from international flights, and artificially increasing prices for airline tickets.

As economic hardships have persisted in Turkmenistan, the regime has also continued to persecute political activists, limiting access to unsanctioned information, and abusing the rights of prisoners. Arbitrary arrest, torture, political persecution, mass surveillance, privacy invasions, censorship, violation of religious freedom, forced labor, and gender-based discrimination are just some of the dangers citizens experience on a daily basis.6

The government controls access to independent media by removing satellite dishes, controlling internet access, blocking foreign media, and harassing those who access blocked websites.

Since the justice system in Turkmenistan is not independent, foreign investors and private businesses enjoy few legal protections. Foreign parties who wish to invest in the country must go through a corrupt system and rely on the good word of the president. This allows the government to arbitrarily resolve any contentious issues in its own favor. Those companies that have taken risks in this unfair environment, such as MTS and Belgorkhimprom, have eventually filed legal suits against Turkmenistan to the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), demanding compensation of $1.5 billion7 and $200 million,8 respectively, in financial restitution and unpaid debts.

The prospects for 2020 do not look promising for Turkmenistan and its people. The economic crisis will persist, forcing many more to migrate out of the country. Meanwhile, the president will likely continue consolidating power and paving the way for his son to take over the country’s leadership. The shrinking state budget will further force the government to prioritize its expenses and reshuffle the elite circle. Existing structural and political problems will discourage entrepreneurship and foreign investment while intensifying the country’s dependence on the extractive industries sector.

National Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the democratic character of the governmental system; and the independence, effectiveness, and accountability of the legislative and executive branches. 1.001 7.007
  • In 2019, as in past years, Turkmenistan was defined by its complete lack of democratic, publicly accountable institutions. Rather, the country saw the personality cult of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov only strengthening in all areas of government and dominating every aspect of society. Berdimuhamedov continued to enjoy virtually unlimited powers, granting no possibility for political pluralism or checks and balances on his authority. During a September 25 meeting of the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council)—the highest representative body in which the president serves as chairman—Berdimuhamedov suggested merging the council and the Mejlis (parliamentary assembly), thereby creating a single bicameral representative body with extended powers.1 If enacted, the People’s Council would be the upper chamber of the parliament with Berdimuhamedov as its chair.2 The president also signed a decree to establish a Constitutional Commission (with himself as head) that would examine potential amendments to the constitution.3 As observers predict, these changes may help pave the way for the president’s son, Serdar, to take over the presidency.4 In that event, Berdimuhamedov may step down as president but remain the de facto decision maker as the chair of the People’s Council5 and Honorary Elder of the Nation.6
  • The president’s family also saw its power grow during the year. In March, the government repealed the law restricting family members and close relatives from serving in the government, stipulating only that a government official must not be placed directly subordinate to a family member.7 Under these new conditions, Berdimuhamedov appointed his youngest son-in-law, Yhlasgeldi Amanov, as Consul to the United Arab Emirates, arguably to secure the family’s commercial interests in the foreign country.8 Likewise, on January 2, the president appointed his son, Serdar, as deputy hakim of Akhal,9 and on June 17, Serdar became hakim (governor) of the region.10 Serdar laid the foundation for construction projects11 and led Turkmen delegations on international trips, despite no longer serving in the foreign ministry.12
  • Perhaps most notably, the president conducted a serious and unexpected reshuffle of the government’s top officials in 2019. On October 1, internal affairs minister Isgender Mulikov was fired, deprived of all state awards, and demoted from lieutenant general to major due to his “violations committed in work and abuse of office and official powers.”13 Shortly thereafter, he was arrested along with Meylis Nobatov, former head of the president’s security service and the state migration service, for grand corruption charges. Both appeared on national TV acknowledging their crimes and asking for forgiveness.14 Notorious for his ruthless and corrupt reputation, Mulikov had held his position for a decade, owing his protection and long tenure in part to one of the president’s family members. Supposedly, the fathers of Mulikov and Berdimuhamedov were friends, both of whom had served at the Ministry of Internal Affairs.15 There also were claims that Berdimuhamedov had treated Mulikov as “his student, whom he personally brought up.”16 His dismissal, allegedly, is connected to the arrest of powerful businessman Chary Kulov, who supposedly called himself “the next president of Turkmenistan.” Kulov and Mulikov were not only close friends but also had common business dealings.17 The regime suspected that Mulikov and Kulov, along with Nobatov, were conspiring to seize power, and apparently the president had received a photo picturing all three together.18
