“Turkmenistan after Turkmenbashi” Roundtable at Harvard

by Nathan Hamm on 2/28/2007

The following is a guest post from Ian Chesley, a graduate student at Harvard and co-producer of beyond-the-river.com, a blog on Central Asian culture and politics.

The Program for Central Asia and the Caucasus held a roundtable discussion Tuesday night about the future of Turkmenistan after the death of Turkmenbashi. While the conversation was limited by the small amount of hard facts known publicly about the government, the speakers tried to assess the chances for social and political reform. The overall tone could be described as cautiously pessimistic, since Berdimuhammedov has done little, so far, that indicates change or continuity.

Erika Dailey, director of the Turkmenistan project at the Open Society Institute, spoke about the modest reforms proposed by Berdimuhammedov, and the potential for change in the educational and social spheres.

One specific change she noted had to do with the FLEX exchange program for high-school students to travel to the US for a year. Previously the program had been subject to obstruction by the government (it had a policy of only allowing ethnic Turkmen to apply) but apparently this restriction has been lifted. She saw this as a highly significant step that could be a sign of more to come.

She also reported that while Berdimuhammedov has followed through on his promise to give the country greater access to the Internet, so far that access has been limited to a few Internet cafes in Ashghabat, and those have been priced so high that almost no one can afford to use them. So for now, the net effect of that reform is small.

She pointed to some continuities, like the erection of a new Turkmenbashi statue on the birthday of the former dictator, continuing heavy subsidies of utilities, and the satisfaction of clan interests, which point to Berdimuhammedov’s desire to maintain the status quo.

Prof. Irina Liczek, assistant professor of political science at Niagara University, spoke briefly about the elections as a missed opportunity for Western institutions like OSCE to engage and challenge the regime. She struck the most optimistic note on the panel, saying that on her recent visit to Turkmenistan, she found many people of Berdimuhammedov’s generation who are ready for change. She was also “patiently optimistic” about the reforms in the education sector, like the addition of a tenth year to the school curriculum.

Dr. Thomas Simons, visiting professor in Harvard’s government department and a former diplomat, spoke about the prospects for US foreign policy towards Ashghabat. He described the competition between two groups in the State Department: those who want to engage Turkmenistan through a “careful, deliberate process” of opening, and those who wish to confront and challenge Turkmenistan on human rights and transparency. He noted that the “process people” are in control of the policy right now, but that even they are skeptical of Berdimuhammedov’s reforms as “picking the low-hanging fruits,” while substantive changes (like media reform, NGO activity, and religious freedom) are put off for later. He also said that of all the countries competing for Ashghabat’s attention, the US should be the most attractive because “we care more about the Turkmen people, not just about their gas.”

Dr. John Schoberlein, director of the Program on Central Asia and the Caucasus at Harvard, spoke about Turkmenistan in the context of the other Central Asian governments. He claimed that Turkmenistan was useful to other leaders as the “it can get worse” example, used in order to fend off Western criticism. He also called the recent elections “perfect” from the point of view of Central Asian dictators. It managed to keep Western criticism at bay and, at the same time, maintain a perfectly orderly transition of power to a designated successor.

During the question-and-answer period, a number of people asked about the difference between the situation in the capital and in the provinces. Two recent visitors to Turkmenistan, one a former Peace Corps volunteer, claimed that Ashghabat’s influence over the provinces was minimal, and that people outside the capital are indifferent to political changes at the national level. Panelists responded that while we know little officially about conditions in the provinces, there is a good chance that patronage networks and clan structures do bring the central government into the picture outside the capital.

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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