Turkmenistan | Freedom House

Nations in Transit

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan

Nations in Transit 2011

2011 Scores

Democracy Score
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

6.93

Regime Classification

Consolidated Authoritarian Regime

National Democratic Governance
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

7.00

Electoral Process
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

7.00

Civil Society
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

7.00

Independent Media
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

7.00

Local Democratic Governance
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

6.75

Judicial Framework and Independence
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

7.00

Corruption
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

6.75

Capital: Aşgabat
Population: 5.1 million
GDP/capita, PPP: US$6,980

Source: The data above were provided by The World Bank, World Development Indicators 2011.

*Starting with the 2005 edition, Freedom House introduced separate analysis and ratings for national democratic governance and local democratic governance, to provide readers with more detailed and nuanced analysis of these two important subjects.

NOTE: The ratings reflect the consensus of Freedom House, its academic advisers, and the author(s) of this report. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the author(s). The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year.

Executive Summary: 

From the collapse of the USSR in 1991 until 2006, Turkmenistan was ruled by the newly independent state’s primary architect, President Saparmurat Niyazov, who combined elements of personal rule, despotism, and constitutional subversion to govern the country at his own discretion. Loyalty to Niyazov was motivated by a system of fear and rewards, while an abundance of hydrocarbons provided the resources to sustain the regime. In 2010, after four years under new leadership, Turkmenistan remains unreformed and the primary tenets of Niyazov’s rule are unchanged, although President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow has adopted a number of measures reversing some of his predecessor’s most destructive policies and has also invested considerable sums in the country’s infrastructure.

In virtually all areas targeted for reform—from governmental institutions and education to healthcare and culture—the government has given priority to appearance over substance. Thus, a multitude of white marble, gold-gilded buildings and monuments throughout the country belie the lack of capacity within the system to implement change, primarily owing to strict political controls, onerous censorship, and an acute shortage of qualified personnel in virtually all spheres of the economy. The majority of experienced managers, educators, and specialists were purged under Niyazov, while the current generation was trained under the Ruhnama-dominated educational system, leaving a dearth of experts qualified to teach and implement new techniques or to operate the high-precision technology that the current regime has purchased abroad.

Mobile telephony has expanded rapidly under Berdimuhamedow, and in the process has offered the country’s citizenry increased access to the internet. However, instead of opening the cellular communications market to new providers, the Ministry of Communications in 2010 suspended operations in Turkmenistan of Russia’s largest mobile phone operator, Mobile TeleSystems (MTS), the only provider allowing customers to telephone and send text messages internationally, further isolating Turkmenistan from the outside world.

National Democratic Governance. The creation of a leadership cult surrounding President Berdimuhamedow continued in 2010; he was widely quoted on television, his activities were the primary focus of state media, and his ever expanding published works were intensively promoted. As under the previous regime, only the executive branch exercises any real power, while the government sponsored Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT) and the Galkynyş National Revival Movement are the only legally registered political parties. In 2010 there was less reorganization of high-level functionaries, as the steady purges undertaken by Berdimuhamedow over the last three years had succeeded in removing the vast majority of Niyazov-era holdovers. The gradual phasing out of the Ruhnama (Book of the Soul), Niyazov’s quasi-spiritual guidebook for the nation, continued in 2010, as its replacement national ideology, “The Era of Great Revival,” was steadily promoted. The Berdimuhamedow leadership continued to administer Turkmen culture in a top-down, strictly controlled fashion, effectively limiting output to those works praising the president’s policies. Turkmenistan’s national democratic governance rating remains unchanged at 7.00.

Electoral Process. During Turkmenistan’s period of independent rule, electoral officials have declared near 100 percent voter turnout rates for all elections and referendums, while widely engaging in such irregular procedures as stuffing ballot boxes and making door-to-door visits urging voters to cast their ballots. On December 5, 2010, elections were held to regional, district, and city councils, with all candidates preselected by government and Ministry of National Security (MNS) officials. As is standard practice, state media reported that national observers from Turkmenistan’s Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (controlled by the president) and specially-invited foreign observers had assessed the “full transparency and openness” of the campaign. No opposition parties or movements are officially registered in Turkmenistan. Unrelenting harassment by the authorities has driven the relatively small opposition either underground or into exile. Turkmenistan’s electoral process rating remains unchanged at 7.00.

Civil Society. The state of civil society in Turkmenistan has changed little under President Berdimuhamedow’s leadership. NGO applications for registration are either turned down or dragged out for years, and many groups have chosen to operate covertly, although the penalties for unregistered activity can be severe. Religious activity is also tightly controlled, and the state leadership has co-opted the official religious establishment to prevent the emergence of Islam as a locus of oppositional activity. In 2010 the number of known religious prisoners of conscience increased to nine, eight of whom were Jehovah’s Witnesses jailed for refusing military service. Turkmenistan’s civil society rating remains unchanged at 7.00.

Independent Media. Turkmenistan’s media organizations exist to uphold the ideological line of the state. In a crackdown on information flows from abroad, the president in August 2010 ordered the State Customs Service to “prevent low quality foreign print and video products from entering the country.” The expansion of mobile telephone services—arguably the Berdimuhamedow regime’s greatest contribution toward increased personal freedom—was threatened by a December 2010 decision by the Ministry of Communications to suspend the Russian company Mobile TeleSystems (MTS)’s operations in Turkmenistan, instantly cutting off nearly half of the population’s mobile phone access and drastically reducing internet usage. The burgeoning Turkmen-language online community, or “Turkmenet,” has allowed a surprising amount of dissenting views. Until the suspension of MTS, several hundred Turkmenistanis were reported to take part in daily online forums. Turkmenistan’s independent media rating remains unchanged at 7.00.

