Turkmenistan is a repressive authoritarian state where political rights and civil liberties are almost completely denied in practice. Elections are tightly controlled, ensuring nearly unanimous victories for the president and his supporters. The economy is dominated by the state, corruption is systemic, religious groups are persecuted, and political dissent is not tolerated.
Key Developments in 2018:
- In March, parties and candidates that support President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov won all the seats in parliamentary elections. The president’s son, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, was reelected to his seat, and his high-profile presence in the media fed speculation that he was being primed to succeed his father.
- The authorities stepped up measures during the year to curtail freedom of movement by barring people, especially young men, from leaving the country while also trying to force Turkmen citizens abroad to return home.
- The economic situation in the country continued to decline. Inflation was estimated to be as high as 294 percent in June, basic goods such as sugar and eggs were scarce, and the final remnants of a program providing free public utilities were eliminated.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 0 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 0 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4
The president is directly elected for an unlimited number of seven-year terms, extended from five years under a 2016 constitutional revision. Berdimuhamedov, the incumbent, was reelected for a third term in 2017 with 97.69 percent of the vote amid turnout of more than 97 percent, according to official results. His eight token opponents were either nominees of state-backed parties or members of the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT) who ran as independents. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) criticized the election process for failing to present voters with a genuine choice and noted that it took place in a strictly controlled political and media environment.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4
The unicameral Mejlis is composed of 125 members elected from individual districts to serve five-year terms. Parliamentary elections are tightly controlled by the state and feature no genuine competition from opposition candidates.
In the March 2018 elections, the DPT won 55 seats, the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and the Agrarian Party each took 11, and candidates nominated by groups of citizens secured 48. Voter turnout was reported to be approximately 92 percent. As with the 2017 presidential election, the OSCE found that the Mejlis balloting “lacked important prerequisites of a genuinely democratic electoral process.” The observers said that while there was a semblance of pluralism, in reality all parties and candidates supported the president, and the absence of media diversity interfered with citizens’ ability to make a free and educated choice.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0 / 4
The legal framework for elections is neither fair nor impartially implemented. The Central Election Commission (CEC) is appointed by the president and operates with little transparency. The law allows virtually no opportunity for independent fund-raising or campaigning. In the 2017 presidential and 2018 parliamentary elections, the CEC organized and funded all campaign activities, according to international monitors.
The constitution and electoral code were amended in 2016 to remove the upper age limit of 70 for presidential candidates, extend the presidential term from five to seven years, and eliminate the right of public associations to nominate presidential candidates.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 0 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 0 / 4
The party system is dominated by the ruling DPT and controlled by the executive branch. The 2012 law on political parties specified the legal basis for citizens to form independent parties, but barred parties formed on professional, regional, or religious lines, and those created by government officials. Nevertheless, Berdimuhamedov subsequently announced plans to form two new groups—the Party of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists and the Agrarian Party. Both were then openly organized by sitting members of the DPT and formally registered in 2012 and 2014, respectively. The Agrarian Party won its first parliamentary seats in 2018.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0 / 4
Turkmenistan has never experienced a peaceful transfer of power between rival parties through elections. Berdimuhamedov had served in the government of his late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who in turn had ruled the country since before its independence from the Soviet Union. The Soviet-era Communist Party became the DPT in 1991 and remains in power to date. All genuine opposition groups operate either illegally or in exile.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 0 / 4
The authoritarian political system offers voters no meaningful alternatives to the ruling party. At an informal level, politics within the regime are thought to be influenced by regional patronage networks, or “clans,” that control different parts of the state and economy.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0 / 4
Members of the ethnic Turkmen majority and the president’s tribal subdivision in particular are favored for leadership positions. While women and ethnic or religious minorities formally have full political rights, no segment of the country’s population enjoys the practical ability to engage in independent political activity. About a quarter of candidates elected to the Mejlis in 2018 were women.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 0 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 4
The president, who is not freely elected, has ultimate decision-making authority. The executive branch determines laws and policies with no meaningful input or oversight from the rubber-stamp legislature. The People’s Council—a body that includes elected Mejlis members and well as a variety of unelected officials and community leaders—was revived in 2018 after being abolished in 2008. The renewed council, headed and convened by the president, held its first session in September. It replaced a less powerful Council of Elders and is formally considered the country’s top representative body, surpassing the role of the much smaller Mejlis. However, it meets infrequently and mainly endorses the president’s decrees and policies.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0 / 4
There are no independent institutions tasked with combating corruption, which is widespread in Turkmenistan. Crackdowns on corruption are typically selective and related to conflicts within the ruling elite. Anticorruption bodies have also allegedly been used to extort revenue from wealthy officials and businessmen.
