Consolidated Authoritarian Regime
DEMOCRACY-PERCENTAGE Democracy Percentage 0.00 100
DEMOCRACY-SCORE Democracy Score 1.00 7
Last Year's Democracy Percentage & Status
0 100 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 2022

  • No changes

header2 Executive Summary

In 2021, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s brand of personalist authoritarian governance tightened its grip on Turkmenistan. The president continued to enjoy virtually unlimited powers, micromanaging all social, political, and economic processes in the country and granting no possibility for checks and balances on his authority. In April, Berdimuhamedov was elected chairman of the national Halk Maslahaty, the upper chamber of the parliament, in a blatant violation of the country’s constitution, which prohibits the sitting president from becoming a member of the legislature. The bicameral parliament was established by constitutional changes adopted in 2020, which were widely seen as Berdimuhamedov’s move towards stepping down as head of state and transferring formal reins of power to his son Serdar.1 The 2021 political developments, however, highlighted his distrust of the highest echelons of the political elite and his strong interest in retaining ultimate control of the nation’s affairs in a bid to secure a hereditary power transition.

The president’s family also strengthened its already expansive political and economic powers. Serdar Berdimuhamedov advanced his political career, and international and media visibility, with appointments by his father to a number of top positions, namely, deputy prime minister overseeing the economy and reporting directly to the president. Thus, Serdar practically became second in the country’s political hierarchy after his father. Serdar’s frequent shuffling among posts over the past several years indicates his father’s strong intent to have an ultimate loyalist overseeing important sectors and to prepare him to run the country in a personalist fashion. His numerous foreign travels throughout the year, where he held talks with high-level foreign officials, may similarly hint at his father’s intent to gain international support, particularly from key foreign partners, for Serdar’s candidacy as a “legitimate” successor. Although the clear succession scenario remains unknown as of 2021, the power transitions in neighboring Kazakhstan and Tajikistan (still ongoing) may be viewed as blueprints to follow. Other members of the Berdimuhamedov family also used their closeness to the president to further entrench their privileged economic position. In May and October, independent journalists presented investigative reports that documented how the president’s nephews controlled lucrative economic spheres and used the corrupt money to enjoy luxurious lives and buy expensive real estate abroad.

Turkmenistan continued to face cascading political, social, and economic challenges, aggravated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The worsening socioeconomic situation widened the social inequality gap between a small group of elites who benefit from the existing regime due to personal connections and the rest of the population struggling to meet basic needs. Chronic food shortages, rationing, long lines, rising prices, inadequate healthcare, spiking unemployment, low wages, and other deprivations significantly diminished the standard of living for much of the population. Meanwhile, the country’s government continued to splash public funds on showcase construction projects and hosting image-building international events, such as the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) summit. In September, for instance, it was reported that the total cost of ongoing state-funded construction projects equaled $37 billion.2 The country’s tightly controlled national media followed the government’s line and reported on fictitious economic prosperity, avoiding discussing issues unfavorable to the regime.

Turkmenistan remains among the few countries in the world that claims to have no confirmed cases of COVID-19, all while the situation kept worsening during the year. In late summer, Turkmenistan was hit by a third wave of the pandemic, which lasted until late November and led to the sharp increase of cases and deaths with coronavirus-like symptoms. The government implemented measures to contain the spread of the disease, such as registering several vaccines, ordering a mandatory mass vaccination for all citizens aged 18 and older, closing public places for quarantine, restricting movements across the country, and requiring citizens to wear masks and follow other recommendations, while referring to seasonal infectious illnesses or “harmful dust” in the air. However, the government’s poor management capacity, data manipulations, secretiveness regarding the spread of the disease and its severity, decaying healthcare system, endemic corruption, and inconsistency in implementing health measures severely undermined efforts to cope with the continuing pandemic.

The country’s worsening socioeconomic hardships, political corruption and abuse of office, and the state’s gruesome violations of human rights and freedoms continued to fuel political protests organized by Turkmen citizens residing abroad. While there were some domestic initiatives as well, the government’s iron-fisted approach to even mild forms of dissent put people inside the country in extreme danger. An increasing number of political prisoners have already disappeared in Turkmen prisons as documented by the international “Prove They Are Alive!” campaign. The government became similarly vigilant towards civic activists and opposition leaders based in Turkey and Russia, using a wide range of formal and behind-the-scenes instruments to urge the two countries to pressure, incarcerate, and deport these activists back to Turkmenistan. Throughout the year, independent outlets documented numerous accounts of activists falling victim to intimidation, physical abuse, arbitrary detentions, deportations, and refusals for entrance and gaining asylum status.

