Turkmenistan marked its 25th year of independence on October 27 and -- while life has always been hard for the some 5 million people in the isolationist, authoritarian state -- this year’s anniversary was marked amid declining economic conditions the likes of which the country has never seen.
The situation did not have to be like this.
To review 25 years of independence in Turkmenistan, what went wrong and why, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or a panel, to discuss the evolution of the country.
Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. Participating from Washington was Victoria Clement, a research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Two veteran “Majlismen,” both leading authorities on Turkmenistan, also joined. From Scotland, Dr. Luca Anceschi, lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow, took part and, from further east, in Europe, Ruslan Myatiev, chief editor of the Alternative Turkmenistan News website, participated. And I, of course, had a few things I wanted to contribute to the conversation.
Myatiev remembers the first days of independence when he was a child.
“My earliest memory of Turkmenistan’s independence is huge crowds of people standing in line to buy bread, to buy flour, and other basic products,” he recalled.
That actually did not last for too long. Anceschi pointed out that “Turkmenistan was the biggest winner of the former U.S.S.R. When it came to adjust the prices of [natural] gas from the Soviet prices to the market prices, statistics showed Turkmenistan was one of the states that benefited the most from the adjustment of the price system.”
Turkmenistan has the world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas.
While the other “Newly Independent States” that emerged from the disintegration of the Soviet Union struggled through early years marked by hyperinflation and ever-shifting domestic and foreign policies, Turkmenistan settled down, propped up by its gas exports, and was able to not only maintain relatively low prices for basic goods but also offer its citizens free water, gas, and electricity.
The president at the time, Saparmurat Niyazov, predicted a great future for his country. Clement said “Niyazov believed a lot of the rhetoric that he spouted, whether it was that there was going to be a computer in every house, a car in every garage, or that Turkmenistan was going to be a second Kuwait.”
But cracks started to appear early.
Anceschi said, “A pivotal moment…was when Niyazov dismissed Avdy Kuliev, the first foreign minister, in 1992. When he did that he assumed control of the foreign policy and from then on there was a decline into this neutrality, a synonym for isolation, [and] a very passive foreign policy.”
Turkmenistan started to fence itself off from the outside world. Then, on December 12, 1995, the United Nations granted Turkmenistan’s request to be given status as a neutral country. Records of the decision indicate granting that status made little difference to the UN officials who approved the move, but it made an enormous difference for the Turkmen government.
It became much more difficult to foreigners to get into Turkmenistan and for citizens of Turkmenistan to leave the country.
An antigovernment protest in Ashgabat in July 1995 that the government claimed was organized by “drug addicts” turned out to the last real protest in Turkmenistan to date. The rights situation plummeted. The Turkmen government, sheltered behind UN-recognized neutrality, ignored outside criticism of rights abuses.
And then, it got weird. As Myatiev explained, “In 2001 [there was] the release of [his book] Rukhnama, which was supposedly the milestone for the revival of the Turkmen nation, of the Turkmen language, culture, celebrations.”
Rukhnama was allegedly authored by Niyazov. It became the mandatory spiritual guidebook for the country. It was taught in schools.
And as Myatiev noted, “For the nonethnic Turkmen population of Turkmenistan this was one of the symbols that it’s not going to get any better.”
In late November 2002, there was an assassination attempt on President Niyazov.
Clement was living in Turkmenistan at the time. She said, “The effects of [the assassination attempt] were to increase the isolation of the country because outsiders were implicated, or people who had been living outside of Turkmenistan were implicated in this.”
Niyazov died in December 2006. His successor was Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the country’s health minister whose most notable achievement in that post was dismantling the country’s regional health-care system.
Berdymukhammedov seemed to be off to a promising start. He undid some of the damage done under Niyazov’s leadership from the renaming of the days of the week and the months, to restoring the health-care system and reinstituting a 10-year mandatory education program that Niyazov had cut back to nine years. Myatiev said the latter was especially important since universities outside Turkmenistan, such as in Kyrgyzstan where Myatiev studied, required incoming students to have a 10-year education in order to be admitted.
But Berdymukhammedov gradually started to look more like Niyazov.
Myatiev recalled: “When Niyazov died I was in Kyrgyzstan but the following summer (2007) I went back to my homeland for the summer break and it was quite noticeable, the portraits of Niyazov were replaced by the portraits of Berdymukhammedov, the new slogans of the new era emerged also.”
Another pivotal moment came in 2011. With gas prices rising on world markets and new fields providing increased volumes for export, Turkmenistan finally opened a third major pipeline, to China. Turkmenistan was already shipping a modest amount of gas to Iran and was in the midst of a serious dispute over price for supplies to Russia, until then Turkmenistan’s biggest customer. China was willing to buy more Turkmen gas than Russia ever had, more than Russia and Iran together.
Turkmenistan “opened that pipeline to China,” Anceschi said, “and [Berdymukhammedov] got confused with investment and made sure that [gas] was the single source of revenue that the country had.”
The country is now suffering from this decision. Gas prices are less than half what they were a few years ago with no sign that prices will ever reach the record highs they climbed to in the immediate years after that first pipeline to China started operation.
The economy in neutral/isolated Turkmenistan appears to be in shambles. There are reports of mass layoffs, unemployment over 50 percent, of lines outside state stores that sell basic goods, with those goods being available only in rationed portions.
The discussion explored these issues in greater detail and looked at other missed opportunities as well as some of the things that have worked during the last 25 years.
An audio recording of the Majlis session can be heard here:
Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.