Turkmenistan | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2013

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President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in February was reelected to a second five-year term, winning 97 percent of the vote, according to the election commission, against a field of candidates who were all associated with the ruling party. In March, Berdymukhammedov announced plans to form two new political parties, though both were organized by loyal members of the government and thus not expected to challenge the status quo.

Turkmenistan gained formal independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Saparmurat Niyazov, head of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan, was 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 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 of that year to make Niyazov president for life.

In 2002, Niyazov survived an assassination attempt in the capital city of 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.

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 upon Niyazov’s death, according to the constitution. Berdymukhammedov cemented his formal status in a February 2007 presidential election, easily besting five obscure ruling-party candidates. The poll 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 a newly 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 February 2012, Turkmenistan held a scheduled presidential election. While Berdymukhammedov promised that the polls would include opposition parties and adhere to international norms, all seven of his challengers were minor figures associated with the ruling party. Berdymukhammedov was reelected to a second five-year term with 97 percent of the vote and 96 percent turnout, according to the country’s election commission. Violating OSCE commitments, Turkmenistan did not invite external observers to monitor the election.

Turkmenistan’s foreign relations continue to revolve around the country’s energy exports, to the exclusion of most other issues. The government continued to take steps to limit freedom of movement to and from the country, including instituting random strip searches of female citizens returning from abroad in May 2-12. In August, students attempting to travel to Russia and Bulgaria to participate in U.S.-government sponsored higher education programs were denied the right to leave the country.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Turkmenistan is not an electoral democracy. None of the country’s elections since independence in 1991 have been free or fair. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has maintained all the means and patterns of repression established by his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, whose authoritarian rule lasted from 1985 to 2006. Local elections held in July 2009, December 2010, and August 2012 mimicked the country’s previous stage-managed polls.

Under a new constitution approved in 2008, the Mejlis became the sole legislative body and the number of seats expanded to 125, from 50 previously, with members serving five-year terms. The new charter also gave citizens the right to form political parties, though the Mejlis remained a single party legislature through 2012. In January 2012, a new law on the formation of political parties further specified the legal basis for any citizen to form an independent party, barring parties formed on professional or religious lines. In March, Berdymukhammedov announced plans to form two new political parties—the Agrarian Party and the Party of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists. His announcement violated two sections of the new law, by creating profession-based parties and tasking a sitting member of the government with their creation; both parties were transparently organized by sitting members of the DPT.

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, an environmental group that works in the Caspian Sea region, only 20 percent of revenues from the sale of hydrocarbons are transferred to the state budget. A 2011 amendment to the 2008 Law on Hydrocarbon Resources expanded the president’s near-total control over the hydrocarbon sector and the revenue it produces; additional amendments in 2012 allowed the state agency for hydrocarbon resources to establish companies, buy a direct stake in foreign companies, and open branches abroad. 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.” Turkmenistan was ranked 170 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of the press is severely restricted by the government, which controls nearly all broadcast and print media. Turkmenistan’s main internet service provider, run by the government, reportedly blocks undesirable websites and monitors users’ activity. The authorities remained hostile to news reporting in 2012, and sought to suppress any independent sources of information.

The government restricts freedom of religion. 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. Since 2009, students bound for university study abroad have routinely been denied exit visas.

The constitution guarantees freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but in practice, these rights are severely restricted. 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 few groups 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 Association of Trade Unions of Turkmenistan is the only central trade union permitted. Workers are barred by law from bargaining collectively or staging strikes.

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. A 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.” Prisons suffer from overcrowding, and prisoners are poorly fed and denied access to adequate medical care. The Red Cross in April 2012 was permitted to visit a Turkmen prison, marking the first time a foreign NGO had been allowed access to one of the country’s prisons since independence.

The government has released a number of 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 2012. Unanswered questions still surround the 2006 death in custody of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova, whose family continued to face harassment in 2012.

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 some activists were denied new Turkmen passports in recent years 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 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.