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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > Central Asia > Turkmenistan > Cracks in the Marble: Turkmenistan's Failing Dictatorship

Cracks in the Marble: Turkmenistan's Failing Dictatorship

Asia Report N°44 17 Jan 2003


More than a decade after their independence, each of the Central Asian states is on its own particular path of political and economic development. While most have achieved at least partial integration within the international community, one stands out as an exception: the remote former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, on the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea.

The isolation of Turkmenistan results from the increasingly authoritarian and idiosyncratic policies of President Saparmurat Niyazov, who has ruled since independence in 1991. Having declared himself Turkmenbashi (Head or Father of All Turkmens), he has taken sole personal control of political and economic resources, and built up a personality cult to match that of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. But he now faces growing internal and external opposition and the country an uncertain future.

Under Niyazov’s repressive rule, alternative political parties have been outlawed, there are no free media outlets, access to the Internet is severely restricted, and non-official religious groups are persecuted. Constant changes in personnel by a leader concerned about any opposition and his idiosyncratic management style have made state institutions increasingly dysfunctional. Private business and foreign investment have dwindled, unable to operate in an unpredictable and corrupt environment, and forced out of lucrative sectors by Niyazov-controlled companies. Grandiose marble buildings dominate the capital, Ashgabat, funded by the potentially lucrative oil and gas sector. But poverty and unemployment have reached mass levels.

Too often the international community has simply not taken Niyazov seriously, treating him as a rather bizarre eccentric, who creates revolving statues, or renames months after himself. The reality is much more sinister and dangerous. Turkmenbashi’s continued rule is not merely a somewhat comical despotism but a serious threat to stability in the whole region. The frequent assessment that the regime is unpleasant but fairly stable needs review. Internal and external opposition to Niyazov continues to grow. The prospects for a peaceful transition are very poor, and will only worsen.

There are five main sources of conflict that could, if not dealt with properly, accelerate Turkmenistan’s disintegration:

First, the underground political struggle within the country, which could lead to a change in regime and an unpredictable transition. There is a growing opposition in exile, albeit severely weakened by internal divisions and the arrest, inside Turkmenistan, of one of its leaders that followed an apparent attempt on President Niyazov’s life on 25 November 2002. But there are also forces within the country itself that could challenge Niyazov. This political struggle involves the Presidential Guard, which is closely associated with Niyazov; the intelligence service (the KNB), which was severely purged in 2002; army officers, who are increasingly disinclined to support the regime; and finally the people, who have begun to voice their opposition more publicly.

Secondly, serious economic problems. Turkmenistan holds some of the world’s largest reserves in oil and natural gas and has built its economy almost entirely on those two commodities. The revenue is directly under the control of the president, and little trickles down to the population, which increasingly lives in extreme poverty. Grandiose construction projects in Ashgabat give an impression of prosperity that does not reflect the deep poverty and economic despair of most of the population.

Thirdly, the increasing weakness of the state. Weak and dysfunctional states provide opportunities for widespread corruption, and allow criminal and terrorist groups to act with little hindrance. Turkmenistan has become a major drugs transit state, with the connivance of the authorities, including President Niyazov himself. The government’s close relations with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, combined with corruption in the security forces, has reportedly allowed Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters to escape from Afghanistan across the border. Further decline will merely increase the risk of Turkmenistan becoming a failed state that poses a serious threat to regional and international security.

Fourthly, the destruction of society. A decade of Niyazov’s dictatorial rule has left society with little hope. Poverty, unemployment, and collapse of the education and health systems have dramatically degraded living conditions, as reflected in reduced life expectancy and widespread prostitution and drug consumption. The cult of personality has largely replaced regular education, with schoolchildren brought up mainly on Niyazov’s own quasi-spiritual guide, the Ruhnama. A further decade of his rule will produce a dangerously isolated and uneducated generation, unable to comprehend the challenges of a changing world and increasingly sucked into a vicious circle of drugs trafficking and abuse, and organised crime.

Fifthly, the clan and ethnic divide. Turkmens are a nomadic nation that never experienced statehood before the twentieth century, and loyalty to regionally-based clans is still strong. Niyazov’s policy of divide-and-rule has exacerbated differences among the various clans now competing for political or economic power, and there is a danger of conflict. Minorities, particularly the 10 per cent of ethnic Uzbeks, face permanent discrimination. This increases tension domestically and with neighbouring Uzbekistan.

Given the nature of the Turkmen regime, political prognoses are highly problematic. Niyazov holds significant levers of power, political, security and economic, and could stay in control for several years. But the now widely observed economic decline, growing dissatisfaction in society, and wider opposition both inside and outside the country, make him much less secure. The danger of a palace coup, or an open explosion of popular frustration, perhaps aided from abroad, cannot be discounted. The alleged assassination attempt in November 2002 may have been a reflection of these growing tensions.

The international community has little leverage, but if nothing else, interested states should be prepared for a possible transition that may not be peaceful. There is no provision for a normal succession, and the prospects of violent conflict in the case of disputed succession are real. A collapse of the state into violent conflict would have repercussions throughout this unstable region, including in Afghanistan.

If Niyazov remains in power, the international community needs to take a more active stance. There is little likelihood that systemic change can be produced by positive engagement but isolating Niyazov through sanctions or other external measures would only worsen the plight of the Turkmen people. There should be far more public pressure on the regime to fulfil its international commitments, an end to security assistance, and consideration of political factors in assessing government and IFI support for pipelines and other major infrastructure projects.

