Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 October 2014, 09:41 GMT

Nations in Transit - Turkmenistan (2005)

Publisher Freedom House
Author Annette Bohr
Publication Date 15 June 2005
Cite as Freedom House, Nations in Transit - Turkmenistan (2005), 15 June 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/473aff13c.html [accessed 21 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Capital: Ashgabat
Population: 5,700,000
Status: Not Free
PPP: $1,200
Private Sector as % of GNI: na
Life Expectancy: 67
Religious Groups: Muslim (89 percent), Eastern Orthodox (9 percent), other (2 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Turkmen (85 percent), Uzbek (5 percent), Russian (4 percent), other (6 percent)

NIT Ratings19971998199920012002200320042005
National GovernanceN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A7.00
Electoral Process7.007.007.007.007.007.007.007.00
Civil Society7.007.007.007.007.007.007.007.00
Independent Media7.007.007.007.007.007.007.007.00
Local GovernanceN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A7.00
Judicial Framework and IndependenceN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A7.00
CorruptionN/AN/A6.006.256.256.256.256.50
Democracy RatingN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A6.93

Executive Summary

While the concept of a post-Communist "nation in transit" implies the ultimate realization of a pluralist democracy based on the rule of law, in Turkmenistan the achievement of a viable democratic state is far from a foregone conclusion. On the contrary, the authoritarian regime of Turkmenistan's first and only president, Saparmurat Niyazov, has been in the process of consolidation since his ascension to power in 1985. Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the course of independent Turkmenistan's development has been determined by the arbitrary and highly personalized rule of President Niyazov, who was granted a lifetime presidency in 1999. President Niyazov has undertaken reforms aimed primarily at centralizing his own rule, allowing him to exercise power without restraint. His official title is Saparmurat Turkmenbashi ("Leader of the Turkmen") the Great, and he enjoys a lavish cult of personality unrivaled in the former Soviet Union and, indeed, much of the world.

In 2004, the Turkmen government continued its long-standing practices of repressing political opponents, maintaining strict state control over the media and the Internet, denying civil rights and liberties to the country's citizens, undertaking regular purges of officials in senior governmental posts, and maintaining a foreign policy characterized first and foremost by isolationism. The government reversed legislation criminalizing the activities of both unregistered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and unregistered religious communities and abandoned its policy of requiring its citizens to obtain exit visas to travel abroad. However, these positive steps did not translate into any significant liberalization of Turkmenistan's polity, economy, or society, and President Niyazov's authoritarian regime remained firmly entrenched.

National Democratic Governance. President Niyazov continues to rule through a system combining coercion and rewards for collaborators, while formal laws have little to no bearing on the practice of government. The Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, of which Niyazov is chairman, remains the only legally registered party in Turkmenistan. Despite the formal existence of legislative and judicial branches of power, in practice only the executive branch supported by the all-important security agencies and the president's private militia exercises any real authority. The presence of a fourth branch of power, the People's Council, which was granted the status of the country's supreme representative body, has displaced even the formal legislative authority of the country's Parliament. In addition to his lifetime presidency, President Niyazov acts as chairman of the People's Council with lifetime tenure. In 2004, Niyazov's regime stepped up its already intensive campaign to inculcate a nationalist ideology, a cornerstone of which was the publication of the second volume of the president's quasi-spiritual guide for the Turkmen nation, the Ruhnama ("Book of the Soul"). Regular purges of the upper echelons of the country's government are carried out, and Niyazov's lavish personality cult continues to serve as an important instrument for the buttressing of his authoritarian rule. Niyazov appeared to rely less on the Ministry for National Security to maintain tight control of society and to discourage dissent, while devolving greater powers to his own security service, the Presidential Guard. Turkmenistan's rating for national democratic governance remains unchanged at 7.00.

Electoral Process. Turkmenistan is the only country in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) formally to remove limits on an incumbent president's term in office. Since 2001, President Niyazov has proposed on several occasions that presidential elections be held before 2010, ostensibly to pass on the presidency before he reaches the age of 70. In October 2004, as on previous occasions, the People's Council, a pseudo-representative organ headed by Niyazov himself, rejected the president's proposal to hold presidential elections in 2008-2009, insisting that he remain in power until his death. No opposition parties or movements are officially registered in the country. Unrelenting harassment by authorities has driven the relatively small Turkmen opposition either firmly underground or into exile. Turkmenistan's third parliamentary elections, which took place in December 2004, were widely regarded as a ceremonial exercise. Only candidates approved by the government were permitted to stand, all of whom were ethnic Turkmen and members of Niyazov's ruling Democratic Party of Tukmenistan. As in the past, the government did not invite international observers including observers from other CIS countries to monitor the elections. Unprecedented voter apathy resulted in a record low turnout of only 76.88 percent, which was a marked departure from the usual near 100 percent participation rates declared by electoral officials for all previous elections and referendums. Turkmenistan's rating for electoral process remains unchanged at 7.00.