Local Democratic Governance. State power in Turkmenistan’s five regions (welayatlar), districts (etraplar), and cities is vested in the largely decorative people’s councils (halk maslahatlary). Village councils (gengeşlar), whose members are directly elected for five-year terms, were formally granted greater powers in 2008, but in reality they follow the instructions of the local governors (hakims), directly appointed by the president at all levels. Tribal identities continue to play an important role in Turkmen society and informal local politics. Influential positions in central government tend to go to members of Niyazov and Berdimuhamedow’s own tribe, the Ahalteke, who predominate in the Ahal welayat surrounding Aşgabat. Unofficial reports indicate the long-standing practice of paying large bribes for university admissions. In April 2010 Doctors Without Borders described the country’s healthcare as “a system of smoke and mirrors reinforced by fear” in which data is deliberately manipulated, blood products are mismanaged, and the existence of certain communicable diseases is neither acknowledged nor addressed. Turkmenistan’s local democratic governance rating remains unchanged at 6.75.

Judicial Framework and Independence. The Office of the Prosecutor General, whose primary function is repression rather than oversight, dominates a legal system in which judges and lawyers play a marginal role. Turkmenistan’s imprisonment rate is among the highest in the world, which has led to serious overcrowding and the spread of disease. In March the president proposed the liberalization of the criminal code to allow for a reduction of maximum sentences and the introduction of monetary fines for less serious offenses; parliament approved the changes in May. No political prisoners were affected by the presidential amnesties undertaken in 2010. In July 2010 there were reports that holders of both Russian and Turkmen passports were prohibited from leaving the country unless they renounced one or the other citizenship. Authorities have used unofficial measures to prevent free travel, including “blacklists” and arbitrary confiscation of passports. Turkmenistan’s judicial framework and independence rating remains unchanged at 7.00.

Corruption. Turkmenistan is a low-capture economy, with no business leaders or oligarchs manipulating policy formation or shaping laws; rather, it is the president and his close circle of advisers who shape the rules of the regime to their own substantial advantage. The leadership sustains its rule through hydrocarbon export revenues, which it uses to finance pervasive security services and vanity construction projects, as well as to secure the support of patronage networks. There is a lack of transparency in true economic figures, since Turkmenistan does not publish the national budget in full. While authorities have stated that foreign exchange revenues are being transferred to a new Stabilization Fund, there is no public documentation to show that the fund exists. The country’s patronage networks have given rise to a political culture of bribery, nepotism, and embezzlement. Large amounts of government revenue are spent on flamboyant construction projects carried out primarily by Turkish and French firms. International media covered a number of cases in 2010 where government officials were portrayed as accepting bribes from companies wishing to secure or maintain a share of the country’s market. Turkmenistan’s corruption rating remains unchanged at 6.75.

Outlook for 2011. President Berdimuhamedow is likely to further entrench his leadership cult and continue to restrict citizens’ access to foreign ideas and influences. Investment in the country’s infrastructure—including the construction of expensive “vanity” projects—will continue, while strict political controls and a lack of qualified specialists will further impede the implementation of reforms. In the event that a second political party is created in 2011, it is virtually guaranteed that its membership will be handpicked by the government for the purpose of creating the veneer of multiparty politics rather than to represent a genuine opposition.

National Democratic Governance: 

Like his predecessor, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow holds the posts of president of the Republic (since 2007), chairman of the Council of Ministers (prime minister), chairman of the Council of Elders, head of the Council for Religious Affairs (Gengeş), supreme commander-in-chief of the National Armed Forces, chairman of the Higher Council of Science and Technology, chairman of both the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT) and the National Revival Movement of Turkmenistan (Galkynyş), as well as a number of honorific titles and degrees.

The creation of a leadership cult surrounding the president continued in 2010 as portraits of Berdimuhamedow steadily replaced those of former President Saparmurat Niyazov both inside and outside government buildings. President Berdimuhamedow was widely quoted on television, his activities were the primary focus of state media, and his ever-expanding collected works were intensively promoted. Aside from school textbooks, the majority of newly published works in Turkmenistan either exalted the president or were said to be authored by him on topics as diverse as Ahal-Teke horses and the use of medicinal plants. Unlike other books published in the country, those ostensibly written by the president appeared with his name on the front cover rather than on the inside. A cathedral mosque in the southern city of Mary was named after him, and a new Museum of the President of Turkmenistan was opened that displays documents and photographs illustrating his reforms.

In 2010, the anniversary of the president’s inauguration, February 14, began to be celebrated as a national holiday. Having already been declared a Hero of Turkmenistan—the state’s highest civilian honor—and bestowed with the Vatan (Fatherland) order, President Berdimuhamedow was awarded the title of “academician” by Turkmenistan’s Academy of Sciences as well as the academic degree of Doctor of Economic Sciences by the presidium of the Higher Attestation Commission of Turkmenistan.

As was the case throughout Niyazov’s rule, under President Berdimuhamedow only the executive branch exercises any real power, despite constitutional stipulations regarding the formal existence of executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The parliament (Mejlis) has been transformed into a presidential appendage, and presidential decree is the usual mode of legislation. Although the constitution allows parliamentarians to elect a speaker and form committees, Berdimuhamedow usurped this prerogative at the first session of Turkmenistan’s new Mejlis in January 2009 by selecting a presidential stalwart, Akjy Nurberdieva, to serve as parliamentary speaker, “recommending” the five committees to be formed, and even nominating specific members of parliament to head them.

Other than the government-sponsored Democratic Party of Turkmenistanmn (DPT) and the Galkynyş National Revival Movement, no parties or movements are legally registered in the country. While the revised 2008 constitution allows political parties in theory, the document requires implementing legislation prescribing the necessary details to allow political parties to register and carry out activity. At the end of 2010, a law on political parties had yet to be adopted in Turkmenistan, although this circumstance had not proved a hindrance to the registration and activity of the DPT. The constitution prohibits the formation of parties with a religious or nationalist orientation (Article 31). However, since the government has prevented all parties other than the DPT from registering and functioning, this ban is of little relevance.

In February 2010, stating that he intended “to develop and improve upon the principles of genuine democracy,” the president announced during a cabinet meeting that he would welcome initiatives to create a second political party, while suggesting that the new party could be an agrarian-based farmers’ p arty. Although he repeated the call again in May at a meeting of the Council of Elders in Dashowuz, no second political party materialized throughout the course of the year.