  • Turkmenistan’s failing economy has hit the government and public alike. The president sought to cut costs by merging public institutions, requiring some departments to self-fund, laying off public sector employees, and cutting public subsidies.19 This has led to increased unemployment, currently estimated at 60 percent.20 According to the law on employment, the government is obliged to assist citizens in finding jobs and provide unemployment benefits (Article 6).21 However, labor offices refuse to record people as unemployed, in some cases stating that being registered as unemployed won’t guarantee unemployment benefits.22 Meanwhile, increased inflation and the gap between the official and black-market currency exchange rates have eroded real household incomes for the majority of the population.23 The minimum monthly wage is 790 manats,24 roughly $225 according to the official exchange rate and $41 at the black-market rate.25
  • As of January 1, the government halted the provision of free electricity, gas, drinking water, and table salt.26 Shortages of basic foods and cash, and long lines, also continued in 2019. These hardships have triggered nearly 2 million people to emigrate from Turkmenistan since 2008.27 In March alone, 23,000 people relocated to Turkey.28 Outmigration of nurses and doctors has led to a dearth of healthcare professionals at hospitals and emergency rooms in Turkmenistan.29 The government reacted to the increased emigration by making it more difficult for citizens to get passports, travel abroad, sell property, or buy foreign currency.30
  • The opposition—weak, uncoordinated, and living in exile—faces ongoing transnational repression and prosecution by Turkmen authorities. For example, upon the request of the Turkmen consulate, the Turkish police arrested Kakamurat Hydyrov, leader of the opposition movement Halk Hareketi (People’s Movement), and blogger Azat Hayitbaev on October 26 when they organized a meeting of Turkmens in Istanbul.31 Both were held at the immigration office and faced potential deportation to Turkmenistan.32 On October 27, the opposition figure Halmurad Soyunov organized a small demonstration in Stockholm in front of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Northern Europe. The goal was to encourage unity among the opposition and draw the attention of the UN and OSCE to the problems in Turkmenistan.33
  • Turkmenistan’s security services constantly surveil the public to identify potential threats to the regime’s stability. Security officers block undesired websites and mobile text messaging services, identify internet users trying to bypass the blocking, and wiretap telephone conversations.34 Similarly, migration officers, without cause, can refuse citizens the right to travel abroad and will often question them upon return.35 According to the government, these repressive actions are taken to prevent Turkmens from providing information to foreign media outlets.36 In 2018, the ombudsman of Turkmenistan, Yazdursun Gurbannazarova, received 78 written and 72 oral appeals regarding violations of political and civil rights, of which she had reviewed only 2 percent by year’s end.37
  • 1“В Туркменистане объединят Халк Маслахаты и Меджлис в двухпалатный парламент,” [Turkmenistan will unite Halk Maslakhaty and Mejlis in a bicameral parliament], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 25 September 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/09/bicameralism/
  • 2“Turkmenistan To Merge Parliament With People's Council,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, 26 September 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/turkmenistan-to-merge-parliament-with-people-s-…
  • 3Clement, Victoria “Passing the baton in Turkmenistan,” Atlantic Council, 21 October 2019, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/passing-the-baton…
  • 4“Эксперты — о создании в Туркменистане двухпалатного парламента,” [Experts on the creation of a bicameral parliament in Turkmenistan], Gundogar, 30 September 2019, http://www.gundogar.org/?02340518948000000000000011000000
  • 5“Конституционная реформа в Туркменистане - путь к передаче власти?” [Constitutional reform in Turkmenistan - a way to transfer power?], Radio Azatlyk, 25 October 2019, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/30235773.html
  • 6“«По просьбе граждан» президент получил звание Почетного старейшины,” [“At the request of citizens”, the president received the title of Honorary Elder], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 26 September 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/09/wise-man/
  • 7“В Туркменистане отменен закон об ограничении совместной госслужбы родственников,” [Law on restriction of joint civil service of relatives repealed in Turkmenistan], Gundogar, 17 March, 2019, http://www.gundogar.org/?topic_id=25&year=2019&month=3
  • 8“Одна палата хорошо, а две — лучше,” [One chamber is good, and two is even better], Gundogar, 6 October 2019, http://www.gundogar.org/?02340518961000000000000011000000
  • 9“Президент Туркменистана назначил сына заместителем хякима Ахалского велаята,” [President of Turkmenistan appoints son as deputy khyakim of Akhal velayat], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 2 January 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/01/prezident-turkmenistana-naznachil-syi…
  • 10“Сердар Бердымухамедов назначен хякимом Ахалского велаята,” [Serdar Berdimuhamedov appointed khyakim of Akhal velayat], Radio Azatlyk, 17 June 2019, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/30004323.html