The rights of women, religious groups, and LGBT+ people have also been continuously and severely violated in Turkmenistan. The country’s judicial system, highly corrupt and institutionally impaired, continuously fails to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens. Conversely, Turkmenistan’s judiciary in practice advances the regime’s interests at the expense of citizens’ well-being. Religious minorities, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses, regularly face prosecution, including for asking to undergo alternative forms of military service. Same-sex relationships between adults are criminalized and punishable with prison sentences of two to five years. In December, more than 50 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) representing different countries appealed to the OSCE participating states to invoke OSCE human dimension mechanisms with respect to Turkmenistan in response to the continuing gross mass violations of human rights and freedoms.3

The prospects for 2022 do not look promising for the people of Turkmenistan as the country faces an increasing number of internal and external challenges. The economic crisis will persist, impoverishing ordinary citizens who already struggle to provide for their families. Hence, the public discontent manifested through political protests staged by Turkmen citizens abroad and less visible defections inside the country will remain, if not grow. While the government is likely to respond by bolstering its repressive actions, the persistent economic recession will put additional pressure on its propagandistic and coercive abilities. The deteriorating situation in neighboring Afghanistan is also likely to raise alarms in Ashgabat, particularly regarding safety at the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border. The regime will respond to these and other developments through the prism of ensuring a peaceful and successful hereditary power transition to Serdar Berdimuhamedov. Indicatively, Serdar turned 40 in 2021, which is the minimum legal age to advance one’s candidacy for president; as the events of 2021 showed, the power succession’s final stage is nearing, and Turkmenistan may soon receive a new serdar (“leader” in Turkmen).

header3 At a Glance

In Turkmenistan, national governance is defined by personalist authoritarianism under the strongman President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and a complete lack of democratic, publicly accountable institutions. Elections are neither free nor fair and lack transparency, political pluralism, and an informed and engaged electorate. The civic sector is overwhelmingly dominated by government-organized NGOs (GONGOs), which advance the state agenda, while independent civil society is almost nonexistent due to restrictive laws and lack of resources. Media are neither free nor independent, and are actively used to promote the ruling regime’s propaganda and consolidate the president’s personality cult. Local governance is merely an extension of central power, strictly following regime policies at the subnational level. The judicial system is neither independent nor transparent, and is widely instrumentalized by the regime to punish critics, activists, and those political figures who fall out of favor. Corruption is a widespread and deeply entrenched practice that permeates all spheres, starting at the top of the power pyramid and extending down to the average citizen.

