"It is not always going from bad to worse that a society falls into revolution....The social order destroyed by a revolution is almost always better than that which preceded it, and experience shows that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is generally that in which it sets about reform".
Alexis de Tocqueville, L'Ancien regime et la revolution (1856).
On the the 21st of December 2006, Saparmurat Niyazov, the all-powerful, Stalin-like ruler of the Central Asian Republic of Turkmenistan passed away. The face of it,Niyazov's rule was something so extraordinary as to be almost entirely sui generis. From his re-ordering the calendar, to his gold statue of himself in the nation's capital, to his mandating that all of his subjects read his little booklet of sermons and instructions, to his banning international travel, to his regular purges of his administration, so that even the most loyal and obseqious functionaries might quite suddenly disappear into one of his many jails there to be tortured or even killed. Indeed, it is a simple truism to say that Turkmenbashi's regime was one without parallel in Central Asia for upwards of over a hundred years.Like his sometime model Stalin, Niyazov left no successor in place, perhaps operating on the understandable assumption that to name a successor would imply that the all-powerful ruler, was not in fact, destined to rule forever....Consequently, the death of the tyrant, had the upshot of offering the possibility of the Turkmen people a break with the absolutist nature of politics and society in place since 1991 if not in fact since 1917.
What are the prospects so far? On 11th February, Niyazov's closest approximation of a number two, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, won elections which were by no streach of the imagination, either free or fair. However, the exercise did offer to the tamed and cowed population a modicum of political pluralism, inasmuch as there were several candidates for the position of President. Which unfortunately did not include any of the many oppositional leaders in exile, who were uniformally prevented from returning for the elections. On the surface the prospects of political development in Turkmenistan are on balance 'good'. The only response that one can offer in the aftermath of Niyazov's reign of terror. For the forseeable future, it seems that Turkmenistan will no doubt turn to adapt the more benign political forms of authoritarian rule as currently practiced in the rest of Central Asia, id est, Kazakhistan, spring immediately to mind. Be in no doubt however that what is not on the cards in Turkmenistan, is another multi-colored revolution: red, green, bright orange, purple or even gold (allegedly Turkmenbashi's favorite color by the bye...). Notwithstanding the idealistic carpings by our friends at the Internationa Crisis Group, that:
"The International Community should....make it clear that serious trade and aid relationships and an end to Turkmenistan's isolation requires its new leaders take the first steps to reverse Niyazov's most egregious socio-economic policies and improve human rights" (see: www.crisisgroup.org)
In point of fact, the "International Community", as such cares nothing for improving human rights, more than a modicum to comparable, Central Asia levels. And, unfortunately rightly so. The tables in Turkmenistan, have been so far unbalanced that it will take upwards of a decade for them to be balanced rightly again. If (a very big if indeed), Turkmenistan can achieve levels of socio-economic development say of Kazakhistan, than one can indeed say that real progress has been made. Any such change can only be made from above however. As Juliette Terzieff has recently argued: "the new leadership's self-described desire for change...provides the best hope that change will actually occur" (see: "Turkmenistan leadership sends mixed signal in first post-Niyazov Trial", in www.worldpoliticswatch.com). What truly interests the "International Community", as such is not human rights, but that Niyazov's successors will be able to keep the gas and oil taps running full blast for the forseeable future. This is of course especially true of Moskva, which seems at the present time to be primus inter pares, among the foreign powers in the country, as wells as China and the EU. None of which, are seriously interested in rocking the boat in Turkmenistan for fears that behind the current placid stability lurks savage chaos and violent instability. The only partial exceptions to this consensus at present are (oddly enough considering their otherwise violently opposed positions to each other elsewhere) the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Both would love to overturn the current stability in the country for purposes of realigning the country into their own bloc and, away from its sotto voce, pro-Moskva alignment. At present of course, neither power has done anything of substance as of yet (on this see Joshua Kucera's article titled: "Washington to make diplomatic push for greater economic integration in Central, South Asia" in www.eurasianet.org).
It is with the above introduction in mind, that I would like to now present, for the readership of this journal, a new analysis of developments in Turkmenistan, by the online journal Eurasianet (www.eurasianet.org). Please read and enjoy:
"Under President Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan was an extraordinary place one of the most repressive nations on earth ruled by one of the maddest hatters ever to occupy a presidential palace. But since Niyazov’s sudden death on December 21,nothing out of the ordinary has transpired.
Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov became acting president, hinted at reforms, ran against five window-dressing opponents in a February 11 presidential election, and won nearly 90 percent of the vote. By Central Asian standards, it hardly merits a shrug.