  • 11“Сердар Бердымухамедов заложил фундамент нового автобана (фото),” [Serdar Berdimuhamedov laid the foundation for a new autobahn (photo)], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 25 January 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/01/serdar-berdymuhamedov-zalozhil-fundam…
  • 12“Делегацию, которую президент Туркменистана готовил к визиту в Японию, возглавил Сердар Бердымухамедов,” [The delegation, which the President of Turkmenistan was preparing for a visit to Japan, was headed by Serdar Berdimuhamedov], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 26 March 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/03/serdar-senpai/
  • 13“Туркменистан: Глава МВД уволен, лишен всех госнаград, понижен до майора,” [Turkmenistan: Interior Minister fired, stripped of all state awards, demoted to major], Turkmen.news, 1 October 2019, https://turkmen.news/news/turkmenistan-glava-mvd-uvolen-lishen-vseh-gos…
  • 14“Бывший министр внутренних дел Туркменистана осуждён,” [Former Minister of Internal Affairs of Turkmenistan convicted], Radio Azatlyk, 03 December 2019, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/30305784.html
  • 15“10 лет по стойке «смирно». Что может стоять за отставкой главы МВД, [10 years standing ‘quietly’. What could be behind the resignation of the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs], Turkmen.News, 10 December 2019, https://turkmen.news/news/otstavka-isgendera-mulikova/
  • 16“После опалы Муликова пересматривают дела осуждённых МНБшников,” [After the disgrace of Mulikov, the cases of convicted officials from the Ministry of National Security are reviewed], Radio Azatlyk, 16 December, 2019, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/new-details-of-mulikovs-disfavour-with-berd…
  • 17“10 лет по стойке «смирно». Что может стоять за отставкой главы МВД, [10 years standing ‘quietly’. What could be behind the resignation of the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs], Turkmen.News, 10 December 2019, https://turkmen.news/news/otstavka-isgendera-mulikova/
  • 18“Туркменистан: министр внутренних дел появился в наручниках,” [Turkmenistan: Interior Minister appears in handcuffs], Eurasianet, 05 December 2019, https://russian.eurasianet.org/туркменистан-министр-внутренних-дел-появ…
  • 19“Четыре министерства и две службы объединены в одно суперминистерство,” [Four ministries and two services combined into one super-ministry], Gundogar, 29 January 2019, http://www.gundogar.org/?topic_id=25&year=2019&month=1
  • 20“Ашхабадская биржа труда отказывает безработным в постановке на учет,” [Ashgabat Labor Exchange refuses unemployment registration], Radio Azatlyk, 14 May 2019, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/29939414.html
  • 21“Закон Туркменистана о занятости населения,” [The Law of Turkmenistan on Employment], International Labor Organization, 18 June 2016, https://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/ELECTRONIC/105760/129394/F-86741666…
  • 22“Ашхабадская биржа труда отказывает безработным в постановке на учет,” [Ashgabat Labor Exchange refuses unemployment registration], Radio Azatlyk, 14 May 2019, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/29939414.html
  • 23“Asian Development Bank Outlook 2019: Strengthening Disaster Resilience,” ADB, April 2019, https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/492711/ado2019.pdf
  • 24“В Туркменистане повысят зарплаты и пенсии,” [Turkmenistan will increase salaries and pensions], Fergana, 07 July 2019, https://fergana.agency/news/108783/
  • 25“Курс доллара в Туркменистане на 30 декабря,” [Dollar exchange rate in Turkmenistan on December 30], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 30 December 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/12/exchange-5/
  • 26“На Халк Маслахаты снова обсудят переход к рыночным отношениям,” [On the Hulk Maslakhaty will again discuss the transition to market relations], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 03 September 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/09/halk-maslahaty/
  • 27“Çeşme: Soňky 10 ýylda 1,9 milliona golaý adam Türkmenistany terk etdi,” [Source: In the past 10 years near 1.9 million people left Turkmenistan], Radio Azatlyk, 29 May 2019, https://www.azathabar.com/a/29970151.html
  • 28“На станции «Кипчак» полтора месяца не отправляют контейнеры в Россию,” [At the Kipchak station, containers are not sent to Russia for a month and a half], Turkmen.news, 17 September 2019, https://turkmen.news/news/vyezd-iz-turkmenistana/
  • 29“Трудовая миграция в Турцию привела к нехватке медсестер в Туркменистане,” [Labor migration to Turkey leads to shortage of nurses in Turkmenistan], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 20 September 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/09/medics-migration/
  • 30“Çeşme: Soňky 10 ýylda 1,9 milliona golaý adam Türkmenistany terk etdi,” [Source: In the past 10 years near 1.9 million people left Turkmenistan], Radio Azatlyk, 29 May 2019, https://www.azathabar.com/a/29970151.html
  • 31“В Турции задержали туркменского оппозиционера во время встречи с соратниками,” [Turkmen opposition detained in Turkey during meeting with associates], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 26 October, 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/10/khydyrov/
  • 32“Просьбу о задержании оппозиционера отправило посольство Туркменистана в Турции,” [The request for the detention of the opposition was sent by the Embassy of Turkmenistan in Turkey], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 26 October, 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/10/khydyrov-2/
  • 33“В Стокгольме прошел пикет туркменского оппозиционера,” [Turkmen opposition picket in Stockholm], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 28 October 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/10/stockholm-picket-2/