Civil Society. President Niyazov's illiberal regime has created tremendous obstacles for the development of civil society, severely impeding the ability of independent NGOs and religious groups to function. The few NGOs allowed to operate in Turkmenistan are generally government sponsored, such as the veteran's and youth associations, and the women's union, which is dedicated to the memory of President Niyazov's mother. In an attempt to assuage widespread criticism of Turkmenistan's human rights practices by the international community, the government published new legislation in November 2004 abolishing criminal penalties for unregistered NGO activity. However, the legislative change was expected to provide only very limited relief to civil society activists, barring the absence of general reform in Turkmenistan. Similarly, in 2004 Turkmen authorities reversed legislation from 2003 that had made unregistered religious activity a criminal rather than an administrative offense. The government also introduced legislation facilitating the registration of minority religious communities, which allowed four such groups to acquire official registration. In practice, however, even registered minority religious groups were still subject to harassment. Tight control continued to be maintained over Turkmenistan's two largest religions, Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity. The government took further steps to systematically dismantle the education system, replacing the bulk of teaching in most schools with the study of Niyazov's Ruhnama. Turkmenistan's rating for civil society remains at 7.00. The legislative changes undertaken in 2004, while positive developments, were not expected to significantly ease the draconian restrictions currently placed on the activities of both NGOs and minority religious communities.

Independent Media. All state media in Turkmenistan are devoted primarily to extolling the activities and achievements of the president and are devoid of independent information. Cable television has been banned, and access to the Internet is strictly controlled by the state. In July 2004, Turkmen authorities suspended the transmission of Russia's Radio Mayak, which was highly popular in Turkmenistan and acted as one of the last independent media sources in the country. In keeping with his general policy of reducing government employment, Niyazov ordered the paring down of the country's media establishment in September 2004, resulting in the closure of several news bureaus and the dismissal of over 120 professional journalists. A major propaganda effort to improve Turkmenistan's international image was undertaken in October 2004 when the country launched a new multilingual satellite television service. Turkmenistan's rating for independent media stays the same at 7.00.

Local Democratic Governance. Local executive power in Turkmenistan's five regions and the city of Ashgabat is vested in the governors, who are appointed by the president to execute his instructions. As with officials at the national level, regional officials tend to remain in their positions for very short periods, often for less than a year. In the first half of November 2004, President Niyazov dismissed at least 12 high-level local officials in the Ahal and Balkan regions for corruption, unfulfilled duties, and other "grave shortcomings." Given their brief tenure in office, local officials tend to give low priority to solving the problems of their respective regions, preferring instead to use their short time in power to amass personal economic benefits. Tribal identities remain strong in Turkmenistan and continue to play an important role in Turkmen society and informal local politics. Turkmenistan's rating for local democratic governance stays the same at 7.00.

Judicial Framework and Independence. The Office of the Prosecutor-General dominates a legal system in which judges and lawyers play a marginal role. While formally independent, the court system has no impact on the observance of human rights but rather acts as an important instrument of repression for the regime. Convictions are based on confessions that can be extracted by forcible means, including the use of torture. Ethnic minorities and Turkmenistan's ethnic Uzbek population in particular are affected by discriminatory practices denying them access to most higher education and jobs in the public sector. In 2004, as in 2003, the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the UN General Assembly adopted separate resolutions condemning Niyazov's regime for its human rights violations. While the government abolished the exit visa regime for citizens of Turkmenistan in early 2004, it implemented in its stead a number of unofficial measures intended to prevent free travel. Turkmenistan's rating for judicial framework and independence remains unchanged at 7.00.

Corruption. The existence of patronage networks as the basis of power in Turkmenistan has inevitably given rise to a political culture of bribery, nepotism, and embezzlement. In April 2004, it was revealed that public sector workers were owed nearly US$290 million in back wages. While President Niyazov sought to pin the blame for the accumulation of wage arrears on his subordinates by accusing them of mass embezzlement, a more likely explanation for the budget shortfall was the continued diversion by Niyazov of ever larger sums from gas, oil, and cotton export revenues to a special presidential fund, a large part of which is used to finance prestige construction projects. This fund which does not form part of the state budget and is under Niyazov's control is estimated to be worth at least 60 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Numerous reports from the opposition in exile, including from former members of the secret services, continue to implicate Turkmen officials in drug-smuggling operations from Afghanistan as well as in gasoline smuggling operations into and out of Uzbekistan. The accelerated pace at which governmental officials are replaced has led to steadily rising levels of embezzlement and bribery, with the result that Turkmenistan's rating for corruption has deteriorated from 6.25 to 6.50.

Outlook for 2005. Following the December 2004 parliamentary elections, the new Parliament's first act of business was to declare 2005 the Year of the Ruhnama (after the Ruhnama, Niyazov's national code of spiritual conduct), indicating that the government intends to further intensify its campaign to inculcate an official ideology glorifying Turkmenistan and its leader. President Niyazov is highly unlikely to relinquish power voluntarily, to groom a successor, or to embark on a path of liberalization. While Niyazov's regime clearly lacks a solid institutional foundation, revenues from the sale of natural gas an easily exploitable natural resource subject to state monopoly could continue to prop up his rule for a number of years. In view of the low level of politicization of Turkmenistan's population, a popular uprising is unlikely, although the periodic distribution of leaflets by underground oppositionists calling for the overthrow of President Niyazov is likely to continue. Perhaps the most immediate threat to the current regime is the failing health of the president, who has been battling cardiovascular problems since at least the early 1990s. Given the absence of an heir apparent, the inevitable regime change could usher in a period of instability in Turkmenistan.

