There’s a Stalinist-era anecdote that can apply to Turkmenistan today. The story goes that during the collectivization drive in the 1930s, an apparatchik in the Far East sent a telegram to his superiors: “The collective farms have been created; dispatch the collective farmers.”
Such a cart-before-horse tendency is seen in Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s effort to conjure a competitive political system. Turkmenistan, of course, is ranked by numerous watchdog groups as one of the world’s most repressive states. But lately Berdymukhamedov has sought to change Turkmenistan’s image by pledging to establish new political parties. To show the world he means what he says, state-controlled media carried reports on March 26 that government officials are hard at work laying the foundations for two economic-sector-specific political parties – one to represent farmers, the other entrepreneurs.
A sampling of opinion among the hard-pressed people of Turkmenistan, commenting invariably in hushed tones, suggests that the government initiative is falling flat. Instead of stoking hope about a better future, it is fostering a sense of disdain and despair. Many see the move as a clumsy PR stunt that will have no impact on their day-to-day lives.
Highlighting what people in Ashgabat who are following events describe as a farce is the fact that the creation of parties based along professional lines violates Turkmenistan’s law on political parties, which was adopted earlier this year. The second clause of Article 8 of the law states: “Establishing parties based on regions and professional activities is prohibited.”
The fact that a state official, namely Deputy Prime Minister Sapardyrdy Toyliyev, appears to be overseeing the effort to create political parties marks another clear violation of Turkmen law. The second clause of Article 9 of the law on political parties prohibits the “involvement of government and local self-government entities, as well as government officials” in the formation of such entities. Constitutionally, only an organizing committee, or a constituent congress, rather than a government official, can initiate and handle a party’s registration, including the preparation of its charter.
In comments made March 26, Berdymukhamedov indicated that the pending political parties would be part of a larger effort to reinvigorate society. “Developing a multi-party system is … important from the point of large-scale reforms of government, renovation of political mechanisms, and the reexamination of the role and place of social and civil institutions in the life of the nation,” the semi-official Turkmenistan.ru news website quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying.
Talk about reexamining the place of social and civil institutions does little to get civil society proponents inside the country excited. Most believe that the climate of fear that currently pervades in Turkmenistan, a climate that thoroughly stifles individual liberties, will not lift anytime soon.
Some observers in Ashgabat believe Berdymukhamedov is merely attempting to make his authoritarian regime more efficient. The envisioned parties, they contend, would function as wholly owned subsidiaries of Berdymukhamedov’s main political entity, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. These new movements would work specifically on behalf of the state to try to breathe life into two moribund economic sectors.
Other observers say the central purpose of the initiative is to provide Turkmenistan a greater level of plausible deniability on the international stage concerning its democratization record. The country has long been a target of criticism from international human rights groups. And earlier in March, Turkmen officials were grilled by members of the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee.
Turkmenistan’s reputation as a rights abuser has hampered efforts to expand economic ties with Western states, especially members of the European Union. Artificially inseminated political pluralism in Turkmenistan could thus create the appearance that Ashgabat is interested in reforming, thereby easing efforts to expand westward trade, in particular energy exports.
Serdar Aytakov is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Turkmen affairs.