Freedom in the World
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President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who emerged as Saparmurat Niyazov’s successor after the latter’s death in December 2006, cemented his status in a February 2007 presidential election and with a number of government shakeups. Berdymukhammedov reversed some of his predecessor’s most egregious policies, but these steps did little to change the country’s profoundly repressive and arbitrary system of government. The new president also pursued a more active foreign policy, traveling internationally, vowing greater openness to foreign investment, and attempting to balance Chinese, Russian, and Western interests in Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves.
Turkmenistan gained formal independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Saparmurat Niyazov, the former head of the Turkmenistan Communist Party, had been the sole candidate in elections to the newly created post of president in October 1990. After the adoption of a new constitution in 1992, he ran unopposed again and was reelected for a five-year term with a reported 99.5 percent of the vote. A 1994 referendum extended his term until 2002. In the December 1994 elections to the Mejlis (National Assembly), only Niyazov’s Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT), the former Communist Party, was permitted to field candidates.
In the 1999 Mejlis elections, every candidate was selected by the government and virtually all were members of the DPT. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), citing numerous procedural inadequacies, refused to send even a limited assessment mission. The Mejlis unanimously voted in late December to make Niyazov president for life.
In November 2002, Niyazov survived an alleged assassination attempt in Ashgabat. The incident sparked a widespread crackdown on the opposition and perceived critics of the regime, drawing condemnation from foreign governments and international organizations. Early elections for the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council), a second legislative body, were held in 2003, and Mejlis polls were held in 2004. As in previous elections, candidates for both chambers were preapproved by the administration.
Niyazov’s rule was marked by frequent government reshuffles, the gutting of formal institutions, the muzzling of media, and an elaborate personality cult. The Rukhnama, a rambling collection of quasi-historical and philosophical musings attributed to Niyazov, became the core of educational curriculums. Limited information about the true state of affairs in Turkmenistan pointed to crises in health care, education, and agriculture.
Niyazov’s death on December 21, 2006, from an apparent heart attack was followed by the rapid and seemingly well-orchestrated ascent of Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to the position of acting president. The succession appeared to circumvent constitutional norms, as criminal charges were brought against Mejlis Speaker Ovezgeldy Atayev, who would have become acting president according to the constitution. Berdymukhammedov subsequently cemented his formal status, easily besting five obscure ruling-party candidates in a February 2007 presidential election that was not monitored by any international observers.
Berdymukhammedov used 2007 to consolidate his position, removing Niyazov loyalists from high posts. Although Niyazov’s extensive cult of personality appeared to wane after his death, lavish celebrations of Berdymukhammedov’s 50th birthday in June raised fears that a new cult was arising.
Also during the year, Berdymukhammedov eased the isolationist foreign policy maintained by Niyazov. He visited Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, the United States, and the European Union, and moved to improve long-strained ties with Azerbaijan. Despite this new “multivector” approach, natural gas sales continue to dominate Turkmenistan’s relations with the outside world, with competition between China and Russia emerging as the leitmotif in recent interactions.
Turkmenistan is not an electoral democracy. The late Saparmurat Niyazov enjoyed virtually absolute power, serving as “president for life” until his death in 2006. None of the country’s elections—including the February 2007 vote that gave Niyazov’s successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, a five-year term in office—have been free or fair.
The country has two parliamentary bodies, neither of which enjoys independence from the executive: the unicameral Mejlis (National Assembly), composed of 50 members elected by popular vote for five-year terms, and the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council), composed of approximately 2,500 elected and appointed members. The Halk Maslahaty was officially made the country’s supreme legislative body in 2003.
Only one political party, the DPT, has been officially registered. Opposition parties have been banned, and those of their leaders who have not fled abroad face harassment and detention.
Corruption is widespread, with public officials often forced to bribe their way into their positions. Turkmenistan was ranked 162 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech and the press is severely restricted by the government, which controls all broadcast and print media. Some reports indicate that the media have become slightly more informative after Niyazov’s death and that government surveillance of private discussion is less intense. State-owned Turkmen Telekom is the only authorized internet service provider in the country. Berdymukhammedov has promised universal internet access, but when two internet cafes opened in Ashgabat in February 2007, they were prohibitively expensive and reportedly guarded by soldiers. The Turkmen authorities have yet to permit an investigation of the suspicious death of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova, who died in custody in 2006.