Checks on nepotism and conflicts of interest are also lacking; the president’s son, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, was reelected as a deputy to the Mejlis in 2018 and has held a number of government positions, including deputy foreign minister as of that year. Serdar’s increasing visibility in the media and high-profile meetings with foreign dignitaries have fueled speculation that he is being primed to succeed his father.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0 / 4
Decisions on monetary policy, large-scale contracts with foreign companies, and the allocation of state profits from hydrocarbon exports are largely opaque and ultimately controlled by the president, without effective legal limits or independent oversight. Government officials and state-owned companies are not required to disclose their basic financial information to the public.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 2 / 60 (−2)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 0 / 16 (−1)
D1. Are there free and independent media? 0 / 4
Press freedom is severely restricted in Turkmenistan. The state controls nearly all broadcast and print media, and the state-run internet service provider blocks websites that carry independent news coverage or opposition-oriented content. Some citizens are able to access foreign satellite broadcasts, but in 2018 the government intensified efforts to remove receivers from houses in the countryside, following efforts in previous years to remove the dishes in major towns and cities. The heads of public institutions have also been told to order their employees not to watch foreign television.
Independent journalists, particularly those who work with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), are subject to harassment, detention, physical abuse, and prosecution on trumped-up charges. In May 2018, security officials apprehended and threatened RFE/RL journalist Soltan Achilova in Ashgabat; she was physically assaulted by two unidentified assailants in June.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 0 / 4
Legal restrictions, state monitoring and harassment, and the risk of penalties including fines and imprisonment have virtually extinguished the ability of individuals to freely practice religion. A 2016 law on religion maintained existing bans on religious activity outside state control, imposed a higher membership threshold for the registration of religious groups, and required all registered groups to reapply for registration. Senior Muslim clerics are appointed by the government, and Muslims who do not follow the officially approved interpretation of Islam are subject to persecution, including lengthy prison terms. Members of unregistered religious minority groups continue to face raids, beatings, and other forms of harassment. In 2018, at least 10 conscientious objectors, all Jehovah’s Witnesses, were imprisoned for refusing to comply with compulsory military service.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 0 / 4
The government places significant restrictions on academic freedom, limiting research on politically sensitive topics and imposing onerous obstacles to the recognition of degrees from foreign institutions.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 0 / 4 (−1)
Private discussion and the expression of personal views are highly restricted due to intrusive supervision by state security services, including physical surveillance, monitoring of telephone and electronic communications, and the use of informers. In recent years the government has employed increasingly sophisticated methods to monitor the population. Authorities have reportedly used special software to eavesdrop on voice over internet protocol (VoIP) calls, operate computer cameras remotely, and record keystrokes. Social media users who post critical comments about the government are subject to intimidation and imprisonment, and blocking of social media sites and virtual private networks (VPNs) has expanded. There have also been reports that the government monitors the online contacts and posts of its citizens abroad.
Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 because the government has gradually enhanced its sprawling surveillance system for mobile and online communications, and it arrests users in connection with their online activity.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 0 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 0 / 4
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and the 2015 Law on Assemblies defines the right of individuals and groups to hold peaceful gatherings with prior authorization. However, the law grants officials broad discretion to block assemblies, and in practice the authorities do not allow antigovernment demonstrations.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0 / 4
Onerous registration and regulatory requirements effectively prevent most independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from operating legally or receiving foreign funding, and activities by unregistered groups can draw fines, detention, and other penalties. Individual activists face intimidation and harassment, as do the family members of human rights activists working in exile.
