What would it mean if Turkmenistan’s president could only garner the votes of 85 percent of his flock? That support for his gas-subsidized welfare and international neutrality was waning? Or that Middle East dissent could be spilling over to this vast desert of stability? Or that the populace doubts the greatness of his Era of Great Revival?
Or none of those things. Building a truly unassailable cult of personality requires an ever-ascending process of glorification and affirmation. For two decades of independence, this has been the only politics Turkmenistan has ever known.
Another presidential election has passed in Turkmenistan, with another triumphant victory for the incumbent, in this case, Gurbanguly “The Protector” Berdymukhamedov, who won over 97 percent of the vote on February 12. The only question for some observers was whether a more reasonable victory margin was in the cards this year, at least as a gesture to apologists for Turkmenistan’s supposed progress toward democracy.
Berdymukhamedov’s victory with a turnout of over 96 percent still does not quite reach the near-perfect results his predecessor garnered. But give it time.
As is customary in Turkmenistan, music poured forth from several polling stations in Ashgabat as dance troupes did their bit, perhaps even upping the tempo a little to compensate for the unusual, subfreezing temperatures.
Also outside, stalls did a brisk trade selling sugary soft drinks, buns, pies, and the traditional Turkmen deep-fried sweet "peshme" snack. Girls in national costumes also stood at the entrances to the voting halls holding trays with free flat churek bread and peshme.
First-time voters and the over-70s were, as usual, given presents: cutlery sets, stationery. Perhaps most usefully, women were given lengths of fabric to turn into clothes.
What they weren't giving away this time around were copies of the Rukhnama, the spiritual guide and historical treatise written by the country's first president (for that is how he's known locally), Saparmurat Niyazov. For the sake of balance, they weren't giving away books by the current president, either, though he's certainly written a few since coming to power upon Niyazov’s death in late 2006.
And yet something was not quite right, at least in the capital. Compared with 2007, when hordes turned up to cast their ballot at opening time, there was less activity this time around.
It is hard to say what might have kept people away: the lack of interest, the cold weather, opposition to the government?
Four-fifths of Turkmenistan is covered by the Karakum Desert and snow is a rare sight, but President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is still determined to see his nation embrace ice hockey.
In a meeting this week of Cabinet officials and provincial governors, the president ordered a nationwide ice hockey competition be held on April 7. Figure skating demonstrations should also be held on the side, he said.
True enough, it may be freezing right now, but temperatures will likely have returned to a comfortably warm glow by April.
Organizing the competition should not be too hard in the capital, Ashgabat, which has two ice sports complexes – a 10,000-seater and smaller venue for 1,000 spectators. In recent years, Ashgabat has also been endowed with a winter sports school, complete with four youth hockey teams and around 100 figure skaters.
But what about the regions, where there isn’t even the smallest ice hockey venue?
Disregarding that minor inconvenience, officials rushed out to fulfill the president’s demands. The government’s Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper excitedly announced the news in a February 8 article headlined “Turkmenistan Shall Have Winter Sports!”
The article states in no uncertain terms that the “national ice hockey team will take part in major international competitions, including world championships.” And “before too long, ice hockey and figure skating champions will bring back medals and glory to independent and neutral Turkmenistan.”
Turkmenistan may already have a reputation for the surreal, but as presidential elections approach, one of the last remaining government critics is being harassed by someone with an occultist fantasy and/or a fondness for Francis Ford Coppola.
Shortly after speaking with Radio Liberty’s Turkmen service about the February 12 elections -- which feature seven docile challengers to the certain winner, incumbent President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov -- Natalia Shabunts reportedly found a severed sheep head on the doorstep of her home in Ashgabat. Earlier in the week, someone drew a cross out of white powder on her doormat.
Activists have no doubt the bizarre measures are intended to frighten Shabunts.
“Both incidents appear aimed at intimidating Shabunts, who has not refrained from criticizing the Turkmen authorities on democracy and human rights issues in her own name, despite the risks it entails for a Turkmenistan-based activist,” said a statement emailed February 3 by the Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights, citing a report by the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR).
TIHR’s news service, Chronicles of Turkmenistan, says it has no doubt the security services wish to silence Shabunts because she tarnishes the country’s image. And for the sake of this goal, joked the author, “one of them sacrificed his own head.”
It may be freezing all over Europe, but please also spare a thought for sun-loving Turkmenistan.
One day after an unusually heavy snowfall, temperatures plummeted February 3 to a rare -8 degrees Celsius in the capital, Ashgabat. Forecasters are predicting the mercury will drop a few more notches overnight.
In the northern town of Dashoguz, meteorological authorities say the temperature could sink as low as -21 degrees Celsius.
In these kinds of situations, many Ashgabat residents are saved by their electric radiators and heaters run on gas, which has been provided for free since President Saparmurat Niyazov was in power.
Even so, houses in Turkmenistan are poorly designed to cope with such cold snaps.
That fact was amply highlighted during a working tour of Ashgabat on February 2 by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who dropped in on a high-rise block in its final stages of construction.
State television showed the president acquainting himself with living conditions for prospective dwellers in that haughty and imperious style now familiar to many Internet users thanks to a video leaked on YouTube.
Berdymukhamedov was not happy: “The quality of work here does not meet the high demands required in new construction, especially that which is designated for social purposes.”
Illustrating his observation, he pointed to a leaking ceiling in the apartment (also shown on television), which Berdymukhamedov said demonstrated “an unacceptable approach to work.”
As to the design of the apartment, he continued, this left much to be desired.
Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov likes to remind his countrymen that the development of sport is a national priority. You might think then that sports would be comprehensively covered in the servile local press, and yet there was barely any news of the country's performance at the football Commonwealth of Independent States Cup that ended January 29 in St. Petersburg, Russia.
That may, alas, have been due to the fact Turkmenistan placed last out of the 12 national teams taking part.
The 20th edition of the under-21 competition, which pits several former Soviet nations (and Iran in this edition) against one another, was subject of some unusual international attention. Both FIFA president Sepp Blatter and UEFA chief Michel Platini turned up to watch.
Turkmenistan started well by beating Estonia 1-0, and sure enough we learned all about it in great detail on the local news. Government mouthpiece daily Neutral Turkmenistan trumpeted the achievement, as did the Vatan television program, which is normally dedicated almost entirely to hailing the president's accomplishments.
National youth team coach Bayramdurdy Durdyev enthused about his players in the post-match press conference, saying, "they are great."
Then things began going downhill. Kazakhstan handily brushed aside the Turkmen team 3-1. And finally, a 0-0 tie against Russia denied the team qualification into the quarterfinals.
These performances were greeted by a stony silence in local media at home.
Central Asia is chock full of beautiful places, pristine prairies and mountain valleys that look as if they’ve never been touched by mankind. But many spots are well-documented environmental wastelands. How does the damage measure up to the rest of the world?
Radio Free Europe has flagged an interesting new ranking of global environmental performance, which shows Central Asian countries crowding the bottom of the list.
Researchers at Yale and Columbia universities have ranked 132 countries for environmental performance based on 10 categories, such as the effects of water and air pollution on human and environmental health, a country’s approach to managing natural resources, and climate change policy. The sixth annual Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranked Kazakhstan 129th, Uzbekistan 130th and Turkmenistan 131st. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with the most lackluster economies in the region, fared slightly better at 121 and 101, respectively.
RFE/RL spoke with Angel Hsu, EPI project director at Yale, who said Kazakhstan’s poor performance is explained in part by its emissions record:
"For Kazakhstan, they performed the lowest on climate change and air [quality], and this is due to the fact that they have heavy dependence on coal." According to Hsu, "forty five percent of their carbon dioxide emissions come from the country's coal-fired power plants, and what I found interesting is that they have very little active government policies to expand renewable energy in the electricity sector."
Diversion of rivers and other water management problems – politically-charged issues that plague the region as a whole – also dragged down Kazakhstan's score.
When characterizing Turkmenistan’s human rights record, international watchdogs often resort to descriptions that could come straight out of dystopian literature or memoirs of the Stalinist Terror. Turkmenistan continues to have one of the most brutal regimes on earth, a grim place marked by “enforced disappearances,” “draconian restrictions,” an all-powerful leader, and the dumping of nonconformists into “psychiatric facilities.” Then there are the mundane attempts to control access to information, such as when “Internet cafes require visitors to present their passports.”
Like the section on Uzbekistan, the Turkmenistan summary in Human Rights Watch’s new annual report offers EurasiaNet.org readers few surprises. But for the record, here are some of the grisly highlights:
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s authoritarian rule remains entrenched, highlighting Turkmenistan’s status as one of the world’s most repressive countries.
The country remains closed to independent scrutiny, media and religious freedoms are subject to draconian restrictions, and human rights defenders face constant threat of government reprisal. The United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed concern about allegations of widespread torture and ill-treatment, and of enforced disappearances in custody.
On “the Protector”:
President Berdymukhamedov, his relatives, and associates enjoy unlimited power and total control over all aspects of public life in Turkmenistan. In 2010 and 2011 newspapers and other publications began to bestow on Berdymukhamedov the honorific title arkadag (patron), symbolizing the strengthening of his cult of personality.
When it comes to assessments of political rights and civil liberties in Uzbekistan and neighboring Turkmenistan, it often feels like someone has taped down the repeat button.
Of 195 countries assessed in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2012 report, released January 19, both received the lowest score possible, again: 7 out of 7. Once more, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan made the list of the “worst of the worst,” an exclusive club of nine countries where citizens can count on essentially zero accountability from their leaders. In terms of rights and liberties, both nations have remained eerily consistent: Turkmenistan is holding a presidential election next month where we already know the winner; Uzbekistan continues to jail and torture critics; leaders in both continue to show an occasional distaste for reality.
Tajikistan has joined the list of Central Asian countries rumored to be planning to relocate its capital.
The construction of a new international airport in tiny Dangara, 100 kilometers southeast of Dushanbe, has invited speculation that President Emomali Rakhmon plans to relocate the seat of government there, RFE/RL reports.
That speculation began in earnest back in July, when Rakhmon’s advisor, semi-official policy weathervane, and then-director of the state-run Strategic Research Center, Sukhrob Sharipov said, “it is necessary to say goodbye to the Soviet past in all things, including the capital, Dushanbe.” Sharipov posited that Dushanbe is a “small town, not designed to handle the overloading it now experiences,” proposing three still smaller towns as possible replacements -- Dangara, Kulyab, and Penjikent. Journalists and analysts uniformly dismissed the latter two, particularly Penjikent, which is often cut off from the rest of the country in winter. But Dangara, interestingly, is Rakhmon’s hometown.
In recent years, the Tajik government has invested millions in Dangara’s infrastructure, improving the main west-east highway that runs through and linking it to the nearby railway that once bypassed it. Other cosmetic improvements have been conspicuous, particularly in comparison to neglected regions of the country further afield.
In an information-starved and arbitrarily governed part of the world, such speculation spreads easily.