Turkmen society both within and without the country needs as much outside engagement as possible to stem the alarming social decline. This should include aid for a growing diaspora to ensure that Turkmen intellectual and cultural groups are preserved in exile, and to prepare opposition groups for potential return to government in the future.

In the long term, there is no other way to achieve systemic change and stop the dangerous spiral of decline than for Niyazov, one way or another, to leave. The regime will not improve with time, or soften under increased engagement. On the contrary, the longer it continues, the worse things will get, and the higher the likelihood the state will collapse from its own contradictions. Engagement with Turkmen society is crucial, but regime change and a managed transition should be the goal.


To the leadership of Turkmenistan:

1.  Take serious steps to reduce the present level of human rights abuses including by releasing prisoners convicted for their political or religious beliefs or arrested because they are relatives of opposition members, and allowing international observers such as UN rapporteurs and OSCE representatives to monitor trials and prisons.

2.  Permit political pluralism by:

a) amending the constitution and authorising the registration of other political parties besides the National Democratic Party;

b) allowing peaceful demonstrations and public expression of criticism;

c) allowing the exiled Turkmen opposition to return and participate in political life, provided it seeks political power via democratic and non-violent means;

d) conducting elections for both parliament and the presidency under international observation.

3.  Allow local and international media to operate freely, and improve access to media by:

a) allowing registration of independent print and electronic media;

b) allowing uncensored access to international electronic and print media, particularly Russian-language newspapers;

c) guaranteeing the protection of all journalists and their right to inform; and

d) providing uncensored access to the Internet;

4.  Strengthen civil society by providing a proper legal basis for independent NGOs, permitting the free flow of information and lifting travel restrictions on Turkmen and foreign NGO representatives.

5.  Reverse the decline in educational standards by:

a) reintroducing an eleven- or twelve-year school curriculum and five-year courses in higher education; and

b) ending the use of the Ruhnama as the key text for schoolchildren and students;

6.  Guarantee the protection of ethnic minorities by:

a) recognising the educational, cultural, spiritual and political rights of ethnic minorities as described in treaties signed by the Turkmen government;

b) inviting the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities to visit and implementing his recommendations on legal and political changes necessary to protect minorities.

7.  Establish a sound economic environment by:

a) creating a legal basis that protects and guarantees domestic and foreign investment;

b) changing the Foreign Exchange Reserve Fund (FERF) from a personal presidential fund to a normal budgetary mechanism, and establishing an oil fund for future generations; and

c) privatising the oil and gas industry.

8.  Take effective measures to fight drug-trafficking and end the involvement of official structures in the drug business.

9.  Tackle drug abuse by introducing new therapy programs and youth education, and providing young people with economic, cultural, and educational alternatives to the drug culture;

10.  Fulfill international commitments by cooperating with the decision of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to send a mission of investigation to Turkmenistan with respect to human rights issues raised by fellow member states.

To the exiled Turkmen opposition:

11.  Establish a viable common political platform based on:

a) an agreed transitional government mechanism that incorporates representatives of all factions, including potential internal opposition groups;

b) renunciation of any violent means to power;

c) announcement of a common commitment to early elections, under international auspices, that will allow all political factions and regional interests to be represented in a new political system;

d) an exit strategy for President Niyazov and his immediate collaborators; and

e) guaranteed protection of foreign investment during and after the transition period.

To the international community:

12.  Follow the lead of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and refuse any assistance to government or state institutions, instead targeting the private sector and NGOs for aid and assistance.

13.  Address the regime’s political, social and economic abuses in all appropriate international forums and organisations, including the UN Human Rights Commission at its annual meeting in February 2003, as well as the OSCE and the international financial institutions (IFIs).

14.  Use available mechanisms under human rights and other treaties signed by Turkmenistan to put pressure on the leadership to improve its record, and in particular insist that Turkmenistan fully comply with its OSCE obligations by allowing special rapporteurs to visit and have full access to all persons and locations they require in order to report on human rights concerns raised by member states.

15.  Assist in improving public access to information by

a) extending and diversifying programs broadcast by the Turkmen services of international media outlets such as Radio Free Europe, BBC and Deutsche Welle; and

b) funding measures that allow greater access to the internet, cultural centres and libraries.

16.  Attempt to slow social and educational decline by:

a) increasing grants for Turkmen students to study abroad, including those presently outside the country; and

b) engage with the Turkmen diaspora in programs to help develop social institutions, media, NGOs and educational establishments outside the country.

To the U.S. government:

17.  Make clear to the government that any international assistance (e.g. from the Asian Development Bank) for the Trans-Afghan pipeline will be dependent on substantial internal reforms at least of the economy and legal structure.

18.  Suspend all assistance to the security forces, including border forces, until there is far better assurance through effective monitoring that they are part of the solution, not part of the problem, with respect to drugs, illegal arms and other smuggling.

To the Russian government:

19.  Take the initiative with the U.S., the EU and the UN to establish a contact group to consult on how to avoid further humanitarian tragedy in Turkemenistan and to consider both a roadmap and an end game for regime transition.

20.  Restate and guarantee the protection of Turkmen opponents of the regime living in Russia.

Osh/Brussels, 17 January 2003

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