National Governance (Score: 7.00)

Despite the formal existence in Turkmenistan of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, in practice only the executive branch, which is supported by hypertrophied security agencies and the president's private militia, exercises any real power. Turkmenistan can safely be characterized as a police state in which the activities of its citizens are carefully monitored. The Ministry for National Security (MNB) has the responsibilities held by the Committee for State Security (KGB) during the Soviet period namely, to ensure that the regime remains in power through tight control of society and by discouraging dissent. The Ministry of Internal Affairs directs the criminal police, who work closely with the MNB on matters of national security. Both ministries have abused the rights of individuals and enforced the government's policy of repressing political opposition.

Since the coup attempt in November 2002, when oppositionists led by former longtime foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov sought to forcibly remove the president from power, Niyazov appears to have relied less on the MNB while devolving greater powers to his own security service, the Presidential Guard. Consisting of some 2,000 to 3,000 former security agents whose loyalty to the president has been tested over time, the Presidential Guard is not subordinated to any security service and carries out a wide range of functions on Niyazov's personal orders. Both the Presidential Guard and the MNB operate with impunity.

The Majlis, or Parliament, has been transformed into a presidential appendage, and presidential decree is the usual mode of legislation. All political parties must be registered with the Ministry of Justice (renamed the Ministry of Fairness in September 2003), thereby allowing the government to deny official status to groups that are critical of its policies. In December 1991, the Communist Party of Turkmenistan was renamed the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT) and Niyazov was confirmed as chairman, leaving the old Communist power structure essentially intact. Other than Niyazov's DPT and the pro-government National Revival Movement, no parties or movements are legally registered in the country. The Constitution proscribes the formation of parties with a religious or nationalist orientation (Article 28). However, since the government prevents all parties other than the DPT from registering and functioning, this ban is of little relevance.

During his reorganization of political structures in 1992, President Niyazov created the the Halk Maslakhaty, the People's Council, to recall the Turkmen "national tradition" of holding tribal assemblies in order to solve society's most pressing problems. According to a constitutional amendment and constitutional Law on the People's Council, which were passed by that same body in August 2003, the council was elevated to the status of a "permanently functioning supreme representative body of popular authority." Whereas before August 2003 the law dictated that the People's Council convene at least once a year, the new law requires the People's Council to remain in continuous session.

The 2,507-member People's Council consists of the president, the members of Parliament, the chairman of the Supreme Court, the prosecutor-general, the members of the Council of Ministers, the governors (hakims) of the five regions (velayats), and the hakim of the city of Ashgabat; people's representatives elected from each district; the chairpersons of officially recognized parties, the youth association, trade unions, and the women's union; the chairpersons of public organizations; representatives of the Council of Elders; the hakims of cities that are the administrative centers of the velayats and districts (etraps); and the heads of the local councils (archins) of the cities and villages that are the administrative centers of the districts.

The August 2003 law ascribed to the People's Council a number of legislative powers, including the passing of constitutional laws, thereby officially displacing the Parliament as the country's primary legislative body. The constitutional amendment confirmed the People's Council's hitherto de facto status as a fourth branch of power. In reality, proposals put forward by Niyazov at sessions of the People's Council are invariably adopted unanimously by that body, which acts to officially validate the president's policies. At the same time that the status of the People's Council was formally upgraded in August 2003, Niyazov was unanimously elected as chairman of the People's Council, with a lifetime tenure.

Officials in Niyazov's regime are appointed based on their complete loyalty and subservience to the president rather than on a system of merits. Niyazov regularly purges the upper echelons of his government to diminish the power base of political elites and to rid it of potential rivals. Since 2000, Niyazov's regular reshuffling of ministers and other high-level public sector officials has greatly accelerated in both intensity and scope, possibly belying an increasing inability to trust his officials as well as a growing sense of vulnerability. In March 2002, Niyazov embarked on a full-scale public purge of the security and intelligence agencies amid rumors of possible plans by security officials to oust the president from power. More than 60 MNB employees, including 36 senior staff members, were sacked, demoted, or given prison sentences for a multitude of crimes.

In 2004, Niyazov replaced the minister of internal affairs (on two separate occasions), the minister of national security, the minister of economics and finance, the commander of the Air Force, and the head of the State Border Services, in addition to a multitude of other ministers, deputy ministers, and high-level regional officials. While dismissed officials are sometimes reshuffled to other governmental positions or simply sacked, they are often subject to fines, arrest, or even internal exile. In June 2004, it was reported that authorities had forcibly resettled an estimated 40 former high-ranking officials to the central part of the Karakum Desert to prevent them from fleeing the country.

Niyazov's personalistic style of rule is marked by a significant degree of interference in the private affairs of the country's citizens. Among other things, in 2004 he outlawed the wearing of long hair and facial hair by young men, the use of makeup by television presenters, and the consumption of nas, a form of chewing tobacco in widespread use in Central Asia. A highly developed personality cult is perhaps the most visible component of the president's authoritarian regime. Niyazov's portrait is ubiquitous throughout the state, and monuments to the president have been erected in all cities and densely populated areas of the country. His name or title of Turkmenbashi (or his nickname, "Serdar," meaning "Supreme Chieftain") has been given to several thousand locales and objects, including at least two cities; several districts and villages; the country's main airport; a military institute; a multitude of farms, streets, and squares; a brand of vodka; and the country's highest mountain peak. Study of Niyazov's multivolumed writings has been introduced as a mandatory subject in all educational establishments, and his cult of personality has been extended to include his deceased parents.

