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Analysis: Authoritarian Turkmen President Embattled At Home, Abroad As Pandemic And Storm Recoveries Mismanaged

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov

Though there have been some rough times before, it's fair to say no Turkmen president has ever been in such a difficult position as Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is right now.

Okay, so there have admittedly only been two presidents of Turkmenistan but the first one, Saparmurat Niyazov, certainly never faced the serious problems that Berdymukhammedov has staring at him now.

Berdymukhammedov and his government's responses to recent crises in Turkmenistan have been shockingly inept, and the authoritarian leader’s reputation, such as it was, has certainly suffered because of the inaction.

The Global View

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, many people had heard little about Turkmenistan, other than perhaps its brief mention on an episode of The Simpsons or comedian Stephen Colbert's late-night talk show.

And from those appearances, what people might remember is that the country has a rather goofy president, with Berdymukhammedov's antics on state television ranging from Rambo-like demonstrations of staged martial skills and hellbent off-road driving through the Turkmen desert, to alleged mastery of musical instruments with a grandson, and various attempts to excel at different sports.

But that is where it ends for most people.

His segments on Colbert's program and the similar John Oliver show remind people that Berdymukhammedov runs one of the most repressive governments in the world.

But Turkmenistan has now distinguished itself in a new way.

It is one of the only countries in the world that remains free of the coronavirus, at least according to Berdymukhammedov’s government.

Such a claim leaves many people wondering how a country that borders Iran (more than 230,000 cases of coronavirus as of July 3), Kazakhstan (some 44,000 infections), Uzbekistan (where there have been some 9,200 cases), and Afghanistan (more than 32,000 infections) is able to keep itself virus-free.

Any quest for more knowledge about Turkmenistan should invariably lead to the many reports from international rights organizations or from scholars and journalists who paint a bleak portrait of the country’s government.

So the increased international exposure means Berdymukhammedov is likely much better known today than he was several months ago as a despot who has abused the rights of Turkmen, most of whom are deprived of all basic liberties.

He is no doubt also seen as an authoritarian who frivolously spends enormous amounts of money on unnecessary projects while generally ignoring the worsening living standards of his citizens.

Added to that is the crude ruse he is attempting on the international community by insisting his country is coronavirus-free when, in fact, there is growing evidence the situation is spiraling out of control.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been trying to send a delegation to visit Turkmenistan for more than two months to check on this alleged medical marvel going on in the mostly desert country of some 6 million people.

But Turkmen officials have prevaricated, and it is still not clear exactly when a WHO delegation will arrive, though July 6 is the latest tentative date.

To those who have been watching Turkmenistan for years, the answer is obvious. The government is being untruthful about the coronavirus in its country and is doing everything possible to cleanse potential sites of a WHO delegation visit of any trace of the virus and those who have contracted it.

The Turkmen government has another problem with the WHO visit. The only airport that has been receiving international flights since not long after the global pandemic started is the eastern city of Turkmenabat, in the Lebap Province.

That is also where the main quarantine camp is located for those arriving in the country.

So a WHO delegation would presumably fly there and be conveniently exactly at one of the places it would want to visit.

But the area -- and the neighboring Mary Province -- suffered substantial damage from high winds and heavy rains at the end of April and early May. The Turkmen government’s reaction to the disaster was to do virtually nothing. It has not even reported the news of the destruction on the state-controlled news.

Turkmen activists in Washington, D.C. show their support for residents of Lebap and Mary.
Turkmen activists in Washington, D.C. show their support for residents of Lebap and Mary.

So both the camp and the city -- at least the area around the airport and the route to the camp -- need to be fixed up and put in order before any visits by the WHO.

The Turkmen government and state media might not be talking about the natural disaster in Lebap and Mary, but Turkmen outside of the country are.

In early May, two young Turkmen stood outside Turkmenistan’s Embassy in Washington holding signs with messages of condolence for the victims of the storm in Lebap and Mary.

On May 11, a small group of Turkmen in Northern Cyprus gathered publicly to demand the government provide assistance to the victims of the storms.

And on May 20, there was another such rally in Northern Cyprus, this time the group was calling for Berdymukhammedov to resign -- which they did again on June 14.

In Turkey, some 20 people demonstrated outside the Turkmen Consulate in Istanbul on May 15, and there was another anti-Berdymukhammedov demonstration in Istanbul on June 26.

The same thing occurred on May 29, when seven people demonstrated against Berdymukhammedov and his government outside the United Nations in New York. Less than two weeks later, another group demonstrated against the Turkmen leader in the U.S. city of Pittsburgh, and on June 28 -- the eve of Berdymukhammedov’s birthday -- there were demonstrations outside the Turkmen Embassy in Washington and at the UN building in New York.

