Political Rights Score: 7 *
Civil Liberties Score: 7 *
Status: Not Free
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov appeared more interested in diversifying his country's natural gas exports in 2009 than in political and economic reforms at home. Progress away from the repressive legacy of former president Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006, remained slow, producing token improvements rather than systemic change.
Turkmenistan gained formal independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Saparmurat Niyazov, the former head of the Turkmenistan Communist Party, had been the sole candidate in elections to the newly created post of president in October 1990. He won reelection in 1992 with a reported 99.5 percent of the vote. A 1994 referendum extended his term until 2002. In the December 1994 elections to the Mejlis (National Assembly), only Niyazov's Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT), the former Communist Party, was permitted to field candidates.
In the 1999 Mejlis elections, every candidate was selected by the government and virtually all were members of the DPT. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), citing numerous procedural inadequacies, refused to send even a limited assessment mission. The Mejlis unanimously voted in late December to make Niyazov president for life.
In November 2002, Niyazov survived an alleged assassination attempt in Ashgabat. The incident sparked a widespread crackdown on the opposition and perceived critics of the regime, drawing condemnation from foreign governments and international organizations. Mejlis elections in 2004 followed the established pattern of executive control.
Niyazov's rule was marked by frequent government reshuffles, the gutting of formal institutions, the muzzling of media, and an elaborate personality cult. The Ruhnama, a rambling collection of quasi-historical and philosophical writings attributed to Niyazov, became the core of educational curriculums. Limited information about the true state of affairs in Turkmenistan pointed to crises in health care, education, and agriculture.
Niyazov's death in December 2006 from an apparent heart attack was followed by the rapid and seemingly well-orchestrated ascent of Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to the position of acting president. The succession appeared to circumvent constitutional norms, as criminal charges were brought against Mejlis speaker Ovezgeldy Atayev, who would have become acting president according to the constitution. Berdymukhammedov subsequently cemented his formal status, easily besting five obscure ruling-party candidates in a February 2007 presidential election that was not monitored by any international observers.
Berdymukhammedov gradually removed high-ranking Niyazov loyalists, with the resignation of Defense Minister Agageldy Mamedgeldiyev in January 2009 apparently ending the process. He also took steps to phase out Niyazov's cult of personality, ordering the removal of public portraits and a reduced emphasis on the Ruhnama. In August 2008, the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council), formally the country's supreme representative body, voted without public debate to approve a new constitution, effectively dissolving itself and dispersing its powers to the Mejlis and the president. Elections for an expanded Mejlis were held in December 2008, but as with previous votes, all of the nearly 300 candidates were preapproved by the presidential administration.
Berdymukhammedov changed Niyazov's isolationist foreign policy, parlaying Turkmenistan's natural gas reserves into broader foreign ties. In 2009, gas exports to Russia halted – and relations cooled – after an April pipeline explosion that Turkmenistan blamed on Russia. Meanwhile, a $7 billion pipeline to China opened in December, ending Russia's near-monopoly on gas exports from Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan also held talks with the United States on possible logistical support for NATO operations in Afghanistan, and relations with the Europe Union warmed amid ongoing discussions of potential energy exports.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Turkmenistan is not an electoral democracy. The late president Saparmurat Niyazov wielded near-absolute power until his death. None of the country's elections – including the February 2007 vote that gave Niyazov's successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, a five-year term in office – have been free or fair.
The Halk Maslahaty, a legislative body of 2,500 elected and appointed members, approved a new constitution in August 2008, dissolving itself and shifting its legislative powers to the Mejlis (National Assembly). That body expanded from 50 to 125 seats in the December 2008 elections, with members serving five-year terms. The new constitution also gives citizens the right to form political parties, although only one party, the ruling DPT, is officially registered at present. Local council elections held in July 2009 mimicked previous elections amid reports of low turnout.
Corruption is widespread, with public officials often forced to bribe their way into their positions. State profits from gas exports remain opaque. Turkmenistan was ranked 168 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech and the press is severely restricted by the government, which controls all broadcast and print media. Internet access has expanded somewhat since Niyazov's death, although the sole service provider, run by the government, reportedly blocks undesirable websites. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) correspondents Osman Hallyev and Dovletmurat Yazguliev were threatened in January 2009. Unanswered questions still surround the death in custody of RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova in 2006.
The government restricts freedom of religion, and independent groups face persecution. Practicing an unregistered religion remains illegal, with violators subject to fines. In a small opening, a European representative of the Seventh Day Adventist Church was allowed into the country in October 2009, and a Church spokesperson pointed to limited improvements in religious freedom.
The government places significant restrictions on academic freedom, and the Ruhnama is still used in the school system, although its prominence appears to be declining gradually. A concerted reform effort is needed to undo the damage of the Niyazov years. The restoration of the Academy of Sciences in 2009 was a small but welcome step.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but these rights are severely restricted in practice. Sporadic protests, usually focused on social issues, have taken place; in July 2009, demonstrators in the port of Turkmenbashi protested water shortages. While not technically illegal, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are tightly controlled, and Turkmenistan has no civil society sector to speak of. Environmentalist Andrei Zatoka received a five-year prison term for "hooliganism" in October 2009, although the sentence was replaced with a fine in November. Doctors Without Borders, the last international humanitarian NGO active in Turkmenistan, withdrew from the country in December 2009 due to a lack of cooperation from the Turkmen government. The organization warned of a "health crisis looming in Turkmenistan."
The government-controlled Colleagues Union is the only central trade union permitted. There are no legal guarantees for workers to form unions or strike, though the constitution does not specifically prohibit these rights. Strikes in Turkmenistan are extremely rare.
The judicial system is subservient to the president, who appoints and removes judges without legislative review. The authorities frequently deny rights of due process, including public trials and access to defense attorneys. The new constitution bars judges and prosecutors from membership in political parties.
Prisons suffer from overcrowding and inadequate nutrition and medical care, and international organizations are not permitted to visit. The government has released some two dozen political prisoners since Niyazov's death, but without a coordinated review. The release of accused dissident Muhammetguly Aymuradov after 14 years in prison in May 2009 was typical in this regard. Nothing is known about the condition of jailed former foreign ministers Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdyev. Rights activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, convicted on dubious espionage charges in 2006, remained behind bars in 2009.
Turkmenistan is a smuggling corridor for drugs from neighboring Afghanistan, with Niyazov-era reports suggesting the involvement of high-level officials in the narcotics trade as well as a growing problem of drug addiction within Turkmenistan.
Employment and educational opportunities for ethnic minorities are limited by the government's promotion of Turkmen national identity, although some of the more onerous restrictions on the educational and cultural institutions of ethnic minorities have been eased since Niyazov's death.
Freedom of movement is restricted, with a reported blacklist preventing some individuals from leaving the country. Approximately 50 students were unable to secure permits to study abroad at U.S.-funded institutions in 2009.
A Soviet-style command economy and widespread corruption diminish equality of opportunity, although some changes are taking place. The new constitution establishes the right to private property, but it remains unclear how this will be implemented. The government unified the commercial and official exchange rates in May 2008. A World Bank official noted in March 2009 that the country was moving cautiously toward market reforms, with plans to privatize 70 percent of the economy.
Traditional social and religious norms and a lack of employment prospects limit professional opportunities for women, and anecdotal reports suggest that domestic violence is common.
*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.
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