The World Today for March 10, 2022

NEED TO KNOW

Dictatorship 2.0

TURKMENISTAN

The 40-year old son of Turkmenistan’s president, Serdar Berdymukhamedov, recently hit the campaign trail.

Some wonder why he bothered. He’s the shoo-in for March 12 elections – a dauphin with a long list of titles including deputy prime minister. The eight other candidates are just “seat warmers,” observers say, who mostly just praise President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Eurasianet noted. The portraits of Serdar Berdymukhamedov alongside his father around the western port city of Turkmenbashi these days underscore the results of the vote, the outlet noted.

Still, some believe Serdar Berdymukhamedov showed up in Dashoguz province because he wanted to send a message to voters – that nothing would change. On Feb. 21, he presented his platform, a 30-year development plan called, “The Revival of a new era of a powerful state…” and explained how “The creative reforms initiated by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov will be continued in future,” according to the Russian-language Turkmenistan Today, a state news agency. He added that he would “increase the prestige of Turkmenistan,” “… strengthen state sovereignty” and promote “further successful development of the country.”

He’s right about one thing: There is a lot to be done. Turkmenistan is one of the most isolated and authoritarian countries in the world, at the bottom of most democracy and freedom rankings along with North Korea. It has near-total media censorship. It forbids political and religious expression. Most of the internet is not accessible. And in spite of its natural wealth which includes the fourth-largest gas reserves in the world, it’s a place characterized by nepotism, poverty, unemployment, food shortages and economic crisis. Its citizens can’t easily leave or move around internally either.

In fact, its international isolation is the main reason why its currency or economy has not been impacted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the way its neighbors in the region have, Firstpost noted.

There was initial hope that there might be some opening up and reform when current President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was elected in 2007 – he was only the second leader since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But like his predecessor, President Saparmurat Niyazov, he quickly moved to establish his own cult of personality, putting out videos of himself working out or holding weapons dressed as action figures. Where he diverged was in his pivot from Russia toward China. These days, China is by far the largest importer of Turkmen natural gas – the country’s main source of income, Forbes noted. But most of the money earned from gas exports returns to China as payments for infrastructure projects including large vanity ones such as a massive and mostly empty airport, palaces, gold statues of the president and a “ritzy but ghostly” beach resort.

And even though in 2019, Russia began buying Turkmen gas again to resell to Europe, the war in Ukraine is interfering as Western leaders move to cut off Russian energy. That gives the country an opportunity to sell to Europe directly but Turkmenistan has yet to commit to pipelines outside of its borders (although Afghanistan’s Tolo News reported it did recently meet with Taliban leaders of Afghanistan on opening the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI)). It’s questionable whether the country would cooperate with Western governments and businesses or whether they could prove that Turkmenistan is a stable, transparent, rule-of-law place to do business.

But instead of finding ways to improve and diversify the Turkmen economy, the president is considering amending the constitution again, likely to find a legal veneer for a father-son leadership role. And the government that received millions in aid for Covid-19 testing even as it denied its existence in the country, is focusing on Turkmens’ health, fitness and sport to enhance “the prestige of the motherland.”

Last month, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov announced a plan to turn the country into a smoke-free zone by 2025.

That will help his goal to “increase the well-being” of Turkmens, even if it doesn’t really improve their lives.

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