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 2021, as in past years, Turkmenistan was defined by its complete lack of democratic institutions and practices. Conversely, the country saw President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s personalist authoritarian rule only strengthen in all areas of government. In April, President Berdimuhamedov was unanimously elected as chairman of the national Halk Maslahaty, the parliamentary upper chamber of the Milli Gengesh, thereby gaining personal control over the legislature (see “Electoral Process”). Speculations by some observers that Berdimuhamedov would voluntarily step down as president, transfer power to his son Serdar, and take a seat in the Halk Maslahaty with “ex-president” status did not, in fact, materialize.1 The president’s disregard of the principle of separation of powers was highlighted by several sessions of the upper chamber during the year, which were attended not only by elected members but also heads of government agencies; political parties and public organizations; regional, district, and city governors; and other bureaucrats, adding to the confusion over changes in the Halk Maslahaty’s institutional role and design from the preceding body with the same name.2 3
  • Serdar Berdimuhamedov, the president’s son and heir apparent, also strengthened his political profile and media visibility in 2021. In February, he received a number of top promotions, becoming head of the Supreme Control Chamber, which also granted him a seat in the State Security Council, and a deputy chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers overseeing digitalization.4 In March, he received additional foreign policy posts, becoming a co-chair of intergovernmental cooperation commissions with key foreign partners, namely, Russia and China.5 Serdar then embarked on many official trips during the year, meeting with high-ranking foreign officials6 and thereby becoming the country’s face to the world. In November, for example, Serdar headed Turkmenistan’s delegation at the annual UN Conference on Climate Change.7 In July, he was reassigned as deputy chairman overseeing financial and economic affairs.8 His frequent reassignments may indicate his father’s general distrust of the elites and the need to have an ultimate loyalist overseeing important political and economic spheres. These moves also hint at his father’s intent to prepare Serdar to rule the country in his personalist and hyper-centralized fashion, micromanaging all political, socioeconomic, and cultural processes. Indeed, Serdar demonstrated management traits similar to those of his father. To illustrate, he reprimanded local officials and gave out directives during his travels to the country’s regions,9 inaugurated new facilities,10 and honored the country’s first-ever Olympic medalist, Polina Guryeva,11 among other actions.
  • Turkmenistan’s economic situation remained difficult in 2021, aggravating the plight of the local population and widening social exclusion. While the government continued to provide basic foods at subsidized prices through state-owned shops, the process was riddled with chaos, irregularities, and setbacks. Consequently, food shortages persisted and even worsened throughout the year, leading to long lines, spiking prices, and decreases in rations. The president responded with the usual reprimands of officials and demands to ensure food abundance, which did not improve the situation. Food shortages also deepened the social inequities between the capital Ashgabat and residents of the regions and rural areas. In the capital city, in May, local authorities initiated delivery of food packages at subsidized prices to households in order to eliminate long lines at state shops.12 In September, the rationing of such packages and the frequency of their delivery was reduced,13 recovering in December before the New Year holidays.14 In the regions, however, particularly in rural areas, local authorities lacked the resources to follow suit. In December, the independent online news source “Chronicles of Turkmenistan” reported that residents of rural areas received only one or two packages over the year instead of the prescribed monthly deliveries and were forced to travel to district towns and regional cities for shopping.15 Turkmenistan also continued to experience a lack of hard domestic cash and foreign currency. The black-market rate of manat fluctuated throughout the year, falling to an all-time low 40 manats to the dollar in April,16 before returning to about 20 manats to the dollar in December,17 still a huge discrepancy with the official rate of 3.5 manats to the dollar.
  • As of December 2021, Turkmenistan had not officially registered a single case of COVID-19, a claim widely regarded as false by independent observers and epidemiologists. In November, the World Health Organization (WHO), which previously had toed the government’s line regarding the lack of coronavirus cases in the country, cast doubt on Turkmenistan’s claim that the virus was not circulating within its borders.18 Turkmenistan registered several vaccines, including Sputnik V, EpiVacCorona, BioVac, and Sputnik Light, and ordered a mandatory mass vaccination for all citizens aged 18 and older.19 The government, however, did not provide accurate and detailed information on the percentage of the population that was fully or partially vaccinated. In August, Turkmenistan was hit by a third wave of the pandemic. While authorities imposed strict measures to contain the spread of the virus, including quarantining several villages and towns20 and closing shops, restaurants, and cafes, the public health situation continued to deteriorate till mid-November.21 Inconsistencies in implementing measures played a crucial role in undermining efforts to cope with a continuing pandemic that led to a dramatic rise in the number of coronavirus-like diseases and fatalities.22 Reports showed, for instance, that certain vendors, allegedly connected to influential figures or through the bribing of police,23 remained open despite the restrictions; furthermore, the government itself disregarded restrictions and safety measures by organizing state-sponsored mass celebrations to commemorate major holidays.24 Although the actual number of deaths from COVID-19 remains unknown, Turkmen.news documented 63 such cases.25 Other reports claim that the actual figure is likely higher than 25,000.26