The president appoints the members of government and the Central Election Commission as well as high-ranking judges. He was also granted the power under the revised constitution to directly appoint the country’s governors at all levels, although Niyazov had changed the system to allow for local gubernatorial elections only a year before his death. The revised constitution retained the changes adopted in the immediate aftermath of Niyazov’s death granting greater authority to the State Security Council, a body that includes leading defense and security officials. As such, according to Article 58, it is the Security Council rather than the parliament that is empowered to choose a deputy prime minister to serve as acting president in the event that the president is no longer able to perform his duties.

Upon coming to power, President Berdimuhamedow quickly demonstrated that he would retain his predecessor’s pattern of assigning senior officials unrealistic targets and then summarily removing them at regular intervals during publicized meetings. While officials were ostensibly replaced for incompetency and the failure to meet targets, in fact most were dismissed simply to make room for the president’s cronies and relatives from his native region of Geokdepe, near the capital of Aşgabat. In March 2010, Agriculture Minister Esenmurat Orazgeldyyew was removed for “shortcomings in his work,” leaving the long-serving Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mered Rashidov, and the Minister of Environmental Protection, Magtumkuli Akmyradov, as the only ministers still in place who had been appointed by former president Niyazov. In April, the Minister of Health, Ata Serdarow, who had been in his post since 2007, was dismissed, possibly in connection with the release by the international organization Doctors Without Borders of a damning report on Turkmenistan’s healthcare sector.

However, from approximately mid-2010 there was less reorganization of high-level functionaries, as the steady purges undertaken by Berdimuhamedow over the last three years had succeeded in removing the vast majority of Niyazov556 era holdovers. Moreover, while public reprimands continued apace, officials who received dismissals tended to be demoted or rotated to new posts rather than incarcerated or sent into internal exile, as was commonplace during the Niyazov era. Thus, Serdarow was sent to unspecified diplomatic work, while Orazgeldyyew was merely demoted to head the newly created Turkmen Agricultural Institute. In addition, certain ministers appeared able to hang on to their posts more readily, such as chairman of the Ministry for National Security (MNS) Charymurad Amanow, who had managed to retain his position since October 2007, even though the post of security chief in Turkmenistan traditionally has been subject to frequent change.

Turkmenistan is a police state in which the activities of its citizens are carefully monitored by hypertrophied internal security and law enforcement agencies and the president’s private militia, whose members receive favorable treatment relative to the rest of the population, such as higher salaries and privileged accommodation. The MNS has the responsibilities held by the Committee for State Security during the Soviet period—namely, to ensure that the regime remains in power through tight control of society and by discouraging dissent. The Ministry of Internal Affairs directs the criminal police, who work closely with the MNS on matters of national security. Both ministries abuse the rights of individuals and enforce the government’s policy of repressing political opposition.

The gradual phasing out of the Ruhnama (Book of the Soul), Niyazov’s quasispiritual guidebook for the nation, continued in 2010, as its replacement national ideology, “The Era of Great Revival,” was steadily promoted. Yet, the only evidence of this new ideology was a chain of grandiose construction projects. Despite the downgrading of the position of the Ruhnama, President Berdimuhamedow’s leadership nonetheless continued to use cultural institutions as mobilizing instruments to promote internal cohesion. However, attempts to administer Turkmen culture in a top-down, strictly controlled fashion meant that literature, the arts, and news reporting remained formulaic and lacking in innovation, leading to the paradoxical situation in which the president regularly chastised cultural and media officials for failing to “meet the spiritual needs of society,” while effectively limiting output to those works praising the president’s policies. Berdimuhamedow gave more than his usual number of reprimands to cultural workers throughout 2010, declaring that no literary works, films, or theatrical productions had been created “to ennoble the souls of the people,” despite the unprecedented amount of state investment in the arts.

Electoral Process: 

During Turkmenistan’s nearly 20-year history of independent rule, electoral officials have declared near 100 percent voter turnout rates for all elections and referendums. To achieve such spectacularly high participation rates, electoral officials have engaged widely in irregular procedures, such as stuffing ballot boxes and making door-to-door home visits urging voters to cast their ballots. Pressure is exerted on all civil servants to vote, and failure to do so can lead to reprisals.

In December 2008 Turkmenistan held elections to the 125-member parliament. According to the Law on Elections of Deputies to the Mejlis of Turkmenistan, citizen initiative groups as well as political parties and public associations are empowered to nominate independent candidates for election to parliament. However, a minimum of 200 citizens must be present at the nomination of an independent candidate, where all must provide name, date of birth, and place of residence. By contrast, the committees of the DPT and the Galkynyş Movement are allowed to nominate candidates at regular meetings of their central or rural organs regardless of the number of participants. The Central Election Commission registered only officially vetted candidates, and applications by at least two Turkmen dissidents were rejected.

On December 5, 2010, elections were held to regional, district, and city councils (halk maslahatlary); in typical fashion, it was reported that over 95 percent of voters took part[1]1 Official media claimed that the elections featured a wide selection of alternatives, even though all candidates had been preselected by government and MNS officials. As such, the token participation of competing candidates was a mere gesture towards political pluralism rather than an authentic contest for votes.

As is standard practice, state media reported that national observers from Turkmenistan’s Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (controlled by the president) and specially invited foreign observers had assessed “the full transparency and openness” of the campaign.[2] However, in a twist to the usual routine, Interfax news agency cited Turkmen media as reporting that experts from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights had declared that the electoral system in Turkmenistan operates in full conformity with relevant international norms, prompting an OSCE spokesman to reply that the organization had not made a public statement assessing the elections in Turkmenistan.[3]

All political parties are required by law to register with the Ministry of Justice (renamed the Ministry of Fairness in September 2003), thereby allowing the government to deny official status to groups that are critical of its policies. No opposition parties or movements are officially registered in Turkmenistan. Unrelenting harassment by the authorities has driven the relatively small opposition either underground or into exile. The opposition-in-exile remains weak and prone to internal division, although some independent human rights activists from Turkmenistan operating abroad have managed to publish regular reports on the country’s domestic and foreign politics.

