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Qishloq Ovozi

Sunday 19 September 2021

State media have lavished attention on the president's son, Serdar Berdymukhammedov, for several years.

There are some important events coming up this month in Turkmenistan, and they could all combine to become big news from the hermit kingdom.

Independence Day is September 27, and the Halk Maslahaty, the highest legislative body in a country where the legislative branch means little, will be meeting sometime around that date.

But before that, on September 22, Serdar Berdymukhammedov, the son of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, turns 40. That is the minimum age, under Turkmenistan’s oft-ignored constitution, for any citizen to occupy the post of president.

This convergence of events makes one wonder if something special is approaching.

Groomed

It has appeared obvious for some time now that Serdar was being groomed to take over for his dad.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov finished his university work in August 2014 and by November 2016 had won a seat in parliament in an unpublicized snap election to fill several vacant seats. The first news of the election was the announcement that Serdar had won a seat in parliament; it later emerged that the deputy whose seat Serdar won had asked to step down shortly before the election was held.

The younger Berdymukhammedov is still a member of parliament, but he is also now deputy prime minister in charge of economic and financial affairs; after that, it is difficult to keep track of how many state posts he has held since being reelected to parliament in 2018.

He has been deputy minister of foreign affairs, deputy governor, then later governor of the Ahal Province where the capital, Ashgabat, is located, minister of industry and construction, deputy chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers, chairman of the Supreme Control Chamber, and was in the State Security Council.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov is also the president of the Turkmen Alabai dog association and the Ahal Teke Horse Breeding Association, both animals such powerful symbols in Turkmenistan that statues have been erected to them.

State media have been lavishing attention over Serdar Berdymukhammedov for several years, and they recently reported that Turkmenistan is lucky to have him around. He led the Turkmen delegation to the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer and was the honorary trainer of the national team, which won the country's first-ever Olympic medal. Weightlifter Polina Guryeva won that silver medal, although somehow, according to state media, the positive effect of Serdar Berdymukhammedov seemed to help her. Back in Turkmenistan, the younger Berdymukhammedov was shown on state television presenting Guryeva with a new Lexus sports utility vehicle.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov has been all over state television lately, giving out awards to athletes and performers and visiting schools to talk with children.

News involving President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov once totally dominated state media; but his son has been receiving increasing coverage lately.

There has been no announcement that anything extraordinary is coming this Independence Day. There is only speculation so far, and that is founded on the persistent rumors that President Berdymukhammedov’s health is deteriorating.

Ill Health

Rumors of ill health have followed nearly every one of Central Asia’s leaders, and they are too often rooted in desperate hopes for deliverance from despotism. But Berdymukhammedov is a diabetic and his uncharacteristic disappearance from the public eye for a month in summer 2019 seemed the strongest indication yet that his physical condition might be deteriorating, despite repeated footage on state television of him bicycling or exercising.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov is clearly being fast-tracked for Turkmenistan’s top post; the only questions appear to be when and how it happens.

Which is why the Halk Maslahaty meeting sometime around Independence Day might draw more interest than normal.

Before reviewing the highlights, or lowlights, of the Halk Maslahaty, it is worth mentioning that September 27 is not really Turkmenistan’s Independence Day; or at least it wasn't until 2018.

The Turkmen president with his son in a picture published in a Turkmen daily newspaper on June 7.
The Turkmen president with his son in a picture published in a Turkmen daily newspaper on June 7.

September 27 marks the anniversary of the last day of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games international competition that Turkmenistan hosted in 2017. It was a 10-day event that the Turkmen government spent a lot of money on.

Independence Day was marked on October 27 from 1991 to 2017.

The Halk Maslahaty has no obligation to meet on Independence Day, so there is reason for suspense.

But when it is time to announce big decisions, that usually happens when the Halk Maslahaty convenes.

In September 1996, it was the Halk Maslahaty that called on then-President Saparmurat Niyazov to simply accept being declared president for life. Niyazov declined, so the Halk Maslahaty in December 1999 voted to make him head of state for life and gave him a white robe and a palm staff, symbols of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as a white-gold medal "For Great Love for Independent Turkmenistan."

In August 2002, the Halk Maslahaty assembled and approved Niyazov’s proposal to rename the days of the week and the months of the year.

The Halk Maslahaty repeatedly rejected Niyazov’s duplicitous requests to retire or conduct new presidential elections.

The Halk Maslahaty approved dismissing parliamentary speaker Ovezgeldy Ataev from his post in December 2006, right after Niyazov died, with Ataev constitutionally next in line for the presidency.

Berdymukhammedov disbanded the Halk Maslahaty in 2008, but he brought it back in 2017 and gave it the status of the highest legislative body in the country.

In 2018, the Halk Maslahaty approved changing Independence Day from October 27 to September 27 and voted to cancel free allotments of natural gas, electricity, and water that Turkmenistan’s citizens had been receiving since the early days of independence.

This year’s Independence Day has all the makings of Turkmen political theater.

Now we just need to wait until September 27 to find out. Or for those using the 2002 Turkmen calendar, Bash gyun, the "27th of Rukhnama."

Troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization inspect the area near the Tajik-Afghan border in July.

The surprising speed with which the Taliban took control over most of Afghanistan after foreign forces began withdrawing from the country left Afghanistan’s neighbors in a difficult predicament.

All of them had considered the possibility the militant group could seize power, but suddenly they needed to publicly state what their policy toward Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was.

