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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turkmenistan and Turkmenbashism

Several years ago, I was attending Tajik peace negotiations as an expert on human rights, and one of the rounds took place in Ashgabat. In my first days of communicating with Turkmen Foreign Ministry officials, I could not understand the all-encompassing love for Turkmenistan's president, Saparmurat Niyazov. On the lapel of every diplomat's and clerk's jacket was fastened a pin with Turkmenbashi's profile on it. After a while, I noticed that these pins were not all the same -- they differed in the quality of the metal from which they were made. A Turkmen government official explained to me that you do not have to ask someone in the Turkmen corridors of power what his position is or where he stands in the hierarchy of presidential courtiers -- all you have to do is look at his pin and the metal from which it is made: If it is gold, then he must be a minister or deputy prime minister; silver is for a deputy minister; and so on, right down to the aluminum pins worn by clerks.

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It seems that there are not many experts who can explain the Turkmenbashi regime -- in particular Turkmenistan's place in the world, and its role in the geopolitics of Central Asia (and, more broadly, from the Persian Gulf to the Hindu Kush). Turkmenistan's official neutrality was something that Niyazov needed for domestic consumption, in order to convince the people of his peaceableness. And in fact he did indeed maintain this neutrality until recently. Turkmenistan has not participated in a single armed conflict and has not directly supported any military operation. The Taliban had an official representation open in Ashgabat from 1996, and on the streets of the Turkmen capital one could see exotic, bearded men in Afghan clothing and turbans. However, immediately after the commencement of military operations in Afghanistan by the Western coalition, Turkmenistan just as quietly switched to supporting the war against its recent allies.

Ashgabat occupies a similarly curious position within the executive structures of the CIS. Although a full member, Turkmenistan has refused to sign roughly half the intergovernmental agreements, and those that it has signed it has not implemented. Last year, in Vienna, I heard an official from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe saying Turkmenistan had a very good chance of being the first country to be kicked out of the organization. In contrast to Moscow, which pays no attention to the lack of freedoms and the numerous human rights violations, the OSCE continually criticizes Ashgabat for the absence of free speech, religious freedom and political pluralism. Russia's Foreign Ministry, strangely, didn't even pay any attention to the standoff between Turkmenbashi and Turkmenistan's Russian community, which has declared it is forming an opposition movement. It seems it is easier for Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to defend Vasily Kononov, the NKVD officer in Latvia, than the ethnic Russian population in Turkmenistan, which lives in worse economic and political conditions than ethnic Russians in the Baltics.

However, after Sept. 11 the attitude toward Turkmenistan has changed. Western countries do not have any military units based in the country, but Ashgabat has not remotely opposed the changes in Afghanistan. Its primary interest is in reviving the project to build a gas pipeline across Afghanistan to Pakistan -- and it doesn't seem too bothered who is running the country.

Turkmenbashi is a wealthy man and he does not try to conceal the fact, putting his collection of rings on public display, which, according to wagging tongues, is just a small part of the jewelry that the former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan brought to Ashgabat as payment for Turkmen gas. The number of monuments and place names changed in his honor outstrip the glorification attained during the lifetime of any other dictator. In addition to the hundreds of new place names, schools, kindergartens, universities, stadiums, streets and squares, bank notes and airport, a Turkmen calendar has now been created in which January has been replaced with the month of "Turkmenbashi."

The most recent changes in sociopolitical life have occurred at a time when the new Turkmen opposition is declaring its aspirations to assume power with increasing frequency. Almost every month, it is announced that another former minister, ambassador, or high-ranking official has joined the ranks of the opposition. However, it would appear that Turkmenbashi pays no attention to this group of former comrades-in-arms that has united behind Boris Shikhmuradov. These former members of the Turkmen government were just a few years ago helping to build and entrench the authoritarian regime of Turkmenbashi. Shikhmuradov, who was for many years foreign minister and first deputy prime minister, was himself responsible for handling the dictator's external relations, tending to his every whim, while simultaneously destroying the shoots of a democratic opposition.

At the start of the 1990s, with the tacit consent of Shikhmuradov and other former Turkmenbashi loyalists (now calling themselves the new opposition), the Agzybirlik political movement was destroyed and "dissidents" were thrown in prison.

Turkmens call the new opposition "the oligarchic opposition." In principle, there can be no other kind of opposition in Central Asia, insofar as there are no traditions of democratic political culture and no dissident tradition, which often served as a catalyst for political activity. The new Turkmen opposition has no possibility to exercise influence over the internal political situation, and the web site funded by Shikhmuradov can only be read by Turkmens outside the country.

Now as to why Turkmenistan is given a free hand to do as it pleases and a country such as Iraq is not. There are many things that Ashgabat and Baghdad have in common: strategic energy reserves, a single-party system (in Turkmenistan it is called the Democratic Party), a leader who is cowardly in foreign policy matters, while being a complete dictator domestically, and the absence of a proper opposition. What is boils down to is geopolitics: Iraq has all of the distinction of being at the center of attention, while not every politician can even find Turkmenistan on the map. Also Turkmenbashi has not been selling weapons to "unacceptable" regimes (with the exception of selling petrol and electricity to the Taliban).

Why is Russia so unconcerned by the perversions of a former Communist Party First Secretary of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Turkmenistan? I think there are two answers, one economic, the other political. The first concerns the unrelenting attempts to persuade Turkmenbashi to sell gas on Gazprom's terms via Russia's gas pipeline system. The second has to be taken in the context of post-Soviet political intrigue: Would Alexander Lukashenko, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Heidar Aliyev and Vladimir Putin not want to have the same concentration of individualized power? Of course they would. They just didn't move sufficiently fast.

The Russian Foreign Ministry's taste in foreign policy dishes is messed up -- putting economic interests before political and humanitarian ones. Igor Ivanov with a tremor in his voice denounces Latvia for its tough position toward the ethnic Russian population. At the same time he embraces new feudal lords, for whom ethnic Russians at home are superfluous people, who do not wish to learn the local language or culture. Even Dmitry Rogozin, chairman of the State Duma foreign policy committee and the contemporary Robin Hood of foreign policy, does not have the strength to denounce Turkmenbashism. Gazprom wouldn't stand for it.

Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.