Civil Society: 

The state of civil society has changed little under President Berdimuhamedow’s leadership. In September 2010, the president urged members of the security services  “not to allow the emergence and basing in our country of nationalist and radical religious movements,” which boded ill for independent activists of either a secular or religious persuasion.[4]

Although civil society has never thrived in Turkmenistan, steady repression by government authorities, from 2002 in particular, forced those independent NGOs that had managed to gain a foothold in the newly independent country to dissolve, redesignate themselves as commercial enterprises, or merge with pro-government public associations. While in 2000 there were approximately 200 to 300 registered and unregistered NGOs in Turkmenistan, by 2005 that number had dwindled to 88, the vast majority of which either supported the government or received direct government aid.[5] The total number of registered NGOs operating in Turkmenistan in 2009 was 89, about thirty of which were sport s organizations.[6] The Ministry of Fairness must approve the internal governance structures of NGOs.

Groups wishing to register as NGOs continue to be stymied, as their applications are either turned down or dragged out for years. The prospects for securing official registration are considered so remote that many groups have chosen to forgo the bureaucratic process and operate covertly, although the penalties for unregistered activity can be severe.

In a demonstration that the regime’s approach to independent NGOs had not changed significantly under President Berdimuhamedow, in September 2010 independent activists representing Turkmenistan were refused entry to an OSCE human rights review conference in Warsaw after the Turkmenistani leadership protested their participation. Following interventions by EU and US diplomats, one activist managed to participate in the conference, prompting Turkmenistan’s president to threaten to boycott the OSCE Summit due to take place in Astana at the beginning of December. In October, during the second session of the OSCE review conference in Vienna, protests from Turkmenistan once again prevented human rights activists from registering for the meeting. They were ultimately admitted, causing Turkmenistan’s ambassador to stage a walk-out from the event. Activists were prevented from attending the third session of the review conference and a parallel NGO event in Astana at the end of November when they were not granted visas in time and were told they would require extra security, prompting them to cast blame on Kazakhstan—the OSCE chair-in-office—for caving in to political pressure from Turkmenistan. In the end, only one activist representing Turkmenistan, who was traveling on a Russian passport and therefore did not require a Kazakhstani visa, managed to attend the Astana event.

Religious activity also remains tightly controlled by the state. In order to prevent the emergence of Islam as a locus of oppositional activity, the Turkmenistani leadership has acted to thoroughly co-opt the official religious establishment. Religious matters are administered by the Council on Religious Affairs (CRA), set up by Niyazov in 1994, whose members are appointed by the government and report to the president. The CRA controls the hiring, promotion, and firing of Sunni Muslim and Russian Orthodox clergy, who are required to report regularly to the CRA.

Like political parties and public associations, religious congregations are required to register with the Ministry of Fairness to gain legal status. In a report to the United Nations in January 2010, Turkmenistan’s government stated that only 123 religious communities had state registration, among which 100 were Muslim (Sunni and Shi’a), 13 were Russian Orthodox, and 10 were of other faiths, including Protestant groups, the Baha’i, and the Hare Krishna communities.[7] Following 13 years of negotiation, in March 2010 Aşgabat’s Catholic community was legally registered. Despite this minimal progress, many minority religious groups remain unregistered, such as the Lutheran, Jehovah’s Witness, Armenian Apostolic, and Jewish communities.

The benefits of formal registration remain unclear, however, as registered and unregistered groups alike continue to experience police raids or checkup visits, fines, and other forms of harassment. As the religious-freedom watchdog Forum 18 News Service reported, registration can lead to greater state control and does not facilitate the securing of a legal venue for worship services, which continues to be a major problem for many religious groups.[8] Meeting in private homes or unapproved areas is prohibited, and the construction of places of worship is strictly regulated by the state.

As no alternative civilian service is offered, conscientious objectors to military conscription have been regularly given suspended jail sentences. In May 2009 two brothers from the city of Serdar became the first Jehovah’s Witnesses since July 2007 to be jailed for refusing compulsory military service on the grounds of religious conscience. In July they were joined by two other conscientious objectors from Dashoguz; all four youths were subsequently transferred to a labor camp in the eastern town of Seydi, where inmates are reported to experience harsh, desert conditions. In 2010 the number of known religious prisoners of conscience increased to nine, including eight Jehovah’s Witnesses jailed for refusing military service and one Protestant pastor. Three other Jehovah’s Witnesses were serving suspended sentences.[9]

Turkmenistani authorities barred aspiring Muslim pilgrims from making the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia in 2009 owing to fears concerning the spread of swine flu, urging them instead to sojourn to 38 sacred sites across the country. In 2010, as in most previous years, one planeload of 188 pilgrims— including MSS secret police and other officials—was allowed to travel to Mecca, which represented less than 5 percent of the quota believed to be allocated to Turkmenistan by the Saudi authorities. Muslims are not allowed to travel abroad for religious education, and the Magtymguly Turkmen State University remained the only university-level institution where the government allows a small number of men to be trained as imams.

As in other parts of Central Asia, the distinction between religious and “national” rituals is blurred in Turkmenistan; since the perestroika period of the late1980s, the country’s leadership has attempted to co-opt Islam as a fundamental component of its overarching nation-building campaign. Similarly, authorities have sought to limit unwanted Islamist trends by promoting a vision of Islam that is concerned with the preservation of tradition. Consequently, as in neighboring Uzbekistan, the leadership has attempted to capitalize on the popularity of Sufism in order to encourage religion to conform to local popular practices. In so far as orthodox Islamic doctrine rejects and condemns as idolatrous some Sufist practices that are very popular in Turkmenistan, such as the veneration of local saints and local shrine pilgrimages, it is held that the promotion of Sufism will serve to dampen any inclination among Turkmen believers to support the more purist—and potentially Islamist—forms of ideology.

