Turkmenistan: pseudo-elections bring no surprise

The passing of Turkmenistan’s wacky despot Saparmurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov and the country’s first-ever multi-candidate (although not multi-party) elections have brought no surprises so far. In the weeks prior to the Feb. 11 vote, Turkmen officials announced that foreign journalists would be welcome to observe, but EurasiaNet reports that “virtually no outside journalist seeking to cover the election received a visa to do so.” In a Feb. 9 statement, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the imposition of “restrictions” on foreign and domestic journalists hoping to cover the election. CPJ director Joel Simon said “the press is systematically impeded from doing its work” in Turkmenistan. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which operates an information-gathering network inside Turkmenistan, claimed that the turnout total of 99% appeared to be dramatically inflated. Hudayberdy Orazov, a Turkmen exile in Sweden who heads the Watan opposition movement, said there was “quite enough evidence” that the totals were manipulated. Avdy Kuliyev, another exiled Turkmen opposition leader, called the vote a “stage-managed drama,” Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reported. “We consider the election … illegal and undemocratic, and of course, we cannot recognize it.” (EurasiaNet, Feb. 12) All six candidates—chosen by the country’s legislative body, the People’s Council—pledged fealty to the ideas of Turkmenbashi and vowed to follow in his footsteps. (RFE/RL, Feb. 12)

Nobody had any doubt the winner would be acting president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who indeed claimed 90% of the vote. In his inauguration speech to the People’s Council, there were some glimmers of change—including a pledge to allow ordinary Turkmen access to the Internet. Under Turkmenbashi, Internet access was available only to government officials and some journalists and NGOs. Berdymukhammedov also promised educational reforms, and more doctors and hospitals. As health minister, he was responsible for implementing Turkmenbashi’s 2005 order to close all hospitals outside the capital and fire some 15,000 doctors. Turkmenbashi had also reduced compulsory education to nine years from 10.

But Berdymukhammedov also promised “to dedicate myself to the legacy of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great.” Turkmenbashi remains an overwhelming presence in Turkmenistan some two months after his death. Statues of him abound, including a golden one in the capital that rotates to follow the sun’s path. He had renamed the months and days of the week after himself and members of his family. His “philosophical” book The Rukhnama is required reading in schools. Council elders presented Berdymukhamedov with a copy of The Rukhnama at the inauguration, where many council members held up portraits of Turkmenbashi.

Turkmenistan is being watched closely by Russia and the West. Both have substantial interest in the country because of its enormous natural gas reserves—and its stability and neutrality in a contentious region. Turkmenistan borders both Iran and Afghanistan. Western leaders will be most heartened by Berdymukhamedov’s promise to pursue “development of private ownership and entrepreneurship”—read: easier access for multinational oil companies. Even if this was invoked in the same breath as free Internet access, it may not be good news for the Turkmen. As examples from Augusto Pinochet to Deng Xiaoping amply indicate, “free markets” are perfectly compatible with the harshest dictatorship. (AP, Feb. 14)

See our last post on Turkmenistan and the Great Game for Central Asia