Freedom in the World
Turkmenistan held local elections in 2010, but as with all previous polls, the process and results were orchestrated by the authorities. The ruling Democratic Party remained the only registered political party, and the chairman of the Central Election Commission called for President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to keep his post for life. Also during the year, the government continued to cultivate foreign markets and export routes for its abundant natural gas reserves.
Turkmenistan gained formal independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Saparmurat Niyazov, the former head of the Turkmenistan Communist Party, had been the sole candidate in elections to the newly created post of president in October 1990. He won reelection in 1992 with a reported 99.5 percent of the vote. A 1994 referendum extended his term until 2002. In the December 1994 elections to the Mejlis (National Assembly), only Niyazov’s Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT), the former Communist Party, was permitted to field candidates.
In the 1999 Mejlis elections, every candidate was selected by the government and virtually all were members of the DPT. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), citing numerous procedural inadequacies, refused to send even a limited assessment mission. The Mejlisunanimously voted in late December to make Niyazov president for life.
In 2002, Niyazov survived an alleged assassination attempt in Ashgabat. The incident sparked a crackdown on the opposition and perceived critics of the regime, drawing condemnation from foreign governments and international organizations. Mejlis elections in 2004 followed the established pattern of executive control.
Niyazov’s rule was marked by frequent government reshuffles, the gutting of formal institutions, the muzzling of media, and an elaborate personality cult. The Ruhnama, a rambling collection of quasi-historical and philosophical writings attributed to Niyazov, became the core of educational curriculums. The limited available information about the true state of affairs in Turkmenistan pointed to crises in health care, education, and agriculture.
Niyazov’s death in December 2006 from an apparent heart attack was followed by the rapid and seemingly well-orchestrated ascent of Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to the position of acting president. The succession appeared to circumvent constitutional norms, as criminal charges were brought against Mejlisspeaker Ovezgeldy Atayev, who would have become acting president according to the constitution. Berdymukhammedov subsequently cemented his formal status, easily besting five obscure ruling-party candidates in a February 2007 presidential election that was not monitored by any international observers.
Berdymukhammedov gradually removed high-ranking Niyazov loyalists and took steps to phase out Niyazov’s cult of personality. In August 2008, the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council), the country’s supreme representative body, voted without public debate to approve a new constitution, effectively dissolving itself and dispersing its powers to the Mejlis and the president. Elections for an expanded Mejlis were held in December 2008, but as with previous votes, all of the nearly 300 candidates were preapproved by the presidential administration.
Under Berdymukhammedov, Turkmenistan’s foreign policy became less isolationist, though it remained focused on natural gas exports. China became Turkmenistan’s leading export market following the completion of a pipeline that is slated to reach full capacity by 2012. Russia faded as a business partner after an April 2009 pipeline explosion that Turkmenistan blamed on Moscow. In January 2010, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Turkmenistan, which had recently opened a second gas pipeline to his country. Berdymukhammedov made a rare foreign visit to France in February, though it produced no significant agreements.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Turkmenistan is not an electoral democracy. The late president Saparmurat Niyazov wielded near-absolute power until his death. None of the country’s elections—including the February 2007 vote that gave Niyazov’s successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, a five-year term in office—have been free or fair.
Under a new constitution approved in 2008, the Mejlis (National Assembly) became the sole legislative body and expanded from 50 to 125 seats, with members serving five-year terms. The new charter also gave citizens the right to form political parties, though only one party, the ruling DPT, is officially registered. Berdymukhammedov made several references to the possibility of forming new political parties in 2010, but no actual changes took place. Local elections held in July 2009 and December 2010 mimicked the country’s previous stage-managed polls amid reports of low voter turnout.
In November 2010, the chairman of the Central Election Commission called for Berdymukhammedov to keep his post for life, raising the possibility of a return to a Niyazov-style lifetime presidency.
Corruption is widespread, with public officials often forced to bribe their way into their positions. Allocation of state profits from gas exports remains opaque. Turkmenistan was ranked 172 out of 178countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index. The government’s lack of transparency affects a variety of public services, including medical care. An April 2010 report by Doctors Without Borders alleged that Turkmen authorities are concealing “a dangerous public health situation, in which government officials actively deny the prevalence of infectious disease, medical data is systemically manipulated, and international standards and protocols are rarely applied in practice.”
Freedom of the press is severely restricted by the government, which controls all broadcast and print media. Berdymukhammedov announced plans in July 2010 to create privately owned newspapers, but no action followed. Internet access has expanded somewhat since Niyazov’s death, although the sole service provider, run by the government, reportedly blocks undesirable websites. The authorities remained hostile to foreign news services, particularly Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), during 2010. RFE/RL correspondents Osman Hallyev and Dovletmurat Yazguliev were threatened in January, and RFE/RL journalist Allamourad Rakhimov, a Turkmenistan native based in Prague, was refused entry to the country at Ashgabat’s airport despite having a valid visa. Unanswered questions still surround the 2006 death in custody of RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova.
The government restricts freedom of religion, and independent groups face persecution. Practicing an unregistered religion remains illegal, with violators subject to fines. Islamic cleric Shiri Geldimuradov reportedly died in prison under unclear circumstances following his April 2010 arrest.
The government places significant restrictions on academic freedom, and the Ruhnama is still usedin the school system, although its prominence appears to be declining gradually.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but these rights are severely restricted in practice. Sporadic protests, usually focused on social issues, have taken place. While not technically illegal, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are tightly controlled, and Turkmenistan has no civil society sector to speak of.
The government-controlled Colleagues Union is the only central trade union permitted. There are no legal guarantees protecting workers’ rights to form unions and strike, though the constitution does not specifically prohibit such activities. Strikes in Turkmenistan are extremely rare.
The judicial system is subservient to the president, who appoints and removes judges without legislative review. The authorities frequently deny rights of due process, including public trials and access to defense attorneys. In May 2010, the parliament approved a new criminal code that reduced the maximum prison sentence from 25 to 15 years.
Prisons suffer from overcrowding and inadequate nutrition and medical care, and international organizations are not permitted to visit. The government has released some two dozen political prisoners since Niyazov’s death, but without a coordinated review. Nothing is known about the condition of jailed former foreign ministers Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdyev. Rights activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, convicted on dubious espionage charges in 2006, remained behind bars in 2010. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated in 2010 that their continued detention violated international law. Turkmen territory is used to smuggle drugs from neighboring Afghanistan.
Employment and educational opportunities for ethnic minorities are limited by the government’s promotion of Turkmen national identity, though some of the more onerous restrictions on the educational and cultural institutions of ethnic minorities have been eased since Niyazov’s death.
Freedom of movement is restricted, with a reported blacklist preventing some individuals from leaving the country. In 2010, some students who had been prevented from studying abroad in 2009 were allowed to return to educational institutions in Bulgaria and Kyrgyzstan.
A Soviet-style command economy and widespread corruption diminish equality of opportunity, though some changes are taking place. The new constitution establishes the right to private property, but the deeply flawed judiciary provides little protection to businesses and individuals. In December 2010, Turkmen authorities suspended the license of Russian-owned mobile-telephone operator MTS-Turkmenistan, leaving many customers without service.
Traditional social and religious norms, inadequate education, and poor economic conditions limit professional opportunities for women, and anecdotal reports suggest that domestic violence is common.
Status Change Explanation: