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Turkmenistan: A Country Uncovered 04/20/24

Updated: Apr 25


Turkmenistan: A closed country revealed Part I.

Few people in the USA have heard of Turkmenistan, a sparsely populated and poorly known country, with 70% of the land the Karakum desert. It is bordered by Kazakhstan to the northwest, Uzbekistan to the north and east, Afghanistan to the southeast, Iran to the south, and the Caspian sea to the west. From April 26 until May 4, the Rotary Club of Concord, in conjunction with Open World and Rotary International, will be hosting a group of seven delegates, young business professionals, all connected to journalism. In 1999, under President Bill Clinton, Congress authorized the creation of Open World as a Legislative Branch agency that offers bipartisan support to Members of Congress in creating cultural exchanges for Eurasian leaders to witness democracy building in action. The Turkman mission is to experience best practices in journalism, journalism schools, and, if possible, learn from journalists working under difficult conditions.  

The republic, a former Russian satellite, declared independence on October 27, 1991, and adopted the name Turkmenistan. In the early years of independence, a corrupt regime led by the dictatorial rule of Saparmurad Niyazov, failed to improve the quality of life for the people, despite the interest of, foreign investors in Turkmenistan’s natural gas resources. His primary interest was in propagating an elaborate personality cult. In addition to declaring himself president for life, he pursued a number of extravagant projects to this end. Atop a monument called the Neutrality Arch, a gold statue in his likeness—one of the many such statues and portraits scattered throughout the country—was designed to rotate to continuously face the Sun. He called for a “Golden Age Lake” to be constructed in the desert at a cost of more than $6 billion, and his semiautobiographical Rukhnama (“The Book of the Soul”) was established as required reading in all of Turkmenistan’s schools, even forming a part of driver’s exams. He renamed days of the week, months of the year, a crater on the Moon, a breed of horse, a canal, a city, and a wide range of ideas and places after himself and members of his family. A large proportion of state money—at the beginning of the 21st century, estimated at more than half of the country’s gross domestic product—was funneled off to a special presidential fund; much of this revenue was to subsidize special construction projects emphasizing the president’s prestige, including a space-age mosque. The capital city, Ashgabat, reflects his lunatic efforts. As one writer puts it, “If you put Las Vegas and Pyongyang in a blender, the result would be Ashgabat.” This systematic diversion of revenue, as well as various “reforms,” resulted in a crippling decline in education and health care services. The newly elected President, (son of the previous president), Serdar Berdimuhamedov, elected in March 2022, has yet to enact any noticeable reforms. Ashgabat has one of the highest cost of living in the world, largely due to the country’s inflation and import issues.

Although the constitution declares Turkmenistan to be a secular democracy and a presidential republic, the country has an authoritarian government controlled by the president and his Democratic Party, the country’s only political party. Immediately after the death of President Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006, Berdimuhamedov ‘s father was inaugurated president following presidential elections in February 2007, which did not meet international standards. The current president in an election declared neither free nor fair by international observers, won with a 73% majority.

It is a country rich in natural resources and its gas reserves are estimated to be the world’s fourth largest. Its principal customer is China. The war in Ukraine is causing the government to look at other new options as the Russian oil and gas market is losing customers.

Human Rights Watch has identified problems were arbitrary arrest, torture, and disregard for civil liberties, including restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, and movement. The judicial system is subservient to the president, who appoints and dismisses judges unilaterally. In practice, the courts are commonly used to punish dissent and remove potential threats to the president’s political dominance. To outside observers, the Turkmenistan legislature is considered to be a rubber stamp parliament.

Like his predecessors, President Serdar wields absolute power, and is the focus of a personality cult in the state-run media. The government has an absolute monopoly of the media, and state TV and radio pump out a steady stream of propaganda. Reporters Without Borders has called Turkmenistan "an ever-expanding news black hole". Foreign news and opposition websites are blocked, and international social networks are often inaccessible. Nearly all television stations and newspapers in the country are state-owned. Some provisions exist for private outlets, but they must secure state licensing and provide positive coverage of the government. Literary expression is likewise controlled despite efforts to enrich Turkmen literature; for a time, in order to promote Niyazov’s Rukhnama, the publication of all other works was suppressed.

            Next month in Part II, we will report on the Turkman delegation visit.

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