"Turkmenistan under Niyazov and Berdymukhammedov"
from Worst of the Worst: Dealing with Repressive and Rogue Nations
In the News
May 6, 2008
Author: Robert Rotberg, Director, Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Intrastate Conflict Program
A monument of Turkmenistan’s former autocratic ruler, Saparmurat Niyazov, will be removed from the center of the country’s capital, the New York Times reported on Monday, May 5, 2008. The removal was ordered by Turkmenistan’s current president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. What seems to be a symbolic move away from the repression that has plagued Turkmenistan is more likely the removal of one autocratic legacy to make room for another.
For more on Turkmenistan’s repressive past, consult Robert I. Rotberg (ed.), Worst of the Worst: Dealing with Repressive and Rogue Nations (Washington, D.C., 2007). Below is an excerpt from the book.
Styling himself Turkmenbashi (chief of all Turkmen), Saparmurad Niyazov in Turkmenistan exceeded the tyrannical outbursts of his neighbors by removing physicians and other health care professionals, banning higher education, and providing ideologies of his own devising. About half of the population of Turkmenistan still lives below the regional and national poverty level, and per capita GDP is estimated at $640. In 2006, virtually all pensions were cancelled, and sickness and maternity benefits were abrogated. All business activity depended upon government approval and patronage. Moreover, the public health system was in shambles, infant mortality rates were high, and life expectancy levels were low (for ex-Soviet satrapies). By 2006, most hospitals outside the capital had been shut down. The remaining clinics offered only rudimentary care, “condemning thousands to death from common, treatable illnesses such as tuberculosis.”26 Niyazov also banned the import of pharmaceutical supplies from Russia, leading to severe shortages of common medicines and drugs. Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, his self-appointed successor, promised—in the first weeks after his “election” as president in February 2007—to redress some of the unfortunate excesses of Turkmenbashi’s reign while, simultaneously, ruling with a similarly heavy, autocratic hand.
The regime in Turkmenistan has been unable since 1991 to acculturate its people to the same extent, but Turkmenbashi certainly tried. As president for life, he produced his own two-volume “little green book”—the Ruhnama—of spiritual teachings and revisionist history, erected expensive monuments to himself throughout the country, constructed gold-domed palaces and huge mosques, changed the names of months to remind citizens of him and his mother, and named towns, mountains, libraries, and schools in his honor.28
In Turkmenistan, criticism or dissent was defined (as it is in so many of our cases) as treason. Such offenses were and may still be punishable by long prison terms, confinement to psychiatric hospitals (as the Soviets were wont to do), and internal banishment to arid salt flats along the Caspian Sea. Private conversations were monitored by informers, telephones and e-mails were tapped, and Internet access was severely limited.
The U.S. State Department’s 2006 summary of Turkmenistan’s human rights record under Niyazov concluded that “the government continued to commit serious abuses . . . [and] severely restricted political and civil liberties.”
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