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All the candidates who registered in 2011 for Turkmenistan’s February 2012 presidential election were members of the ruling party, and the tightly controlled process was widely expected to result in a new term for President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. Also during the year, the authorities sought to silence independent reports of massive explosions at an arms depot in July, and they took greater repressive measures against human rights activists inside and outside the country.
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. He won reelection in 1992 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 2002, Niyazov survived an alleged assassination attempt in Ashgabat. The incident sparked a crackdown on the opposition and perceived critics of the regime, drawing condemnation from foreign governments and international organizations. Mejlis elections in 2004 followed the established pattern of executive control.
Niyazov’s rule was marked by frequent government reshuffles, the gutting of formal institutions, the muzzling of media, and an elaborate personality cult. The Ruhnama, a rambling collection of quasi-historical and philosophical writings attributed to Niyazov, became the core of educational curriculums. The limited available information about the true state of affairs in Turkmenistan pointed to crises in health care, education, and agriculture.
Niyazov’s death in December 2006 from an apparent heart attack was followed by the rapid and seemingly well-orchestrated ascent of Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to the position of acting president. The succession appeared to circumvent constitutional norms, as criminal charges were brought against 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 gradually removed high-ranking Niyazov loyalists and took steps to replace Niyazov as the subject of the state’s cult of personality. In August 2008, the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council), the country’s supreme representative body, voted without public debate to approve a new constitution, effectively dissolving itself and dispersing its powers to the Mejlis and the president. Elections for an expanded Mejlis were held in December 2008, but as with previous votes, all of the nearly 300 candidates were preapproved by the presidential administration.
In June 2011, the authorities announced that the next presidential election would be held in February 2012, and that the polls would include opposition parties and adhere to international norms. However, no steps were taken to fulfill those pledges, and all seven challengers facing the incumbent at the end of 2011 were minor figures associated with the ruling party.
Under Berdymukhammedov, Turkmenistan’s foreign policy has become less isolationist, though it remains focused on natural gas exports. China became Turkmenistan’s leading export market following the completion of a pipeline that is slated to reach full capacity in 2012.
Turkmenistan is not an electoral democracy. The late president Saparmurat Niyazov wielded almost absolute power until his death. 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. Berdymukhammedov has maintained all the means and patterns of repression established by Niyazov.
Under a new constitution approved in 2008, the Mejlis (National Assembly) became the sole legislative body and expanded from 50 to 125 seats, with members serving five-year terms. The new charter also gave citizens the right to form political parties, though only one party, the ruling DPT, is officially registered. Berdymukhammedov made several references to the possibility of forming new political parties in 2010 and 2011, but no actual changes had taken place by the end of 2011. Local elections held in July 2009 and December 2010 mimicked the country’s previous stage-managed polls amid reports of low voter turnout.
Corruption is widespread, with public officials often forced to bribe their way into their positions. Allocation of state profits from gas exports remains opaque. According to a 2011 report by Crude Accountability, only 20 percent of revenues from the sale of hydrocarbons are transferred to the state budget. An August 2011 law expanded even further the president’s near-total control over the hydrocarbon sector and the revenue it produces. Turkmenistan was ranked 177 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index. The government’s lack of transparency affects a variety of public services, including medical care. An April 2010 report by Doctors Without Borders found that Turkmen authorities were concealing “a dangerous public health situation, in which government officials actively deny the prevalence of infectious disease, medical data is systemically manipulated, and international standards and protocols are rarely applied in practice.”
Freedom of the press is severely restricted by the government, which controls all broadcast and print media. Internet access has expanded somewhat since Niyazov’s death, though the sole service provider, run by the government, reportedly blocks undesirable websites. The authorities remained hostile to news reporting in 2011, and sought to suppress any independent sources of information. In July, explosions at a weapons warehouse in Abadan were portrayed as a minor accident in official news reports, whereas the Vienna-based Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), a group composed of exiles from Turkmenistan with extensive sources in the country, reported 1,382 deaths stemming from the explosions and provided eyewitness reports and mobile-telephone videos from the city to support its account of the disaster. The TIHR website became the target of denial-of-service attacks, and police scoured Abadan in search of the group’s sources. In late 2010, TIHR director Farid Tukhbatullin had been the subject of death threats in Vienna after appearing on the London-based satellite television station K+, which could be viewed in Turkmenistan.
The government restricts freedom of religion, and independent groups face persecution. Practicing an unregistered religion remains illegal, with violators subject to fines. Islamic cleric Shiri Geldimuradov reportedly died in prison under unclear circumstances in 2010.
The government places significant restrictions on academic freedom. The Ruhnama is still used in the school system and remained part of university entrance exams in 2011. Since 2009, students bound for university study abroad have routinely been denied exit visas.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but these rights are severely restricted in practice. Sporadic protests, usually focused on social issues, have taken place. A 2003 law on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) deprived all such groups of their registration; the handful that were subsequently reregistered are tightly controlled. Turkmenistan is still home to a few dedicated activists, but there is virtually no organized civil society sector.
The government-controlled Colleagues Union is the only central trade union permitted. There are no legal guarantees protecting workers’ rights to form unions and strike, though the constitution does not specifically prohibit such activities. 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.
Prisons suffer from overcrowding and inadequate nutrition and medical care, and international organizations are not permitted to visit. The government has released some two dozen political prisoners since Niyazov’s death, but many others remain behind bars. Nothing is known about the condition of jailed former foreign ministers Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdyev. Rights activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, convicted on dubious espionage charges in 2006, remained in prison in 2011. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated in 2010 that their continued detention violated international law. Unanswered questions still surround the 2006 death in custody of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova. A June 2011 report by the UN Committee Against Torture expressed deep concern “over the numerous and consistent allegations about the widespread practice of torture and ill-treatment of detainees.”
Employment and educational opportunities for ethnic minorities are limited by the government’s promotion of Turkmen national identity.
Freedom of movement is restricted, with a reported blacklist preventing some individuals from leaving the country. A few activists who hold dual citizenship and continue to reside in Turkmenistan are able to travel abroad using their Russian passports, but even this window is closing, as activists including Natalia Shabunts were denied new Turkmen passports in 2011 in a bid to make them choose either Russian or Turkmen citizenship.
A Soviet-style command economy and widespread corruption diminish equality of opportunity. The new constitution establishes the right to private property, but the deeply flawed judiciary provides little protection to businesses and individuals. Arbitrary evictions and confiscation of property are common practices.
Traditional social and religious norms, inadequate education, and poor economic conditions limit professional opportunities for women, and NGO reports suggest that domestic violence is common.