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.
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.
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.
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."