Nations in Transit 2009 - Turkmenistan

  • Author: Annette Bohr
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    30 June 2009

by Annette Bohr

Capital: Ashgabat
Population: 5.0 million
GDP/capita: n/a

The data above was provided by The World Bank, World Bank Indicators 2009.

Nations in Transit Ratings and Averaged Scores

Electoral Process7.
Civil Society7.
Independent Media7.
National Democratic Governancen/an/an/an/an/a7.
Local Democratic Governancen/an/an/an/an/a7.
Judicial Framework and Independence6.757.
Democracy Score6.756.836.836.836.886.936.966.966.936.93

* Starting with the 2005 edition, Freedom House introduced separate analysis and ratings for national democratic governance and local democratic governance to provide readers with more detailed and nuanced analysis of these two important subjects.

NOTE: The ratings reflect the consensus of Freedom House, its academic advisers, and the author(s) of this report. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the author(s). The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year.

Executive Summary

President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov ended the second year of his presidency having done little to reform the structure of government created by independent Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, although he had adopted a number of measures reversing some of his predecessor's most destructive and isolationist policies in order to curry international legitimacy and attract foreign investment. In 2008, Turkmenistan under Berdimuhamedov retained many of the distinguishing features of the Niyazov era, including the frequent purging of senior officials, a one-party system, tight control of the state-run mass media and severe restrictions on civil liberties. There was no revival of civil society under the new President, some religious communities continued to experience various forms of harassment, and the vast majority of political prisoners remained behind bars. Significantly, the new leadership did not increase budget transparency and persisted in using state revenue to fund a number of vanity construction projects. Although the December elections to a revamped parliament did not herald genuine reform, they were accompanied by great official fanfare and served as Berdimuhamedov's chief vehicle for demonstrating to the international community that the process of democratization in Turkmenistan was proceeding apace.

Nonetheless, certain key reforms undertaken by the new regime to restore the beleaguered social sector, to improve rural infrastructure and to reform the banking system indicated a clear, albeit partial, break with the former regime. Considerable progress was made in 2008 in phasing out the dual cults of former President Niyazov and his quasi-spiritual guide, the Ruhnama. Changes were made to investment law, and a commercial rate was introduced in order to bridge the massive gap between the black market and official exchange rates. Some superficial but symbolically important reforms included the restoration of the circus and the old Gregorian calendar names for the months of the year and the days of the week, and the abolition of the pseudo-representative body – the national-level Halk Maslakhaty.

National Democratic Governance. As was the case throughout Niyazov's rule, under Berdimuhamedov only the executive branch exercises any real power in practice, despite constitutional stipulations regarding the formal existence of executive, legislative and judicial branches. A new Constitution was formally adopted in Turkmenistan in September 2008, which introduced a number of chiefly cosmetic reforms. After approving the new Constitution, Turkmenistan's highest representative body, the 2,500-member Halk Maslakhaty (People's Council), dissolved itself, delegating its powers to an expanded 125-member parliament. In abolishing the Halk Maslakhaty, the government reverted to having only one legislative body rather than two, although the change did not effect a more equal balance of power among the executive, legislative and judicial branches, since the revamped parliament remains a presidential appendage. The dismantling of Niyazov's personality cult received a considerable impetus during 2008 as the former president's portraits were steadily removed and replaced with those of President Berdimuhamedov in government and public buildings. The gradual process of phasing out the cult of Niyazov's quasi-spiritual guidebook for the nation, the Ruhnama (Book of the Soul), which had been accorded the de facto status of a holy book on a par with the Koran, was also begun in earnest in 2008. Turkmenistan's rating for national democratic governance remains unchanged at 7.00.

Electoral Process. In December 2008, Turkmenistan held elections to fill an enlarged, 125-member parliament under the revised constitution. Although the leadership presented the elections as the centerpiece of its political reform program, Berdimuhamedov in fact chose to eliminate the People's Council and hold new elections to a revamped Mejlis rather than undertake any concrete steps towards the introduction of a multi-party system, such as adopting a law on political parties. According to official government reports, 287 candidates ran for 125 seats, the majority of which represented the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DTP) and the Galkynysh social movement, while 79 candidates were put forward by citizens' initiative groups. The Central Election Commission registered only officially vetted, 'independent' candidates, and the authorities rejected applications from at least two Turkmen dissidents. In contrast to the presidential elections of February 2007, pre-election campaigning was not broadly advertised and did not generate even a modest debate on issues regarded as taboo under Niyazov, such as the state of healthcare and education. Reports by opposition groups noted low voter turnout, and voting irregularities, such as block or 'family' voting and voting without proof of identity. At the end of 2008, no opposition parties or movements were officially registered in Turkmenistan. While multi-candidate, the December elections to the revamped parliament could not be deemed free and fair, given that the minimal media coverage was state-controlled and candidates who were not officially vetted by the government were barred from participation. Turkmenistan's rating for electoral process remains unchanged at 7.00.