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. Tightly controlled by the ruling regime, the electoral process lacks transparency, political pluralism, and an informed and engaged electorate. Elections neither represent the people’s will nor serve as a mechanism to hold officials accountable. Ultimately, elections are staged and merely symbolic attempts to give the ruling regime the aura of “democratic” legitimacy.
  • Following the 2020 constitutional changes that established a bicameral parliament, Turkmenistan held its first-ever elections to the upper chamber, the national Halk Maslahaty, on March 28, 2021.1 (The 181-seat Milli Gengesh, or National Council, also includes the 125-seat Meglis, or parliamentary lower chamber). The national Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council) consists of 56 members. Similar bodies in the regions and Ashgabat each elect 8 members by secret ballot for a total of 48 members. The president directly appoints the remaining 8 members. 2 To run for a mandate, candidates must be citizens of Turkmenistan, over 30 years of age, have a higher education degree, permanently reside in the country for the last 10 years, and “should be among the people who are respected, literate, and patriotic.”3 The Central Election Commission of Turkmenistan reported that 112 candidates were nominated and registered to run for 48 mandates. There were no opposition candidates on the ballot since the bulk of registered candidates were civil servants, who were preselected to provide the illusion of a variety of alternatives. The elections were monitored only by domestic observers, 440 in total, who were nominated by political parties, public associations, candidates, and groups of citizens.4
  • Officials and state media claimed the election was “fair” and demonstrated “Turkmenistan’s democratic progress and the triumph of decisive reforms carried out by [our] national leader.”5 In reality, the election of President Berdimuhamedov as a member of the national Halk Maslahaty highlighted the rigidity of the country’s electoral process, lack of checks and balances, and the deference of all institutions to the whims of the president. Berdimuhamedov’s election blatantly disregarded the constitution, which prohibits the sitting president (article 73) and a member of the Cabinet of Ministers (article 87; the president is the cabinet chair) from holding a seat in either chamber of the parliament.6 Indicatively, President Berdimuhamedov’s candidacy was not officially announced prior to the election results; his name was not on the list of 111 registered candidates initially publicized by the State News Agency report of March 8, 2021.7 Later, the Central Election Commission reported on 112 candidates, meaning that the president’s candidacy was added after the registration was completed and the list of other candidates was publicized. Berdimuhamedov ran for the mandate in his native Ahal region and was the only candidate across the country to receive 100 percent of votes.8
  • On April 14, 2021, Berdimuhamedov held the first session of a new Halk Maslahaty where he was unanimously elected chairman of the upper chamber. He subsequently appointed the remaining eight members in accordance with his quota, set up five legislative committees, and set the chamber’s working priorities.9
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
  • Independent civil society is nonexistent in Turkmenistan, a consequence of the legislative and practical barriers imposed on the country’s civic space. Consequently, the country’s pressing societal problems and abuse of minority rights remain unaddressed. The civil society space is dominated by government-organized NGOs (GONGOs), which receive state subsidies and advance the regime’s interests.
  • In 2021, Turkmen citizens residing abroad continued to stage peaceful demonstrations against the ruling regime’s abuse of office, human rights infringements, and inaction in response to the growing socioeconomic and COVID-19 crises. In September, following the rise in coronavirus in Turkmenistan, activists held demonstrations in front of the UN office in New York and the WHO office in Geneva, aiming to attract the attention of experts to the government’s neglect of the pandemic.1
  • In 2021, Turkmen authorities became even more vigilant and repressive in their attempts to silence activists residing abroad, particularly those based in Turkey. In February2 and April,3 prior to scheduled protests, activists were confronted by Turkish officials and men allegedly affiliated with the Turkmen consulate, who warned them of potential negative consequences for taking part in any demonstrations. It was also reported that Turkmen authorities tried to enlist criminal elements in Turkey to intimidate and physically injure Turkmen activists criticizing the regime.4 During the August 1 protest in front of the consulate in Istanbul, several protestors were beaten by unknown assailants. One of the protestors, Farhad Durdyev, was forcefully dragged inside the embassy premises, where he was beaten by eight men.5 Other notable activists similarly faced increasing intimidation and harassment, including Dursoltan Taganova,6 Murad Kurbanov,7 Rozgeldy Choliev,8 Aziz Mamedov, Nurmuhammet Annayev.9 In October, it was reported that the Turkmen consulate issued a list of 28 activists to be arrested by Turkish authorities.10 In early November, over 30 human rights organizations called on Turkey to stop the prosecution of Turkmen activists, following the intensifying crackdown on their activities.11 In December, an Istanbul court acquitted five Turkmen activists the consulate had accused of violating public order and threatening diplomats with violence.12
  • The Turkmen government also used its close security ties with Russia to track down and silence Russia-based Turkmen civic activists. In March, Turkmen officials, Russian police, and Federal Security Services coordinated actions to locate a woman who had given a detailed interview on the poor conditions, corruption, abuse of office, and torture in Turkmen prisons to the Moscow-based human rights organization “Memorial.”13 In October, activist Azat Isakov disappeared and supposedly was forcefully deported to Turkmenistan; Russian authorities insisted that Azat returned to Turkmenistan voluntarily.14