The government restricts freedom of religion, and independent groups continue to face persecution. While Niyazov declared in 2004 that practicing an unregistered religion would no longer be a criminal offense, it remains illegal, with violators subject to fines. In August 2007, former chief mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, who had been serving a 22-year prison sentence for treason, was pardoned. However, the U.S. State Department's 2007 International Religious Freedom Report, released in September, found that “there was no improvement in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the period covered by this report.” The government controls access to Islamic education and restricts the number of mosques in the country. The authorities also coerce Christian and Muslim houses of worship to display a copy of Niyazov’s Rukhnama.
The government places significant restrictions on academic freedom, and the Rukhnama is still required reading throughout the school system. Some reforms took place in 2007, however. A February decree increased grade-school education from 9 to 10 years and university education to 5 years of study, from 2 years’ study plus 2 years’ practical work. A March decree raised teachers’ salaries by 40 percent. These positive steps will require significant follow-up measures, and perhaps outside assistance, to overcome the disastrous effects of Niyazov’s extended assault on education.
While the constitution guarantees peaceful assembly and association, these rights are severely restricted in practice. Opposition sources provided scattered, unconfirmed reports of protests after pension reductions in January 2006. In July 2007, the cuts were reversed. While not technically illegal, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are tightly controlled, and Turkmenistan has no civil society sector to speak of.
The government-controlled Colleagues Union is the only central trade union permitted. There are no legal guarantees for workers to form unions or strike, although the constitution does not specifically prohibit these rights. Strikes in Turkmenistan are extremely rare.
The judicial system is subservient to the president, who appoints and removes judges without legislative review. The authorities frequently deny rights of due process, including public trials and access to defense attorneys. In February 2007, Berdymukhammedov set up a commission to accept complaints against law enforcement authorities, but it is unclear whether this will give citizens recourse against the arbitrary actions of officials.
Prisons suffer from overcrowding and inadequate nutrition and medical care, and international organizations are not permitted to visit. While Berdymukhammedov announced in September 2007 that imprisoned former foreign ministers Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdyev were alive, the conditions in which they and other political prisoners are held remain unknown. A number of individuals who had been purged and jailed under Niyazov were released in October 2007, although high-profile prisoners like Shikhmuradov remained behind bars.
Turkmenistan is a smuggling corridor for drugs from neighboring Afghanistan, with numerous reports suggesting the involvement of high-level officials in the narcotics trade as well as a growing problem of drug addiction within Turkmenistan.
Employment and educational opportunities for ethnic minorities are limited by the government’s promotion of Turkmen national identity and its discrimination against those who are not ethnic Turkmen. Under Niyazov, many Russian-language institutions, including schools, were closed; recent reports point to a possible restoration of some Russian-language education.
Freedom of movement overseas is restricted, with a reported “black list” preventing some individuals from leaving the country. In July 2007, the government lifted Niyazov-era domestic travel restrictions.
A continuing Soviet-style command economy and widespread corruption diminish equality of opportunity. Profits from the country’s extensive energy exports rarely reach the general population, most of whom live in poverty. In June 2007, Berdymukhammedov ordered the seizure and audit of a secret account, thought to be held in a German bank, into which Niyazov was believed to have siphoned profits from natural gas sales.
According to the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, the Turkmen government has engaged in “widespread violations of property rights” as part of a dramatic urban reconstruction project in Ashgabat that was launched in 2001. Hundreds of residents have reportedly been forced to vacate their homes on extremely short notice and with little or no compensation.
Traditional social and religious norms and a lack of employment prospects limit professional opportunities for women, and anecdotal reports suggest that domestic violence is common. Niyazov had gained fame for numerous and often bizarre pronouncements that led to infringements of personal social freedom, including campaigns against gold teeth and lip-synching. These appeared to come to an end with Niyazov’s death.