After 15 years in power, wielding authoritarian policies that have kept Turkmenistan isolated and at the bottom of human rights rankings, Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has decided to step down and transfer his duties to his son Serdar. A snap presidential election will be held on March 12 and Serdar has already been nominated as the ruling party’s candidate.
The timing comes as a surprise. Berdimuhamedov has spent the last several years grooming Serdar for a dynastic succession, promoting him up through government ranks to increasingly high-level positions, including deputy prime minister and chairman of the Supreme Control Chamber, which controls government spending. But he had two years left in his current term and could have run for reelection. Moreover, Berdimuhamedov has spent years building his own cult of personality similar to that of his predecessor and Turkmenistan’s only other president since independence, Saparmurat Niyazov.
Decision-making processes in Turkmenistan are notoriously opaque and it is unclear why Berdimuhamedov decided to move ahead now with his succession plan. Possible reasons include his health, as he has suffered from diabetes for years, or being rattled by the recent unrest in Kazakhstan, which began with popular protests over growing economic and social disparities. Although protests are rare in Turkmenistan, the country has been gripped by a severe economic crisis for several years, and there are signs that popular dissatisfaction is growing.
Serdar’s victory in the election is beyond doubt. Turkmenistan does not have a genuinely multiparty system and has never held an election that met international standards. Since independence, both presidents have won with over 95 percent votes, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has assessed that the country lacks the prerequisites for genuine democratic processes.
The real question is to what extent Serdar’s coming to power could open the door for any political, economic or social reforms, and whether the international community, including the United States, could seize the moment to strengthen engagement with Turkmenistan and promote reform and development.
Serdar is likely to maintain his father’s policies and unchallenged power. He is already known for the authoritarian way he exercised his authority in his multiple positions within the Turkmen administration. Moreover, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov almost certainly will keep hold of the levers of power, much as his counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan did after resigning in 2019. There are already reports that Berdimuhamedov will remain in his positions as speaker of the Senate and as chairman of the Security Council. This will limit Serdar’s room to initiate any sweeping changes that run counter to his father’s views.
However, despite their commonalities, there may be enough difference between father and son to open a sliver of opportunity for change. Serdar not only has more and broader government experience than his father did when he came to power, but he has also spent significant time outside of Turkmenistan, including in Moscow, where he attended the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy and was attached to the Turkmen Embassy, and in Geneva, where he attended the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He is also of a different generation, one used to the greater openness of the digital age. When announcing that he would step aside, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov stressed that it was necessary to turn over power to “young leaders … in accordance with the high requirements of modernity.”
Serdar likely will not be in a position to challenge the basic parameters of his predecessors’ foreign policy, such as the country’s official status of neutrality or the role of China through its investments in the gas sector. His time in Moscow may have resulted in stronger ties to the Russian government. Nevertheless, his experience abroad could make him more open to foreign partners, including in the West, and his need to address at least some of the serious economic and social issues facing the country could lead him to focus on developing foreign economic relations, especially by increasing cooperation with foreign countries and investors.
The situation in the country is dire. Hydrocarbon accounts for nine-tenths of Turkmenistan’s export earnings, and the 2014 fall in world hydrocarbon prices considerably reduced the state budget. This resulted in weakening the social welfare system, as well as the already frail education and health systems, and caused serious food insecurity, leading to rationing in the state stores on which a majority of the impoverished population depends. This dire economic situation has also resulted in massive unemployment, now estimated at 60 percent, especially among young people and in rural areas. The lack of opportunities has led nearly half of the population to emigrate, a number almost unprecedented in a country during peacetime, leaving only some 2.8 million people out of a previously estimated population of 6 million.
Greater openness could allow U.S. companies to engage in various sectors and contribute to the diversification of Turkmenistan’s economy, which is currently almost exclusively driven by the extractive sector. An increased presence of U.S. and other Western companies could also bring more social corporate engagement; vocational training could be particularly useful given the poor education system. An even modest opening could allow for some increased investment in other sectors, for example education, health, and environment.
But this increased engagement must come with greater efforts to promote democratic reform, however small to begin with, and respect for human rights. This could be done bilaterally or though international organizations such as the OSCE, which already has a small presence on the ground. A good place to start would be to have Serdar begin to provide information on those who have disappeared in the country’s prison system for more than 20 years, starting with two former foreign ministers: Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdiev. This would be the best way that Serdar could signal his intention to the international community that his government is ready to strengthen relations with the West.
The United States and others must be careful not to fall into the trap of having investments and even well-meant engagement misused by the kleptocratic system of corruption created by the first two presidents of Turkmenistan to the benefit of their families and other elites. Serdar himself has been part of this system, and with his father behind him, likely will continue it. Instead, the United States and other like-minded countries should focus on investing in sectors that benefit the general population more than the political regime and its elites.
Of course, without significant reform of the authoritarian nature of the government, U.S. room for maneuver and the impact of international engagement is likely to remain modest. It may turn out that Serdar is just like his father, and nothing will change in Turkmenistan. But even if the chances of making a difference are slim, they are worth taking. The people of Turkmenistan deserve it.