  • 34“Расследование Азатлыка: Туркменские спецслужбы для слежки за гражданами, возможно, используют оборудование немецкой компании Rohde&Schwarz,” [Azatlyk investigation: Turkmen intelligence agencies may use equipment from German company Rohde & Schwarz to track citizens], Radio Azatlyk, 31 January 2019, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/29736105.html
  • 35“В аэропорту Ашхабада допрашивают вернувшихся из Турции мигрантов,” [Ashgabat Airport interrogates migrants returning from Turkey], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 23 April 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/04/tm-iron-curtain/
  • 36“Граждан Туркменистана не выпускают из страны за сотрудничество с «центрами идеологических диверсий»,” [Turkmen citizens are not allowed out of the country for cooperation with “centers of ideological sabotage”], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 06 February 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/02/grazhdan-turkmenistana-ne-vypuskayut-…
  • 37“Доклад Омбудсмена Туркменистана по итогам 2018 года,” [Report of the Ombudsman of Turkmenistan at the end of 2018], State News Agency of Turkmenistan, 2018, http://tdh.gov.tm/news/obd.aspx
Electoral Process 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines national executive and legislative elections, the electoral framework, the functioning of multiparty systems, and popular participation in the political process. 1.001 7.007
  • Elections in Turkmenistan are neither free nor fair. They lack transparency, political pluralism, and an informed and engaged electorate. They neither represent the people’s will nor serve as a mechanism to hold elected officials accountable. Elections are staged and merely symbolic attempts to give the ruling regime the aura of “democratic” legitimacy. The rules and conduct of the election contests are not fair, and alternative candidates do not receive sufficient publicity or airtime.
  • On March 31, 2019, Turkmenistan held elections to replace members of the parliament who prematurely retired or left their positions. In total, three parliamentarians, 20 members of the People’s Council, and 102 members of local gengesh (municipalities) were elected.1 Most of the candidates were from the three registered political parties: the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, and the Agrarian Party.2 However, many residents were unaware of the elections, while others chose not to vote. There were no posters, portraits of candidates, or locally promoted programs as in past elections.3 While the official state media put voter turnout at over 90 percent, the actual turnout is unknown.4 Elections were monitored only by local observers, who claimed that the votes were held on a democratic basis in a multiparty system.5 According to the government, polling stations in provinces and the capital Ashgabat were equipped with cameras, and the voting process was livestreamed on saylav.gov.tm, the Central Election Commission’s website.6
  • In previous election assessment reports, the OSCE concluded that Turkmenistan’s parliamentary elections lack democratic processes and genuine political plurality.7 The two alternative parties that participated created the mere illusion of a multiparty system, while in reality, they support and promote the ruling party’s policies. Similarly, parliamentary elections are of little significance since the Mejlis serves as a rubber stamp for laws that President Berdimuhamedov presents at will. The institution’s power has hemorrhaged as the president has prioritized the People’s Council as the highest legislative body.8
Civil Society 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses the organizational capacity and financial sustainability of the civic sector; the legal and political environment in which it operates; the functioning of trade unions; interest group participation in the policy process; and the threat posed by antidemocratic extremist groups. 1.001 7.007
  • Civil society is nonexistent in Turkmenistan, a consequence of the legislative and practical barriers imposed on the country’s civic space.1 Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are required to register in order to conduct any kind of activity. Since this is nearly impossible, the country’s pressing societal problems and abuse of minority rights remain unaddressed. The constitution prohibits torture and ill-treatment (Article 33),2 and the Criminal Code forbids keeping prisoners in isolation.3 In September, Prove They Are Alive!, an advocacy campaign for long-term prisoners in Turkmenistan, published an updated list of 121 persons who have disappeared in Turkmen jails, including 27 who died in custody.4 Human rights activists worry that the prison terms of 14 individuals that are set to expire soon will simply be extended on fabricated charges, as was the case for the civic activist Gulgeldi Annaniyazov in 2019.5 In spite of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention acknowledging his imprisonment as a violation of international law, there are no signs that Annaniyazov will be released.6
  • Although the government granted amnesty to 2,028 prisoners during Nowruz7 and 868 prisoners on Independence Day,8 including some convicted of rape, murder, and other serious crimes, the mass pardons did not include any political prisoners.9 For example, civic activist Mansur Mingelov, who exposed crimes committed by police, is still serving a 22-year prison sentence despite international pressure for his release.10 Deryaguly Garadurdyyev, former chairman of the Turkmenmallary livestock company who was jailed in 1999, died in prison while serving a long sentence.11 However, on May 3, Seyran Mammadov, one of the accused in the assassination attempt on former president Saparmurat Niyazov, was released after serving his full 15-year sentence.12 And on September 6, labor rights activist Gaspar Matalaev was released after serving his three-year sentence.13
