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Turkmenistan - Politics

Turkmenistan has never held free and fair elections since becoming an independent state following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Turkmenistan is an authoritarian state that was long dominated by its first president, Saparmyrat Niyazov, who died in late 2006. Niyazov faced no significant domestic oppositionn, nor does his successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who was "elected" in 2007. Reporters Without Borders ranked the Muslim-majority country of 5.5 million people 176 out of 178 countries in its 2010 press freedom index. The law characterizes any opposition to the government as treason. Those convicted of treason face life imprisonment and are ineligible for amnesty or reduction of sentence. In the past the government arrested and filed charges against those expressing critical or differing views on economic or criminal charges instead of charging its critics with treason.

Turkmenistan is often described as opaque, with a government with an inscrutable decisionmaking process. While still very insular, with few external points of reference, it is not opaque. The system has rules, although this fact is not readily apparent to those with only a passing knowledge of the Turkmen. Understanding these rules, however, makes it easier to comprehend what is going on.

The Turkmen elite is weak, has limited resources, and lacks charismatic figures. Top officials in Turkmenistan suffer from the fly-by-night syndrome more than their counterparts in any other post-Soviet republic. In Turkmenbashi's government a minister occupied his post no more than half a year on average, after which he was ousted, sent to prison, or fled abroad. It is enough to recall that parliament speakers were changed four times from the early 2001 to November 2002. None of the claimants to power have great resources, especially as regards social support. The Turkmen political class rested on multiple family and regional interrelations, but after Boris Shikhmuradov, Khadaiberdy Orazov, Nurmukhammed Khanamov, and other "nomenclature oppositionists" were removed from power, their relatives were ousted from top echelons of government and big business.

While perhaps not rational or logical to many outsiders, the system has its own rules, which it follows, religiously. Rather than opaque, it is better to describe Turkmenistan as translucent, like a bathroom window. You can tell if the light is on or not. You know if someone is inside. You can tell when the shadows move. With time, given the light and shadow, you can deduce what is going on. Yet, there is just enough hidden to serve its purpose.

Following the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan declared its independence on October 27, 1991. Saparmurat Niyazov became the first president of the new republic and remained the supreme decision-maker. Neither independent political activity nor opposition candidates are allowed in Turkmenistan. The Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT) was the only legal political party. Political gatherings are illegal unless government sanctioned, and the citizens of Turkmenistan do not have the means to change their government democratically. Members of the former Communist Party of Turkmenistan continued to fill the majority of government and civic leadership posts, and much of the ideologically justified Soviet-era political structure remained intact.

Western and Russian criticism generally has revealed misunderstandings and stereotypes of the political and social dynamics of the region that dilute the authority of such evaluations. Beneath the surface of the presidential image, political life in Turkmenistan is influenced by a combination of regional, professional, and tribal factors. Regional ties appear to be the strongest of these factors; they are evident in the opposing power bases of Ashgabat, center of the government, and Mary, which is the center of a mafia organization that controls the narcotics market and illegal trade in a number of commodities. Although both areas are settled primarily by Turkmen of the Teke tribe, factions in Ashgabat still express resentment and distrust of those in Mary for failing to aid the fortress of Gokdepe against the 1881 assault that led to Russian control of the Turkmen khanates.

Political behavior also is shaped by the technocratic elites, who were trained in Moscow and who can rely on support from most of the educated professionals in Ashgabat and other urban areas. Most of the elites within the national government originate from and are supported by the intelligentsia, which also is the source of the few opposition groups in the republic.

Tribal and other kinship ties rooted in genealogies play a much smaller role than presumed by analysts who view Turkmen society as "tribal" and therefore not at a sophisticated political level. Nonetheless, clan ties often are reflected in patterns of appointments and networks of power. Regional and clan ties have been identified as the bases for political infighting in the republic. For example, in the early 1990s power bases pitted the Mary district chieftain Gurban Orazov against the Ashgabat millionaire and minister of agriculture Payzgeldi Meredov, and the Teke clan's hold on power through Niyazov conflicted with the Yomud clan's hold on the oil and gas industry through minister Nazar Soyunov. In July 1994, Niyazov removed both Meredov and Soyunov from office on the basis of evidence that the two ministers had misappropriated funds obtained from the sale of state-owned resources. To correct such problems, a Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations was formed to handle exports and imports, and a Control and Revision Commission was established to review contracts with foreign firms.

While the constitution provides for freedom of the press, there is virtually no freedom of the press or of association. The government has full control of all media and restricts foreign publications. International satellite TV is available.

The population is 89% Sunni Muslim. The constitution provides for freedom of religion and does not establish a state religion; however, in practice, the Government continues to monitor all forms of religious expression. Amendments to the law on religious organizations adopted in March 2004 reduced membership requirements from 500 to five. All groups must register in order to gain legal status with the Government. The Government limits the activities of unregistered religious congregations by prohibiting them from gathering publicly, proselytizing, and disseminating religious materials.

A Soviet-style command economy greatly limits equality of opportunity. Industry and services are almost entirely provided by government or government-owned entities, while agriculture is dominated by a state order system. Women face particularly strong discrimination in all social aspects, and their freedom is restricted due to traditional social-religious norms. All citizens are required to carry internal passports, noting place of residence, and movement into and out of the country, as well as within its borders, is difficult.

Corruption continues to be pervasive. Power is concentrated in the president; the judiciary is wholly subservient to the regime, with all judges appointed for 5-year terms by the president without legislative review. The president routinely dismisses cabinet members and other government officials on charges of corruption and they are subsequently tried in secret trials and frequently imprisoned or sentenced to internal exile. These dismissals, however, are often politically motivated and have little impact on the culture of corruption.

The government did not permit opposition movements outside the country, including the National Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan, the Republican Party of Turkmenistan, and the Fatherland (Watan) Party, to operate within the country. Members of the exiled Turkmen opposition, including former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, met in Vienna in 2002 and announced the formation of the Turkmen Democratic Opposition. They accused the Turkmen leadership of gross violation of human rights.

On November 25, 2002, an armed attack against President Niyazov's motorcade was made and the Government of Turkmenistan moved quickly against perceived sources of opposition. There were widespread reports of human rights abuses committed by officials investigating the attack, including torture and punishment of families of the accused. The Government of Turkmenistan denied the charges, but refused to allow independent observers at trials, to accept a mandatory OSCE fact-finding mission, or to permit ICRC access to prisons. It also instituted new measures to stifle dissent and limit contact with the outside world.

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Page last modified: 21-03-2022 10:29:24 ZULU