Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The government hailed the December 2013 parliamentary elections as the first under a new “multiparty” system, but all participating factions were loyal to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, and international observers considered the balloting no more free or fair than in the past. In a June by-election, for the first time in its history since independence, a seat in the Mejlis, or parliament, had gone to a member of a party other than the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT).
A new media law passed with much fanfare in January banned press monopolies and divested the president of his majority stakes in all major newspapers. However, it simply transferred control of the papers to the cabinet of ministers, of which Berdymukhammedov is the head, and other government offices under the president’s direct control. The law also banned censorship, but the government nevertheless continues to severely restrict independent media.
Political Rights: 1 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 0 / 12
None of Turkmenistan’s elections since independence in 1991 have been free or fair. The election commission has no meaningful independence from the executive branch. President Berdymukhammedov has maintained all the means and patterns of repression established by his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, whose authoritarian rule lasted from 1985 to 2006. Niyazov’s death was followed by the rapid and seemingly well-orchestrated ascent of Berdymukhammedov, then the deputy prime minister, to the position of acting president, in a process that appeared to circumvent constitutional norms. Berdymukhammedov was formally elected to his first five-year presidential term in 2007. Since then, he has gradually removed high-ranking Niyazov loyalists and taken steps to replace Niyazov as the subject of the state’s cult of personality.
Under a new constitution approved in 2008, the Mejlis became the sole legislative body and the number of seats expanded from 50 to 125, with members elected to five-year terms from individual districts. The new charter also gave citizens the right to form political parties; a new law outlining the processes necessary for a party’s formation was then approved by the Mejlis in 2012. A single deputy from the new Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs was seated in the Mejlis following a June 2013 by-election, marking the first time a member of a party other than the ruling DPT had been elected to the legislature. In the December 2013 elections, the DPT took 47 seats, followed by the Federation of Trade Unions with 33, the Women’s Union with 16, the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs with 14, and a youth organization and other “citizen groups” with 8 and 7, respectively. Despite this new appearance of pluralism, the Mejlis remained under the president’s absolute control.
Turkmenistan’s last presidential election was held in February 2012. While Berdymukhammedov had promised that the polls would include opposition candidates and adhere to international norms, all seven of his challengers were minor figures associated with the DPT. Berdymukhammedov was reelected to a second five-year term with 97 percent of the vote and 96 percent turnout, according to the election commission.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 1 / 16
The DPT, formerly the Soviet-era Communist Party of Turkmenistan, was the only party permitted to operate legally and field candidates for elections until 2013. The 2012 law on political parties specified the legal basis for any citizen to form an independent party, and barred parties formed on professional, regional, or religious lines, among other restrictions. Shortly after the law was passed, 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 proposing profession-based parties and tasking a government official with their creation. Both parties were openly organized by sitting members of the DPT; only the latter ultimately registered and participated in the 2013 elections. Aside from the DPT and the Party of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists, the entities that won seats were unions and civic groups, all affiliated with the state.
C. Functioning of Government: 0 / 12
Corruption is widespread. Many individuals holding public office are widely understood to have bribed their way into their positions. The government’s lack of transparency affects nearly all spheres of the economy and public services. According to a 2013 article published by the exile-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights in cooperation with Global Witness and the Eurasian Transition Group, bribes are needed to accomplish ordinary tasks like placing a student in a university or obtaining medical care. Moreover, decisions to award large-scale contracts to foreign companies are ultimately made by the president without any effective legal controls or oversight, and bribes are a key part of the process.
Allocation of state profits from hydrocarbon exports remains opaque. 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. 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 state-owned hydrocarbons are transferred to the state budget; the rest is controlled by the hydrocarbon agency, which is directly subordinate to the president.
Turkmenistan was ranked 168 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Civil Liberties: 6 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 2 / 16
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, blocks undesirable websites and monitors users’ activity. The authorities remained hostile to news reporting in 2013, and sought to suppress any independent sources of information. Although the new media law passed in January banned press monopolies and censorship, the government continues to severely restrict independent media. The very few independent reporters that still operate in Turkmenistan risk detention by the authorities; rights groups suspect that imprisoned journalists are subject to torture.
The government restricts freedom of religion. Practicing an unregistered religion remains illegal, with violators subject to fines. In 2010, an Islamic cleric reportedly died in prison under unclear circumstances.
The government places significant restrictions on academic freedom. Since 2009, students bound for university study abroad have routinely been denied exit visas.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 0 / 12
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 in recent years. 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.
F. Rule of Law: 1 / 16
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. According to a 2013 report by Amnesty International, methods of torture used by security forces against criminal suspects include “electric shocks, asphyxiation, rape, forcibly administering psychotropic drugs, deprivation of food and drink, and exposure to extreme cold.” Prisons suffer from overcrowding, and prisoners are poorly fed and denied access to adequate medical care. The U.S. Department of State characterizes prison conditions as “unsanitary, overcrowded, harsh, and life threatening.”
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, and some 28 others. Rights activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, convicted on dubious espionage charges in 2006, were finally freed at the end of their scheduled terms in February 2013. Unanswered questions still surround the 2006 death in custody of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova, who was convicted in the same trial.
Employment and educational opportunities for ethnic minorities are limited by the government’s promotion of Turkmen national identity. The law does not protect LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people from discrimination, and traditional social taboos make even discussion of LGBT issues difficult. Sexual activity between men is illegal in Turkmenistan and punishable with up to two years in prison and an additional term of up to five years in a labor camp.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 3 / 16
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. In June 2013, the government approved the issuance of Turkmen travel documents for tens of thousands of Turkmen-Russian dual citizens who had spent years with no clear legal status after the Turkmen parliament in 2003 approved a measure revoking a dual-citizenship pact with Russia.
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.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year