Independent Media: 

Despite some improvements in internet access, a substantive improvement in information liberalization in Turkmenistan is unlikely without changes in the de facto censorship policy and establishment of a rigorous system for training journalists. Media organizations broadcast the ideology of the state, which maintains its control over all forms of state-run mass media through the retention of a single information agency (TDH). In addition to 25 newspapers and 15 journals, the five state television channels and four state radio stations function as mouthpieces for government propaganda. The output of the state news agency TDH continues to be overwhelmingly concerned with praising the president and tracking his daily movements. Aside from the programs of the Turkmen Service of Radio Liberty and the German Deutsche Welle in Russian that are specifically targeted at Turkmenistani listeners, satellite television—widely viewed throughout Aşgabat as well as in other cities provides the only source of alternative information in Turkmenistan.

In September 2010, the state media heralded the appearance of Turkmenistan’s first ‘private’ newspaper, Rysgal (Welfare), published by the state-controlled Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, whose chairman received a US$14 million loan from President Berdimuhamedow in 2007. The paper has a mandate to publish articles about ‘successes and positive experiences in the field of entrepreneurship’.[10]

In 2008 President Berdimuhamedow technically lifted the ban on the importation and circulation of foreign print media, which had been introduced by Niyazov in 2005. However, ordinary citizens are still unable to subscribe to foreign newspapers and magazines, and foreign print matter remains generally inaccessible. A further crackdown on information flows from outside Turkmenistan occurred in August 2010 when the president ordered the State Customs Service to “prevent low quality foreign print and video products from entering the country,” declaring there were enough newspapers and periodicals to meet domestic demand and “no need to bring foreign newspapers to the country.”[11]

As of June 2010, Turkmenistan still had one of the world’s lowest internet penetration rates at 1.6 percent with an estimated 80,400 users.[12] Over 15 cybercafes were in operation in the country’s major cities, but the number of terminals available to the public was far from sufficient to cope with the growing number of internet users, despite the opening in 2009 of a new internet center with eighteen terminals at the National Library in Aşgabat. In a landmark move, Turkmen Telecom undertook to connect private citizens to the internet for the first time in June 2008, although long waits and administrative requirements for getting connected—including a signature from the local police station—continued to hinder access. Additionally, service is slow and unreliable, dial-up access rates are relatively expensive for the average citizen, and internet websites critical of official government policy, as well as many independent news sites, are blocked by the authorities.

At the same time, President Berdimuhamedow’s rule has seen the advent of a small Turkmen-language online community, or “Turkmenet,” which has allowed a surprising amount of dissenting views, although pseudonyms are widely used and heavy political discussions are generally avoided. Blogs have been posted on a number of subjects not discussed in state media, ranging from Turkmen-language hip-hop and other popular underground music to political Islamism and the September clashes in eastern Turkmenistan between Chinese and Turkmen workers. Up until December 2010, increasing numbers of Turkmenistanis were reported to take part in online forums, such as talyplar.com and teswirler.com. The two sites, which were set up in 2007, were reported to have several hundred visitors daily.[13] However, the list of sites blocked by the authorities is growing: while YouTube and Facebook were filtered out in May 2010 by Turkmen Telekom, in September the government decided to block the social networking site agent.mail.ru as well.

The expansion of mobile telephone services may be the Berdimuhamedow regime’s greatest contribution towards increased personal freedom, although this progress experienced a setback at the end of 2010. Until December, Russia’s largest mobile phone operator, Mobile TeleSystems (MTS), and Altyn Asyr (Golden Age), a subsidiary of Turkmen Telekom, offered internet service to mobile subscribers in Turkmenistan. Altyn Asyr launched 3G service in March 2010 (with availability confined to Aşgabat);[14] however, in contrast to MTS, Altyn Asyr has no roaming agreement with any other cell operator in the world, making it impossible to telephone or send text messages abroad. Although more expensive that Altyn Asyr, MTS services were widely regarded as faster and more reliable. Consequently, while MTS broke the two-million subscriber barrier in August 2010, covering more than 85 percent of the country’s territory and operating in 14 cities,[15] Altyn Asyr was reported to have only 400,000 subscribers as of November 2010.[16]

At the end of December, shortly after MTS announced that it would soon launch 3G service, the Ministry of Communications suspended the company’s operations in Turkmenistan, instantly cutting off nearly half of the population’s mobile phone access and drastically reducing internet usage. While the ostensible reason for the suspension was that the company’s 5-year contract to operate in Turkmenistan had expired, the move was widely viewed as a government attempt to halt MTS’s rapid takeover of Turkmenistan’s market while simultaneously increasing Altyn Asyr’s share. Following the suspension, reports appeared in the international press speculating that the authorities were dissatisfied with their ownership stake in MTS as well as their dwindling control over its activities.[17] Some reports posited that the government intends to confiscate the company’s assets in Turkmenistan and then conclude a new, more lucrative deal with a different provider.

Turkmenistan continues to be an extremely hostile environment for journalists. Throughout the year, independent journalists were harassed and foreign correspondents were generally unable to access the country except for ‘showcase’ events, such as international gas or investment conferences, where they were usually closely monitored. The government required all foreign journalists to apply for accreditation, although there were no defined criteria for either receiving or denying it. Two journalists and activists, Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khadzhiev, who were arrested in 2006 for producing a television program on Turkmenistan for a French network, continued to be held despite calls from the UN for their release.[18]

Local Democratic Governance: 

State power in Turkmenistan’s five regions (welayatlar), districts (etraplar), and cities is vested in the largely decorative people’s councils (halk maslahatlary). In the villages, the 1992 constitution provided for the replacement of local soviets by legislative councils (gengeşlar), whose members are directly elected for five-year terms. The more than 600 gengeşlar are administered by arcinlar, who are elected from among their respective memberships. The gengeşlar were formally granted greater powers in 2008, but in reality they follow the instructions of the local governors (hakims), who are directly appointed by the president at all levels.