  • Discrimination based on religion, gender, and sexual orientation is common in Turkmenistan. The U.S. Department of State redesignated Turkmenistan as one among nine “Countries of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated ‘systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom,’”14 while the British Foreign Office labeled it one of thirty human rights priority countries.15 Turkmens who attend mosque or have open conversations about God or religion are subject to harassment by the authorities, who regularly interrogate and confiscate the phones of those suspected of “excessive religiosity.”16 The UN Human Rights Committee has recognized Turkmenistan’s violations of several articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in the cases of Vladimir Nuryllaev and Aybek Salaev, Jehovah’s Witnesses who were sentenced to four years in jail (but not apprehended) on charges of disseminating pornography.17
  • Women in Turkmenistan also face regular discrimination, although there are laws guaranteeing the rights of women. The National Action Plan for Gender Equality for 2015–2020 promotes equal participation of women in all spheres of life.18 However, these values do not translate into daily practice. While there is no legal basis for preventing women from driving vehicles, traffic police regularly stop female drivers, in some cases taking away their licenses and impounding their cars.19 Meanwhile, female drivers whose licenses have expired cannot renew them, even in the absence of any traffic violations. When asked to identify legislation that allows discrimination against female drivers, one police officer commented to RFE/RL’s Radio Azatlyk that “this is an unspoken order from above, and he cannot accept their application.”20
  • Homosexuality is a punishable offense in Turkmenistan (Article 135, Criminal Code), and those accused face up to two years in prison.21 In 2019, Kasymberdi Garayev, one of the first Turkmens to come out publicly, experienced retaliation from security officers and his family. The young doctor was beaten, verbally abused, and shocked with a stun gun by police officers in Ashgabat, while his family tried to force him into marriage with a woman.22
  • Civil society groups established outside of Turkmenistan also experience pressure from local authorities. For instance, the Association of Solidarity and Assistance to Students from Turkmenistan, established by Omriuzak Omarkulyev in Osmaniye, Turkey, was shut down by local authorities after pressure from the Turkmen embassy.23 Omriuzak, invited by the Turkmen embassy to return to Turkmenistan in early 2018 to observe the parliamentary elections, was detained and issued a long prison sentence.24 Moreover, Turkmen security services have recruited Turkmens studying abroad to spy on each other in order to learn if they are interested in politics, what websites and social media platforms they visit, and whether they speak negatively about Turkmenistan or the president.25
Independent Media 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines the current state of press freedom, including libel laws, harassment of journalists, and editorial independence; the operation of a financially viable and independent private press; and the functioning of the public media. 1.001 7.007
  • There is no freedom of the press or other media in Turkmenistan. Independent journalists, who face ongoing harassment and potential imprisonment, are forced to work in exile. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkmenistan is ranked as the most dangerous country for journalists and among the top three countries with the most severe media censorship.1 Meanwhile, national media outlets act as megaphones for the regime’s propaganda and only report state-approved news provided by the Turkmen State News Agency (TDH). The state-controlled media do not cover any of the country’s socioeconomic difficulties but, rather, paint a rosy picture of prosperity and happiness. The Law on TV and Radio Broadcasting adopted in 2018 clearly states that broadcast media must create “a positive image of Turkmenistan.”2 Authorities also strictly control what people watch outside of state TV. The Netflix original movie 6 Underground was banned in Turkmenistan due to its plot involving the overthrow of a long-standing dictator. The movie’s fictitious country, “Turgistan,” had things in common with Turkmenistan (Turkmen-like symbols, language, and names), which might have sparked interest among Turkmen viewers. Police raided shops that “rented” digital copies of the movie and fined them between 80 and 200 manats, threatening some owners with additional punishment.3
  • The president, violating provisions of the law on mass media, continued to appoint and dismiss editors-in-chief at various media outlets in 2019. According to Article 16, the editor-in-chief is appointed and dismissed by the founder of the media organization.4 In his recent decisions, Berdimuhamedov sought to circumvent this rule by tweaking his language regarding the rationale for the firings, saying the individuals were “dismissed because of complaints.”5 Although the constitution and the Law on the President give the head of state the right to issue decrees of a regulatory nature, there is no specific mention about the appointment or dismissal of editors.6 Recently, Turkmenistan also made its print7 and broadcast media8 available online. However, as only 21 percent of the population has access to the internet,9 very few Turkmens consume news online.
