By: Lucija Karlovic
Located in Central Asia and bordered by Kazakstan, Uzebekistan, Afghanistan and Iran. It has a population of 5.31 million people and its capital in Ashgabat, is the largely unexplored, beautiful, ancient and spiritual land of Turkmenistan.
In 1925, it became the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the U.S.S.R’s constituent republics and up until its declaration of independence in 1991. (Lottaz & Reginbogin, 2019).
A mysterious area made up of mostly inhospitable land consisting of oases amongst the desert; this least densely populated central Asian country is most recognized for its authoritarian regime under the leadership of self – renowned Arkadag, meaning “Protector of Protective mountain”, the current and second president, Gurbanguly Berdimuamedow (World Bank, 2016).
The 62 year political figure is not shy of manipulating media in his own country and remaining in the public eye. He is most recently known for appearing in international media with news of his death, a rumor that caused a resurfacing of his birthday gift of an Alabai shepherd dog to the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Sochi Russia on October 11th, 2017.
This most recent rumor highlights just how heavily regulated the media in Turkmenistan is; with its citizens having no access to outside sources and relying on state controlled media that both promotes the praise of the president and his state ideology in conjugation with censored newspapers and journals.
Described as an authoritarian regime with a neo-patrimonial governing system, in which real power is determined by those with connections and not necessarily those who hold higher positions, Turkmenistans governmental system has often been compared to that of North Korea.
Its governmental system mirrors that of the Soviet era and functions in a top down structure. The country is divided into five regions which are divided into one independent city, Ashgabat which is further divided into cities and districts.
It has formed a model 'cult of personality' style, created right after its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union (World Bank, 2016).
In 2006, Turkmenistan saw the death of its first president, Samparmurat Niyazov; the country's first leader who seemingly left a large place to be filled by the leader who was to take over after him.
The stability of his government relied on self-imposed isolation from international affairs, high prices for natural gas; which enabled the state to provide free or heavily subsidised gas, water, flour, salt, electricity and gasoline, and establishing a personality cult through statues resurrected in Niyazov's honour, adding his autobiography as required reading in schools and declaring himself “Turkmenbashi”, meaning “head of all Turkmen”.
President Niyazov established a regime that impacted the local political culture to such an extent it enabled transference of his legacy onto his successor, Berdimuamedow (Horak, 2012).
In fact, Berdimuamedow’s presidency election began on the basis of criticism through an initial announcement that he would act as president following Niyazov's death up until the February elections of 2007. At which time, he was officially inaugurated as the president of Turkmenistan.
Berdimuamedow began his regime through establishing his own personal power by removing and dismantling evidence of Niyazov's dictatorship. He removed the ban on opera and ballet (which were seen as not Turkmen enough) and reversed Niyazov's decree on renaming the days of the week and months of the year after himself.
Niyazov's former circle was gradually replaced and reshuffled with high positions of authority assigned to Berdimuamedow’s own relatives and individuals with career, territorial and clan affiliations to him (Horak, 2012).
Ata Serdarow, his cousin remained as Minister of Health up until 2010 and his brother in law, Gurbanmyrat Hangulyyew became Minister of Transport in 2008.
In May 2015 on the last day of school, children were mobilised to act as a cheering audience as a 20m 24 carat gold leaf statue of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow was placed in the capital Ashgabat.
In 2016 he changed the constitution to extend his presidential term from 5 to 7 years and removed the upper age limit of 70 years of age as a serving president.
In 2015, he authored three books which became highlights in the national media. One of which “Medicinal herbs of Turkmenistan” was even translated into Korean and the other explaining his autobiography becoming part of required reading at schools World Bank, 2016).
Between March 2014 and September 2015, an entire Chonganyl neighbourhood located on the outskirts of Ashgabat was destroyed. This removal of 10 000 or so houses justified by preparations for the 2017 Asia Indoor and Martial arts games.
In that same year, the president ordered the removal of air conditioners in order to beautify Ashgabat, a decision that saw citizens facing the 40 – 45 degrees Celsius summer weather unprepared.
Every year from late September until the end of November, a mass cotton harvest is organised. In which citizens such as state workers and school children are expected to pick the cash crop.
Freedom of movement is limited, as citizens are restricted through the use of bans, passport requirements, official exit visas. In addition, the ability to obtain a passport to travel abroad is considered extremely limited.
Media, journals and newspapers are heavily regulated with its primary usage being that of a propaganda tool and citizens of Turkmenistan have hard time accessing information from the outside world.
Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are either blocked or throttled and only Russian social media networks such as Odnokissniki and vKontankte are available (World Bank, 2016).
President Berdimuamedow has faced opposition and economic pressures too. In January 2014 with a cutback to the subsidy system due to decline in natural gas prices saw demonstrations, this along with security threats due to clashes with the Taliban at the Afghanistan border meant the Turkmenistan foreign policy of “neutrality” and self-imposed isolation could not provide the protection it had so promised and forced the president to seek support from Russia.
Support that President Berdimuamedow was reluctant to receive but in no position to refuse. In September of 2018, Berdimuamedow signed a decree ending the state sponsored program that provides electricity to its citizens claiming Turkmenistan was in a strong economic position and no longer required such a program.
Criticism and damaging publications abroad about his rule, forced President Berdumuamedow to reshuffle his interior ministry and replace Ata Serdarow, former health minister. He instead appointed him as ambassador to Armenia in 2010, this along with his brother-in-law, Hojamyrat Annagurbanow’s.
In August 2016, in an attempt to boost the image of the country, a law was adopted to support equal rights of both men and women.
In most recent news he has appeared in a rap video about horses with his grandson and a viral video in which he can be seen cycling around a shooting range, aiming and firing a handgun at targets.
He is known for his love of horses, gifting puppies, allowing himself to be filmed while appearing as the country's strongman. This has been seen through recent video of the president driving around and doing donuts beside the Darvaza Gas Crater (Gates to Hell), and by shooting assault rifles on national television.
Just like his predecessor, it seems like Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the current president of Turkmenistan, will be in power for the foreseeable future.
Horak, S. (2012). The Elite in Post - Soviet and Post -Niyazow Turkmenistan : Does Political Culture Form a Leader ?
Lottaz, P., & Reginbogin, H. R. (2019). Notions of Neutralities.
Middle East Institute. (2019). Chronology: July 16, 2018-October 15, 2018. The Middle East Journal Volume 37, 73(1), 113–148.
World Bank, W. D. I. (2016). Turkmenistan. 1–13.