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Qishloq Ovozi

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov

The head of Turkmenistan’s presidential administration, Shamukhammet Durdylyev, and officials at the Ashgabat mayor’s office are probably very nervous these days. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov reprimanded them at a cabinet session on April 15. A presidential reprimand is the vocational equivalent of a death sentence in Turkmenistan in the best of times, and these are far from the best of times.

Turkmenistan, which mainly exports natural gas, is experiencing difficult economic times as are all the countries in Central Asia. Added to that are concerns about increased fighting just over the border in Afghanistan, something the Turkmen government has been very reluctant to address publicly.

Someone needs to take the blame for these mounting problems, but in Turkmenistan the president is not only all-powerful, he is infallible. It is never the fault of the top man. So it’s been open season on officials this year, more so than ever before.

The illustrious Dr. Luca Anceschi and I were going back and forth on Twitter about these dismissals not long ago and we agreed to keep track of who and how many officials were being sacked. So Dr. Anceschi, to use a poker term, “I’ll open.”

Palvan Taganov had been the deputy prime minister in charge of the presidential apparatus and the cabinet of ministers since September 2013. Berdymukhammedov sacked Taganov on February 5 this year, telling the fallen official, “Work discipline has weakened at the ministries and departments under your supervision. Cases of bribe-taking have been observed among top level officials, especially in the structures of the Ministry of Trade and Foreign Economic Relations.”

And since public humiliation has long been part of dismissals in Turkmenistan, Berdymukhammedov added, “You can get out right now.”

Taganov was reportedly arrested a few days later. His replacement was Durdylyev, the reprimanded official at the start of this article.

And those top level officials in the Ministry of Trade and Foreign Relations?

Deputy Minister of Trade and Foreign Relations Resulmyrat Meredov was fired on February 2, before Taganov. Minister of Trade and Foreign Relations Bayar Abaev was fired on April 8 along with Economy and Development Minister Yoldosh Sheripov, and the head of the tax agency Shatlyk Khummedov. Strangely, Berdymukhammedov then said the economy had done well in the first quarter of 2016.

On March 2, Minister of National Security Guychgeldi Khojaberdiev asked to be excused from his position for health reasons, though there were already rumors he was about to be dismissed after Berdymukhammedov criticized his work in early January. He had only been in the position since October 2015, after serving as head of Berdymukhammedov's personal security service. Berdymukhammedov agreed to Khojaberdiev’s request, then dismissed Border Guard Service chief General Myrat Islamov, and reprimanded deputy Interior Minister Yazdurdy Soyegov and chairman of the State Migration Service Meylis Nobatov.

In early January, Berdymukhammedov sacked Labor and Social Protection Minister Bekmyrat Shamyradov and relieved Minister of Industry Saparmurat Orazmyradov in connection with the latter’s transfer to another [unnamed] post. During that same round of dismissals, Oil and Gas Minister Muhammetnur Halylev was also relieved of his post and the governor of Lebap Province was fired.

Justice Minister Begmyrat Muhamedov was reprimanded in mid-January but has not been sacked yet.

Among other officials who have been fired this year are head of the state statistics agency Akmyrat Mammedov (March), Deputy Prime Minister for Cultural Affairs Maysa Yazmukhammedova (April), Ashgabat Deputy Mayor G. Garaev (April), the Ashgabat police chief (February), and 12 district heads (January).

Among those with the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads are Minister of Community Services Kakageldi Gurbanov, Ashgabat Mayor Myratniyaz Abilov, and the Ashgabat prosecutor-general -- all reprimanded in February -- and the head of the counternarcotics agency, the head of state TV, radio and cinematography, and the head of the state certification agency -- all reprimanded in January.

And those are only the higher-ranking officials. Hundreds of other employees, maybe more, of ministries and state agencies and services have been fired also.

And this all happened in the first 110 days of this year. There are more than 250 days left.

Muhammad Tahir and Toymyrat Bugaev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Uzbek President Islam Karimov, and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov

Freedom House just released its annual Nations In Transit (NIT) report, an indispensable look at the human rights situation in 29 countries, including all five Central Asian states.

The annual survey has a ranking system to help track governments’ progress, or regress, in respecting basic rights and freedoms.

While two Central Asian countries -- Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- have regularly been ranked at the bottom of the list, this year's NIT report saw Kazakhstan, and particularly Tajikistan, drop in the rankings.

To find out more about the report and how Freedom House reached this year’s ratings for the Central Asian states, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service (known locally as Azatlyk), assembled a Majlis, or panel, to discuss the findings in this latest NIT.