  • The few independent journalists reporting from inside the country find themselves under constant surveillance and harassment.10 Journalists cannot travel freely, as is the case for Soltan Achilova, who was officially banned without explanation from traveling abroad.11 Similarly, independent journalist Saparmamet Nepeskuliev, who was regularly beaten, held in solitary confinement, subjected to sleep deprivation, and deprived of food and medical assistance,12 finally left Turkmenistan after serving a three-year sentence although the UN Working group acknowledged his arrest as arbitrary.13 And yet, safety for Turkmen journalists working abroad is not guaranteed either. Rustem Yusupov, who has worked for Radio Azatlyk while residing in Turkey since March of 2017, is facing deportation by Turkish authorities despite his refugee status granted by the UN. If deported to Turkmenistan, he is likely to face a prison sentence based on fabricated charges.14
  • Turkmenistan limits its citizens’ access to information through a variety of means. In the capital Ashgabat, authorities have prohibited residents from installing satellite dishes on the facades of their homes in order to push them to use local cable television, which is controlled by the state and of poor quality.15 Residents complain about high costs, limited selection of channels, poor signal, and channels disappearing altogether from the network.16 The internet also remains tightly controlled, of poor quality, and expensive. Over 130 websites are blocked in Turkmenistan,17 while exile media often experiences cyberattacks by hackers.18 Progovernment websites also try to undermine exile media by claiming that they publish fake news.19 To access blocked sites, internet users rely on VPNs and proxy servers. However, the security services can identify and intimidate citizens who use circumvention tools, shutting down their internet access and blocking online stores where people access such apps.20 In early 2019, VPN searches within Turkmenistan increased by 577 percent following the government’s block of the Google Play store.21 While never reaching its maximum connection speed of 2 megabits per second, local internet connections regularly drop to 400–500 kilobits per second while costing as much as 350 manats per month—almost a quarter of the average monthly salary.22
Local Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the decentralization of power; the responsibilities, election, and capacity of local governmental bodies; and the transparency and accountability of local authorities. 1.001 7.007
  • Years of top-down control by the ruling regime have stripped Turkmenistan of any semblance of democratic local governance. Executive power in Turkmenistan’s five velayat (regions) is vested in the hakim (governors), who are appointed by the president and oversee all levels of subnational government, that is, region and district (etrap). There are representative bodies at the district and village municipality level called gengesh, whose members are directly elected by local residents. Yet, while the constitution attaches great importance to local self-governance in resolving issues of local importance and also promotes decentralization of power, in practice, there is no difference between these forms of local governance as they all serve as extensions of central power. Since hakims are appointed and dismissed by the president at will, they lack the ability to challenge the central government. For example, in January, the president fired a number of regional and local government officials,1 and later district leaders, for failing to fulfill the requirements of the National Program for Transformation in the Regions as well as for low agricultural production.2 However, local leaders, who are tasked with fulfilling these goals, were not consulted when these plans were written or when ambitious agricultural quotas were set.
  • Regional and local government officials strictly follow the directions given by Ashgabat. In late 2019, the hakim of the Lebap region decided to deduct 100–200 manats from the 900–1,200 manat monthly salaries of public sector employees, who were also required to collect cotton to ensure that Serdar Berdimuhamedov’s Akhal region was the first to reach the agricultural quota.3 This led to the resignation of some employees who cited low salaries and described the “constant extortion” as becoming “unbearable.”4 Public employees had previously signed a statement agreeing to be dismissed from their jobs if they refuse to participate in mass celebrations or if their actions were deemed disrespectful towards the authorities.5
  • Local governments are substandard in the delivery of services to residents. For several years, the Turkmenabat administration has failed to fix a damaged bridge used regularly by schoolchildren. In 2019, the municipal government ordered the nearby school to fix the bridge. Instead of the authorities providing experienced construction works to complete the task, students in grades 6–7 and their teachers were forced to repair the damage themselves.6 Economic hardships have also affected the budgets of local governments. For example, employees of educational institutions in the Mary region were forced to pay for the cleaning and improvement of the city prior to an impending inspection from Ashgabat.7 Similarly, to complete the construction of its main mosque, authorities in the Balkan region forced public sector employees to contribute 500 manats towards the costs and the private sector to supply construction materials. Employees who refused to help risked losing their jobs, while local entrepreneurs faced harassment from the prosecutor’s office.8
  • In November, the government launched e.gov.tm, an online portal where citizens can learn about and receive state and municipal services. Online payment is available for services such as internet access, landline and mobile communications, television, and tickets for trains, intercity buses, and flights.9 If effective, this portal may help the central government to collect fees on time and in full while curbing corruption, since people will not have to interact with bureaucrats in person and pay bribes for favors.