  • Turkmenistan also intensified prosecution, repression, and incarceration on fabricated charges of activists at home. In March, police detained Didar Ashirov and Dovran Gylyjov for spreading antigovernment leaflets, and Murad Dushemov in August for openly speaking out about COVID-19 issues in the country, later sentencing him to four years in prison on fabricated charges (see “Judicial Framework and Independence”). Authorities also pressured relatives of activists residing abroad, as was the case with Rozybai Jumamuradov’s niece and nephew.15
  • As in previous years, Turkmenistan failed in 2021 to comply with international human rights obligations, including those related to freedom of conscience and religion. The criminal prosecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses for conscientious objection to mandatory military service intensified. In January, six Jehovah’s Witnesses were sentenced to two years in prison on charges of repeatedly trying to fraudulently evade military service.16 In May, 16 Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were sent to prison at various times, were among citizens pardoned by the president.17 Turkmen courts similarly failed to protect the rights of citizens who face discrimination based on sexual orientation. Consensual sexual relations between people of the same sex are criminalized in Turkmenistan. In September, it was reported that 30 men were detained in Turkmenabat (Lebap region) and accused of “sodomy.” These men were reportedly severely tortured to testify against themselves and reveal the names of others.18
  • 1“В Нью-Йорке началась серия протестов против режима президента Бердымухамедова,” [A series of protests against the regime of President Berdymukhammedov began in New York], Radio Azatlyk, September 29, 2021, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/31483914.html
  • 2“Туркменских активистов в Стамбуле попросили «не участвовать в сомнительных акциях»,” [Turkmen activists in Istanbul asked "not to participate in dubious actions], Khronika Turkmenistana, 22 February 2021, https://www.hronikatm.com/2021/02/istanbul-pickets/
  • 3“Власти Турции требуют от находящихся в стране туркменских активистов прекратить критику Бердымухамедова,” [Turkish authorities demand from Turkmen activists in the country to stop criticizing Berdymukhamedov], Khronika Turkmenistana, 20 April 2021, https://www.hronikatm.com/2021/04/taganova-threats/
  • 4“В Стамбуле избили туркменских активистов,” [Turkmen activists beaten in Istanbul], Radio Azatlyk, October 12, 2021, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/31504861.html
  • 5“Туркменские активисты подверглись нападению за попытку провести акцию протеста у консульства Туркменистана в Стамбуле,” [Turkmen activists attacked for trying to hold a protest outside the consulate of Turkmenistan in Istanbul], Radio Azatlyk, August 2, 2021, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/31390064.html
  • 6“ Outspoken Critic Of Turkmen Government Released From Deportation Center In Istanbul,” RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, September 30, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/turkmenistan-critic-released-turkey/31485540.ht…
  • 7“Власти Турции не пустили в страну оппозиционера Мурада Курбанова. Ему грозит депортация,” [The Turkish authorities did not allow oppositionist Murad Kurbanov into the country. He faces deportation], Khronika Turkmenistana, 3 September 2021, https://www.hronikatm.com/2021/09/kurbanov-detained/
  • 8“После депортации туркменского блогера российские пограничники стали отрицать, что отказывались принимать у него заявление об убежище,” [After the Turkmen blogger was deported, Russian border guards began to deny that they had refused to accept his asylum application], The Human Rights Center Memorial, March 26, 2021, https://memohrc.org/ru/news_old/posle-deportacii-turkmenskogo-blogera-r…
  • 9“Rights Groups Say More Turkmen Activists Attacked In Istanbul,” RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, October 12, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/31505232.html
  • 10“В Стамбуле задержан еще один туркменский активист. Полиция страны разыскивает более 20 других,” [Another Turkmen activist is detained in Istanbul. Police is searching for over 20 others], Hronika Turkmenistana, October 22, 2021, https://www.hronikatm.com/2021/10/activists-detained-2/
  • 11Umar Farooq, “Turkmenistan’s dissidents fear crackdown in Turkish exile,” Aljazeera, November 12, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/12/turkmenistans-dissidents-fear…
  • 12“Турецкий суд оправдал пятерых граждан Туркменистана, устроивших митинг у консульства республики в Стамбуле,” [Turkish court acquitted five citizens of Turkmenistan who staged a rally near the consulate of the republic in Istanbul], Mediazona Central Asia, December 28, 2021, https://mediazona.ca/news/2021/12/28/turkey-sud
  • 13“«Пусть она замолчит»,” [“Let her shut up!”], The Human Rights Center Memorial, March 1, 2021, https://memohrc.org/ru/news_old/pust-ona-zamolchit
  • 14Rachel Denber, “Activist Missing in Turkmenistan,” Human Rights Watch, November 18, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/11/18/activist-missing-turkmenistan
  • 15“Директор школы пригрозила плохими оценками племяннице туркменского активиста,” [School principal threatens Turkmen activist's niece with bad grades], Hronika Turkmenistana, May 24, 2021, https://www.hronikatm.com/2021/05/rozybay-niece-threats/
  • 16“За два дня в Туркменистане повторно осудили пятерых Свидетелей Иеговы за отказ проходить воинскую службу,” [Five Jehovah's Witnesses re-convicted in Turkmenistan over two days for refusing to perform military service], Hronika Turkmenistana, February 1, 2021, https://www.hronikatm.com/2021/02/5-jw-sentenced/
  • 17Adelle M. Banks, “16 Jehovah’s Witnesses released from prison in Turkmenistan during Ramadan,” Religion News Service, May 11, 2021, https://religionnews.com/2021/05/11/16-jehovahs-witnesses-released-from…
  • 18“В полицейском изоляторе в Туркменабаде содержатся около 30 обвиняемых в гомосексуальных связях,” [About 30 accused of homosexual relations are held in a police detention center in Turkmenabad], Turkmen.news, September 24, 2021, https://turkmen.news/gay-men-in-detention/
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