The events that preceded Berdymukhammedov’s inauguration as Turkmenistan’s new president today might have been humdrum by regional standards, but because they took place in a country on which Niyazov impressed what for now seems to be an indelible stamp, they have left opposition figures, international organizations, and even other countries off balance. The new president’s ascent might suggest that Turkmenistan is rejoining the Central Asian fold, but no one seems quite ready to believe it.
During his lifetime, Niyazov brooked no dissent in his realm. The political opposition that existed had existed beyond Turkmenistan’s borders. When Niyazov died, a number of expatriate opposition leaders vowed bravely to return. But Niyazov’s security services proved longer-lived than their master, and no one from the opposition abroad was able to reenter the country and take part in the presidential election.
An Odd Mix
When the election took place on February 11, opposition statements offered an odd mix of condemnation and conciliation. Avdy Kuliev, head of the United Democratic Opposition of Turkmenistan, told RIA Novosti by telephone from Norway on February 11 that his group "consider[s] the election being held in Turkmenistan illegal and undemocratic" and "cannot recognize it." Opposition leader Nurmukhammet Khanamov, speaking to RIA Novosti from Vienna, said that "we do not recognize the results of the presidential election." But he added that the opposition must "begin talks with the authorities" -- or noted that "at least [it is] planning to do so." Bairam Shikhmuradov, the son of imprisoned former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, said "we will have to work under the new president," adding that their "chief goal is to become involved in the political process in one way or another," Interfax in Moscow reported on February 11.
International organizations also offered a range of views. Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a hard-hitting statement on February 8 warning that "a new dictatorship will be consolidated in Turkmenistan by the pro forma presidential election on February 11 unless strong international voices insist on real human rights reform." And the International Crisis Group (ICG) released a report on February 12 urging the international community "to make it clear that serious trade and aid relationships and an end to Turkmenistan’s isolation require its new leaders to take the first steps to reverse Niyazov’s most egregious socioeconomic policies and improve human rights."
On the other hand, Erika Dailey, who heads the Turkmenistan Project at the Open Society Institute, told eurasianet.org that "the acting president’s reformist rhetoric has captured the imagination of the international community and sown seeds of hope that genuine reform will follow." But Dailey was careful to note that "Niyazov was also a rhetorical reformer," adding, "only time will tell whether the promised reforms will materialize."
’Ready To Help’
The OSCE sent an Election Support Team, but not an observation mission, for the presidential election at the invitation of the Turkmen authorities. OSCE Chairman in Office and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said he hopes for increased dialogue between the OSCE and Turkmenistan, according to an OSCE press release dated February 12. He said his organization was "ready to help in all areas where the OSCE is active, whether in the political-military dimension, environmental and economic matters, or human rights." He added that "the OSCE field center in Ashgabat should play a useful role."
Yet two members of a delegation from the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly to Turkmenistan made exceedingly blunt comments about the election itself. Jesus Lopez-Medel told Spain’s "ABC" newspaper that the election was a "farce," the Turkmen opposition website "Gundogar" reported on February 12. Lopez-Medel condemned the Turkmen presidential election as having been "more like a play than an election, a farce instead of the citizens’ real participation in the electoral process." He added that "everything was decided in advance, and the voting was just for appearances." Another delegation member, Joao Soares, said the balloting "may hardly be called elections" and was "absolutely not free and fair."
Government reactions to Niyazov’s passing and the coming of a new leadership have been restrained. For better or worse, Turkmenistan’s relevance to the outside world is almost exclusively a function of its large reserves of natural gas.
Russia controls almost all the export routes for Turkmen gas, currently purchases the bulk of the stuff, and has not made reform of any kind a part of its agenda in Central Asia. Moscow thus has no reason to rock the boat and has had little to say. Western states -- which fear upheaval in a key link in the chain of gas suppliers to Europe, abhorred Niyazov’s megalomaniacal rule, and yet yearn to see Turkmenistan diversify its gas export routes -- also have not come forward with strong reform demands or bold cooperation initiatives.
Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan drifted away from the outside world into a realm of its own. Yet despite the past month’s halting signs of a return to the Central Asian mainstream, outsiders remain reluctant to draw conclusions. Opposition leaders level broadsides with the hope of dialogue. International organizations look for light at the end of the tunnel. And other countries weigh their words and wait.The election of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov might be the first step on Turkmenistan’s journey back into the Central Asian fold, with all the good and bad that trip entails.But for now, Niyazov’s legacy lives on, and Turkmenistan remains a country at a remove from its neighbors and the world."
Posted February 17, 2007 © Eurasianet