What If and What If Not (Bringing About Change in Turkmenistan)

July 20 hit by a wave of reports on untimely demise of eccentric Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov. Opposition writer in exile Akmuhammed Velsaparov shared the news on his Youtube channel Erkin Turkmenistan (Free Turkmenistan).[1] Picked up from the little-known Russian political analyst Aslan Rubaev director of the Eurasian Problems Monitoring Center unverified data was rapidly spread further by numerous regional and international media outlets. Although the expert never dealt with Turkmenistan or related issues before and mixed accounts of his actual affiliation [2] many readily believed the story inside and outside the country. Kidney failure cited as the most probable cause of death looked convincing in part as earlier this year several sources already informed of Berdymuhamedov undergoing kidney transplant surgery.[3]

Rumors were denied the following day by the embassies in Russia and Kyrgyzstan.[4] In a Facebook post Aslan Rubaev also apologized for misinforming his readers. Finally press office of Uzbek president Mirziyeev informed that Berdymuhamedov telephoned birthday wishes to his colleague and the next day Turkmen leader was shown by local Altyn Asyr channel dispelling death rumors. These should have been enough to convince the audience in his good health however many social media users expressed doubts the filming was recent and recalled how both Turkmenbashy and Karimov had been kept “alive” until actual leadership transition was completed perceiving a certain regional trend. Later Turkmen celebrities took an aggressive stand towards rumors threatening and shaming those spreading them. Few people have been arrested allegedly for spreading fake news.

Like his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Berdymuhamedov is a very public figure not missing an occasion to boast his artistic and military talents. Local media portrays 62-year old leader as healthy and fit and videos of him make most of the airing time making his absence really unusual. Another obvious reason rumors were widely believed is country’s isolation and oppressive governance, tight control over local media and no access for foreign outlets. Meaning it makes all information coming from Turkmenistan difficult or sometimes impossible to check and verify. In the 2019 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders Turkmenistan rated last out of 180 countries replacing North Korea.[5]

During his reign Berdymuhamedov accumulated absolute power over country’s gas resources by a subsequent set of laws. Getting the sector under his control he also heavily relied on his numerous family and clan members to fill in key positions and concentrated state assets in his hands. This move understandably alienated Turkmen elites. 2016 constitutional amendments increased the term from five to seven years and eliminated the 70-year age limit for candidates allowing incumbent president to serve for life. Until certain moment it seemed Bedymuhamedov saw his grandson Kerimguly as his successor but for several years now his son Serdar became a very active and visible political figure moving from one post to another as many say for getting enough experience for the office. It is difficult to foresee however how smooth and easy this transition will get in case of unexpected president’s demise given clan tensions and growing elites’ frustration.

The country is facing severe economic crisis due to lack of strategic vision and planning, continuous mismanagement of hydrocarbon resources, endemic corruption and nepotism. Distributing the wealth and seizing business to his family Berdymuhamedov had no viable strategy to keep the routes diversification advantage and ended up depending on China as sole hydrocarbon consumer falling short on cash inflow due to infrastructure debts. President and his administration failed to offer policies to diversify economy, build competitive political environment and strong institutions. With hydrocarbon prices plummeting, no cash inflow, hyperinflation and end of subsidies the consequences are tangible and visible. Population suffers from cash and food shortages standing long lines for basic goods. Given that residents cannot get even the cash they earned closed borders only exacerbate the situation. Population uses any opportunity to leave the country to cash the paychecks. Turkmen.news reports that Turkmen citizens travel to Uzbekistan for cash withdrawals and selling basic staff to make their ends meet.[6] Bedymuhamedov’s decision under these conditions to eliminate social benefits and subsidies in 2018 justifying it by non-existent economic development and employment opportunities should have felt like a mockery for ordinary citizens. Thus the reaction of residents and citizens in migration serves as a litmus paper of population’s perception of their leader.

Dead or alive the economic situation and human rights abuse cannot be ignored any longer and whoever comes to power at the moment will get a country on the verge of economic and social collapse and should be ready for a set of measures to get back on track. Diversification is a key to many of the current economic and political challenges faced by the Turkmen administration and they have already resumed contacts with Russia and Iran that could later help build on negotiating power again. Non-renewables should not be the single source of the Turkmen state budget as it keeps it vulnerable to world gas prices and manipulation by big players. Opening borders up and facilitating cross-border trade and entry and exit procedures for both locals and foreigners will do the trick to some extent. It is true that it can strike back in the very beginning as locals who were barred from traveling could migrate in mass fearing this is only a temporary measure. However in the long run this could ease the fate of ordinary people seeking for employment opportunities. Opening borders could also attract tourists from near and far abroad to the “secret country” and more specifically to now all built-up tourist zone – Avaza. This could certainly allow some really needed cash inflow into the country. New or old administration should take the advantage of international community readiness to support the state in strengthening state institutions, capacity-building and democratization process. Uzbekistan is a showcase of how even a promise of reforms can spur international interest and investment in the country.

The Radio Azattyk recently reported that footage of the Turkmen leader broadcasted after death rumors could be filmed earlier this year based on the analysis of Currenttime online segment editor in chief Tolkun Umaraliev. Comparing two videos of May 10 and July 24 he points out that Berdymuhamedov wears the same outfit – very unusual for the fashion-minded president and based on shadows videos were filmed in the same timeframe concluding that it is highly likely that videos were filmed on the same day.[7] As a response Turkmen Altyn Asyr came back with 24-minutes footage of president performing his usual vacation routines from riding a bike to coaching his ministers and finishing writing a book. The accent has been made on president’s signature dated August 4 that seemed an authentic footage. The fiercest defenders of the death version still come up with conspiracy options. Whatever versions afloat everyone is looking forward to the upcoming Caspian Economic Forum in Turkmen Avaza to take place between 11-12 August to confirm or debunk rumors. Either president is busy preparing to surprise his colleagues with another big entrance or his alternates will use the occasion to present themselves. Either scenario has no real chance to beat president’s bicycle tricks.

[1] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGKFsZRXYrU

[2] While his Facebook page states he is chief editor of a news site Polit-sc.ru, media sources cited him as director of the Eurasian Problems Monitoring Center

[3] See: https://echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/2468695-echo/  and https://kaktus.media/doc/394896_smert_prezidenta_tyrkmenistana:_kak_rasprostranialsia_feyk_i_gde_seychas_berdymyhamedov.html

[4] Reports about Turkmen president’s death are hoax, says Turkmen embassy, TASS, July 21, 2019 https://tass.com/politics/1069675

[5] See: https://rsf.org/en/turkmenistan

[6] Turkmen Get By on Piecemeal Sales and Cash Withdrawals in Uzbekistan 31.07.2019 https://en.turkmen.news/spotlight/turkmen-sell-piecemeal-uzbekistan-cash-withdrawals/

[7] See: https://rus.azathabar.com/a/30086972.html

Prepared and written by Svetlana Dzardanova

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