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Is Turkmenistan Planning A Leadership Change?


Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has called an extraordinary session of the upper house of parliament amid speculation that preparations are being made for his son, Serdar (above), to be named his heir apparent.

Speculation is rife that Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov may move toward formally clearing the way for his son, Serdar, to be his heir apparent when an extraordinary session of the upper parliament is held on February 11.

That date marks the 15th anniversary of the controlled election that formally stamped Berdymukhammedov's authoritarian rule over the natural-gas rich, Central Asian country.

February 11 is also the one-year anniversary of his son being named head of the Supreme Control Chamber, a member of the State Security Council and, most prominently, deputy prime minister. It was quite a meteoric rise for the 40-year-old and secured his position as second in command of the country.

The alignment of dates is significant because of the mercurial president's obsession with numerology, a fact that has both observers of Turkmenistan and ordinary citizens talking about the possibility of important decisions being made at the special session of the Halk Maslakhaty (People's Council), parliament's upper chamber.

The chairman of the body, President Berdymukhammedov (of which his holding of that post violates Article 73 of the constitution), has said the session will address the "development of the country for the next 30 years."

That comment led to speculation the president might be preparing the way for Serdar to replace him or even announce the transition of power at the parliamentary meeting.

Many Turkmen have been discussing an imminent political change at the top of their authoritarian government for months, as the state-controlled media was full of mentions and discussions of Serdar's "genius." He was also portrayed as a leader who "cares about the people," who are currently mired in a devastating economic crisis.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov announcing the start of a "new era of rebirth" in a nationwide address on January 7.
Serdar Berdymukhammedov announcing the start of a "new era of rebirth" in a nationwide address on January 7.

The younger Berdymukhammedov has also made numerous trips to the regions on behalf of his father to familiarize himself with the skyrocketing food prices and shortages of many basic staples.

Such trips were seen by observers as an undisguised attempt to promote the leading role that Serdar Berdymukhammedov had in the hierarchy of power and perhaps the next step in the preparation for him to succeed his father.

Although Turkmen state media didn't show what was happening in Kazakhstan, people in Turkmenistan were quite aware of the popular protests taking place nearby and drew parallels with the situation in their country.

Serdar was received in the regions at the highest level and Potemkin villages were hastily set up in many cases for his visits. Such preparations were previously done only for the president and they reinforced a belief by many of an inevitable transit of power on the horizon.

Serdar Aytakov, an expert on Turkmenistan, told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that the spreading of rumors among the population has long been a method used by the country's special services to manipulate public opinion.

He added that although the buzz in recent weeks was more that there may not be a transfer of power at the parliamentary session, he believes important decisions will be made.

“Knowing that the rumor about 'transferring power to Serdar Berdymuhhammedov is an undeniable public narrative, the authorities could resort to [spreading new rumors] -- in order to avoid social unrest and open outrage [at a succession] -- that a transition is not being immediately considered,” said Aytakov, who is based in Turkmenistan.

But he added it is also possible "decisions will be made at [the session that will] facilitate such a transition in the indefinite future, in favor of a certain person, [something that would be carried out] automatically when the incumbent president retires or goes to the afterworld."

Echoes Of The Kazakh Uprising

The announcement in January of the convening of an extraordinary session of the upper house also coincided with popular unrest in neighboring Kazakhstan.

Angry protests in Kazakhstan's Mangistau region, which borders Turkmenistan, about a massive increase in the price of liquefied gas spread throughout the country and caused great concern in the capitals of the neighboring autocratic states.

And although Turkmen state media didn't show what was happening in Kazakhstan, people in Turkmenistan were quite aware of the popular protests taking place nearby and drew parallels with the situation in their country.

Turkmenistan has also experienced increases in the prices of fuel, goods and services, and food in recent years, in many cases rising at least 300 to 500 percent as subsidies were stopped and demand overwhelmed supplies.

Did the Kazakh uprising change President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's thinking in regard to his succession plan?
Did the Kazakh uprising change President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's thinking in regard to his succession plan?

Many Turkmen said the Kazakh protests had a positive effect on them.

“The Kazakh protests inspired people [in Turkmenistan] and made them remember the saying: 'If the child does not cry, he will not be fed.' People began to understand that if you demand your rights by protesting, you can make the government change. Even such a large state as Kazakhstan submitted to the calls of its people,” one Turkmen told RFE/RL, requesting anonymity for security reasons.

It is possible that, having soberly assessed the causes and consequences of the events in Kazakhstan…[officials will] realize there is a great need for a qualitative change in the standard of living [and may announce some reforms]."
-- Analyst Serdar Aytakov

President Berdymukhammedov was apparently also shocked by the unrest in the neighboring republic.

On January 12, after announcing the holding of the special session of the upper house set for February 11, he convened a meeting of the State Security Council, ordering the National Security Ministry to tighten its blocking of independent sources on the Internet and to step up security.

Aytakov said the emergency session of the council amid the Kazakh unrest was no coincidence and, while the Turkmen regime has shown resilience over the years despite serious economic problems, the protests in a more stable country like Kazakhstan show there is no guarantee such staying power will last.

“The Turkmen authorities…carefully studied the experience of confrontation and attempts to seize power in Armenia, Belarus, and Russia," he said. "But they are especially trying, in their own way, to draw the appropriate conclusions from the events in Kazakhstan. The authorities now have an opportunity to somewhat improve the economic situation since they repaid a big loan to China -- used to develop gas fields and construct gas infrastructure -- that allows them to start accumulating financial reserves [to help] mitigate the social crisis."

But Aytakov added there is a paradox in that officials are using new money not to alleviate the economic crisis but rather to "purchase special weapons and equipment to suppress civil unrest" and train security forces in how to handle any such outbreak in Turkmenistan.

Appeasing The Population?

Aytakov said the Kazakh uprising may have changed President Berdymukhammedov's thinking in regard to his succession plan.

“It is possible that, having soberly assessed the causes and consequences of the events in Kazakhstan…[officials will] realize there is a great need for a qualitative change in the standard of living [and may announce some reforms] at the upcoming [session] to let off steam and reduce social tensions."

Many of the participants in the extraordinary session of the Halk Maslakhaty have been offered various gifts for their participation, with the event being held via video link to the regional capitals where the chosen delegates will be assembled.

RFE/RL's correspondent in the city of Lebap said community elders and youth representatives invited to the session were promised gifts worth 5,000 manats ($1,431 at the official rate) for their participation.

The Halk Maslakhaty was moribund from 2008 until 2017, when the president revived it and then made it the second chamber of parliament in 2020. It had previously only served as an advisory body.

It is possible it will play its biggest role yet in the country's governance when it takes center stage on February 11.

Written by Pete Baumgartner based on reporting by Farruh Yusupov.
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    Farruh Yusupov

    Farruh Yusupov is the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. Before joining the Turkmen Service in 2016, he was an editor in the Uzbek Service and led its journalistic investigations, including a series of reports on corruption involving family members of President Islam Karimov. Farruh also produced radio programs, including Health, The Other Side Of The Coin, and OzodNavigator. He worked for USAID-funded projects in Central Asia before joining RFE/RL in 2004.​

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