Turkmenistan continues to be the most closed post-Soviet republic. Despite some liberal reforms, it is still very difficult to access, with the only source of information about that country being local state-controlled mass media. Senior researcher from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Shokhrat Kadyrov has told EADaily about the problems of the Turkmen state and the challenges it is facing today.
Quite recently the Turkmens erected a gilded statue of their second President Gubanguly Berdymukhamedov. Does this mean a new cult? Some people even say that Berdymukhamedov wants his grandson to succeed him...
- Yes, this seems to be true. The Turkmen Constitution allows this. It says that the president has the right to run for two terms in office but it doesn’t say that he has no right to rule for a longer time. Recently one presidential term was prolonged to seven years. This means that when in 2017 Berdymukhamedov’s second term expires, he may run for two more prolonged terms, that is, for 14 years more. Berdymukhamedov was almost 50 when first elected President. Now he is almost 60. He is a healthy man. So, he can rule for many years more. His cult is already existent. I don’t think he make his son his successor – even though the experience of Azerbaijan has shown that this is quite possible. In any case, he still has many years to rule. So, forecasts are hardly appropriate here.
Any cult is situational: the weaker the regime, the stronger the cult. So, I guess the reason the Turkmens erected the statue was that today they are facing the threat of a war. War is the time of single authority. This is why the Turkmen president is being glorified even though he has done nothing glorious. The best thing he has done so far is the repairs of the almost ruined house of his predecessor, Turkmenbashi.
Some regional mass media report escalating tensions on the Turkmen-Afghani border. The Turkmen authorities are reported to be conscripting school-leavers and sending them to the border. Is this actually dangerous? Will Turkmenistan be able to cope with this threat on its own or does it actually need the United States’ support?
- One always needs somebody’s support. One can’t wage a war without allies. But for neutral Turkmenistan external support may be bad, as the supporting party may claim something in exchange. If the Russians come, they will stay and may impose the Soviet-type scheme stipulating that top offices should be held on an alternative basis by people from different communities. This is contrary to the interests of the Akhal-Teke (Ashgabat) Turkmens, who have ruled the country for already 30 years. The Americans will also stay and will start encircling Iran. This may trigger a real geopolitical revolution. As a neutral nation, Turkmens may appeal to the UN, but in exchange the latter may oblige them to receive Turkmen refugees from Afghanistan. This is one more threat to the sub-ethnic regime currently ruling in Turkmenistan.
So, the Turkmens prefer waiting so see what happens next. Many of them say they will hardly do without Russia. But the point is that those ruling the country today are the descendants of those who showed the strongest resistance to the Russians in 1881. At first glance, this point seems to be insignificant, but it is very psychological and therefore the most decisive. All the other Turkmens are not against the Russians or any other third force. They are fed up with the Akhal-Teke dictators. This especially refers to the Turkmens living in the Amu Darya region – the relatives of the Afghani Turkmens, who are plotting a war against Turkmenistan.
Almost everybody knows that Turkmenistan has a lot of gas but very few people known anything about that country’s economy. What does Turkmenistan produce? And how is it doing economically?
- Today the Turkmen economy is based on gas and oil exports. The Turkmens also have a couple of food and light industry companies. Were it not for gas, they would be the poorest nation in the region. But they have just 3.5 trillion cubic meters of actual gas reserves. For all of their existing and planned gas pipelines to work properly, they need 4.5 trillion cubic meters, which is more than the Turkmens may have. The reports about some 45 trillion cubic meters have nothing to do with reality. So, gas will not make the Turkmens prosperous. This is perhaps why they are delaying the construction of the Trans-Caspian pipeline to Europe and the TAPI pipeline to Afghanistan. Today almost all Turkmen gas has been ordered by the Chinese. So, if tomorrow the Chinese need more gas, the Turkmens will have no gas left for others. The gas sold to China is giving them no special profits yet as all they are spending the money received from the Chinese to repay Chinese loans.
The second biggest asset Turkmenistan has is cotton. But cotton needs a lot of water – something Central Asia is realty short of. This is why the Turkmens have made no progress in this field since the Soviet times. Just like in the Soviet times they grow cotton over 600,000 hectares and get 15 centners from a hectare.
There are a lot of things the Turkmen economy might produce: iodine, salt, licorice and even gold. But the problem is that according to the decree of the first Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, the most vital sectors of the economy cannot be privatized. In Turkmenistan gas, electricity and water are free of charge, the rent and the public transport fare are very low, petrol is cheap. This is the price the regime is paying to its citizens for their political silence and inability to have private business and free civil society.
Incumbent President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is showing a very careful attitude towards this problem. The crisis is forcing him to act but his actions are very insignificant. For example, recently he allowed private trade in fur and wool. But only members of the Union of Manufacturers and Businessmen - that is, members of a new pro-governmental party of businessmen – have the right to do it. In fact, this is not a party but a caste consisting only of Berdymukhamedov’s men.
It was reported recently that the president granted notebooks to all school-children. Why did he do it if the Internet in his country is strongly limited?
- I think this is a partial approach. According to the UN, today 5% of the Turkmens have access to the Internet. With their families inclusive, this makes up one out of five million – quite a normal level for a country where quite recently almost everything was banned.
Now that Turkmenistan has launched its own communication satellite, it has normal television. Berdymukhamedov is an advocate of the Internet. Quite recently he ratified a law making the Internet compulsory for all research, educational and cultural organizations and obliging government agencies to have websites. I see no grounds for fearing opposition portals. There I see nothing that could shatter the Turkmen statehood or cause a revolution.
What can you say about Turkmenistan’s political field? Does it have opposition? Does it have any other political forces besides the presidential party?
- Under the second president, local businessmen formed one more pro-governmental party, Party of Businessmen. As a result of the last parliamentary elections the ruling Democratic (formerly Communist) Party has ceased to be ruling. The only opposition party is the Communist Party but after the death of Turkmenbashi it went underground. There is no free press in Turkmenistan. Recently the authorities allowed citizens to organize demonstrations and assemblies but nobody has reacted as people know that this is just a bait cast by the KGB for catching dissidents. The regime senses certain displeasure and wants to find the leaders. The past 20 years of repressions have taught the Turkmens to be careful. In such situations, displeasures burst out into national riots.
Today, while in peace, the Turkmens are living in an atmosphere of myths: a myth that they are unique (Ruhnama), a myth that their neutrality is a guarantee of peace, a myth that they have huge gas reserves, a myth that their population is growing very quickly, a myth that their President is a genius. In fact, they need an external push that will bring them down to earth and will show them who is who, who is a friend and who is an enemy, who needs Turkmenistan as a home and who needs it as a honeypot. And even though war is the time of single authority, it is also the time of truth and national unity, when the regime realizes that it can no longer stay far from its people. Such times give birth to heroes, new morals, new ideologies and put an end to dictator regimes bred in the greenhouse climate of neutrality and isolation. The sooner the Turkmens realize this, the easier they will undergo this transformation. So, Berdymukhamedov has really a lot of things to do to deserve the right to rule his country for two more terms.