Foreign Policy Blogs

Turkmenistan: Lost in the Pageant, part 1 of 2

Saparmurat Niyazov, Leader and Showman, Turkmenbashi the Great and President for Life of Turkmenistan, passed away on December 21, 2006.  Turkmenistan's constitutionally-mandated succession was bypassed in favor of the Acting Presidency of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the Minister of Health and Pharmaceutical Industries.  The legal successor, Ovezgeldy Atayev, the Speaker and Deputy Chairman of the 2,500-member legislature (known as the Khalk Maslahaty or People's Council) was arrested on criminal charges and relieved of his post.  Azerbaijan's APA press reported that Atayev's arrest occurred a mere two hours after the announcement of Niyazov's death.  Berdymukhamedov signed an order dismissing Atayev for "committing a deed incompatible with the high position entrusted him.'

Character assassination and criminal accusations almost always accompanied being sacked in Turkmenistan under Turkmenbashi.  It served to whitewash, however thinly, Niyazov's omni-balancing against the too-competent or too-connected of Turkmenistan's public servants.The charges, noted at Eurasianet, were for:

abuse of office to protect his relatives' illegal activity, the purchase of a number of expensive apartments in Ashgabat, and the violation of citizens' rights . . . . the prosecutor cited a case in which Atayev opposed an inter-tribal marriage between his son and a girl whom he allegedly drove to attempt suicide by drug overdose; Atayev allegedly changed the girl's medical records from drug overdose to "epileptic seizures." The parliament gave unanimous consent to the arrest and prosecution. . .

In a second step toward legitimizing Berdymukhammedov eventual succession, the Halk Maslahaty revised the constitution in regard to qualifications for executive post, making them conformable to Berdymukhamedov age and residency.  The Halk Maslahaty completed the third legitimizing step by drafting candidates to run against the acting incumbent.  The world pageant began, starting with the spectacle of Niyazov's public funeral.

Turkmenistan: Lost in the Pageant, part 1 of 2As certain proof that hope springs eternal, most world media, commentators, and students of Central Asia began speculating upon changes that might take place with the advent of elections.  We could hope that Turkmenistan's citizenry could at least get an idea of democratic choice from looking at billboards containing the names of six possible presidential candidates.

A change in leadership would inevitably lead to new diplomatic relations.  Of course, regime change can also lead to revolt and anarchy, fluctuations in Central Asian/Caucasian international crime, and/or a wave of out-migration to Turkmenistan's neighbors.  So overall, the stability of the regime change seemed like a good place to start.  Stable transition meant that matters could not be any worse than they were under Niyazov; by extension, they might even improve.  Attention shifted toward the exciting optimism of possibility and the charade of elections.  And, as it has so many times before in regard to Turkmenistan, attention shifted away from the violation of human rights that allowed this exciting charade to be enacted.

No one expected a truly legitimate election, but campaign promises such as domestic access to the Internet, more comprehensive schooling, and better health care brought forward issues that long have been dangerous to discuss in Turkmenistani public life.

On February 11, 2007, the fifty-day election season was over.  Mr. Berdymukhammedov could remove the "Acting" from his presidential title.  Berdymukhamedov was invested with office and kissed the Turkmen flag. The inaugural ceremony was attended by diplomats and officials from the international community, including the President of Gazprom, Russia's gas transit monopoly.  The congratulatory hand-shaking followed, as well as one-on-one meetings between the new President and his Guests. 

In the meantime, Atayev was still stuck in some Ashgabat dungeon.

Photos: AP, via VOA; The Guardian