Russia's Back Yard: The Personality Cult and the Gas Poker Game in Turkmenistan - International Reports
Russia's Back Yard: The Personality Cult and the Gas Poker Game in Turkmenistan
The recent dispute over gas between Russia and the Ukraine as well as Turkmenistan’s resignation from the Commonwealth of Independent States showed that the CIS is beginning to disintegrate. The desert state of Turkmenistan, whose president had criticised the organs of the Commonwealth on several previous occasions, now wishes to be nothing more than an associate member of the federation. Moscow’s response was pragmatic: The Kremlin is anxious to replace the CIS with a network of new political and economic relations in which it intends to play the leading role.Turkmenistan occupies a special position among the former Soviet republics in Asia. While president Saparmurat Niyasov intends to reduce Russia’s influence in his country, he is aware of his dependence on Russia’s infrastructure in his efforts to commercializethe enormous reserves of natural gas in his country.Governed according to strict authoritarian principles, Turkmenistan is a country whose society is firmly controlled by Mr Niyasov, who unites virtually all political offices of importance in his person. The Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the country’s only party which evolved from the Turkmenian branch of the former CPSU, never encounters anycompetition in elections, and is ruled by Mr Niyasov in the best Stalinist manner.The president himself is a child of the Soviet Union. An orphan who was brought up by relatives, he joined the communist party in 1962 and went to Leningrad to study. From 1976, he headed the Turkmenian section of the CPSU, and the Council of Ministers of the Turkmenian Socialist Soviet Republic from 1985. Mr Niyasov, to whom liberal socialism isan alien idea, merely changed the name of the party after 1991, leaving its structure intact. Communist ideology was replaced by nationalist propaganda, and the government of the state became a blend of Stalinist dictatorship and oriental despotism. From now on, the head of state, Mr Niyasov, allowed himself to be revered as Turkmenbashi, the leader of the Turkoman people.And indeed, the bizarre personality cult surrounding the president is ubiquitous in the desert country. Halk, Vatan, Turkmenbashi (One nation, one country, one Turkoman leader) – this slogan is familiar to all in the country whose capital, Ashgabat, named allits most important institutions after the ,great Saparmurat Turkmenbashi‘. However, as Mr Niyasov believes himself to be a philosopher and teacher as well, he inflicted the maxims of his life on the Turkoman nation under the title of Ruhnama – the incoherentproduct of a confused mind which, however, claims to lead its readers towards physical, mental, and moral health and is placed side by side with the holy scriptures of all religions in the country itself. Replete with historical falsehoods, the book aims, among other things, to create a national Turkoman identity, celebrating the nation as the navel of the world, as a race superior to all other nations – this, at least, is the message of the book, which shows unmistakable traces of a blood-and-soil ideology.Received with condescension in the west at first, the Ruhnama is now beginning to show its fatal impact. Education in Turkmenistan is in ruins; the Russian language has disappeared from the textbooks, and good teaching material in Turkoman cannot befound. The teachings of humanism have been superseded by the Ruhnama, and ideological indoctrination now replaces education in Turkmenistan.Free and independent media are banished from the realm of the Turkmenbashi, whose control of the information flow is almost perfect. As cable television has been discontinued, Turkmenians without a satellite dish can only choose between suffering the hype surrounding the president or leaving their TV set off. As Avdy Kuliyev, a former minister, put it: ‘Properly speaking, Turkmenistan today is no longer a state; it is Niyasov’s private life.’Refusing to permit any criticism of his rule, the president argues instead that his nation is not mature enough for democracy. In reality, however, fundamental rights are trodden underfoot, and ethnic minorities are discriminated against. Officially, the constitutiongrants religious freedom to all Turkmenians, 90 percent of which profess the Sunni version of Islam. On the other hand, the law on the freedom of conscience and religious organisations adopted in 1997 subjects the members of religious communities to rigid controls and drastically restricts them in the practice of their religion.An attack on his person in November 2002, unsuccessful, amateurishly executed, and never entirely cleared up so far, was used by the president as a pretext for launching a relentless persecution campaign. The show trials staged by the regime and the publication of confessions obviously extracted from the alleged assassins by torture were reminiscent of similar show trials staged by Stalin and did nothing to improve the situation of the Turkmenian opposition.Turkmenistan’s natural-gas deposits are the fourth largest in the world. Nevertheless, having no pipelines of its own, the country finds itself constrained to use the Russian system and sell its oil to the Russian Gazprom group and other customers at prices far below those of the world market. It is said that Mr Niyasov personally profited most from the business deals struck with Russia. The country’s revenues cannot be found, and it is supposed that they are stashed away in the president’s private accounts abroad. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan has been striving for greater independence from Russia. Consequently, most of its agreements on traffic and gas-transport projects were concluded with Iran, the only alternative to Russia at the moment: A joint Turkmenian-Iranian pipeline has been in operation since 1997. A contract with Russia was concluded in 2003 in which Turkmenistan undertook to export ist gas to the neighbouring country for 25 years. At first, the deal was celebrated as a victory in Moscow. However, when Mr Niyasov increased the sales price the next year, a new agreement was needed which occasioned no joy in the Kremlin because it contained Mr Niyasov’s renunciation of the treaty on dual citizenship.Despite his successes, Mr Niyasov endeavours to circumvent Russia in the infrastructure issue. While plans to build a pipeline through Afghanistan only exist on paper so far, a meeting of Turkmenian, Afghan, and Pakistani politicians recently cast the plans for a trans-Afghan pipeline into more concrete shape; construction is scheduled to begin in the near future.Turkmenistan certainly seeks to cooperate with other states in the economic field, but isolation is the order of the day in the political arena. Thus, Mr Niyasov announced his intention to maintain ‘perpetual neutrality’ in all questions of foreign policy, an attitude that was officially recognized even by the United Nations in 1995.The future of the president himself appears shrouded in mystery. While it is true that Mr Niyasov declared his intention to surrender his office in 2009 in an address before the National Council in 2003, it is hardly likely that the Turkmenbashi will give up power in actual fact. Remarkably, Mr Niyasov is anything but unpopular among the Turkmenian people. One of the reasons for this may be that those aged 20 or 30 today have never known any other president, while another may be the fact that the Ruhnama is meanwhile bearing fruit.On the international stage, Mr Niyasov was not taken seriously for a long time. He was regarded as an eccentric with a bizarre personality cult who appeared comical rather than dangerous. Because of the country’s enormous gas deposits and the mystery surrounding the future of its regime, the global community criticized Mr Niyasov’s dictatorship in terms that were fairly restrained for a long time. Should he die, the question of his succession will probably be settled within the party on the Chinese model, particularlyas no so-called crown princes have appeared in public so far.Because of the general lack of a prominent opposition movement, the moderate influence of Islam, and the subordinate role of the military and the secret service, Turkmenistan appeared and still appears a politically stable country. Yet the desert state is one of the key transit countries for the drug traffic, and respect for fundamental rights is anything but assured. As the European Development Bank recently pointed out, Mr Niyasov had better not hope for mitigating circumstances. Which course the future development of Turkmenistan will take, and whether international pressure on president Niyasov will increase, remains to be seen. The country possesses attractive gas deposits, there is no potential threat from nuclear weapons emanating from it, and its geopolitical position vis-à-vis Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan is regarded as valuable. Therefore, Turkmenistan still offers fertile ground fora dictatorship to thrive without much interference.