No one is saying that trying to govern Turkmenistan — a massive gas-rich but development-poor swathe of 360,000 square kilometers of mostly desert wasteland precariously situated between Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the east and Iran and Afghanistan to the south — is a bed of roses.
But when the country’s current leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, first took office after his predecessor, Turkmen President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov, died in 2006, there were hopeful signs that under his stewardship the former Soviet republic might actually begin to turn its dismal human rights record around and start acting like a responsible member of the modern international community.
But despite having actually been elected to the office in what, at the time, was considered a relatively fair election (he received nearly 90 percent of the votes), the 60-year-old dentist-turned-politician has not lived up to expectations.
Having campaigned on promises of a more open foreign policy, freer markets, less corruption, a more equable distribution of wealth and, most importantly, a greater respect for human rights and free expression, Berdymukhammedov had stirred expectations among the Turkmen exile community and many citizens at home that the repressive and authoritarian regime of Niyazov might actually be replaced with the budding sprouts of real democracy and social tolerance.
But, alas, that didn’t turn out to be the case.
Granted, under Berdymukhammedov, there have been some improvements in the daily lives of the Turkmen people.
During his 10 years in office, Berdymukhammedov has restored pensions that were abolished by Niyazov, reduced restrictions on foreign travel and reinstated the 10th year of public education that had been dropped by in the early 2000s.
But as for implementing genuine political and economic reform, Berdymukhammedov has shown himself to be a lot more talk than action.
Following in the footsteps of Niyazov, Berdymukhammedov, in true Nero fashion, has fiddled away the country’s abundant gas and oil wealth building grandiose but mostly abandoned marble palaces and glitzy seaside resorts while Turkmenistan’s economy has slowly smoldered into cinders.
While the Central Asian nation boasts the fourth-largest gas reserves in the world, political and diplomatic spats with Russia and Iran have resulted in Turkmenistan now having only one major buyer, China, for its principle export.
In macroeconomic terms, Turkmenistan’s economy is registering a respectable 6.2 percent growth per annum, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with a moderate 6 percent inflation and a relatively balanced state budget.
But external deficits are taking a toll, as are low hydrocarbon prices.
Moreover, there is no trickledown effect in Berdymukhammedov’s economic landscape.
While the president and his cohorts live high on the hog, for the average Turkmen, there are now long Venezuela-like lines for even the most basic of goods, including food and medicine.
In June, Berdymukhammedov abolished government subsidies for water and electricity which had been in effect since 1993.
And while the Turkmen president was stripping his people of one of their last social benefits, his police and courts were busy arresting, torturing and prosecuting a group of dissidents who dared to raise their voice in protest against the mounting abuses of the Berdymukhammedov regime.
According to a report released in June by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least 18 Turkmen have been held since the start of the year on unspecific charges and sentenced to up to 25 years hard labor in a two-hour, closed-door trial that HRW Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia Rachel Denber said “bears no resemblance to justice.”
“Given the Turkmen government’s appalling human rights record, every minute these men are in custody, they are at grave risk of torture and enforced disappearance,” she said.
“The government behaves as though it is not bound by any international standards whatsoever, so it falls to the country’s international partners to make clear that these standards must be observed.”
The international nongovernmental watchdog organization has had its eye on Berdymukhammedov and his despotic regime for several years now, recently issuing a report that stated that “Turkmenistan remains one of the world’s most repressive countries. It is virtually closed to independent scrutiny, media and religious freedoms are subject to draconian restrictions, and human rights defenders and other activists face the constant threat of government reprisal.”
Berdymukhammedov has been a disappointment to his people and to the outside world, and unless he begins to comply with global standards of democracy and respect for human rights, there is a very good chance that Turkmenistan’s latest would-be president-for-life may be facing a very short political existence.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]