The publication in 2001 of the first volume of the Ruhnama ("Book of the Soul"), a national code of spiritual conduct ostensibly written by Niyazov, served to buttress the president's lavish personality cult. The volume, which embodies Niyazov's personal reflections on Turkmen history and traditions as well as moral directives, has been accorded the de facto status of a holy book on a par with the Koran. Imams are required to display the Ruhnama in mosques and to quote from it in sermons, and Niyazov regularly urges his country's citizens to study and memorize its passages. The Ruhnama has been published in more than 20 languages, including Zulu as well as a special Braille edition. Publication of the second volume of the Ruhnama took place in September 2004. Passages from the Ruhnama were inscribed alongside verses from the Koran on the marble walls of Central Asia's largest mosque, which was officially inaugurated in October 2004 in Niyazov's hometown of Gipchak, outside of Ashgabat.

Electoral Process (Score: 7.00)

Independent Turkmenistan held its first direct presidential election in June 1992 under a new Constitution, although Niyazov had been popularly elected to the presidency by direct ballot only 20 months previously, in October 1990. According to official results, voter participation in 1992 was 99.8 percent, with 99 percent of all votes cast in favor of Niyazov. In January 1994, a nationwide referendum overwhelmingly prolonged Niyazov's presidential mandate until 2002, exempting him from another popular election in 1997, as required by the Constitution. Following months of speculation on the introduction of a "life presidency," the Parliament approved amendments to the Constitution at the end of December 1999 that removed the maximum two-term provision, thereby enabling Niyazov to retain his presidential post until his death. Turkmenistan, therefore, became the first country in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) formally to abandon both regularly scheduled presidential elections and popular referendums designed to extend the incumbent president's term in office.

Although he is highly unlikely to step down from power voluntarily, President Niyazov has proposed on several occasions since 2001 that presidential elections be held before 2010. At the October 2004 session of the People's Council, Niyazov suggested holding elections in 2008-2009, ostensibly to pass on the presidency before he reaches the age of 70 in 2010. Amid chants of "Glory to the great leader!" the People's Council, as on previous occasions, rejected his proposal to hold presidential elections, insisting that Niyazov remain in power until his death.

No opposition parties or movements are officially registered in the country. Unrelenting harassment by authorities has driven the relatively small Turkmen opposition either underground or into exile. The opposition in exile remains small, weak, poor, and prone to internal division, despite declarations by prominent members of Turkmenistan's opposition parties and movements to work together to remove Niyazov from power.

A constitutional amendment and law adopted in August 2003 elevated the People's Council to the status of Turkmenistan's highest representative body, displacing the Parliament as the country's chief legislative organ. The majority of the 2,507 seats in the People's Council are distributed among parliamentary deputies and other governmental officials, with the result that only some 65 deputies are elected by the Turkmen population. The most recent elections to the People's Council, as well as to local representative bodies, were held in April 2003 amid a near total absence of information about the candidates or their platforms. Electoral officials claimed a 99.8 percent voter turnout.

The first parliamentary elections in independent Turkmenistan took place in December 1994, when 49 candidates stood unopposed for the 50-member unicameral legislature (2 candidates contested the remaining seat). Parliamentary elections were again held in December 1999, with a declared participation of 98.9 percent of the country's electorate. Although 104 candidates stood for the 50 parliamentary seats, nearly all were members of Niyazov's ruling DPT and served the state in some official capacity. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declined to send a monitoring mission on the grounds that "the legislative framework is inadequate for even a minimally democratic election."

In line with previous elections, the country's third parliamentary elections on December 19,2004, were widely regarded as a purely ceremonial exercise. Although 131 candidates vied for 50 seats, only those approved by governmental authorities were permitted to stand. Candidates were initially selected by district authorities before being vetted by regional authorities, after which each candidate was referred to the presidential administration for final approval. Of the 131 candidates, there were 109 men and 22 women. No representatives of ethnic minorities were among the candidates, all of whom were ethnic Turkmen. All candidates were members of Turkmenistan's sole registered political party, the DPT.

As in the past, the Turkmen authorities did not invite international observers including observers from other CIS countries to monitor the parliamentary elections, asserting that national officials were capable of monitoring the event without outside help. The elections were thus monitored by some 200 national observers and employees from Turkmenistan's National Institute of Democracy and Human Rights, which is directly subordinated to the president, together with individuals from other organizations that had nominated candidates, such as the youth association and women's union.

During Turkmenistan's 13-year history of independence, electoral officials have declared near 100 percent voter turnout rates for all elections and referendums. To achieve such spectacularly high participation rates, electoral officials engage widely in irregular procedures, such as stuffing ballot boxes and making door-to-door home visits during which voters are urged to cast their ballots. Pressure is exerted on all civil servants to vote, and failure to do so can lead to reprisals. Despite these undemocratic tactics to encourage voting, unprecedented voter apathy resulted in a record low turnout of only 76.88 percent for the December 2004 parliamentary elections. Authorities attributed the low participation rate to unusually cold weather conditions.

