Why has Turkmenistan’s succession plan gone sideways?

Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, Turkmenistan's former president (on the left) and his son Serdar Berdymuhamedov, the current president, (on the right) on the inauguration day. Screenshot from the Chronicles of Turkmenistan YouTube channel. Fair use.

On September 19, at the C5+1 platform meeting of the US president Joe Biden with the presidents of the five Central Asian countries, Turkmenistan was represented by its president Serdar Berdymuhamedov. Ten days later, at the meeting of the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz with the Central Asian heads of state, Turkmenistan was represented by the president’s father and former president Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov. His participation was odd given that Berdymukhamedov Sr. is only the Chairman of the Halk Maslahaty, the country’s parliament.

These two events perfectly encapsulate the confusion around Turkmenistan’s leadership and the unfolding messy succession. In March 2022, Berdymuhamedov Jr. won the presidential elections and succeeded his father, who ruled over Turkmenistan between 2006 and 2022. This created a unique succession model in Central Asia and the wider post-Soviet space. Although the presidential power has been handed over from father to son before, there has never been a case when both father and son remained alive and politically active. For example, in 2003, Heydar Aliyev died shortly after handing power to his son and the current president of Azerbaijan Ilkham Aliyev.

Turkmenistan’s succession is under close inspection by its neighboring countries, where political regimes have struggled with power transition. Kyrgyzstan has had three revolutions in the last 30 years. Kazakhstan’s former president Nursultan Nazarbayev failed to retain influence, after losing to his handpicked successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in a power struggle that resulted in the deadliest protests in the country’s history. The most keen observer is Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rahmon, who is rumored to be grooming his son, Rustam, to take over the presidency soon.

Thus, Turkmenistan’s ongoing succession crisis is an opportunity for these regimes to see how a power transition from father to son works in real life and what challenges it may create. The reports suggest that the power transition is far from going smoothly, after what many saw as a bulletproof plan with the longtime dictator appointing an obedient offspring. Exploring reasons behind this unfolding political debacle is important to understanding succession risks in an authoritarian context.

Isolation, natural gas, and dictatorships

Turkmenistan is one of the most isolated countries in the world. In 1991, it became independent after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Until 2006, it was ruled by Saparmurat Niyazov, an eccentric dictator, most famous for building a 12-meter high golden statue of himself worth USD 12 million.

After Niyazov’s death in 2006, Berdymuhamedov Sr. became the president. In the next 15 years of his rule, he built a personality cult of his own. He officially goes by the title “Geroi Arkadag” (Hero Protector), and, in January 2023, the parliament bestowed upon him the title “National Leader.” He routinely appears on TV in scenes where he is shooting, singing, driving, and working out. The latest manifestation of his personality cult is Turkmenistan's first ever smart city named Arkadag.

Here is a YouTube video with TV scenes where Berdymuhamedov Sr. is shooting, singing and working out.

On the international stage, Turkmenistan derives its importance from its vast natural gas reserves, which are estimated as the fifth largest in the world.

An engineered political destiny

Berdymuhamedov Jr.’s impending succession to his father's post became apparent several years before he won the presidential elections. He was groomed to be the next leader in a process that included him being appointed to several diplomatic posts and high-level government roles. Between 2019 and 2022, his positions included being a member of parliament, governor of the strategically important Akhal region, and deputy prime minister. Thus, on February 12, when the Milliy Gengesh, the lower chamber of Turkmenistan’s parliament, announced snap presidential elections, there was no doubt regarding their future winner.

Here is a YouTube video that explains Berdymuhamedov Jr.'s rise to power.

A commonly agreed answer to the question why the succession took place in 2022 is that Berdymuhamedov Sr. wanted to remain alive after it took place and help his son consolidate power, as it was unclear how political and economic elites would react to the new president. For this to happen, he had to transfer power while still in good health, which is reportedly a problem. In an interview with Global Voices, Farid Tukhbatullin, said: “Several sources report that he is not very healthy and that he often travels to Germany or German doctors come to treat him.” Tukhbatullin is the Founder of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and Director of the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, an independent media outlet covering Turkmenistan.

Dualism gone wrong

After the first stage of succession, the elections, things started going sideways for Berdymuhamedov Sr. Less than a year into his son’s presidency he grabbed back power by unifying the two chambers of the parliament into one, turning it into a supra-state body capable of overturning presidential decisions, becoming its chairman and receiving the title “National Leader.” Practical and political reasons stood behind this move.

Practically, the father and the son could not divide the servicе personnel.  Tukhbatullin explained:

When he was president, Berdymuhamedov Sr. had a motorcade of 30–40 cars and a couple of hundred bodyguards. After stepping down, he had 15 people and two cars left. This is not his level. He continued to use the presidential guard and other service personnel. This not only did not please his son, but also created confusion among service personnel. Therefore, the status of the leader of the nation was invented, so he could have a service personnel the size of the president or even larger.

Politically, Berdymuhamedov Jr. did not abide by the power sharing mechanism that left domestic politics to him and foreign policy issues to his father. As the president, Berdymuhamedov Jr. embarked on official visits to China, Qatar, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan and held important negotiations by himself. “Berdymuhamedov Sr. is a narcissist, he faded into the background for a while, and it bothered him. He wanted to become number one again,” noted Tukhbatullin. In what appeared to be a competition, Berdymukhamedov Sr. undertook foreign visits of his own to Russia, Japan, and South Korea in 2022.

Another reason for Berdymuhamedov Sr.'s return to power is intra-family conflict. In January of 2022, Berdymuhamedov Jr. launched attacks against his cousins from his father’s side, forcing them to flee the country. After becoming president, he removed his paternal aunt from the post of the president of the National Red Crescent Society with accusations of corruption.

Tukhbatullin explained that the intra-family conflict intensified once his son became the president and was the ultimate decision maker for a while, leading to Berdymukhamedov Sr.'s decision to return to power. The main victim of this has been the president’s mother, Ogulgerek Berdymuhamedova. Berdymuhamedov Sr.’s comeback to power is linked to his son’s moves against his family members in acts of revenge for the abuse his mother suffered for many years from his father’s side of the family.

“A daughter-in-law in a Turkmen family is practically a servant. All this time she was in second and third roles. Even though she was the president's wife, she never appeared anywhere. Many sources say that Berdymuhamedov Sr. has a mistress. They have an intra-family conflict. The son is on his mother's side,” said Tukhbatullin.

All the available evidence thus far suggests that Berdymuhamedov Jr. will not sit idly by and do whatever his father tells him to do. His father, on the other hand, does not seem ready and willing to operate in the background. It is quite possible that another Central Asian succession model will soon fail.

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