The Majlis

Moderating the discussion was Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir. Nate Schenkkan, the project director for NIT, joined from Washington. Edward Lemon of Exeter University, and also the author of this year’s report on Tajikistan, participated from London. And since I’ve written a few of these reports myself, I chipped in with a few comments.

Schenkkan started the discussion by saying, "A lot of observers of Central Asia have been saying since the oil price started dropping and since the sanctions got really serious on Russia that there would be really dire consequences in Central Asia and increasingly in 2015 and now in 2016 I think that's what we're seeing."

Lemon explained what happened in Tajikistan that caused that country to have one of the steepest declines in the NIT ratings in 2016 compared to 2015. "On the one hand you've got this crackdown on political parties, you've got the arrest of various lawyers, including the most prominent human rights lawyers who've been defending people, representatives of the [opposition] IRPT [Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan], representatives of Group 24, another leading opposition movement whose leader was assassinated in Istanbul in March [2015].”

Lemon continued that this has been accompanied by "the strengthening of [Tajik President Emomali] Rahmon's own position, including Rahmon becoming this 'leader of the nation' and 'originator of peace,' this new national holiday, this real cult of personality emerging around Rahmon." "You've really seen quite a dramatic shift in the human rights situation in the country last year," Lemon said.

Drastically reduced revenues from hydrocarbon exports have hit Kazakhstan hard. The national currency, the tenge, lost half its value between July 2015 and January 2016.

Unfair Elections

Schenkkan noted: "In Kazakhstan you had in 2015 and have had in 2016 again, the staging of these facade elections that are more about revalidating the existing government than they are about any kind of actual accountability or input from the citizenry into policy process."

Kazakhstan’s early presidential election in April 2015 and early parliamentary elections in March 2016 saw overwhelming victories for President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his ruling Nur-Otan party. Many observers felt Nazarbaev wanted the elections over before the full impact of the economic crisis hit the country and potentially the popularity of the president and his party.

The few remaining independent media in Kazakhstan were also targeted and even bloggers were brought to trial, in some case on charges of inciting "social, national, tribal, racial, class, or religious hatred."

The countries that receive large remittances from their migrant laborers in Russia -- Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- are also facing severe economic downturns as relatives back home in those countries now find themselves with significantly less money to spend.

In Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as well as in gas exporter Turkmenistan, that fact has led authorities to clamp down on anyone suggesting the state of the country is anything less than the bright picture authorities are painting.

The fault naturally lies with the governments.

As Schenkkan said, "There's no buffer built in for these countries in the way that their governments had managed their economies and built up ways of responding to changes like this."

Measures the governments have been taking in most of the Central Asian countries seem more focused on silencing criticism and eliminating opposition rather than addressing economic problems, which, to be fair, are to some extent outside their control.

Trading Partner Woes

The Central Asian governments cannot do anything about the economic situations in Russia and China, two of the region’s leading trade partners, nor can those countries with oil and natural gas do anything about the price for those energy resources on world markets. All five are going to need large amounts of outside money to help get through this crisis.

This led our Majlis into a discussion of the wisdom of Western financial aid for Central Asia. There are many well-meaning international organizations and Western governments who could and would help. But Central Asian governments are characterized by high levels of corruption and, in the end, even the financial help that does reach the people also serves to prop up the undemocratic regimes that pay little attention to the rights of their people.

As Lemon pointed out, since the start of the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, the direction of Western aid to Central Asia has changed and so has the message. Western governments and international financial organizations are "not sending out the right message; they're putting security above political reform, human rights, and they're giving the message to all of the governments of the region that they can continue following this downward trajectory and they'll still continue to get military aid and continue to get development money and other sources of rent."

And the result, as Schenkkan said, is that "We're really seeing a clustering at the bottom of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, still a step beyond, but really Kazakhstan not being that far off now and Tajikistan pretty rapidly approaching."

Kyrgyzstan actually received a slightly better score in NIT for 2016 than it got in the 2015 report, due to the country’s parliamentary elections in October 2015, which probably were the best elections ever held in Central Asia. But there was talk about some of the problems with rights in Kyrgyzstan.

And there was much more detailed discussion of the topics mentioned in the text and other matters concerning this year’s NIT report on the rights situation in Central Asia.

You can listen to the full conversation below:

Majlis Podcast: Freedom House Report
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NOTE: The Majlis will be in recess for a few weeks. Look for our next session in early May.

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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 some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

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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Podcast: Majlis