Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has made a major stride toward being enshrined sultan-for-life after the country’s token lawmakers approved major changes to the constitution.
Parliament and the Council of Elders at a joint session on September 14 waved through an increase of presidential terms from five to seven years and agreed to scrap the 70-year age limit for pretenders to the highest office in the land.
These fixes ensure that Berdymukhamedov, 59, will be able to remain in situ for as long as he pleases.
Speaking at the Council of Elders assembly, a gathering of town seniors from all across the country, Berdymukhamedov claimed that the amendments had been adopted at the request of the people.
The new constitution was “drafted by all our people on the basis of multiple suggestions from the country’s citizens, political parties, representatives of civic associations, state bodies, scientific organizations, lawyers and international experts,” he said.
Signing off on the new constitution, Berdymukhamedov said the revised document would give the country a new thrust of energy.
Berdymukhamedov, a dentist by training, came to power in late 2006 following the sudden death of Saparmurat Niyazov, who granted himself lifelong leader status in 1999. He was reelected to a five-year term with 97 percent of the vote in 2012.
The next presidential elections will take place in 2017 and involve participation of three political parties — the Democratic Party, the Agrarian Party, and the Industrialists and Entrepreneurs Party. All those parties are transparently bogus entities clumsily designed to convey the notion of a plurality that barely anybody accepts at face value.
All the same, Berdymukhamedov opined that the spirit of competition between parties would create a fresh mood in the country.
“I want more people to take part in the elections for the head of state,” he said. “This will ensure highly competitive elections, which will in turn ensure the further development of a political culture among all of society and in every citizen, enhancing the unity of the people and power, and create social cohesion along democratic principles.”
The flowery language is remarkable if only for the fact that while Berdymukhamedov nominally believes there are few more things more virtuous than democracy, in practice he is ruling over a deepening autocratic system mired in nebulous practices and sinking into potentially irreparable economic stagnation.
The cult of personality scaffold going up around the president becomes more absurd by the day and is threatening to equal the excesses of the late president Niyazov in its eccentricity.
Niyazov and Berdymukhamedov after him have managed to rare feat of squandering their country’s gargantuan wealth on a series of costly and utterly useless white elephants — the most egregious of which is the Awaza tourist complex on the Caspian Sea, which stringent visa regulations make it hard for all but the most determined foreign visitor to see. The most recent addition to the Awaza complex — a $100 million, palatial five-star hotel in the shape of a cruise ship — was unveiled last week by Berdymukhamedov amid great pomp, as the AFP reported.
Even amid such extravagance, the talk of belt-tightening continues apace. Some participants of the Council of Elders once again raised the suggestion of scrapping the generous state subsidies that underpin the social contract ensuring quiescence among the population.
The government has been going forward and backward on this one. The Council of Elders made the same suggestion — to abolish the free supply of electricity, cooking gas and water to the country’s households — at a meeting last September. It looked as though the proposal might go through, only for the authorities to seemingly lose their nerve.
Berdymukhamedov has also backed the idea. Not because Turkmenistan is suffering under the weight of overwhelming reliance on energy exports of decreasing value, massive debts to China, nonexistent foreign investment, and dismal state services across the board, from health to education and everything in between, of course. Instead, the president sees the stripping away of welfare as an essential precursor to a transition toward a market economy, which he claims to be pursuing.
Once again at this Council of Elders, Berdymukhamedov commented approvingly on the welfare suggestions but suggested officials study the matter further, perhaps out of concern that he could be too closely identified with what will doubtless be an unpopular policy when it is inevitably introduced.
Berdymukhamedov is like a dog with a bone these days with the benefits of the free market, a concept over which he appears to have as firm an understanding as he does over “democracy.”
It is this kind of cognitive confusion that leads the president to declare that Turkmenistan is pursuing both the development of a free market as well as a vigorous program of import substitution, a much-loved policy in isolated economic basket cases. Ostensibly, this twin approach is intended to diversify the economy and create employment in the productive sector, but since the appearance is that many enterprises tasked with implementing the import substitution agenda benefit from generous state support, not to speak of a virtual monopoly, the project threatens to end up as nothing more than another economic dead end.