  • Media in Turkmenistan are neither free nor independent. All media outlets—print, broadcast, and online—are state-controlled and censored. National media outlets do not cover any of the country’s socioeconomic difficulties or other news unfavorable to the regime. The media, for instance, did not report on the COVID-19 situation following the regime’s narrative that Turkmenistan is coronavirus-free. Media outlets, however, continued to recommend social distancing, masking, and washing hands, referring to seasonal illnesses.1 They also misinformed the public; in February, media reported that the vaccine EpiVacCorona was registered in Turkmenistan, stressing its use against viruses while not mentioning COVID-19 specifically.2 As in 2020, the media did not report about the damage that was caused by strong winds that hit the Lebap region in March (see “Local Democratic Governance”). Hence, instead of independent reporting, national media were used by the government to advance the regime’s propaganda and consolidate the president’s personality cult, painting a rosy picture of prosperity and happiness.
  • In 2021, President Berdimuhamedov continued to undermine the media’s independence. He regularly criticized their work, dictated topics they should cover, reprimanded officials overseeing media institutions, and appointed and dismissed editors-in-chief at various outlets in clear violation of provisions of the law on mass media. In February, the president appointed T. Kakayeva as editor-in-chief of Watan (Motherland) to replace M. Gazakbayev, who was appointed head of the State News Agency.3 In October, he gave strong reprimands to M. Mammedova, deputy chair of the Cabinet of Ministers overseeing culture and mass media, and A. Ashyrov, head of the State Committee of Television, Radio Broadcasting, and Cinematography, for failing to fulfill their responsibilities, citing the low quality of productions.4
  • While the media law formally ensures citizens’ freedom to collect and share information, law enforcement officials continued to harass, threaten, and imprison independent and citizen journalists on fabricated charges for describing the country’s situation counter to the state narrative. In August, activist Murad Dushemov was sentenced to four years in prison on fabricated charges of extortion and causing moderate physical injuries. Previously, he posted videos on YouTube calling on the Turkmen opposition to unite and also commenting on COVID-19-related topics (see “Judicial Framework and Independence”). The case of Soltan Achilova, a prominent independent journalist, is particularly concerning since she disappeared from news feeds for most of the year. The last mention of her was in February–March 2021, when she posted a video on YouTube openly criticizing president Berdimuhamedov and his government for systematic and continual failure to ensure proper living standards for citizens.5 In recent years, Soltan had suffered deliberate targeting from the state, including physical abuse and a ban from traveling abroad.
  • The ruling regime employs a variety of means to restrict citizens’ access to information. Internet access remains expensive, limited, and tightly controlled by Turkmentelecom, the state-owned monopoly in the communications sector. The government also bolstered its surveillance capabilities and intensified the crackdown on virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxy servers, which help the local population bypass state filters and access blocked social media channels and independent outlets. The government blocked online stores where people purchase such applications, and intimidated and harassed citizens that either use or help to install them. In March, for instance, the government launched a massive shutdown of VPN applications that resulted in large-scale service failures until the end of the month.6 In November, authorities in Turkmenabat warned local students about the “negative influence” of foreign social media networks and media outlets and urged them not to use VPNs.7 The government also improved its tactics for targeting independent journalists’ online content, particularly through government-associated social media accounts. In May, the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights’ YouTube channel, “Chronicles of Turkmenistan,” was blocked on charges of copyright violations filed by the state-operated Watan Habarlary channel for using official footage from Turkmen state TV,8 even though all references were properly acknowledged.
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
  • The ruling regime’s top-down control has stripped Turkmenistan of any semblance of democratic local governance. Executive power in the regions is vested in the hakim (governors), who are appointed and dismissed by the president at will. They are, hence, directly subordinated to the president instead of being accountable to the local population. There are representative bodies at the district and village municipality level, called gengesh (councils), whose members are directly elected by local residents. While the constitution attaches due importance to local self-governance in dealing with issues of local importance, and promotes decentralization of power, in reality these forms of local governance serve as mere extensions of the central government with no ability to challenge its decisions. It is common for the president to dismiss and reappoint regional, district, and local government officials throughout the year for failing to fulfill goals, often unrealistic, set by the president himself. In February, the president dismissed and reappointed 30 district and local government officials in all five regions of the country at once.1
  • Regional and local government officials strictly follow directions given by Ashgabat, even if this requires falsifying documents or breaking the law. In May, officials in the Koytendag district in Lebap province tried to confiscate and redistribute farmland to recently pardoned convicts to fulfill the president’s demands of employing former prisoners.2 In August, the Dashoguz mill sent 250 metric tons of flour to Ahal region on Ashgabat’s unofficial demands. The regional administration then ordered the district consumer associations that oversee state shops to falsify documents to claim that the flour was sold in Dashoguz region. When the Boldumsaz and Koneurgench district association officials refused to do so, the district prosecutor’s office started an inspection of district state shops.3