  • 1“Президент уволил ряд хякимов этрапов «за допущенные в работе недостатки»” [The president dismissed a number of khyakims of etraps "for shortcomings in the work], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 08 January 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/01/prezident-uvolil-ryad-hyakimov-velaya…
  • 2“Президент уволил руководителей этрапов с формулировкой «они не добились успеха в АПК»”[ President fired etrap leaders with the wording “they did not succeed in the agricultural sector”], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 22 January 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/01/prezident-uvolil-rukovoditelej-etrapo…
  • 3“Бюджетники Туркменистана стали увольняться, чтобы не платить за план по сбору хлопка,” [Turkmenistan's public sector employees quit so as not to pay for a cotton picking plan], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 19 October 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/10/pay-to-work/
  • 4“Бюджетники Туркменистана стали увольняться, чтобы не платить за план по сбору хлопка,” [Turkmenistan's public sector employees quit so as not to pay for a cotton picking plan], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 19 October 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/10/pay-to-work/
  • 5“Бюджетники Туркменистана стали увольняться, чтобы не платить за план по сбору хлопка,” [Turkmenistan's public sector employees quit so as not to pay for a cotton picking plan], Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 19 October 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/10/pay-to-work/
  • 6“В Туркменабаде отремонтировать аварийный мост обязали школу. Ее окончил герой-космонавт Кононенко,” [In Turkmenabad, the school was required to repair the emergency bridge. The space hero Kononenko graduated from this school], Turkmen.news, 09 Novermber 2019, https://turkmen.news/news/v-turkmenabade-otremontirovat-avarijnyj-most-…
  • 7“В Мары ожидают "проверку" из Ашхабада и собирают деньги на благоустройство,” [In Mary, they expect a "check" from Ashgabat and raise money for improvement], Radio Freedom, 23 August 2019, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/30124946.html
  • 8“У бюджетников Туркменистана собирают средства на строительство мечети,” [Turkmen state employees raise funds for mosque construction] Radio Freedom, 27 November 2019, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/30294641.html
  • 9“В Туркменистане запустили портал госуслуг,” [Public services portal launched in Turkmenistan], Turkmenportal, 27 November 2019, https://turkmenportal.com/blog/23390/v-turkmenistane-zapushchen-edinyi-…
Judicial Framework and Independence 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses constitutional and human rights protections, judicial independence, the status of ethnic minority rights, guarantees of equality before the law, treatment of suspects and prisoners, and compliance with judicial decisions. 1.001 7.007
  • Although the country’s constitution guarantees the separation of powers, in reality, President Berdimuhamedov regularly uses courts to advance his own interests. The president appoints judges for 5-year terms and dismisses them at will, thus further compromising judicial independence.1 Judicial power is invested in district, city, and regional courts and the Supreme Court.2 Court hearings are opaque and do not serve the interests of ordinary citizens. For example, residents of Ashgabat whose homes were demolished have been waiting for over two years for promised housing. Most have already made a 10-percent down payment and have had to pay anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 in bribes to ensure they receive quality apartments. Meanwhile, those without official residence permits will not receive any compensation or housing and lack any method to appeal this decision in the court system.3
  • Perhaps the most notable case in 2019 pertained to formerly influential members of the president’s inner circle. On November 29, the Supreme Court had a closed-door hearing in the case against Isgender Mulikov, former internal affairs minister, and Meylis Nobatov, former head of the migration service and the president’s security service. Both convicts had already been transferred to Ovadan-Depe prison, therefore only the judges, a prosecutor, and the defendants’ lawyers were in attendance. Allegedly, each received 15-year sentences.4
  • There is no rule of law or respect for human rights in Turkmenistan. Arrests are often arbitrary, politically motivated, and based on bogus accusations and forced consent obtained under torture.5 In 2019, local police in Turkmenabat tortured a resident into admitting to a robbery he had not committed. The victim was eventually taken to the hospital, but fearing repercussions, the head of the regional police involved the prosecutor’s office, thereby forcing the doctors to refuse a medical examination and hospitalization for the victim.6
  • Prisons in Turkmenistan are known for poor nutrition, unsanitary conditions, overcrowded cells, and the spread of infectious diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis. Due to the lack of adequate medical care, prisoners are left to suffer until they die. In 2019, Eziz Hudayberdiyev and Akmurat Soyunov, alleged supporters of the exiled Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen, died in Ovadan-Depe prison as a result of torture and unbearable conditions.7 Additional reports stated that Alisher Muhametgulyyev, another alleged Gulenist sentenced to 23 years, failed to receive medical assistance despite his severe health condition.8
