Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov – Turkmenistan’s car-racing, horse-riding, operation-performing, book-publishing and singing-songwriting president – clearly likes to put on a show.
But few spectacles would seem as pointless as the upcoming presidential election that would extend Berdymukhamedov’s time in office. After all, Berdymukhamedov’s regime is widely considered one of the most repressive on earth. On the surface, his power appears so absolute that he has been able to turn groveling by bureaucrats into a new form of performance art.
All is not well in Berdymukhamedov’s world, however. What watchers of the region describe as the sham vote coming up on February 12 is masking some worrying and unpleasant realities for the government.
“The election takes place at a time of an unprecedented economic crisis. The regime's failure to acknowledge this crisis while staging the election is exactly what makes the vote distinctive — another step towards the collapse of the state,” Luca Anceschi, a lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow, told EurasiaNet.org.
Turkmenistan’s level of isolation is such that it is difficult to make precise evaluations about how badly the economy has been hit by the falling global prices for energy and, more recently, the loss of two important buyers of natural gas exports — Russia and Iran.
Even the International Monetary Fund, which tends to accept much of Ashgabat’s official data at face value in its official reports, returned some sobering assessments in December.
“Hydrocarbon prices remain low and trading partner growth is muted. As a result of these external factors, Turkmenistan’s overall economic growth has slowed down,” the IMF said in a statement following a visit to the country by one of its missions.
State television had to admit as much in early February when it announced that the economic growth rate slowed down to 6.2 percent in 2016, from 6.5 percent the previous year. Such boasts are considered broadly unreliable and the real scale of the slowdown is almost certainly much greater.
“The severity of the economic crisis is incredible. There are food shortages and the government reportedly banned private fishing. We know that Central Asia's population tends to be resilient, but Turkmenistan is fast approaching the point of no return. It is hard to imagine a prosperous future for a gas state receiving little to no revenues for its energy exports,” Anceschi said.
Berdymukhamedov has spent his time during the ostensible election campaign avoiding all references to the crisis. Instead, he has stuck to his trademark public-relations stunts.
A recent one that earned him much coverage in the Russian-language press, as well as in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, was a musical performance in front of gas-sector workers. As a state television report late last month showed, the workers first staged their own sing-song on a woefully out-of-tune guitar. But the president later took over the show, singing a ditty of his own composition, and strumming along on a now-perfectly tuned instrument as the workers cheerfully clapped along.
And there was more.
“Participants in this event were surprised to learn that the head of state was preparing to make a gift to women for International Women’s Day [on March 8] by writing a few new songs,” the state news agency reported.
Such actions are all part of a well-established pattern of myth-making. In the early years of his rule, Berdymukhamedov, who came to power in 2006, was routinely depicted in action poses, such as riding a horse, or winning car races. The intent was in part to strike a contrast with the indulgent image exuded by his erratic predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, who supposedly died of heart failure in December 2006. In a demonstration of his hands-on skills, Berdymukhamedov in 2009 also reportedly performed an operation to remove a tumor from behind a patient’s ear.
Again trying to burnish his benevolent image, state media in late January carried reports of Berdymukhamedov visiting the Ahal region to hand out gifts to locals, including television sets. While such stunts are not officially recognized as campaigning, the timing is clearly significant.
While the sheer pervasiveness of the police state means that no one will openly grumble, some media outlets, in particular Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Turkmenistan service, Radio Azatlyk, have managed to document the consequences of the economic downturn.
Basic groceries like cooking oil and sugar have become hard to find in many shops, including in the capital. And scarcity has driven up the prices of what is available, like bread and meat.
This has prompted authorities in recent days to take more robust action to contain prices, according to a Radio Azatlyk report on February 6.
“Already for several days in a row, workers from the tax service, the city administration and trading organizations have been going around markets, forcing traders to sell their wares at set and lower prices,” one anonymous market trader at an Ashgabat bazaar told Radio Azatlyk.
Shortages of goods and hard cash have prompted the authorities to think of ever more draconian mechanisms to keep information from leaking out. Internet providers appear to be implementing steps to prevent the proper functioning of VPNs, which enable Internet users in repressive nations to circumvent blocks on certain websites.
And the few reporters who have been willing to risk doing their job have been targeted for criminal prosecutions.
Independent reporter Khudayberdy Allashov, for example, was detained together with his wife and mother by police in the Dashoguz region on December 3 on suspicion of possessing chewing tobacco — an illegal offense in Turkmenistan. It has been alleged Allashov was later tortured and forced to confess to possessing 11 kilograms of chewing tobacco. Nothing has been heard of the reporter, whose work focused on food shortages among other things, for more than two months.
As befits a spectacle, authorities are seeking to create the illusion of a competitive vote by allowing, for the first time, the inclusion of representatives from non-government parties among the nine candidates. Given the circumstances, it is unlikely the outcome will be much different from the 2012 vote, in which Berdymukhamedov won 97 percent of the vote.
“Turkmenistan has never held a free and fair election and this one is no exception,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Genuine elections are impossible where authorities maintain tight control over all aspects of public life.”