  • Local governments are also substandard in the delivery of services to local residents. In March, the Lebap region was hit by strong winds similar to the previous year. Again, there was significant damage, which local residents attributed to the low quality of repair work performed by local authorities.4 In August, village administrators in Gubadag, Akdepe, and several other districts in the Dashoguz region ordered farmers to destroy rice crops on their private plots due to lack of water.5 Although the administrators claimed they had warned farmers in advance, the worsening economic situation and high cost of food forced farmers to disobey the officials’ initial recommendations.
  • 1“Расширенное совместное заседание Кабинета Министров и Государственного совета безопасности Туркменистана,” [The joint meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers and the State Security Council of Turkmenistan], State News Agency of Turkmenistan, February 11, 2021, https://tdh.gov.tm/ru/post/26013/rasshirennoe-sovmestnoe-zasedanie-kabi…
  • 2“Власти этрапа Лебапа хотят отнять земли арендаторов, чтобы трудоустроить помилованных заключенных,” [The authorities of the Lebap etrap want to take away the lan of tenants in order to employ pardoned convicts], Hronika Turkmenistana, May 4, 2021, https://www.hronikatm.com/2021/05/land-redistribution/
  • 3“Прокуратура Дашогузского велаята проверяет госмагазины. Их руководство отказалось фальсифицировать документы,” [The prosecutor's office of the Dashoguz velayat inspects state-owned stores. Their management refused to falsify documents], Hronika Turkmenistana, August 9, 2021, https://www.hronikatm.com/2021/08/flour-falsification/
  • 4“Причиной разрушений в Туркменабате стал не ураган, а некачественные восстановительные работы после прошлогоднего катаклизма,” [The cause of the destruction in Turkmenabat was not a hurricane, but poor-quality restoration work after last year’s cataclysm], Hronika Turkmenistana, March 21, 2021, https://www.hronikatm.com/2021/03/turkmenabat-wind-damage/
  • 5“Власти Дашогуза из-за маловодья уничтожили посевы риса на личных участках сельчан,” [Dashoguz authorities destroyed rice crops on personal plots of villagers due to lack of water], Hronika Turkmenistana, August 16, 2021, https://www.hronikatm.com/2021/08/no-rice/
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
  • Turkmenistan’s constitution formally guarantees the separation of powers. Yet, in reality, the country’s judicial system is neither independent nor transparent. President Berdimuhamedov exerts full control over the judiciary, appointing and dismissing judges at will without any scrutiny. Furthermore, the court system is commonly used by the ruling regime to advance its agenda and protect its interests, namely, to imprison regime critics and civil society activists on bogus accusations. In August, Murad Dushemov was sentenced to four years in prison on fabricated charges of extortion and deliberately causing moderate physical injuries.1 He was initially detained in July for asking the police to provide documented grounds for requesting a certificate confirming he did not have coronavirus during a traffic stop. Murad was sentenced to 15 days detention, and shortly before his release, two other prisoners, who were placed in his cell, engaged in a fight, later claiming that it was Murad who had attacked and wounded them. Prior to these events, Murad had recorded a video in an Ashgabat clinic asking for official documents outlining the grounds for mass vaccination against COVID-19, which he later uploaded to his YouTube channel. Subsequently, the clinic’s chief physician accused Murad of blackmailing her to extort money for not uploading the video.2
  • It is also common for courts in Turkmenistan to stand on the side of the government and punish individuals suspected of dissent, including contacting independent media, opposition-in-exile, or sympathizing with antiregime protest movements. In September, former doctor Hursanay Ismatullaeva was sentenced to nine years detention in a regime penal colony on fabricated charges of fraud over the sale of an apartment belonging to a man with a disability that she looked after for several years. In reality, it was her case of illegal termination of employment for refusing to prescribe unnecessary paid procedures for patients that had irritated authorities. The case gained international publicity and was discussed in a human rights seminar organized by members of the European Parliament. The following day, Ismatullaeva was abducted by law enforcement officials with no information given of her whereabouts for almost two weeks.3 In a different case, Sergei Babaniyazov was sentenced to two years on false charges of spreading pornography when he was actually imprisoned for writing comments on the videos and posts of Turkmen opposition groups in exile.4 Similarly, in March, police detained activists Didar Ashirov and Dovran Gylyjov for spreading leaflets that called for President Berdimuhamedov to resign.5
  • Courts in Turkmenistan also punish individuals simply for publicly expressing discontent with food shortages and spiking prices. In January, the court in Sayat (Lebap region) imposed a 330-manat fine on a woman who openly complained about the decreased food rations and long lines to a salesman at a state shop. In response, the salesman closed the shop and called the police. During the court hearing, Judge Chemen Berdyeva ordered the woman to be kept in remand prison for several days for “correctional purposes” in addition to paying a hefty fine.6
  • The conditions in Turkmenistan’s prisons remain poor. Prisoners suffer from lack of proper nutrition, unsanitariness, overcrowding, and the spread of infectious diseases. Due to the lack of adequate medical care, prisoners are often left to suffer until they die. The situation is particularly gruesome for imprisoned civic activists and antiregime critics. In October, it was reported that Mansur Mingelov, a defender of the rights of the ethnic Baloch people who was imprisoned in 2012 and subsequently severely tortured in prison, had failed to receive medical assistance despite being in critical condition.7 After this information gained public attention, local authorities intensified pressure on Mansur’s relatives, forcing them to vacate their house.8 In a different case, the relatives of Pygamberdy Allaberdyev, a former lawyer accused by the government of contacting opposition leaders in exile, were not allowed to send him medicine or see him. Prison administrators referred to quarantine and COVID-19 restrictions as the formal reason for refusal.9 There are hundreds of Turkmens, including top-level government officials, who have disappeared without a trace in Turkmenistan’s prisons. In November, the international “Prove They Are Alive!” campaign, which investigates this issue, updated its roster of enforced disappearances. The list now documents 162 cases, a substantial increase from the 121 cases on the previous 2019 list.10