The number of people demonstrating was never large, but always boisterous and, as the many rallies attest, quite persistent.

On June 24, published an article by two top officials (Gayle Manchin and Gary Bauer) from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that detailed the abuses Berdymukhammedov’s government has committed over the years and said, “Supporting an outlandish dictator who tramples on the basic rights of his people is not in the interest of the United States."

The U.S. ambassador to the OSCE had already said in a June 4 statement that “the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms is severely restricted in Turkmenistan,” and “The United States remains concerned about the many prisoners of conscience in Turkmenistan who still have not been allowed to communicate with the outside world for years."

The People's Growing Anger

But of course the citizens of Turkmenistan know the reality of life in their country better than anyone.

Since independence in 1991, there has not been an independent media outlet or an independent political party registered in Turkmenistan.

Citizens have no say in politics and critics of the government are imprisoned and sometimes simply disappear in unknown prisons.

In the last five years, the economy has crumbled as the global price for Turkmenistan's major export -- natural gas -- plummeted, and the country lost two of its three gas customers (though one, Russia, resumed buying modest volumes of Turkmen gas in 2019 at a reportedly low price of $76 per 1,000 cubic meters).

To make matters worse, there are now shortages of even the most basic goods in Turkmenistan, such as flour, cooking oil, and sugar.

Even cash is in short supply. Prices for goods at the bazaars have doubled or tripled in recent years and some people have been reduced to selling their possessions to get money to eat and pay bills.

In the capital, Ashgabat, there are people fighting -- and at least one reportedly dying -- over food scraps and other refuse in garbage bins.

And the damage caused by the strong winds and rains in the Lebap and Mary provinces in April/May and the government’s failure to respond to those natural disasters sparked the biggest domestic demonstration of popular dissatisfaction since Turkmenistan gained independence.

Prices of everyday goods have risen in Turkmenistan's bazaars in recent years.
Prices of everyday goods have risen in Turkmenistan's bazaars in recent years.

And that came after already smaller protests in April over the lack of food, all in a country where no protests had taken place for decades.

The added distress of watching the government deny there is any coronavirus while seeing a growing number of respiratory illnesses and even medical facilities being put under quarantine, has also helped spark internal opposition to the government.

Proof of this came on June 8, when the website reported that Kakamurad Hydyrov had posted information on Facebook announcing the establishment of the new Democratic Choice of Turkmenistan movement.

Hydyrov said the goal of his movement is to liberate Turkmenistan from the “dictatorship of Berdymukhammedov.”

It is unclear how much support Hydyrov’s group has, though interestingly, despite the movement being new, Hydyrov says he had groups of supporters in every one of Turkmenistan’s provinces and districts.

There are certainly many inside Turkmenistan who oppose the government.

On June 25, published photos taken on public transportation in Turkmenistan of people holding leaflets with Berdymukhammedov’s photo and the Turkmen words “Get Out!” and “Thief” written on them.

Those responsible for the photos said such leaflets were being left on buses and trams, at entrances to apartment buildings, and in courtyards at building complexes in “Ashgabat and other cities.”

The report did not say how many people were involved in the actions of this “initiative group of citizens” or how many buses, apartments, and squares had these leaflets left on them.

But the protests inside and outside Turkmenistan might have spooked the Turkmen government. reported on June 27 that police and security forces around Turkmenistan were out in larger numbers than usual in the days leading up to Berdymukhammedov’s birthday on June 29.

Discredited Internationally, Domestically

None of this is to say Berdymukhammedov is in his last days as Turkmen president.

It has already been noted that there are powerful parties outside Turkmenistan that have an interest in seeing Berdymukhammedov remain in power.

But no one seems to believe the government’s bizarre claim that the country has not had even one case of the coronavirus and many will remember for years the state's continued assertions -- despite mounting evidence to the contrary -- that Turkmenistan had been unique in keeping the virus out of the country when countries with far better health-care systems were counting daily new cases in the thousands.

And many have learned enough about Turkmenistan to know that this is not the first time Turkmen officials, and Berdymukhammedov, had been untruthful about the situation in the country.

It is difficult to imagine foreign investors would be willing to put money in a country where the leadership has such a bad reputation, or that other governments would be able to count Turkmenistan as a friend or partner.

For the citizens of Turkmenistan who have watched for years as the government denied they were poor or that they were hungry, they can now add that the government also denied they were sick and failed to even appeal for international help -- which surely would have come -- to help them when the country’s medical system was so clearly overwhelmed.

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.​

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


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