Like father, like son: Turkmenistan’s new president carries on his predecessor’s repressive policies

Ex-president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov seated on a horse while his son Serdar, the current president, holds the reins. A screenshot from the Azatlyk Radiosy YouTube video.

One year after the recent transition of power, Turkmenistan seems to have missed a rare window of opportunity for social and political changes. It may as well be time to give up on hopes of an improved human rights situation in the country.

Political leadership rarely changes in Turkmenistan. There have been only two transitions of power in the last 30 years of its independence. The first one took place in 2006, when the first president Saparmurat Niyazov passed away. Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov succeeded him and ruled until 2022. On March 12, 2022, he handed the presidency over to his son Serdar in snap presidential elections that were neither free nor fair.

In his inauguration speech, Serdar Berdymukhamedov promised: “We will continue to ensure a humane state policy in the field of protecting rights and freedoms.” Although slim, some hope remained that Turkmenistan’s new leader would surpass his father with regards to safeguarding human rights. However, the human rights record remains dismal. In the 2023 Freedom in the World Index, Turkmenistan was ranked in the bottom three, ahead of North Korea and behind Syria and South Sudan.

One of the main reasons for this is the fact Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov remains a highly influential figure, still in charge of the country. In January the country’s parliament voted to reconfirm him as head of the newly transformed People’s Council, the upper chamber of the parliament.

Head of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights Farid Tukhbatullin commented on this via Facebook, saying that “Berdymukhamedov [senior] is already tired of not being number one.”

Что-то старшему Бердымухамедову уже наскучило быть не первым. Решил опять Конституцию поменять. Теперь всем будет…

Posted by Фарид Тухбатуллин on Thursday, January 12, 2023

The latest developments have further undermined the belief that Serdar Berdymukhamedov will seek to break away from the legacy of his father and pursue a more humane state policy.

Long-lasting dictatorships, massive wealth and acute inequality

Turkmenistan is a relatively small Central Asian country with an official population of over six million people. It is relatively unknown to most people as it is one of the most isolated countries in the world. Turkmenistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Its first president Saparmurat Niyazov, an eccentric dictator, ruled until his death in 2006. Outside Turkmenistan, he is most famous for his extreme personality cult, which culminated in the construction of a gold statue of himself worth USD 12 million.

From 2006 until 2022 it was led by Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who continued the authoritarian rule and built a personality cult of his own. He officially goes by the title Geroi Arkadag (Hero Protector), and in January the parliament bestowed upon him the title “National Leader of the Turkmen People.”

Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov routinely appears on TV in scenes where he is shooting, singing and working out.

Serdar Berdymukhamedov came to power amidst regional and global political turmoil. In January 2022, neighbouring Kazakhstan saw a country-wide wave of protests and unrest, which resulted in at least 238 people (mostly civilians) dead and almost 10,000 protesters detained. Turkmenistan has always been notorious for its restriction of the internet, which is ranked slowest in the world. In response to the events in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan’s authorities further restricted internet access in the country; police started randomly checking people’s phones and dispersing even the smallest gatherings of people in the street. One month later, Russia invaded Ukraine, putting all former Soviet republics in a delicate political and economic position. In Turkmenistan, this meant further repression and increased hardship for citizens. Thus, the change of presidency did not result in a change of power or the overall situation in the country.

The authorities heavily censor internet access, use national state-controlled media to churn out government propaganda, and routinely suppress dissent. Journalists, activists and others who collaborate with exile-based media and organisations have suffered harsh punishments. The CIVICUS Monitor, which monitors and assesses the environment for fundamental freedoms around the world, rates the situation in Turkmenistan as “closed,” similar to that in countries such as Belarus, China, North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The repression is so strict that women are instructed what to wear in public.

For its rating on Turkmenistan, CIVICUS relies on the information from the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR).

Turkmenistan’s importance in the region and beyond is conditioned by its vast natural gas reserves, which are the 6th largest in the world. Energy exports continue to provide wealth for Turkmenistan’s small elite. Flashy displays of state wealth are noticeable in the capital Ashgabat, featuring an abundance of white marble and palaces. At the same time, citizens across Turkmenistan struggle to survive due to a deepening economic crisis and lack of access to affordable food items.

Speak up and go to jail

Speaking up against the authorities comes at a high price in Turkmenistan. Any act perceived as dissent by those in power could result in a prison sentence. A case that illustrates this danger is that of Khursanay Ismatullaeva, a paediatric doctor. She was illegally dismissed from her work in 2017 for criticising unethical practices and refusing to participate in state-organised mass events during work time. She took her case to court and filed a series of  petitions with different state bodies. When all her efforts to obtain justice in the country failed, she turned abroad for help.

An exiled news website published her story in late 2020. In July 2021, after her case was discussed in the European Parliament, Ismatullaeva disappeared for almost two weeks after being abducted from her home by police officers. In November 2020, she was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of fraud, forgery and abuse of a dependent person, all fabricated in retaliation for standing up for her rights. After spending more than two years behind bars, Ismatullaeva was released during a mass pardon in December 2022. This recent development was of great relief, although she should never have been imprisoned in the first place.

Others targeted as part of the government’s crackdown on “internal enemies” continue to linger behind bars. Dozens have disappeared within Turkmenistan’s prison system after being convicted in politically motivated flawed trials. One of those who is currently imprisoned is Nurgeldy Khalykov. He is serving a four-year sentence following a conviction believed to have been handed down because of his contacts and cooperation with an exiled independent media organisation. Human rights NGOs have repeatedly called for Khalykov’s release.

Even those who speak up about the human rights situation in Turkmenistan from outside the country are at risk. In a particularly disturbing trend, the authorities often put pressure on critics based abroad through their loved ones inside the country, with relatives of exiled activists being subjected to intimidation and harassment. This trend is also continuing despite the promised changes by the new president.

European countries should continue to push for concrete improvements in human rights protection in Turkmenistan and for the release of those locked up on unfair grounds. They should use any leverage they have to make Turkmenistan's  government deliver on its proclaimed human rights commitments. Serdar Berdymukhamedov should live up to the promises he gave in his inauguration speech.

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