Civil Society (Score: 7.00)

President Niyazov's illiberal regime has created tremendous obstacles for the development of civil society, severely impeding the potential interaction of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), private traders, and other types of independent social and business networks. The few so-called NGOs that are allowed to operate in Turkmenistan are generally government sponsored. There are no independent trade unions. The successor to the Soviet-era Federation of Trade Unions remains linked to the government. Other government-organized "NGOs" include the veteran's association, the youth association, the journalists union, and the Humanitarian Association of World Turkmen. The women's union, which is dedicated to the memory of President Niyazov's mother, is the only officially registered women's NGO.

Civil society in Turkmenistan was paralyzed by fallout from an attempted coup on November 25,2002, when former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov and his fellow oppositionists staged an attempt to forcibly remove Niyazov from power as his motorcade was traveling through Ashgabat. Turkmen authorities immediately publicized the attack as a failed assassination attempt, although the opposition has declared that Shikhmuradov's aim was to capture Niyazov and force him to renounce power rather than to assassinate him. Information about the planned coup was apparently leaked to members of Niyazov's security agencies beforehand, enabling them to stage a counteroperation and subsequently present the assault as a carefully planned plot to kill the president. Investigations carried out by the Office of the Prosecutor-General predictably confirmed the official version of events as originally presented by President Niyazov within hours of the incident, and the accused were sentenced in closed trials within a matter of weeks.

Niyazov used the attempted coup to his advantage by incarcerating some of his major opponents, including Shikhmuradov, and implementing a series of new measures that curbed civil liberties even further. A new wave of repression and witch-hunts was initiated in the aftermath of the armed attack, resulting in the arrest of at least 200 individuals with purported connections to the opposition, of whom approximately 60 were ultimately convicted for their alleged role in the coup attempt. Independent civil society activists became frequent targets of detention and harassment. Turkmenistan's government-sponsored NGOs were used as part of a propaganda campaign to demonstrate support for the president. Mass meetings were held and rallies staged, with participants calling for the "people's enemies" to be put to death. Niyazov proposed to the People's Council that a new maximum penalty of life imprisonment with no possibility of pardon, amnesty, or parole be introduced for the crime of treason, which was very broadly defined as any crime against the state or the president.

Civil society activists were repressed further in November 2003, when an unprecedented presidential decree was signed into law requiring all NGOs to register or reregister with the Ministry of Fairness (Justice) or face fines, corrective labor, and possible prison sentences with the confiscation of property. The law gave the authorities the right to exercise complete control over the funding and activities of NGOs, thereby effectively limiting the ability of foreign donors to provide financial aid and other assistance to civil society groups. As a result, many independent NGOs ceased to exist or began to operate under the safer label of "initiative group." In early 2004, the Dashoguz Ecological Club and the Ecological Club Catena two of Turkmenistan's oldest operating NGOs were stripped of their legal registration. According to a database kept by Counterpart Consortium, there were approximately 200 to 300 registered and unregistered NGOs in Turkmenistan in 2000; by 2004, there were fewer than 100, most of which were government sponsored.

In a move apparently designed to assuage international criticism of Turkmenistan's human rights practices, the government published new legislation in November 2004 abolishing criminal penalties for activities undertaken by unregistered NGOs, thereby reversing the November 2003 legislation. However, the decriminalization of unregistered NGO activity is not expected to have a significant practical impact on civil society given the general draconian restrictions on civic activism.

As with political parties and public associations, all religious congregations must register with the Ministry of Fairness to gain legal status. Before 2004, the only religions that had managed to register successfully were Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity, although they were still subject to tight government controls. In March 2004, President Niyazov issued a decree pledging to register all religious groups regardless of background or number. The law was amended accordingly to reduce the number of adult citizens needed to register a religious community with the Ministry of Fairness from 500 to 5. As a result of these changes, four minority religious groups managed to gain registration in 2004: Seventh-day Adventists, Baha'is, Baptists, and Hare Krishnas.

According to the U.S. government's 2004 International Religious Freedom Report, the March decree resulted in "a noticeable reduction in harassment of minority congregations." Yet despite minimal progress, several minority religious communities remain unregistered, such as Catholics, Lutherans, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Moreover, some of those minority religious groups that succeeded in becoming registered in 2004 nonetheless continued to experience harassment. In August, groups of Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists were raided by security officials in the towns of Abadan and Turkmenabat, respectively, even though both groups were in possession of valid registration certificates.

In response to international pressure, Turkmen authorities eliminated criminal penalties for members of unregistered religious groups in May 2004. (In November 2003, Turkmenistan had tightened its Law on Religion and adopted amendments to the criminal code that imposed penalties of up to one year's imprisonment for unregistered religious activity, which had hitherto been considered an administrative offense.) However, while unregistered religious activity is no longer subject to criminal prosecution, congregations that are not registered with the Ministry of Fairness are prohibited from proselytizing, gathering publicly, and disseminating religious materials, with violators subject to penalties under the administrative code.

Since approximately 2000, the government has systematically dismantled the country's education system to such an extent that today the majority of children in Turkmenistan no longer have adequate access to education. Niyazov's Ruhnama is a compulsory part of school curricula, having replaced the bulk of teaching in most schools. In many rural schools, it is estimated that one half of classroom time is allocated to the study of Niyazov's quasi-spiritual guide and other writings devoted to furthering his personality cult. In addition, students must answer questions about the Ruhnama in order to pass entrance exams for higher education institutions.

Over 12,000 teachers have been made redundant, including those with degrees from foreign universities. The number of places in higher education institutions has been reduced by nearly 75 percent, and primary and secondary education has been reduced from 11 to 9 years (a circumstance that complicates the entry of Turkmen students into foreign universities). Only those who have completed two years' work experience after leaving school are allowed to go on to higher education, and the term of higher education has been reduced to just two years. All correspondence and evening courses have been liquidated. The dismantling of the education system has put in doubt the ability of the next generation of Turkmen to compete successfully in the global market.

Independent Media (Score: 7.00)

All state media in Turkmenistan are devoted primarily to extolling the activities and achievements of the president and are devoid of independent information. The president is the formal founder of the country's 23 registered newspapers and 14 registered journals and personally appoints all editors, who are answerable to him. In 2004, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkmenistan 164th out of 167 nations immediately above Burma, Cuba, and North Korea in its annual worldwide Index of Press Freedom. Foreign journalists are rarely allowed to enter the country, and those who do gain entry are closely monitored by the State Service for the Registration of Foreigners.

Cable television which had provided access to Russian channels and acted as the country's main source of alternative information was banned in July 2002 after Russian television broadcast footage of poverty in Turkmenistan. During the same month, Turkmenistan's Ministry of Communications halted the import of Russian newspapers and magazines, citing high airmail delivery rates. In July 2004, Turkmen authorities suspended the transmission of Russia's Radio Mayak, which was highly popular in Turkmenistan and acted as one of the last independent media sources in the country aside from a few foreign broadcasts on shortwave radio directed at Turkmen listeners. Satellite dishes are still tolerated and in widespread use in the capital city but are prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of the population.

All access to the Internet is strictly controlled by the country's sole Internet provider, Turkmen Telecom. The monitoring of e-mail by the state, blocked access to a growing number of websites critical of government policy, and high fees have successfully restricted use of the Internet to a small number of organizations and individuals. According to the International Crisis Group, it was estimated that in 2004 there were only some 8,000 Internet connections in the country, although the number of users was undoubtedly higher.

In keeping with his general policy of reducing government employment, Niyazov ordered the paring down of the country's media establishment in September 2004. This resulted in the closure of several news bureaus serving central and regional newspapers and the dismissal of over 120 professional journalists. In addition to sackings, at least two journalists, both working for the U.S.-funded radio station Radio Liberty, were beaten and threatened in 2004.

A major propaganda effort to improve Turkmenistan's international image was undertaken in October 2004 when the country launched a new multilingual satellite television service. TV4 Turkmenistan, initiated by President Niyazov at an estimated cost of US$12 million, broadcasts programs in Turkmen and six foreign languages: English, Russian, Chinese, French, Arabic, and Persian. According to Niyazov, the channel's purpose is to report on various aspects of life in Turkmenistan while focusing on the country's achievements.

Local Governance (Score: 7.00)

Local executive power in Turkmenistan's five velayats and in the city of Ashgabat is vested in the hakims, who are appointed by the president to execute his instructions. Below the velayat level, the president also appoints the executive heads of the cities and districts (shakher hakims and etrap hakims, respectively), purportedly based on the recommendations of the respective velayat-level hakims. Regarding local representative organs, the 1992 Constitution provided for the replacement of local soviets by councils (gengeshes), whose members are directly elected for five-year terms. The 528 gengeshes are administered by archins, who are elected from among their membership. Some 5,500 deputies were elected to local gengeshes in April 2003 with little transparency and minimal media coverage and preelection campaigning.

As with officials at the national level, regional officials tend to remain in their positions for very short periods, often for less than a year. In the first half of November 2004, President Niyazov dismissed at least 12 high-level local officials in Ahal and Balkan regions for "grave shortcomings." Given their brief tenure in office, hakims tend to give low priority to solving the problems of their respective regions, preferring instead to use their short time in power to amass personal economic benefits.

Tribal identities remain strong in Turkmenistan and continue to play an important role in Turkmen society and informal local politics. The largest tribes are the Tekke in south-central Turkmenistan (Ahal Tekke and Mary Tekke), the Ersary near the region of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border, the Yomud in western and northeastern Turkmenistan, and the Saryks in the southernmost corner of the country. Unlike in parts of Africa, for example, where both formal and informal tribal associations have played a significant role in political mobilization and local governance, tribalism in Turkmenistan manifests itself primarily in social practices, such as the maintenance of preferential networks, endogamy, and the persistence of dialects.

However, the exit of the Russian nomenklatura following the collapse of the USSR led to a gradual resurgence of traditionally minded regional elites vying for their economic interests, which in turn prompted Niyazov to rely more and more on a policy of divide and rule with regard to tribal and regional politics. While a sense of national identity is being promoted at the state level, hakims tend to be members of the tribe that is dominant in their respective regions. A disproportionate number of influential positions in central government tend to go to members of Niyazov's own tribe, the Ahal Tekke.

Judicial Framework and Independence (Score: 7.00)

On May 18,1992, Turkmenistan's Parliament adopted a new Constitution, making it the first Central Asian state to enact such a document after the dissolution of the USSR. It guarantees in theory the protection of basic rights and liberties, equality under the law, and the separation of religion and state. Although it also envisages a quadripartite division of power, the broad powers delegated to the president obscure the authority of the legislative and judicial branches, which act as rubber stamps for the president's policies. Amendments have been made to the Constitution since its original adoption, including eliminating the two-term limit for the president, prohibiting the holding of dual citizenship by citizens of Turkmenistan, and redefining the status and function of the People's Council.

