Why Might Berdymukhammedov Want to Reform Turkmenistan and Can the U.S. Help?
Does the front runner in Turkmenistan’s presidential elections really want to change the country?
In the last week, several articles have emerged in sources as well known as the New York Times and Businessweek highlighting the seemingly progressive election platform of the front runner in the election to succeed Turkmenbashi as the second president of independent Turkmenistan - Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. In a speech to potential voters, Berdymukhammedov reportedly made a significant number of campaign promises including the following:
1.) To continue the political program of Saparmurat Turkmenbashy
2.) To reform the agricultural and the oil and gas sectors
3.) To provide all citizens with easy and cheap access to the Internet (Turkmenbashi had maintained relatively tight control of the internet)
4.) To make water, salt and gas almost free (as opposed to completely, as was the case under Turkmenbashi)
5.) To reform the pension system and raise student stipends and social security payments.
6.) To open new schools and universities and to provide Turkmen youth with opportunities to study abroad in the USA, Japan, Germany, France, UK, China, and elsewhere. (Turkmenbashi had ensured that diplomas obtained outside Turkmenistan were not recognized in the country)
7.) To increase secondary education to 10 years and University education to 5 years (Turkmenbashi had decreased the years of education)
8.) To increase the quality of Turkmen education writ large so that a Turkmenistan education will be recognized outside the country. (Turkmenbashi had begun an educational program largely based on his own book, Rukhnama)
9.) To support entrepreneurship and private business. (Turkmenbashi had generally inhibited private business, beyond small-scale retail)
10.) To improve medical care by sending doctors abroad for exposure to new methods. (It was generally difficult for Turkmen citizens to get exit visas under Turkmenbashi)
11.) To begin the privatization of houses and land and allow people to obtain loans for the building of homes. (Privatization had been virtually non-existent under Turkmenbashi)
With the exception of point one (which seems to contradict the other promises), these seemingly modest goals are fairly radical in the context of Turkmenistan, which has been one of the most closed states in the world for the last decade. Optimism about reforms, of course, should be cautious, especially given that the country remains very closed and controlled at the moment and Berdymukhammedov has still said nothing about the scores of political prisoners in the country, the liberalization of the media, or allowing the political opposition in exile to return to the country. Furthermore, as acting president and front-runner presidential candidate, Berdymukhammedov appears to be in control of what promises to be a non-election election in February in which he will undoubtedly be elected without transparent, independent, or stable electoral institutions. Still, one cannot help but think that Berdymukhammedov might genuinely be serious about reforming Turkmenistan, at least to some degree. And, while foreign media have generally characterized his calls for reforms as “surprising,” he really has little choice but to start the country onto a new path. Consider the following for example:
1) Turkmenbashi’s successor needs engagement from the west, and an agenda of reform may be the only way to obtain that in a significant way. While Russia’s role in a new Turkmenistan is likely to be significant, those in power in the country also do not wish to be beholden to Russia, especially in terms of energy markets (and even more so given Russia’s behavior around its recent gas disputes with Belarus, which is its supposed closest ally). In the past, the country has held Russia (and every country in the world) at arms lengths by Turkmenbashi changing his mind constantly and keeping all external forces off balance by what at least appeared to be the whims of an unstable megalomaniac. Any successor to Turkmenbashi will have to adopt a different strategy for maintaining a healthy distance from Russia. If Berdymukhammedov is watching his neighbors, he knows that reaching out to the west for assistance on reform is one way to do that.
2) While all indications suggest that Berdymukhammedov has a lock on the upcoming February election, he would still need to deal with an assortment of internal political forces afterwards. These include the military and other security agencies as well as the various regional power groups in the country. The authors at Ferghana.ru have been one of the only internet sources reporting on the regional/clan dimension of succession in Turkmenistan. While they may be a bit alarmist about these internal forces’ ability to immediately create discord and they cloak regional patron-client networks in “exotic” clan language, the people at Ferghana.ru are correct to point out that these factors will be of longer term concern to Berdymukhammedov if he indeed becomes president. In this context, it will be difficult for Berdymukhammedov to immediately control the country without providing real benefits to people and without garnishing international support. The reforms he has mentioned could do both.
3) Perhaps most importantly Turkmenbashi’s bizarre neo-soviet economic policies have created a hidden crisis in the country that makes the situation akin to that faced by Mr. Gorbachev when he inherited the leadership of the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s. While the system continues to hobble along, experts have noted over the last several years that Turkmenbashi was gradually finding excuses to cut social welfare projects, education, health programs, etc. because the country was running out of money. As somebody working in the health sector, Berdymukhammedov is likely more aware of these problems than are many. Essentially, Turkmenbashi’s successor must find ways to liberalize the economy in order to avoid a considerable crisis. Beginning economic reform, of course, is also a pandora’s box that could lead the country into instability, and Berdymukhammedov may also understand this and knows he will require international support if he is to even consider opening up the box.
For all of these reasons, one can assume that Berdymukhammedov’s election promises cannot all be “smoke and mirrors.” This does not mean that the man will usher in a new age of “democracy” in Turkmenistan, but it may mean that he is at least willing to engage western development models and open up his country to the world. Furthermore, since the election promises do appear to be at least partially broadcast for western ears, it is important that the U.S. reacts to them, but also that it does so methodically and realistically, but without undue compromise. The U.S. should make every effort to engage the emerging leadership of a new Turkmenistan now. It must get to know its goals and worries better to determine if Turkmenistan is really interested in heading down a path towards reform. At the same time, the degree of U.S. Engagement should be tempered by a better understanding of the country’s new leadership. If the country’s goal is akin to the “managed democracy” so widespread throughout the former Soviet Union, U.S. assistance will have limited impact. If the country is willing to try and resolve its many problems through real moves towards accountable governance and respect for human rights (even gradually), the U.S. must be ready to engage much more seriously. To do that, the U.S. also has to be ready with money for an assistance program should the opportunity for serious engagement arise. And, perhaps most importantly, the U.S. government must continue to push the new Turkmenistan leadership (even if initially behind close doors) on the question of political prisoners still serving time. The new government's position on the prisoners of Turkmenbashi's regime may be the true litmus test of its intentions.