Civil Society. In 2008, there was no rebirth of civil society under Berdimuhamedov's rule. Although civil society has never thrived in Turkmenistan, steady repression by government authorities, from 2002 in particular, forced those independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that had managed to gain a foothold in the newly independent country either to dissolve, re-designate themselves as commercial enterprises, or merge with pro-government public associations. No new NGOs were registered in Turkmenistan from 2005 until July 2008, at which time the government reported that it had registered 11 new civic organizations. Although 10 of the 11 newly registered groups were reported to be sponsored by the government, the first community-based NGO in the country, the Ak Bugday Gardener's Association, was also registered. In 2008, Turkmenistan's leadership began to hold a large number of high-profile seminars and workshops in conjunction with international organizations and individual western governments on a variety of democracy and state-building themes, although, as a rule, only vetted ministers, parliamentarians and officials from presidentially controlled institutes were allowed to participate. In the sphere of religious freedom, no fundamental changes have taken place since Berdimuhamedov's ascent to power, and religious activity remains tightly controlled by the state. Turkmenistan's rating for civil society remains unchanged at 7.00.

Independent Media. In 2008, Turkmenistan's media organizations continued to uphold the ideological line of the state, which maintains its control over all forms of state-run mass media through the retention of a single information agency (TDH). President Berdimuhamedov formally lifted the ban on the importation and circulation of all foreign print media, which had been introduced by Niyazov in 2005, but ordinary citizens are still unable to subscribe to foreign newspapers and magazines, and foreign print matter remains generally inaccessible. Internet access increased modestly in 2008, and government-owned Turkmentelecom remained the main provider to the general population. In an important development, in June 2008 Russia's largest mobile phone operator, Mobile TeleSystems, introduced high-speed wireless internet access and WAP services on mobile phones in Turkmenistan, which offered the possibility of a significant expansion of internet access throughout the country and signaled the end to the monopoly held by Turkmentelecom for much of the independence period. Modest improvements in Internet provision were offset by the continued harassment of independent journalists and the inability of foreign journalists to access the country other than for 'showcase' events, such as international gas conferences. Despite modest improvements in Internet access, a substantive improvement in information liberalization is unlikely without changes in censorship policy and the establishment of a rigorous system for the training of journalists. Turkmenistan's rating for independent media remains unchanged at 7.00.

Local Democratic Governance. After coming to power, the Berdimuhamedov leadership announced that it would undertake a US$4 billion plan to develop the country's rural infrastructure. At the end of 2008 most of the money allocated for the program had not been used and the majority of planned construction projects remained unimplemented, partly owing to a reported absence of directed management. Of the reforms undertaken by Berdimuhamedov since he assumed the presidency, those intended to rejuvenate the country's decaying educational system have been perhaps the most significant and far-reaching. In June 2008, the Minister of Education reported that universities would widen their intake by 10 percent in order to generate more professional and specialist workers. Eighteen new areas of study were introduced at universities and institutes in 2008. Additionally, over 2,000 students from Turkmenistan were reported to be studying abroad, primarily in Russia, Turkey, Malaysia and China, and another 7,000 were studying in Kyrgyzstan. While, as of late 2008, the Ruhnama had not been eliminated from the educational curriculum, much less time was devoted to its study. Turkmenistan's rating for local democratic governance remains unchanged at 6.75.

Judicial Framework and Independence. The Office of the Prosecutor General dominates a legal system in which judges and lawyers play a marginal role. Although 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. Arbitrary arrest and detention remain a widespread practice in Turkmenistan, despite laws prohibiting such actions. Authorities have consistently refused to grant the International Committee of the Red Cross unaccompanied access to prisons. In addition to the mass pardoning of prisoners that takes place annually each October, President Berdimuhamedov pledged to release a number of convicts on certain state holidays. However, of the thousands of prisoners amnestied by President Berdimuhamedov since coming to power, less than two dozen were considered political prisoners by international human rights groups. In prisoner amnesties throughout 2008, only one of the country's many known prisoners of conscience was released. Non-Turkmen ethnic minority leaders continue to complain of discrimination, particularly as regards a lack of professional mobility and the de facto ban on all ethnic cultural centers and non-Turkmen media sources (with the exception of two print publications in the Russian language). Turkmenistan's rating for judicial framework and independence remains unchanged at 7.00.

Corruption. As is the case with some other resource-rich countries, the leadership of Turkmenistan is able to sustain its rule through the receipt of hydrocarbon export revenues, which it uses to finance pervasive security services, vanity projects and to secure the support of patronage networks as needed. All major expenditures from the state budget and the conclusion of production-sharing agreements in the oil and gas sector are made by the president and his close circle of advisors. The existence of patronage networks as the basis of power has inevitably given rise to a political culture of bribery, nepotism, and embezzlement. Bribe-taking is particularly prevalent among customs, licensing and social service agencies. In spite of a continued lack of budget transparency under the new leadership, there does appear to be a certain easing of the fiscal budget under Berdimuhamedov, as evidenced by the allocation of funds towards social programs. In 2008 President Berdimuhamedov retained Niyazov's practice of purging officials at regular intervals rather than embarking on structural reform of the political system. Public reprimands, sackings and six-month probation periods, which created a general atmosphere of paralysis, deterred officials from implementing reform. Despite limited evidence that more state funds have been directed to social programs, there is still no budget transparency and it remains unclear whether steps have been taken by the new leadership to introduce the off-budget export revenues that were controlled by former president Niyazov into formal accounting mechanisms; consequently Turkmenistan's rating for corruption remains unchanged at 6.75.

Outlook for 2009. Under its new leadership, Turkmenistan has been in the process of ending its self-imposed isolation by, inter alia, gradually improving Internet access and increasing the number of students studying abroad. Progress is very slow, however, and, at present rates of reform, a decade or more will be required to see substantial changes to the political and cultural fabric of society.

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