Unchanged since the Soviet era, the court system in Turkmenistan consists of a Supreme Court, six regional courts (including one for the city of Ashgabat), and, at the lowest level, 61 district and city courts. In addition, the Supreme Economic Court hears all commercial disputes and cases involving disputes between state enterprises and ministries. Because all military courts were abolished in 1997, criminal offenses committed by military personnel are tried in civilian courts under the authority of the Office of the Prosecutor-General. While formally independent, the court system has no impact on the observance of human rights but rather acts as an important instrument of repression for the regime.

All judges are appointed for five-year terms by the president without legislative review. The Office of the Prosecutor-General dominates a legal system in which judges and lawyers play a marginal role. As in the former Soviet Union, convictions are based on confessions that can be extracted by forcible means, including the use of torture and psychotropic substances.

Despite its accession to a number of international human rights agreements, which theoretically have precedence over state law, Turkmenistan has perhaps the poorest human rights record of any former Soviet republic. In December 2002, widespread concern about human rights violations prompted 10 participating states of the OSCE to invoke for the first time in 10 years the so-called Moscow Mechanism, which provides for the establishment of a fact-finding mission of rapporteurs to investigate reported violations.

The OSCE report, released in March 2003, was harshly critical of human rights practices in Turkmenistan, even calling for the UN General Assembly to reexamine its 1995 recognition of Turkmenistan's status as a neutral country. In addition to the OSCE, the European Parliament, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR), and the UN General Assembly adopted separate resolutions in 2003 condemning Niyazov's regime for its human rights violations. In April 2004, the UNHCR adopted a second resolution expressing grave concern at the persistence of political repression and restrictions on freedom of information and expression in Turkmenistan. The government of Turkmenistan rejected the resolution as tendentious and indicated that it would seek to have it struck from the record. In November 2004, the UN General Assembly adopted its second resolution condemning continuing and serious human rights violations by the government of Turkmenistan.

Arbitrary arrest and detention remains a widespread practice in Turkmenistan, despite laws prohibiting it. Prison riots are a relatively common occurrence, apparently provoked by inhumane conditions. The Turkmen government has admitted to chronic overcrowding in cells, which has led to prisoners being stifled to death in extreme summer heat. Food and water remain in short supply, and prisoners are not generally provided with medical aid. Poor sanitary conditions have precipitated outbreaks of cholera, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases. Human rights organizations have reported that inmates are routinely beaten and tortured. In November 2004, the government released an estimated 9,000 inmates under an annual amnesty mandated by a 1999 law and presidential decree. Although individuals convicted of serious crimes are theoretically ineligible for amnesty, those who can pay bribes excluding political prisoners are generally freed, regardless of the type of crime they were imprisoned for. While the annual amnesties serve temporarily to relieve overcrowding, prisons quickly fill up again owing to the overall high number of arrests.

In 1999, Turkmenistan became the first CIS country to embark upon the establishment of a visa regime inside the territory of the former USSR. In March 2003, the president restored the compulsory exit visa regime for its citizens wishing to cross state borders, although the requirement had been rescinded only a little over a year before in January 2002. However, in January 2004 the exit visa regime for citizens of Turkmenistan was again abolished, although in its stead the government implemented a number of unofficial measures to prevent free travel, such as the drawing up of an extensive "blacklist" of citizens who are prohibited from leaving the country, the arbitrary confiscation of passports, and the closure of border checkpoints. In March 2004, the president issued the decree On the Improvement of Exit Procedures for the Citizens of Turkmenistan, after which it was reportedly somewhat easier for citizens to travel abroad. Niyazov's formal abolition of the exit visa requirement was intended to stave off possible punitive action by the United States under the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which allows for the imposition of trade sanctions against states that deter freedom of emigration.

In line with other post-Soviet states, Turkmenistan has accorded a de facto higher status to its titular population, ethnic Turkmen, and has legitimized the adoption of policies and practices that promote their specific interests. Higher education and jobs in the public sector have been effectively closed to non-Turkmen. Members of ethnic minorities are not allowed to apply for positions in the judicial system, in law enforcement and security agencies, or in financial and military organizations. Senior state officials must be able to demonstrate ethnic purity by tracing their Turkmen ancestry back several generations.

The president has attempted to eliminate the use of Russian as the main language of communication with either the outside world or among ethnic communities within the country. The Russian media are inaccessible, and Russian has been excluded from virtually all spheres of education. While in 1991 Turkmenistan had nearly 1,500 Russian-language schools, in 2004 there was only 1, located in the Russian embassy in Ashgabat. Following the suspension of Russia's Radio Mayak in July 2004, the government mouthpiece, Neitral'nyi Turkmenistan, remains the only Russian-language media source of information for the country's Russian-speaking population, which includes ethnic Armenians, Jews, and Ukrainians, among others.

Ethnic Uzbeks have been particularly affected by these discriminatory practices. Since the end of 2002, several thousand people, primarily ethnic Uzbeks, have been forcibly relocated from the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan border areas to desert regions in northwestern Turkmenistan. This policy presumably serves the dual purpose of reducing irredentist sentiment among Uzbeks in Turkmenistan while increasing population density in scarcely populated regions of the country. Schools with Uzbek as the primary language of instruction have been gradually forced to switch to Turkmen. By the end of 2004, virtually all ethnic Uzbeks in high- and middle-level administrative positions in Dashoguz velayat, located on the Uzbek-Turkmen border, had been removed from their positions.

