In a report for Chatham House, one author aptly described Turkmenistan with the following: “If a hypothetical Organization of Authoritarian States were to be established, Turkmenistan would no doubt be among its founding members.” Even by the standards of Central Asia, Turkmenistan is bizarrely autocratic and secretive, seemingly stuck in a Soviet time-warp from before the days of glasnost and perestroika.
Recently however, there has been the tiniest hint of reform. The next presidential election in Turkmenistan has been scheduled for February 12, 2017. That in itself means little. The outcome, of course, is already known in advance – incumbent Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov will win a crushing victory. What’s different this time is that the election will include two more parties – the Agrarian Party and the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. Naturally, this prompts the following query: why would an all-powerful state feel the urge to allow more parties? And could this signal a tentative opening up? Might there be some chance of a genuine multi-party experiment?
The short answer and long answer are both “no.”
True, this news does suggest that in Turkmenistan not everything stays completely the same, but the evidence indicates such a move is nothing more than a tactical maneuver designed to strengthen the current government.
The newly permitted parties have names that suggest polar opposite ideologies: one rural and traditional, with a suspicion of urban capital, and the other presumably more sympathetic to a market economy. This is quite deliberate. It will allow Berdimuhamedov to present himself as the reasonable alternative to two extremes, invoking the old political trope of the sensible, pragmatic middle ground. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has traditionally benefited from a similar arrangement. Between the nostalgic Communists and the fanatical nationalists of the Liberal Democratic Party, United Russia can present itself, aided by a largely compliant media, as the best option. Any genuine electoral threat would have little freedom to campaign without obstruction. This manufactured plurality ensured Putin’s grip on power only grew tighter.
With that in mind, we can probably assume that the Agrarians and the Industrialists of Turkmenistan are phony parties, created to enhance Berdimuhamedov’s standing and shore up the personality cult. Sure, there may be some orchestrated tension, but just for appearances sake. In Central Asia this is far from unknown. In Tajikistan for example, supposed government opponents have behaved with such exaggerated subservience toward President Emomali Rahmon that it simply must be concluded they are on the state payroll. Most incredulously of all, during the 2013 presidential election, the Socialist Party challenger Abdulhalim Ghaffarov barely presented his own case, instead praising Rahmon for his record in office. Candidates from the Communist and Economic Reform parties were equally as servile. Unsurprisingly, Oynihol Bobonazarova, a secular, female, human rights activist who garnered the endorsement of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) – a sincere opposition group – was barred from running.
The previous presidential election in Turkmenistan saw similar behavior. At this stage, faux democracy was less advanced – all candidates were members of the Democratic Party. But the effect was essentially the same, with everyone deferring to Berdimuhamedov. With fake opposition parties Turkmenistan is becoming more ambitious with its experiments in virtual politics. That also reveals an insecurity at the heart of the regime, that they feel the need to at least foster the illusion of greater choice.
Berdimuhamedov has good reason to be fearful. Natural gas, the only significant export, has fallen in price. Furthermore, Turkmenistan no longer supplies any of it to Russia, leaving China as the most important market. Economic growth has declined and is projected to keep doing so, forcing the state to tighten its purse-strings. Public employees now complain of going months without pay. In short, many citizens will feel resentful and the regime must secure itself. Faking a party system is the state propaganda machine trying its very hardest. If the government felt better placed to ride out these economic troubles, there would be no need for such desperate measures.
Compared to other nations in Central Asia, Turkmenistan seems like a model of relative stability. Its politics has lacked the occasional anarchy witnessed in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, and it has nothing to fear from Uzbek irredentism. In terms of foreign policy, it has held on determinedly to a doctrine of permanent neutrality, ably assisted by a capacity to provide gas to the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians. Turkmenistan has avoided being dominated by Russia in the manner of Tajikistan, its neutrality creating a certain aloofness. Vast holdings in natural gas offer a degree of leverage.
It remains only an associate member of the Commonwealth of Independent States and has not joined the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In essence, Turkmenistan doggedly resists what it sees as too much Russian interference in the post-Soviet space. This has caused frustration on the part of Moscow – especially in terms of security. For example, Turkmenistan’s insistence that its border with Afghanistan is stable has been met with disbelief from Russian officials.
The upcoming theatrics in the next election do not just allude to underlying economic frailties. Beyond them is the prospect of permanent change in Turkmenistan’s foreign policy – with economic weakness, combined with a long-held suspicion of Moscow, drawing the country ever closer to China. A few months ago the Chinese foreign minister and his Turkmen counterpart held a meeting in Ashgabat, pledging to enhance bilateral ties, and China has long since supplanted Russia as the main purchaser of natural gas. Ongoing dependence on China is no secret.
The state is not blind to this and fears being too reliant on anyone, thus explaining continued attempts to diversify its gas export base. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline could meet this need, though its affordability can be questioned. The bulk of the financing has been mandated to the state gas company, Turkmengaz. A few years ago that may not have been a problem, but now? In the current economy they might struggle to find the money, and that is assuming the project actually stays on budget. And as the proposed pipeline runs through Afghanistan, which opens up a potential security headache. Turkmenistan’s reluctance to embrace outside investment could scupper progress as well. Private companies will balk at providing financial backing if the Turkmenistan government remains opposed to foreign entities gaining access to its gas fields.
The idea that the government can successfully expand its export base, without major hiccups, ought to be treated with serious reservation. For the next few years at least, Ashgabat will find itself pulled ever more gradually into Beijing’s orbit. The odd phony election won’t make a difference.
Henry James is a Risk Graduate of Durham University.