One of the president’s sisters controls the National Red Crescent Society of Turkmenistan and has been accused of using the organization for personal enrichment.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 0 / 4
Workers have a legal right to join trade unions, but there are no protections against antiunion discrimination, and strikes are prohibited. The government-controlled Association of Trade Unions of Turkmenistan is the only union organization permitted to operate.
F. RULE OF LAW: 0 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 0 / 4
The judicial system is subservient to the president, who appoints and dismisses judges unilaterally. In practice, the courts are commonly used to punish dissent and remove potential threats to the president’s political dominance.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0 / 4
Arbitrary arrests and detentions are common, particularly for dissidents, members of unapproved religious groups, activists, and journalists who work with foreign organizations. The authorities frequently deny defendants’ basic rights of due process, including public trials and access to defense attorneys.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0 / 4
Prison conditions are extremely harsh, and security forces routinely use torture to extract confessions or punish inmates, which can result in deaths in custody. In June 2018, RFE/RL’s Radio Azatlyk reported that an employee of the Ministry of National Security who was being held on charges of illegal currency conversion had been tortured to death. The lack of transparency surrounding many detentions amounts to enforced disappearance.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 0 / 4
Employment and educational opportunities for ethnic minorities are limited by the government’s promotion of Turkmen national identity, and activists who advocate for minority rights have faced persecution. Traditional social and religious norms help to restrict women’s access to education and economic opportunity; there are no legal protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. The law does not protect LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people from discrimination, and sexual activity between men can be punished with up to two years in prison.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 2 / 16 (−1)
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 0 / 4 (−1)
Freedom of movement is restricted, with more than 30,000 individuals reportedly barred from traveling abroad as of 2018. Internal passports and a system of residency permits also obstruct travel within the country. There were numerous reports during the year of citizens living abroad who were tricked or pressured into returning to Turkmenistan and then found themselves in legal jeopardy, meaning they could be prevented from leaving the country again or face prison time. For example, Omriuzak Omarkulyev, a student living in Turkey, returned to Turkmenistan in February 2018 at the government’s invitation and was then barred from leaving the country and sentenced to 20 years in prison. In other cases, students living abroad have found that their Turkmen bank cards no longer work. There have also been reports that young men in general are being blocked from leaving the country by border police at airports. The tensions are driven in part by an upsurge in attempted emigration linked to the dire economic situation in the country.
Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 because the government intensified efforts to prevent people from emigrating and in some cases pressured those already living abroad to return to Turkmenistan.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1 / 4
The constitution establishes the right to property ownership, but the deeply flawed judiciary provides little protection to businesses and individuals, and the president’s relatives monopolize key sectors of the economy that are not directly state controlled. Arbitrary evictions and confiscation of property are common.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4
Domestic violence is reportedly common, but few victims file complaints with the authorities, and the government has not made significant efforts to monitor, prevent, or combat the problem. Reporting and prosecution of rape are similarly limited. While polygamy has long been illegal, it apparently persists in practice; a new law adopted in 2018 was meant to reinforce the ban.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 0 / 4
The government forces thousands of students, public employees, and other citizens to participate in the annual cotton harvest with little or no pay. Impoverished residents of rural areas are especially vulnerable to trafficking abroad for forced labor or sexual exploitation, and the government does little to address the problem.
The state’s mismanagement of a weak economy, including soaring inflation, has inhibited opportunity and imposed hardship on the population. Persistently low oil and gas prices have driven down vital export revenues in recent years, leading to reports of unpaid wages and shortages of basic goods. To raise funds, the government has at times increased various fees, cut subsidies, and pressured officials, businesspeople, and ordinary workers to make “voluntary” contributions. In September 2018, President Berdimuhamedov issued a decree to end what little remained of a program that provided free public utilities.