Tribal identities continue to play an important role in Turkmen society and informal local politics. Tribalism manifests primarily in social practices, such as the maintenance of preferential networks, endogamy, and the persistence of dialects. Virtually all Turkmen have at least a minimal knowledge of their own tribal affiliation, which is still a relatively reliable indicator of birthplace. A disproportionate number of influential positions in central government tend to go to members of Niyazov and Berdimuhamedow’s own tribe, the Ahalteke, although this is in large part owing to the fact that the capital of Aşgabat is located in the Ahal Region, where Ahaltekes predominate.

Around 2000, the Niyazov government began the systematic dismantling of key areas of the public sector in all regions of the country, most notably education, healthcare, and social security. Since coming to power in 2007, President Berdimuhamedow has made a number of changes to the country’s decaying educational system, including restoring the tenth year of compulsory education to extend the period of higher education from two to five years. High-school students are no longer required to undergo two years of practical work experience before applying to universities, foreign degrees are once again recognized, new areas of study have been introduced, and postgraduate and doctoral studies in certain higher educational establishments have been reimplemented. The defunct Academy of Sciences, which, before its closure in 1993, had acted as the mainstay of the scientific and academic community, was reopened, and a new presidential Higher Council on Science and Technology was established to coordinate the state’s scientific and academic policy.

Universities have widened their intake, although the demand for places still far exceeds supply. Unofficial reports indicate that the long-standing practice of paying large bribes to procure a place in universities, institutes, and even some secondary schools has not abated, with bribe prices to enter the most prestigious institutions rising to $40,000. According to official state media, 5,445 students were accepted at 21 universities and 1,758 students at professional academies in 2010.[19] In addition, the state sponsored more than 200 students to study in Russia at various universities and vocational schools, where they will specialize in, inter alia, the geology of oil and gas, agriculture, computer science, law, and medicine.

Belying its declared willingness to bring Turkmenistan’s educational system up to international standards, President Berdimuhamedow’s regime prevented some of the country’s students from pursuing an education in U.S.-affiliated universities beginning in 2009; moreover, many young Turkmenistanis studying abroad have chosen not to return to Turkmenistan after receiving their degrees. In August 2010, students enrolled at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) who had been prevented from leaving Turkmenistan were finally released for travel to Bulgaria, having missed a full year of their studies.

In contrast to its predecessor, the Berdimuhamedow regime has invested heavily in the country’s healthcare infrastructure, yet most of these facilities— many of which contain state-of-the art equipment—are neither accessible to the vast majority of the population nor staffed with qualified medical personnel. Highprofile projects have included a number of sanatoriums and specialist centers in regional capitals, such as the International Center for Head and Neck Diseases and the Oncology Center in Aşgabat. The regime has also partnered with international organizations to introduce maternity and immunization programs. Despite this investment, in April 2010 the international organization Doctors Without Borders issued a damning report arguing that healthcare in Turkmenistan is “a system of smoke and mirrors reinforced by fear” in which data is deliberately manipulated and blood products are mismanaged.[20] The existence of certain communicable diseases was neither acknowledged nor addressed: according to the report, Turkmenistan had not reported any new HIV infections in the last 3 years, and the multidrug-resistant form of tuberculosis posed a high risk of creating a serious health crisis. The report also indicted international organizations, such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF, for reporting the government’s health data as fact, thereby perpetuating the status quo, while even authoritarian Uzbekistan had provided more credible data to the international community.

Judicial Framework and Independence: 

The Office of the Prosecutor General dominates a legal system in which judges and lawyers play a marginal role. The prosecutor general is a political appointee whose primary function is repression rather than oversight. As in the former Soviet Union, convictions are generally based on confessions that are sometimes extracted by force, including the use of torture and psychotropic substances. Additionally, the prosecutor general is unofficially charged with the task of collecting compromising materials on other officials in the event the leadership chooses to dismiss or demote them.

Unchanged since the Soviet era, the court system in Turkmenistan consists of a Supreme Court, 6 regional courts (including 1 for the city of Aşgabat), and, at the lowest level, 61 district and city courts. In addition, the Supreme Economic Court hears all commercial disputes and cases involving conflicts between state enterprises and ministries. There is no constitutional court. The president appoints all judges for five-year terms without legislative review.

According to a report on Turkmenistan’s penitentiary facilities released in February 2010 by the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), the country’s imprisonment rate is among the highest in the world—534 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 348 in Kazakhstan and 80 to 90 in European countries—which has led to serious overcrowding and the spread of disease.[21] In March the president proposed the liberalization of the criminal code to allow for a reduction of maximum sentences and the introduction of monetary fines for less serious offenses; parliament approved the changes in May. The timing of the proposal indicated that in all probability it was a response to the TIHR study, which had been published the previous month, and also to a newly released UN report on secret prisoners in which concerns about Turkmenistan were raised.[22]

Under an annual amnesty mandated by a 1999 law and presidential decree, the government releases thousands of prison inmates each year on the eve of the Muslim feast Gadyr Gijesi (Night of Forgiveness) in October, primarily to relieve overcrowding. Although individuals convicted of serious crimes are theoretically ineligible for amnesty, those who can pay bribes —excluding political prisoners— are generally freed. Of the thousands of prisoners amnestied by President Berdimuhamedow since 2007, less than two dozen were considered political prisoners by international human rights groups.

President Berdimuhamedow’s government has enacted reforms easing internal travel restrictions, which have reduced the number of roadside document checks and inspections between cities. Significantly, the president also signed a decree abolishing the special permit needed to travel to the country’s sensitive border regions. At the same time, the authorities have maintained a number of unofficial measures to prevent free travel, such as drawing up an extensive “blacklist” of citizens prohibited from leaving the country and the arbitrary confiscation of passports. In August 2010 an Uzbek human rights organization, Najot, released an unconfirmed report regarding a new presidential decree prohibiting the exit and entry to the country of over 37,000 individuals, including prominent human rights defenders and over 70 foreign journalists.[23]

In line with other post-Soviet states, with the advent of independence Turkmenistan accorded a de facto higher status to its titular population, ethnic Turkmen, and legitimized the adoption of policies and practices that promoted their specific interests. Most jobs in the public sector were effectively closed to non- Turkmen, and senior state officials needed to demonstrate ethnic purity by tracing their Turkmen ancestry. President Berdimuhamedow’s leadership has continued Niyazov’s nation-building program through its efforts to make the country’s society and culture even more homogeneous, and the state has maintained its policy of promoting only those media and performing arts productions that feature “national” culture. A de facto ban exists on all ethnic cultural centers and non-Turkmen media sources (with the exception of two print publications in the Russian language).

