Azhdar Kurtov, President, Moscow Public Law Research Center (Moscow, Russia)
Turkmenistan is a unique state not only in Central Asia, but also in the whole post-Soviet space. At the present stage of development, its uniqueness depends on two main factors. First, on its huge hydrocarbon reserves. In per capita terms, they are comparable to those of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. And second, on the political regime of personal power that has taken shape in the republic under President Saparmurat Niyazov and whose essential characteristics enable us to rank it among the regimes of the totalitarian type. None of the other post-Soviet regimes, which are various combinations of authoritarian government, have reached such a degree of absolute power and self-sufficient will of the head of state as one finds in Turkmenistan.
In our opinion, the main feature that aligns this regime with totalitarianism is not the poor development of private enterprise, the government’s constant interference in the business process, the one-party system with a single political organization (the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan) or the use of repression against any manifestations of disagreement with the president’s line. What is totalitarian here is, first and foremost, the ideological practice of imposing on society a single system of views formulated in Niyazov’s works, including his book Rukhnama (Book of the Soul). The Turkmen state system thereby seeks to establish total control over the life of society in general and of each individual in particular.1
This is a special kind of ideology, a set of ideas substantiating and legitimizing the incumbent president’s right to pursue his own policy. The ideology proposed by S. Niyazov lays claim to coverage of all spheres of life, and also to being the absolute embodiment of ultimate truth, which is why it is thrust upon the population as compulsory for all. Niyazov’s works take pride of place in school textbooks and higher education curricula, and even enrollment at colleges and universities largely depends on personal interviews with candidates for admission on the subject of Rukhnama. The monopoly on political and economic power is supplemented with a monopoly on information circulating in the country. Characteristically, S. Niyazov interprets democracy not as implementation of the people’s will, but as concern for the public good in the understanding of “Turkmenbashi,” the sole leader of the nation (“serdar”).
In recent years, the United Nations has adopted a number of resolutions condemning the human rights situation in Turkmenistan. In November 2005, yet another such resolution was approved by the Third Committee of the U.N. General Assembly, which deals with social affairs. Seventy U.N. members voted in favor of that document, 38 against, and 58 abstained.2
Nevertheless, Niyazov’s rule cannot be characterized as sheer willfulness, a description often given to it by the Turkmen opposition outside the republic. The president is able to make skilful use of the country’s natural resources, just as to frame his foreign policy so that it would not jeopardize his personal power but would, on the contrary, serve as an additional resource for strengthening this power.
Turkmenistan entered the year 2005 without any significant economic or political difficulties. According to the country’s official statistics, GDP in 2004 grew by 21%, with production totaling $19 billion. The sharp increase in world prices for hydrocarbons was a great boon to the national economy. This was coupled with an increase in oil and gas production in the republic: in 2004, it produced 10.1 million tons of oil (an all-time high) and 58 billion cubic meters of natural gas. One should note, however, that both these figures are significantly lower than provided by the Strategy of Socioeconomic Transformations in Turkmenistan for the Period Until 2010. This strategy stipulates, among other things, a transition to market relations for enterprises in the oil and gas industry, with annual rates of growth in this industry averaging at least 18%. By 2005, oil production was to have reached 28 million tons, and natural gas production, 85 billion cubic meters.
Despite this shortfall, the republic gained new opportunities to increase its exports. The volume of foreign trade exceeded $7 billion. Most of the export earnings came from supplies of natural gas; there was also a steady increase in exports of electric power to Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan. This was accompanied by the continued construction of numerous facilities, including the transportation infrastructure (roads and railroads within the republic), irrigation facilities (dams, canals, water reservoirs), industrial enterprises, housing and administrative-cultural buildings. There was a buildup of capacity for the production of oil and gas, and also for their processing, including at two refineries.
Of essential importance was the phased change in pricing policy for natural gas, the country’s main export product. Over the past year, natural gas prices rose from $44 to $65 per 1,000 cubic meters.3 This was achieved through the efforts of the country’s president and diplomats at numerous meetings with representatives of foreign states and companies. In our opinion, with this aim in view the republic’s leadership successfully used, among other things, the factor of projects for the construction of new pipelines from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan and China. A point to note is that S. Niyazov himself left the republic only on one occasion: to attend the Moscow celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. All other negotiations he preferred to conduct in Ashghabad in an attempt to demonstrate his dominant and independent position in international relations. Another important indicator of this kind was Turkmenistan’s application for a change of its status in the CIS (from full to associated membership).
The difficulties caused by the country’s inland location and the lack of real alternative options for the delivery of hydrocarbon materials to potential buyers are being gradually overcome, notably owing to the development of the petrochemical industry. Gasoline and lubricating oils produced from a ton of Turkmen crude oil can be sold at a much higher price than the crude oil itself (which sells for about $400 per ton). The same is true of natural gas: a ton of polypropylene costs $1,200, and even a ton of liquefied gas, in contrast to natural gas, costs around $500.