Even in areas of Turkmenistan where ethnic Uzbeks constitute the majority of the population, they no longer serve as district governors, farm chairmen, or school principals. In March 2004, former chief mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, an ethnic Uzbek, was charged with treason and sentenced to 22 years in prison. While Ibadullah was tried in connection with his alleged role in the coup attempt of November 2002, it was widely believed that he was removed from his position because of his ethnicity and his opposition to the use of mosques for the display and praise of Niyazov's quasi-spiritual code, the Ruhnama.

Corruption (Score: 6.50)

The actual dispensation of power in Turkmenistan is determined by the vast machinery of patronage that has created local constituencies and regional alliances rather than by the rule of law. Political elites have traditionally built up local power bases by allocating key posts and opportunities to their loyalists. These informal networks, which have survived the demise of the Soviet system, are frequently referred to as "clans," although they are based on patron-client relationships, often with links to extended families, rather than on actual blood ties. The existence of patronage networks as the basis of power has inevitably given rise to a political culture of bribery, nepotism, and embezzlement.

Organized crime in Turkmenistan has been able to flourish largely as a result of corruption in state institutions. Regional governors at all levels are directly or indirectly appointed by the president to carry out his instructions and can be replaced at his discretion, thereby engendering a strong degree of personal loyalty within the system. Significantly, regional governors have direct access to state revenues, which they use to buy the loyalty of subordinates.

Before 2000, dismissed officials as a rule were not imprisoned or sent into exile. In recent years, however, the dizzying pace at which governmental officials are replaced, coupled with an increased fear of arbitrary reprisal, has meant that newly appointed officials attempt to acquire perks and exploit the privileges of their positions in record time. As a consequence, corruption, particularly embezzlement and bribe taking, has been rising steadily.

In April 2004, it was revealed that public sector workers were owed nearly US$290 million in back wages. The build-up of wage arrears threw into question the ability of the government to fulfill its plan to raise public sector salaries, pensions, and benefits by 50 percent effective January 2005. The use of military conscripts as a source of free labor and the introduction of fees for certain medical services provided further evidence that the state was having difficulty funding its huge public sector. Since 2002, approximately 20,000 to 30,000 conscripts have been sent each year to work in various sectors of the economy, such as farming, transportation, and health services, as part of their military service. In practice, the conscript army is used in many instances as a source of free labor for the state, with soldiers replacing, for example, the traffic police and most medical assistants.

News of the wage arrears was especially surprising, as it came on the heels of official reports announcing the country's record foreign trade surplus. While President Niyazov sought to pin the blame for the accumulation of back wages on his subordinates by accusing them of mass embezzlement, a more likely explanation for the budget shortfall is the continued diversion by Niyazov of ever larger sums from gas, oil, and cotton revenues to a special presidential fund, which is located in European and other bank accounts. This foreign exchange reserve fund (FERF), which does not form part of the state budget and is under Niyazov's control, is estimated to be worth at least 60 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Export payments provide its main source of inflow, although observers of the regime have suggested that sudden increases in foreign reserves are also related to Turkmenistan's position as a transit point for drug-trafficking operations.

A significant portion of the FERF is used to fund prestige construction projects. More than US$1 billion has been spent during Turkmenistan's independence on such projects, including a palace of congresses and arts, an independence park, two stadiums, a national museum, a series of luxury hotels, and a horse-racing center. The construction of a national theater of music and drama, new library and exhibition center, children's attraction park, oceanarium, zoo, and even an ice palace and funicular railway are under way. The construction of Central Asia's largest mosque, located in Niyazov's hometown of Gipchak, is estimated to have cost US$86 million. Furthermore, Niyazov has undertaken the construction of a gigantic artificial lake in the Karakum Desert, with a planned capacity of twice that of Central Asia's entire reservoir.

Numerous reports, including those investigated by the Russian State Duma, have alleged that Niyazov's regime ran an international narcotics-smuggling operation from Afghanistan during the late 1990s in cooperation with the Taliban, with whom Niyazov maintained cordial relations. In the Afghan cities of Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, Turkmenistan opened consulates that were reported to operate as a cover for secret drug deals conducted by Niyazov's government with money laundered in the United Arab Emirates. This lucrative trade was pointed to as one of the primary reasons that Niyazov unilaterally ended Turkmenistan's treaty with Russia on border cooperation in 1999.

Following the removal of the Taliban, Turkmenistan was purported to have continued to act as a transshipment point for illicit drugs from Afghanistan to Western Europe. Reports from the opposition in exile, including former members of the secret services, claimed that even after the arrival of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2001, heroin continued to arrive by the truckload in Turkmenistan, where it was stored in the basement of the old presidential palace. Estimates of the amounts procured by Turkmenistan's government ranged from 80 to 120 tons a year. In addition to charges of drug trafficking, several Turkmen officials have been accused of organizing gasoline smuggling routes into and out of Uzbekistan.

Author

Annette Bohr is a Research Fellow in Central Asian Studies at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, University of Manchester. She is the author or coauthor of numerous articles and two monographs on Central Asian politics, contemporary history, and ethnic and language policies.

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