  • Although courts are meant to protect citizen rights, they are often used as tools to further the government’s interests. Azat Ashirov, a Jehovah’s Witness, was sentenced to two years in prison under Article 219 (Part 1) of the Criminal Code for refusing to serve in the military due to his religious convictions. Although he had requested an alternative form of service, one that would not involve firearms, the Ashgabat district court accused him of trying to fraudulently evade military service. There are at least seven people jailed for similar charges, four of whom were imprisoned in 2019.9
Corruption 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Looks at public perceptions of corruption, the business interests of top policymakers, laws on financial disclosure and conflict of interest, and the efficacy of anticorruption initiatives. 1.001 7.007
  • Corruption in Turkmenistan is a widespread norm that involves people at all levels of society in both the taking and giving of bribes and other corrupt acts. The Heritage Foundation’s 2019 Index of Economic Freedom ranked Turkmenistan 164th among 186 countries, making its economy one of the most repressed, while Risk Advisory described Turkmenistan as facing the greatest corruption challenges.1 Corruption starts at the top echelons of power and trickles down to lower-level officials. At the top, President Berdimuhamedov and his family have benefited greatly from their elevated position. To illustrate, the president approves all construction projects in the country and receives 20–30 percent of the cost as a bribe. As a result, he is estimated to have made $20–25 billion between 2007 and 2018 through corrupt business dealings in the construction sector alone.2
  • The president’s extended family are given expansive informal economic and political power, as well. On December 9, a former manager of the German vehicle manufacturer MAN appeared in court in Munich on charges of paying €8.4 million in bribes to senior Turkmen officials from 2000 to 2007.3 Moreover, in January, President Berdimuhamedov announced the construction of the Ashgabat-Turkmenabat express highway. Without opening the project to public bidding, it was decided that three national construction companies would take charge of the $2.3 billion project. One of the three companies, Nusay Yollary, is owned by Annanazar Rejepov, husband of the president’s younger sister, Durdynabat Rejepova.4 Moreover, the president’s elder sister, Gulnabat Dovletova, takes advantage of her status to regularly transport unknown goods to and from neighboring Uzbekistan. These trucks are not subject to inspection by border officials as they carry a special document with Gulnabat’s signature and the stamp of Turkmenistan’s National Red Crescent Society, which she heads.5
  • Another highly corrupt sector is education, where payoffs are common at every level, from kindergarten to universities. Reporting in 2019 describes, for example, how the director of a Russian school in Dashoguz has taken $1,000 in bribes per each enrolled student. Every year, the school enrolls two parallel groups of students, one composed of privileged children of influential prosecutors, police, local municipal officials, and heads of prominent institutions.6 Teacher complaints have been ignored. Similarly, schoolteachers must pay 200 manats if they teach an additional 2 to 4 hours per week and 25 manats for simply taking a day off.7 Likewise, when families relocate to a different city, they often have to pay 12,000 manats to expedite the process of enrolling their children in a new school.8
  • Due to large-scale unemployment, people are desperate to find work, which creates lucrative opportunities for heads of public institutions. In order to obtain a factory job, one may pay 16,000 manats, and to be a foreman, 40,000 manats.9 Corruption occurs even in the country’s religious institutions. On September 13, the former mufti of Turkmenistan, Rovshan Allaberdyev, and two other colleagues were convicted of taking bribes from people seeking to go on Hajj to Mecca.10
  • Corruption in Turkmenistan does not always involve the direct handing over of cash payments. For instance, when public sector employees take a day off, they must pay 30 manats. When they receive their salary, they hand over their bank card and PIN to their manager, who then withdraws the amount of the bribe.11 Additionally, to cash their paychecks, people also bribe security services at banks, who for 5–10 manats (27–55 cents) help withdraw cash during non-working hours.12
  • On December 13, the Criminal Code was amended to outlaw pardons for individuals convicted of crimes related to corruption and drug trafficking. Article 184 on Corruption was expanded to specify prison terms of 8–15 years, deprivation of the right to hold certain positions or engage in certain activities for up to 3 years, and confiscation of property.13 The president also expanded the powers of the Prosecutor General’s Office, increased its number of employees, and ordered revisions to the country’s Anti-Bribery and Corruption Program.14
  • While mostly symbolic and often politically motivated, anticorruption measures allow the president to boost his image and punish those who have fallen out of favor. For example, former trade minister Amandurdy Ishanov was fired and later arrested on corruption charges in a staged court case with anonymous witnesses accusing him of bribery.15

NOTE: The ratings reflect the consensus of Freedom House, its academic advisers, and the author(s) of this report. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the author(s). The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. The Democracy Percentage, introduced in 2020, is a translation of the Democracy Score to the 0–100 scale, where 0 equals least democratic and 100 equals most democratic.

On Turkmenistan

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  • Global Freedom Score

    2 100 not free