Turkmenistan has 52 trading partners for exports and 82 for imports. Natural gas constitutes over 45% of Turkmen exports. In 2005, three-quarters of it went to Ukraine, 10% to Iran and over 7% to Russia. Among Ashghabad’s international contacts in the past year, special note should be taken of its strengthening economic ties with China.
The growing export earnings from hydrocarbon materials and their derivatives (the trade surplus for 2005 exceeded $1.1 billion) enable the republic’s government to continue subsidizing the social sphere. The state annually supplies the population free of charge with 4 billion cubic meters of gas and 2 billion kWh of electricity. Utility payments and public transport fares are very low. New apartments are purchased by city dwellers on credit (repayable over 15 years).
Last year the country harvested a bumper crop of grain: 3.212 million tons. Although this figure is less than the projected 3.5 million tons, it can fully meet domestic demand. The cotton crop also fell short of the target figure of 2 million tons. The sheep population is 19.9 million, and the cow population, 2.2 million. S. Niyazov claims that investments in the republic’s economy in the years of independence have totaled $65 billion, and that $39 billion of these have already been utilized.
Today the country has 2.4 million hectares of irrigated cropland, and by 2009 the government is planning to increase this figure to 4 million hectares (upon the completion of the Turkmen Lake, whose construction costs, according to official data, are to amount to $15 billion). It is also planned to introduce drip irrigation in agriculture.
In analyzing all these achievements, we should make allowance for the above-mentioned government monopoly on information. There are big doubts about official statistical data. The republic’s authorities deliberately understate the corresponding indicators for the Soviet period and overstate current results. Thus, at the 16th Session of Khalk Maslakhaty (People’s Council) in October 2005, Niyazov assured the gathering that annual per capita income in the republic in the days of the U.S.S.R. was only $7, whereas today it has risen to $7,500. However, both these figures are inconsistent with the facts, and this is confirmed, in particular, by authoritative international organizations. Moreover, Niyazov pays no attention to the obvious inconsistencies in the data he himself cites. In the same speech, the head of state noted that in 1991 (the last year of the USSR’s existence) the republic produced 2.5 million tons of oil (he preferred not to mention the roughly 80 billion cubic meters of natural gas produced at that time, because this figure has not been achieved to date). Elementary calculations show that annual income at that time could not have amounted to $7 per capita.
The depth of market transformations is insignificant as well. Thus, only 11,140 persons are employed in the private sector. Of these, only 4,158 persons have their own enterprises.
Positive changes in the political sphere are even less pronounced. Legislative reforms, including the adoption of a new wording of the country’s Constitution, have not led to any fundamental changes either in the structure or in the content of the existing model of government. However, S. Niyazov once again assured the public that the presidential election in the country would eventually take place on a competitive basis. But the central event of the past year—the 16th Session of Khalk Maslakhaty, the republic’s supreme representative body—showed that practical policy is still in the hands of a single person, whereas all other bodies are necessary for its “warm approval by the whole people.”
Regular personnel reshuffles remain standard practice. Nevertheless, it is obvious that Niyazov (regardless of his repressive methods) has been unable to curb corruption among officials to any serious degree. In 2005, for example, a number of major abuses were exposed within the system of administration of the fuel and energy complex.
As regards religion, the authorities’ attitude to it is well illustrated by a decree adopted at the 16th Session of Khalk Maslakhaty, On Perpetuating the Turkmenbashi Mosque of Spirituality as the Basis of the National Spirit and on Providing It with Permanent Government Support. This mosque—the largest one in Central Asia—was built not in the capital or some other relatively large city or in a place famed for some noteworthy event in the history of Islam. It appeared in Niyazov’s home village of Kipchak. The very name of the mosque and some elements of its interior decoration (quotations from Niyazov’s book Rukhnama displayed on its walls4) are clearly at variance with traditional Islamic doctrine: instead of embodying the religious cult essence of this edifice, they eulogize the personality of the head of state. In the above-mentioned decree, government interference in the sphere of religion may be found, in particular, in the provisions of Clause 4, under which the government is to approve the structure and number of staff for this mosque, and also the monthly salary of its chief imam.
To sum up, one can predict that Turkmenistan’s leadership will continue on its present course without aiming at any fundamental reforms in the economic or political, let alone the ideological sphere.
1 It is no accident that the adjective “totalitario” means “comprising the whole.” Back to text
2 Out of 12 CIS member states, the Niyazov regime was condemned only by Moldova. Russia abstained and Ukraine avoided the voting. Back to text
3 The latter price was only announced at the end of the year as taking effect for gas supplies to Russia from 1 January, 2006. Back to text
4 It is believed in Turkmenistan that criticism of these innovations by the former chief mufti of the republic was the reason for his removal from office and criminal prosecution. Back to text