What Transition for Turkmenistan?

Saparmurat Niyazov

The Ruknama was compulsory reading in schools and state institutions.  According to The Ruknama  the soul of Niyazov will now  go directly to paradise while his body will be put in a marble mausoleum next to the largest mosque in Central Asia, a 100 million dollar edifice built in his birth place by the French public works company Bouygues.

Saparmurat Niyazov had come to power in 1985 when Turkmenistan was still a Soviet Republic.  As with all the Central Asian republics, Turkmenistan is the result of Imperial Russian conquest followed by Soviet rule.  The divisions between countries have no other historical basis, and personal identity is still largely clannic or kinship-based.  Thus the constant need to stress Turkmenistan identity and Saparmurat Niyazov as “father”. Some fear that “outside sources” by which is meant China, Iran, the USA and Russia may play upon the clannic nature of Turkmen society to have certain clans push their interests. 

It was Soviet ethnographers who “created” for Central Asia from a host of dialects four Turkic languages (Uzbek, Turkmen, Kazakh and Kyrgyz) and one Persian-based (Tajik).  These languages were imposed as unifying, nationalizing elements but under Russian which was to be the overall language of communications and administration.

Turkmenistan with its five million people is in an important geo-strategic position with frontiers with Iran and Afghanistan.  It ranks fifth in known gas reserves, much of it sold to Russia., which uses the lower priced gas to supply Russia while selling higher priced Russian gas to Western Europe.  It is probably because of its gas production that there has been so little international attention given to its lack of economic policy and lack of democratic institutions.  The income from gas production has been largely kept in off-shore banks. There has been little economic development leading to high rates of underemployment and rural stagnation.  There have been a number of non-productive monuments largely built by foreign firms. However, there has been no coherent economic development policy.

Turkmenistan both politically and economically has closed in on itself, to follow an isolationist course.  It closed its frontiers with Uzbekistan for fear that the more numerous Uzbeks would come as workers or traders. Turkmenistan refused to join the Shanghai Cooperation Council which unites the other Central Asian states to China and Russia.  However, in what may be a sign of a new openness, Turkmenistan did sign the recent Treaty on a Nuclear-weapon free Central Asia. 

What will happen now after the death of Saparmurat Niyazov merits watching closely.  The Turkmenbashi chose none of his “sons” as a future leader, although he has a son in the kinship sense called Murat, known  primarily as a playboy.  For the moment, the Vice Prime Minister (Niyazov serving as  President, Prime Minister and head of the Army) is interim President, but Gourbangouly Berdymoukhmmedov, a 49-year old former dentist, owes much of his position to being  a relative of Niyazov. How much personal support he has may be seen in coming elections.  On 26 December the little-used 2,500 member People’s Council (Parliament) was called into session. The Council is made up of clan leaders as well as local government officials. They decided that there would be elections on 11 February 2007. As there is only one, but little-used political party, the campaign is likely to be short. What struggles for power go on will be out of sight.

It is also likely that there will be a struggle for power among external powers, basically Russia against all the others. Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled gas monopoly relies in part on Turkmen gas to meet commitments.  US and European Union companies also have an interest in the gas, part of the complicated Caspian Sea struggle for resources and pipeline routes. 

With a state structure so identified with its leader, it is difficult to say what the future holds.  There was always some expressed opposition, most of it in prison, a few leaders in exile.  To what extent opposition was in the hearts of the people and will now come forth is difficult to know in advance.  It is probably best to buy a copy of The Ruknama  now while still available.

Rene Wadlow is the editor of the online journal of world politics www.transnational-perspectives.org and an NGO representative to the United Nations, Geneva.Photo from wikipedia.org