Wednesday 1 December 2004

The Ceausescu Career Path?

Back in 2004, my Crisis Group colleague, David Lewis, and I looked at what might happen when the self-assumed immortal "Turkmenbashi" finally met his inevitable end. This piece appeared in Transition Online on 1 December 2004.


If you look up “cult of personality” in the dictionary, you might find a picture of Turkmenistan's president, Saparmurat Niazov. And wherever you look inside Turkmenistan, you'll see the same image.

It is not a simple matter of the ubiquitous public murals of your average dictator: Niazov has a golden statue of himself in the capital, Ashgabat, that moves with the sun. On state television, Niazov's portrait revolves continuously on the corner of the screen. His nationalistic, quasi-spiritual tome, the Ruhnama, not only forms the basis for much TV programming but also dominates Turkmenistan's education curriculum. He's renamed the months of the year, with the month of January now replaced by his self-adopted name, “Turkmenbashi” or “father of all Turkmen.”

With no checks on his power, Niazov makes bizarre decisions that essentially become law without any public debate or legislative procedure. In August, he decreed that those seeking a driver’s license must first pass a 16-hour course on the Ruhnama. In the same month, he personally banned nas, a popular form of chewing tobacco, and earlier in the year, he declared gold teeth not only unsightly but also forbidden. His building projects, perhaps the most megalomaniacal aspect of his rule, now include a multimillion-dollar contract to build an ice palace in the desert.

All of this would be simply comical if it were not so deadly tragic. The apparent lunacy of a dictator is no joke to those who suffer under him.

Show trials and political murders

There is no political freedom in Turkmenistan, one of the world's most repressive regimes. Niazov--who controls the country through the Ministry of National Security and the police--dominates the political space. The constant pre-emptive control of the population includes frequent checks on internal travel and surveillance of people considered suspicious. The widespread physical presence of security troops and police officers make most people think twice about objecting to government policy.

The few dissidents and political opponents who remain in Turkmenistan often end up arrested and detained, sometimes in psychiatric hospitals following the well-worn Soviet practice. Court proceedings against some of those oppositionists can only be compared to Stalin-era show trials. Many dissidents have been forced to leave the country--mostly for Europe or Russia--and even there they are not safe from the hands of Niazov's agents: witness last year's violent attack on opposition leader Avdy Kuliev in Moscow and the subsequent ouster of eight Turkmen embassy officials on suspicions they were planning to murder Moscow-based dissidents.

But repression targets not only overt opposition figures, but also ordinary people. The authorities have forcibly resettled ethnic minorities. Farmers have endured police raids and harassment because of government concerns about poor harvests or to collect “surplus grain.”
Persecution of businesspeople is also common: the successful are often the target of dubious allegations, arrest, and imprisonment.

No human rights groups can operate on the ground in Turkmenistan. In fact, a November 2003 law on public associations effectively outlawed activity by unregistered groups of any kind, under threat of hard labor.

Silencing all but the praise

There are no free and independent media in the country; all newspapers are state-controlled, competing only in their sycophantic praise of the president. Foreign newspapers are banned, including those from Russia. The last Russia-based radio station, Mayak, was closed in July, leaving Radio Liberty's Turkmen broadcasts over shortwave as the only source of outside information in a local language.

Controls on information inside the country are as dangerous as they are absurd. Since 1 May, for example, the regime has ordered health care workers not to write diagnoses of infectious diseases such as cholera, dysentery, measles, tuberculosis, and hepatitis in medical records or health bulletins. (This came just weeks after Niazov's dismissal of 15,000 qualified medical workers, who were replaced with untrained army conscripts.) In June, an outbreak of plague apparently killed seven people in the eastern city of Mary and two others in an Ashgabat suburb. At one health clinic the chief doctor reportedly told staff to go from house to house threatening people with arrest if they dared to reveal the “state secret” of the plague outbreak.

But the most deadly infectious outbreak in Turkmenistan over the long term will likely be ignorance: the country's education system is in rapid decline. Under Niazov's “reforms” of reducing primary and secondary education from 11 to nine years and reducing university from five to two years, a generation is emerging that has little idea of the world beyond the president's writings and very few skills for running the country when the great leader dictates no more. Turkmenistan's education system is now little more than ideological indoctrination in Niazov's mythical and nationalistic Ruhnama.

Forty percent of Turkmenistan's population is under 14, and for many young people, the Ruhnama has simply become a normal part of daily life. It is not only the central school textbook: the Ruhnama may be the only book many of them have ever read. The new generation is assimilating Niazov's warped words in the same way their parents and grandparents took in Lenin's. Unskilled and ideologically indoctrinated, this up-and-coming generation will be completely unprepared to run the country when the time comes.

The succession question

When that time will be, of course, remains a mystery, but perhaps an even greater uncertainty is what will actually happen after the 65-year-old Niazov leaves the picture. The president has made himself so central to state and society, eliminating all possible successors, and has so devastated the intellectual abilities of the next generation that post-Niazov Turkmenistan is almost guaranteed to be messy.

With no succession formula and no consolidated political elite to agree on one, the country could easily descend into violence upon Niazov's death, as various clans struggle for control of the country. Clan identity continues to be more important than national identity in
Turkmenistan, especially as several large minority groups have been the target of repression and discrimination in recent years. The bloated internal security and military forces would likely have their own agenda as well, and the humanitarian repercussions are likely to affect the whole region.

While it is difficult to project into the future, what does seem certain is that the longer Turkmenistan continues on its present course, the worse the post-Niazov future will be for Central Asia. The international community needs to acknowledge the emerging catastrophe
Turkmenistan represents and adopt a policy that encourages change now to avoid certain disaster later.

Engage now... or pay later

One step would be to publicize more complete information about foreign investments in Turkmenistan. Human rights groups and international nongovernmental organizations have paid almost no attention to business in Turkmenistan, which is somewhat surprising considering their extensive efforts in other countries, such as Burma. A research and advocacy program needs to emerge that will examine investments in detail and publicize those thought to have damaging effects. A starting point here would be to look at the involvement of foreign companies involved in construction, especially those projects that do little more than pump up Niazov's cult of personality.

Another step would be to engage and educate the next generation of Turkmen and do what is possible to keep the society active and able. While NGOs have been almost completely crushed inside Niazov's Turkmenistan, there is considerable scope for donors and international organizations to fund media, civil society, and education initiatives outside the country. There is also a growing Turkmen diaspora of politicians, journalists, businesspeople, and intellectuals, and international organizations should craft programs to include them in the hope that their talents can eventually be put to use inside post-Niazov Turkmenistan. The BBC should also seriously consider a Turkmen-language service to help educate and inform those trapped inside the country.

While international engagement with Turkmenistan must intensify, countries need to agree on what engagement is supposed to achieve. A UN Special Rapporteur would be the most effective way to coordinate the parties' approach, which could start by drawing up a list of benchmarks aimed at pushing for genuine reform. The international community should employ a range of potential political and financial measures to impact the regime without harming the wider population. Pressure is needed to push the regime to lift restrictions on NGOs working inside the country, to allow access to Russian media, and to reduce restrictions on travel and education.

Just as Niazov seems to have his head in the sand about his own mortality, so the world seems to want to ignore the long-term problem Turkmenistan represents. This dystopia in Central Asia is not going away, and Niazov's fantasies will impact gravely on the region if allowed to continue. A joint international effort today could head off a much greater catastrophe in the future.

David Lewis is Central Asia project director and Andrew Stroehlein is director of media at the International Crisis Group.

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