Generally, the response was that the Taliban in charge was the reality and the neighboring countries were willing to at least talk with these new leaders of Afghanistan.

Except Tajikistan.

Pakistan -- long a backer of the Taliban -- clearly welcomed the group's success in Afghanistan.

China, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan all conceded there was nothing they could do about Afghan internal politics and held out hope that some form of cooperation with the Taliban might be possible.

But Tajik authorities have taken a different position and that has raised questions about why Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and his government continue to make clear their strong opposition to a Taliban government in Afghanistan.

First, it is worth remembering that Rahmon was Tajikistan’s leader more than 20 years ago when the Taliban had control of most of Afghanistan.

None of the other current leaders in the countries bordering Afghanistan were in power when the Taliban was ousted by a U.S.-led military invasion in 2001.

Rahmon supported a group led by ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan who were fighting the Taliban in the late 1990s and he has given moral support to the ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan now -- including the holdout group in the Panjshir Valley that continues to oppose Taliban rule.

There is a large population of ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan -- where they make up about 25 percent of the population -- and the Tajiks in Tajikistan feel a strong connection to them.

That is not true of any of the other states neighboring Afghanistan.

In fact, Rahmon’s public concern for the Tajiks in Afghanistan has earned the generally unpopular leader of Tajikistan some rare public support in his country, an important detail as he positions his eldest son, Rustam, to take over as president.

Tajikistan's Civil War

There is another reason it would be difficult for Rahmon’s government to publicly engage with the Taliban.

During Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) was the major group in an alliance of forces fighting against the Tajik government. The war ended with a peace agreement that provided for 30 percent of the positions in government to be filled by representatives of the wartime opposition. The IRPT was legalized and was the second largest party in Tajikistan after Rahmon’s People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan.

Tajik President Rahmon (right) and Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi meet in Dushanbe on August 25.
Tajik President Rahmon (right) and Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi meet in Dushanbe on August 25.

The IRPT was also potentially the biggest threat to Rahmon’s increasing grip on power and in September 2015 -- after years of pressuring the IRPT and its leadership and whittling down its places in state bodies -- the government used a bizarre and vague incident involving a high-ranking officer in the Defense Ministry to make dubious claims that the IRPT had tried to stage a coup. The IRPT was quickly declared an extremist group and its activities banned in Tajikistan.

The IRPT is an Islamic-based political party, but it is far more moderate than the Taliban.

It is difficult to see how the Tajik government could establish ties with the Taliban, let alone consider recognizing a Taliban government, while continuing to hunt and repress members of the IRPT.

And Tajikistan’s chief Islamic cleric, Saidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda, made it clear in a September 11 interview with state news agency Khovar that improving ties with the Taliban is out of the question.

“Islam is compassion and brotherhood," Abdulkodirzoda said. "But today the terrorist movement known as the Taliban call themselves an Islamic state and execute women, children, and brothers."

Abdulkodirzoda had more to say and, since all of Tajikistan’s top clerics are carefully vetted by the government, his views can be taken as the government’s views.

The big question is how Rahmon and his government can feel so confident in confronting the Taliban.

The answer to this is more difficult to discern.

Tajikistan is, in terms of territory, the smallest of Afghanistan’s neighbors and economically it is the poorest.

Though small, Tajikistan’s military has been receiving help from powerful countries for many years.

Russia is the biggest supplier of arms to Tajikistan, but China has been increasing its aid to the country's armed forces for more than a decade. And the United States, NATO, the European Union, and the OSCE -- while not supplying weapons -- have been helping with money and equipment for border posts, surveillance equipment, winter and summer clothing, off-road vehicles, and other such items.

None of that is likely to cow the Taliban or, more importantly for Tajikistan, some of the extremist groups that have been fighting alongside the Taliban for years, many with roots in Tajikistan.

And Rahmon seems quite aware of this.

Not many countries welcomed the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan. Official press statements often express a fatalism about the turn of events, but there is not much enthusiasm for what has happened since the U.S.-led military withdrawal began on May 1.

Tajikistan’s government is no doubt saying what many governments are thinking.

The Carnegie Endowment's Paul Stronski mentioned this during a recent Majlis podcast and suggested Tajikistan is a messenger for the views of other countries.

Tajik political expert Khairullo Mirsaidov agreed, telling RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, “Rahmon could not have made such a statement without Russian consent. Now that the United States has left the region, Russia does not want to give full control of Afghanistan to Pakistan.”

He added: “It also gives momentum for Rahmon to take an opportunity for internal use of the topic, bringing him closer to his own people.”

Russia has a military base in Tajikistan and China has a small military post in the eastern part of the country.

Both Moscow and Beijing have expressed confidence that it is possible to deal with the Taliban, but both are concerned by the presence of militants from their own countries who are in groups currently inside Afghanistan that are allied to the Taliban.

And there are many countries with citizens still inside Afghanistan and the governments of those countries need to keep this in consideration when commenting on events in the country.

After Rahmon said during an August 25 meeting with visiting Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi that Tajikistan would not recognize any Afghan government that was seen as exclusive, he specifically mentioned that he expected ethnic Tajiks to be included.

The next day, French President Emmanuel Macron invited Rahmon to visit Paris.

Which proved that there are obviously some dividends to be gained by openly opposing Taliban rule in Afghanistan -- and Rahmon seems to appreciate that.

RFE/RL Tajik Service Director Salimjon Aioubov contributed to this report

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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