This extends to education not conducted in the Turkmen language, as well: whereas, at the end of the 1990s there were 49 Russian-language middle schools and 56 schools with partial teaching in Russian, currently there is only one Russianlanguage school in Aşgabat and a handful in the regions that teach one or two classes in the Russian language.[24] There are no Uzbek- or Kazakh-language schools in the country. Higher educational establishments teach exclusively in the Turkmen language. Although its role has been severely downgraded under President Berdimuhamedow, all candidates for entrance exams to Turkmenistan’s higher educational institutions are still required to demonstrate proficiency in Niyazov’s Ruhnama, regardless of their area of specialization.

The new constitution adopted in 2008 formally enshrined Turkmenistan’s nonrecognition of dual citizenship (Article 7). This circumstance, in conjunction with the issuing of new biometric passports in the summer of 2008, was reported to have exerted further pressure on residents holding both Turkmenistani and Russian passports under a 1993 agreement. According to the Memorial Human Rights Society in Moscow, an unofficial policy has gone into effect requiring holders of both Russian and Turkmenistani passports to give up their Russian citizenship in order to receive the new passports, possession of which will become mandatory in 2013 for travel outside the country.[25] In July 2010 there were further reports that holders of both Russian and Turkmenistani passports were being prohibited from leaving the country unless they renounced one or the other citizenship.

Corruption: 

Turkmenistan is a low-capture economy in so far as there are no business leaders or oligarchs manipulating policy formation or shaping laws; rather, the president and his close circle of advisers shape the rules of the regime to their own substantial advantage. The leadership is able to sustain its rule through hydrocarbon export revenues, which it uses to finance pervasive security services and vanity construction projects as well as to secure the support of patronage networks.

There is still a notable lack of transparency in true economic figures, since Turkmenistan does not publish the national budget in full. Those figures that are published are often compiled out of local economic reports that have been inflated to show growth. No information has been released regarding export revenues held by former president Niyazov in foreign banks, and it remains unclear what share of export revenues are currently being diverted by the Berdimuhamedow leadership to off-budget accounts. While authorities have stated that foreign exchange revenues are being transferred to a new Stabilization Fund, there is no public documentation to show that the fund exists.

In Turkmenistan, political elites have traditionally built up local power bases by allocating key posts and opportunities to their loyalists. These informal networks, which have survived the demise of the Soviet system, are frequently referred to as “clans,” although they are based on patron-client relationships, often with links to extended families, rather than on actual blood ties. A limited number of patronage networks commanded by Berdimuhamedow control the country’s economy, which has given rise to a political culture of bribery, nepotism, and embezzlement. Bribe-taking is particularly prevalent among customs, licensing, and social service agencies. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2010, Turkmenistan ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world with a score of 1.6 (with 10 indicating “highly clean” and 0 “highly corrupt”), or in 171st place out of the 178 countries surveyed, which put it on par with Uzbekistan, just below Sudan, and just above Iraq.[26]

Of even greater relevance for Turkmenistan, th e Index produced by the New York-based Revenue Watch Institute, which measures government disclosure and transparency in the management of natural resources among the world’s top producing countries of oil, gas, and minerals, ranked Turkmenistan at the very bottom out of a total of 41 countries, below Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo.[27]

Large amounts of government revenue are spent on ostentatious construction projects carried out primarily by Turkish and French firms, such as the Olympic village in Aşgabat planned at a cost of US$1.9 billion, or the transformation of the Caspian sea town of Turkmenbashi into a free economic zone and worldclass resort—complete with an artificial river, yacht club, and an oceanographic center—at an estimated cost of US$5billion. In August 2010 both the 12-meter, gold-covered statue of Niyazov and the 75-meter Arch of Neutrality on which it stood—in place in the center of Aşgabat since 1998—were finally dismantled, although the construction of another 95-meter monument, the Great Monument of Neutrality, is to be erected in the southern part of the capital city in time for the 20th anniversary of Turkmenistan’s independence in October 2011.

International media covered a number of cases in 2010 where the Turkmenistanigovernment was portrayed as accepting bribes in gifts and cash from companies wishing to secure or maintain a share of the country’s market. According to U.S. Embassy cables leaked by the Wikileaks website, the French construction company Bouygues, which has built around 50 buildings in Aşgabat amounting to over 2 billion euros (US$2.8 billion), has paid 10–30 percent more in bribes since President Berdimuhamedow came to power.[28] In the international quest to gain access to gas fields, another Wikileaks cable alleged that the Russian company Itera gave Berdimuhammedow a yacht worth 60 million euros (US$83 million).[29] Similarly, in March the U.S. Justice Department filed documents under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act alleging that German automaker Daimler AG paid millions of dollars in bribes from 1998 to 2008 to officials in at least 22 countries, including Turkmenistan, where the company was said to have delivered an armored luxury sedan to a high-level executive official as a birthday present in 2000 and to have arranged and paid for the translation of the Ruhnama into German in order to “develop” Turkmenistan’s market.[30]

Notes: 

[1] Turkmen TV Altyn Asyr channel, Aşgabat, 5 December 2010, cited in BBC monitoring, 6 December 2010.

[2] Turkmen government website, Aşgabat, 5 December 2010. Cited in BBC monitoring, 6 December 2010.