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 and deeply rooted practice that starts at the top of the power pyramid and extends all the way down to the average citizen. At the top, President Berdimuhamedov and his extended family have benefited greatly from their elevated position, enjoying expansive informal economic and political power. In May, an investigation by Turkmen.news and Gundogar.org revealed that the president’s 39-year-old nephew, Hajymyrat Rejepov, and his company Greatcom Trade LLP received a $25.7 million contract for importing staple food products, such as poultry, sugar, and cooking oil, and bypassing a competitive tender process. The investigation also identified two other questionable UK-registered companies, Staunchest Holdings LP and Intergold LP, that received similar exclusive contracts for food imports to Turkmenistan.1 Reporters found evidence that Rejepov acquired a luxurious mansion in Ashgabat and decorated it with marble, bronze, and Italian crystal chandeliers after receiving the lucrative contract. A Turkmen.news video showing the mansion’s interiors was blocked on YouTube after a complaint was filed by the design firm that decorated and furnished the house using allegedly corrupt money.2 In October, another investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Turkmen.news, and Gundogar.org, based on the leaked Pandora Papers, revealed that Hajymyrat and his younger brother Shamyrat played a clandestine controlling role in companies that export and import mineral fertilizers and oil refinery products. The report showed that Hajymyrat had covertly controlled an obscure Scottish firm, Caran Holdings, that exported urea fertilizers, while Shamyrat was behind the Delanore Group, which traded petroleum and chemical products from major state oil and gas facilities in Turkmenistan. The report also revealed that the brothers had acquired sixteen apartments in an upscale neighborhood in Dubai at a total estimated cost of $5.5 million.3
  • At lower levels, corruption is particularly widespread among law enforcement and security officials, who are allowed and even encouraged to take bribes to pay up the pyramid to their patrons. In March, Serdar Berdimuhamedov held a meeting with local law enforcement authorities during his visit to Lebap province where he reprimanded migration service officials. According to him, 36 people received passports for international travel in violation of requirements by paying bribes and crossing the Talimarjan border checkpoint with Uzbekistan. When some were later arrested by Uzbek security services and deported back to Turkmenistan, they confessed of paying around $5,000 to receive the passports and cross the border.4
  • As in 2020, COVID-19 restrictions were implemented unevenly during the year as various lower-tier officials used them to their advantage to extort bribes from ordinary citizens. To illustrate, passengers on foreign flights could avoid the mandatory quarantine in Turkmenabat for a bribe.5 Similarly, one could easily travel by train without a ticket and a negative PCR-test result by bribing a train conductor. According to several reports, conductors requested 400–500 manats6 for such an offer. In August, police officers held raids on trains to identify conductors who performed such services. These and similar measures have been mostly symbolic since police officers themselves used the restrictions to extort bribes, especially from drivers to allow them to travel to neighboring districts without the mandatory paper check.7 Likewise, some facilities, presumably belonging to high-ranking and law enforcement officials, remained open despite the imposed closure of restaurants and cafes.8
  • 1“As Turkmenistan’s People go Hungry, President’s Nephew Profits off Food Imports,” Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), May 13, 2021, https://www.occrp.org/en/investigations/as-turkmenistans-people-go-hung…
  • 2“Откуда особняк у племянника президента Туркменистана? Что узнали журналисты,” [Where does the mansion of the nephew of the President of Turkmenistan come from? What journalists found], Deutsche Welle, May 28, 2021, https://www.dw.com/ru/otkuda-osobnjak-u-plemjannika-prezidenta-turkmeni…
  • 3Sorbello, Paolo, “The Pandora Papers unveil offshore companies linked to the family of Turkmenistan’s President,” GlobalVoices, October 27, 2021, https://globalvoices.org/2021/10/27/the-pandora-papers-unveil-offshore-…
  • 4“В Туркменабате Сердар Бердымухамедов отчитал руководителей местных отделов МНБ и Миграционной службы,” [In Turkmenabat, Serdar Berdimuhamedov reprimanded the heads of local departments of the Ministry of National Security and the Migration Service], Hronika Turkmenistana, March 24, 2021, https://www.hronikatm.com/2021/03/serdar-lebap/
  • 5“Ведомства Туркменистана прекращают личный прием граждан. Жители страны считают коррупцию причиной распространения COVID-19,” [The departments of Turkmenistan stop personal reception of citizens. Residents of the country consider corruption the cause of the spread of COVID-19], Hronika Turkmenistana, August 29, 2021, https://www.hronikatm.com/2021/08/anticovid-measures/
  • 6“За взятку проводнику на поезд можно попасть без билета и справки об отсутствии COVID-19,” [You can get on the train for a bribe to the conductor without a ticket and a certificate of absence of COVID-19], Hronika Turkmenistana, July 1, 2021, https://www.hronikatm.com/2021/07/railway-corruption/
  • 7“Полицейские обирают фермеров, везущих урожаи на продажу в Ашхабад,” [Police rob farmers carrying crops for sale in Ashgabat], Hronika Turkmenistana, May 11, 2021, https://www.hronikatm.com/2021/05/police-shake-downs/
  • 8“Ведомства Туркменистана прекращают личный прием граждан. Жители страны считают коррупцию причиной распространения COVID-19,” [The departments of Turkmenistan stop personal reception of citizens. Residents of the country consider corruption the cause of the spread of COVID-19], Hronika Turkmenistana, August 29, 2021, https://www.hronikatm.com/2021/08/anticovid-measures/

On Turkmenistan

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  • Global Freedom Score

    2 100 not free