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Qishloq Ovozi

Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov on an Akhal-Teke horse he was gifted at a military parade in Ashgabat on October 27, 2016.

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.

A Turkmen boy at an official launch ceremony for the East-West gas trunk pipeline in Shatlyk on May 31, 2010.
A Turkmen boy at an official launch ceremony for the East-West gas trunk pipeline in Shatlyk on May 31, 2010.

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.

The infamous golden statue of late President Saparmurad Niyazov in Ashgabat.
The infamous golden statue of late President Saparmurad Niyazov in Ashgabat.

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.”

Rukhnama has since been replaced by Berdymukhammedov's books in the nation's libraries.
Rukhnama has since been replaced by Berdymukhammedov's books in the nation's libraries.

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:

Majlis Podcast: Turkmenistan Turns 25
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

The views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
A photo of Central Asian scholar Edward Allworth during his time with the 101st Airborne in World War II.

The field of Central Asian Studies lost perhaps the last of its great masters when Dr. Edward A. Allworth died on October 20 at the age of 95.

He was already a legend in the field when I first met him in 1986. I had read some of his books (I'm still not sure how many he wrote) but each of his books could only show one part of Professor Allworth.

In person, he was a force.

Allworth started teaching at Columbia University in 1961 and though he is best known for his work in the field of Central Asian studies, he also wrote on the Crimean Tatars, Afghanistan, and was a leading authority on nationalities of the Soviet Union.

His knowledge of Central Asia was second to none, whether it was ancient or contemporary history, languages, or culture (and he was especially fond of the classical literature of the region). He seemed to know everything.

I said exactly that to him once and he laughed and said I was making him out to be more than he was. He was being way too modest there.

He taught me, and others, Uzbek and Uyghur, but he knew many more languages; not only Turkic languages, but Slavic and Germanic as well.

Edward Allworth was a distinguished gentleman, a scholar of "the old world," I used to think, someone who had read copiously and retained a huge amount of information. He spoke eloquently and his manner and behavior were at all times proper and impeccable. He always wore a suit and tie to class.

We could not have been more different I think, certainly when I started my course work with him, and I know I tried his patience more than once in my early years studying under him. (Ask me sometime about my reports for his classes on The Miracle Play of Husan and Husain and on Mahmud of Ghazna).

But he did not give up on me and gradually he opened Central Asia up to me and my fellow students. And more, he reveled in our successes. We were his children in a way, and when we did well it was clear that this gave him great satisfaction. When I returned from Central Asia in late 1993, after 21 months "in country," we spent hours together as I recounted my journeys and showed him photographs from all of the places I had been.

Hugely Respected

It was one thing, and quite natural, that I and his other students in Columbia's Middle East Languages and Cultures Department looked up to Professor Allworth in awe.

But it was not only his students. Professor Allworth was also a member of the Harriman Institute (at that time the Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union). He did not drop by the Harriman Institute often, but when he did the professors made sure they came out of their offices to meet with him and it was clear from the way they looked at him and spoke to him that he was a hugely respected figure.

Edward Allworth in later life
Edward Allworth in later life

After I left school, I had the great fortune to meet some of his peers; other giants in the field of Central Asian Studies: Richard Frye of Harvard, Denis Sinor of Indiana University (and also once a lecturer at Cambridge), and Edmund Bosworth, who taught at St. Andrews, the University of Manchester, Princeton, and Exeter University.

At first, all of them took no more than a mild, but polite, interest in meeting me, but when I explained I studied under Professor Allworth, everything changed. They asked about him, told stories they knew about him, and made me promise to send their regards to him when I next spoke with him. They also made it clear that being a student of Edward Allworth meant I had a lot to live up to.

And amazingly, there seemed to always be another tale about his life I had not heard. We lived close to one another and sometimes rode the bus home together. One day, during one of those journeys, I said something about World War II and he told me he was with a unit that parachuted into Europe on D-Day.

"Wow, what was that like?" I asked.

In an almost monotone voice, Professor Allworth simply said, "We were all a little nervous."

He neglected to tell me he was with the 101st Airborne Division and that he and his "unit" fought many battles in northern Europe right up to the end of World War II.

A Lifetime Of Achievement

People who aren't interested in Central Asia have probably never heard of Edward Allworth. But for those who do follow the region, Edward Allworth is one of the greatest of names in the field.

I am not one of his best students. I would be fooling myself if I thought that. But just to be a student of Edward Allworth means to have a pedigree, and if that is my only distinction in the field, that's good enough for me.

I will never be the equal of my master. But he showed me what excellence in the field is, and that will always motivate me to be better.

I am going to the United States now for several events. The crowning moment of the trip was going to be, and still is, attending the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS) conference at Princeton University where a lifetime achievement award will be bestowed on Edward Allworth for his work.

I, and others, had hoped to see him accept the award in person but his health had not been good lately, so we hoped to at least be able to bring the award to him.

That is no longer possible but I was comforted by the words Morgan Liu, one of the brightest of the current Central Asian scholars, who wrote: "CESS is what has emerged in part because of his [Allworth's] legacy."

For my part, I say: "Thank you, my master for giving me a gift that has served me so well. I will always be your student."

RIP Edward Allworth, December 1, 1920 -- October 20, 2016

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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. Content will draw 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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