[3] Interfax news agency, Moscow, 8 December 2010. Cited in BBC Monitoring, 9 December 2010; and Bruce Pannier, “Don’t Believe Everything You Hear About Turkmenistan,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 17 December 2010, http://www.rferl.org/content/turkmenistan/2251348.html.

[4] “Бердымухамедов призвал спецслужбы бороться с теми, кто не считает Туркмению ‘демократическим правовым светским государством’” [Berdimuhamedow Calls on Special Services to Combat Those Who Do Not Consider Turkmenistan a ‘Democratic, Lawbased, Secular State’], Regnum Informatsionnoe Agentstvo, 30 September 2010, http://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-abroad/turkmenia/1330731.html (in Russian).

[5] United States Agency for International Development (USAID), “Turkmenistan,” in The 2007 NGO Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia, 11th ed., (Washington: USAID, June 2008), http://www.usaid.gov/locations/europe_eurasia/dem_gov/ngoindex/2007/turk....

[6] USAID, “Turkmenistan,” in The 2009 NGO Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe, 13th ed., (Washington: USAID, June 2010): 211–217, http://www.usaid.gov/locations/europe_eurasia/dem_gov/ngoindex/2009/turk....

[7] Dovlet Ovezov and Inga Sikorskaya, “Faith Groups under Pressure in Turkmenistan,” Reporting Central Asia No. 628, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 15 September 2010, http://iwpr.net/report-news/faith-groups-under-pressure-turkmenistan.

[8] Felix Corley, “Turkmenistan: Religious Freedom Survey,” Forum 18 News Service, 5 August 2008, http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1167.

[9] Felix Corley and John Kinahan, “Turkmenistan: Religious freedom survey,” Forum 18 News Service, 18 November 2010, http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1512.

[10] Farangis Najibullah, “Turkmenistan: No Rush to Democracy,” Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, 20 July 2010, http://www.rferl.org/content/Turkmenistan_No_Rush_To_Democracy/2104410.html,

[11] Turkmen TV Altyn Asyr channel, Aşgabat, 19 August 2010. Cited in BBC Monitoring, 20 August 2010.

[12] “Asia Marketing Research, Internet Usage, Population Statistics and Facebook Information,” Internet World Stats, updated 17 November 2010. http://www.internetworldstats.com/asia.htm.

[13] Farangis Najibullah, “Turkmen dipping their toes into online forums,” Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, 30 September 2010, http://www.rferl.org/content/Turkmen_Dipping_Their_Toes_Into_Online_Foru....

[14] Although 3G was launched in December 2009, the first customer received service in March 2010. Annasoltan, “State of Ambivalence: Turkmenistan in the Digital Age,” Digital Icons: Studies in Russian, Eurasian and Central European New Media, 3(2010): 5.

[15] “MTS Turkmenistan gets two-millionth subscriber,” Turkmenistan.ru, 27 August 2010, http://www.turkmenistan.ru/en/node/14013.

[16] “Новогодние чудеса в Туркменистане: МТС выгоняют из страны” [New Year wonders in Turkmenistan: MTS is chased out of the country], Fergana.ru, 24 December 2010, www.fergananews.com/article.php?id=6850 (in Russian).

[17] “Vremya novostei: Ashgabat threatens MTS to expropriate business in Turkmenistan,” Ferghana News, 7 December 2010, http://enews.fergananews.com/news.php?id=1946; and Catherine Fitzpatrick, “Turkmenistan May Shut Down Russian MTS Mobile Service,” Eurasianet, 21 December 2010, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/62611.

[18] “UN Condemns Imprisonment of UN Activists,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 4 November 2010, http://www.rferl.org/content/UN_Condemns_Imprisonment_Of_Turkmen_Activis....

[19] State News Agency of Turkmenistan, 30 July 2010, www.turkmenistan.gov.tm/?idr=1&id=100730b.

[20] Medecins Sans Frontieres, Turkmenistan’s Opaque Health System (Amsterdam: Medecins Sans Frontieres, 12 April 2010): 1, http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/publications/reports/2010/MSF-Turkm....

[21] Turkmenistan’s Independent Lawyers Association and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, “Turkmenistan’s Penitentiary Facilities,” February 2010, http://www.chrono-tm.org/uploaded/1266867677.pdf.

[22] “Turkmenistan News Briefs,” EurasiaNet, Issue 29, 16–23 July 2010.

[23] Amnesty International, “Turkmenistan: Severe restrictions on freedom of movement remain,” public statement, AI Index: EUR 61/002/2010, 16 August 2010, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/EUR61/002/2010/en/9e1e60b8-2560-... .

[24] Information provided by Vitaliy Ponamarev, a researcher on Central Asia for Memorial Human Rights Society in Moscow. See “‘Родина – не мать. Россия не желает защищать своих граждан в Туркмении” [The Motherland is not a Mother. Russia does not want to defend its citizens in Turkmenistan], Fergana.ru, 3 March 2009, http://www.ferghana.ru/article.php?id=6081 (in Russian).

[25] “‘Родина – не мать,” and Viktor Pronin, “Решение «русского» вопроса” [The Resolution of the ‘Russian’ Question], Gundogar, 17 December 2009, http://www.gundogar.org/?0221048795000000000000011000000 (in Russian).

[26] Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index 2010 (Berlin: Transparency International, October 2010), http://www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi/2010/res....

[27] Revenue Watch Institute, 2010 Revenue Watch Index (New York: Revenue Watch Institute and Transparency International, 2010), http://www.revenuewatch.org/rwindex2010/index.html.

[28] Joshua Kucera, “Turkmenistan: WikiLeaks Shows French Firm Indulging Berdymukhamedov’s Penchant for Grandiosity,” Eurasianet.org, 13 December 2010, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/62567.

[29] “Turkmenistan’s President: €60m Yacht ‘Not Big Enough’—WikiLeaks,” Eurasianet.org, 2 December 2010, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/62485.

[30] “Turkmenistan: Ashgabat on Receiving End of Daimler Bribes—US Federal Court Documents,” Eurasianet.org, 30 March 2010, http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav033010a.shtml.