Uncle Berdi Not All He’s Cracked Up To Be?

by Joshua Foust on 4/30/2007 · 7 comments

StomatologbashiCount me as one of those “analysts” who held out hope Stomatologbashi might usefully reform some of Turkmenistan’s flaccid political infrastructure. Oh well.

But there have not yet been any political reforms. With the exception of a few cosmetic adjustments, Niyazov’s personality cult remains largely untouched.

If Turkmenistan’s media have become more informative, they still operate under strict government control and censorship.

Berdymukhammedov — who rose to power through conspiratorial methods and an election that offered no real choice to voters — remains impervious to the notion of political pluralism and keeps Niyazov’s exiled political opponents at bay.

The New York-based nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch says in an April 12 report that “the only sign of possible political reform” the new leader has given so far is a promise to make the Internet more accessible to Turkmen.

Yet, even this announcement remains largely symbolic.

The two government-sponsored Internet cafes that have opened in Ashgabat are charging their clients up to 60,000 manats ($11.50) per hour, an exorbitant fee by local standards.

Hell, that’s an exorbitant fee by American standards. At a gamer’s cafe near my house (in which the computers are rented out for huge Counter Strike games and the Bawls flows like wine), the rates max out at $6/hr—and that’s for a fast machine on a fat pipe.

Maybe Ashgabat needs a new Sister City. It’s current “sister,” Albuquerque, hasn’t done much. The sister-ish collaboration between Dushanbe and Boulder, Colorado, however, has been far more fruitful—at least for Boulder, which got the beautiful Dushanbe Teahouse (now its own Boulder institution, and cleverly attended to by Boulder-based Celestial Seasonings). The City of Boulder is now constructing its reciprocal project, an Internet cafe that will in theory be “green” (in the environmental, and not pigmental, sense of the word).

That last bit was said only partly in jest. One of the obvious things Turkmenistan needs is fresh leadership, or at least flexible leadership. I’ve been hoping the United States could get its act together and do more than sending a token, low-level functionary to major events like the inauguration. Or, maybe, seeing if Uncle Berdi would be amenable to development deals in exchange for access to gas, an arrangement far more beneficial to both parties in total than Turkmenistan’s current, vampiristic relationships with Russia and China.

Alas, very little has changed in the desert country. It continues to be an isolated, desperately impoverished backwater with the one good thing going for it badly mismanaged by an unaccountable elite. Come to think of it, not much has changed since 1991, save the generous subsidies from Moscow (these are now given in exchange for exorbitant amounts of natural gas). I felt justified in feeling hope that with Turkmenbashi gone, Turkmenistan could become a real country with real rulers. Sadly, that has not happened.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Turkmen April 30, 2007 at 2:25 pm

For God’s sake, why would you write something like this. All this doesn’t make any sense. We have real rulers. I lived there and everything is fine. Please don’t try to scare people.
I won’t say that everybody is happy, but overall it is getting better. Why don’t you go and visit and see how people live out there in the desert. Capital city is one of the most modernized cities in the central asia. thanks

Vincent April 30, 2007 at 7:12 pm

Do you think it may be too early too to sigh in disappointment? It’s only been a few months. How exactly does RFA make these pretty broad “state of the union” evaluations if impenetrability is one of biggest issues in the first place? I suppose that things are still pretty hard to find out is a symptom of the problem, and there is that incredible web cafe fee, but I still am curious how the entire prognosis is obtained.

All things being equal, a pretty solid rule of thumb is that things will keep on going as they are, though.

I’m surprised about whole Boulder Dushanbe thing, I didn’t realize the whole sister-cities deal was anything more than fancy dressing.

Joshua Foust April 30, 2007 at 7:20 pm

See, that’s what I’m thinking. It’s still damned hard to get reliably information out of Turkmenistan, but Uncle Berdi has been adamant in his “just like Niyazov” talk. So, as you say, it’s more likely to remain business as usual for a while than for radical change to take place.

And the only reason I know about the Boulder Dushanbe teahouse is that I went to school in Boulder, and it was one of our favorite places to hang out—sipping tea under those mosaics as vaguely eastern-sounding electronic music pulsed overhead was a welcome respite from the endless hippie drama of that place. Plus, having the mountains so close seemed to fit the whole Dushanbe thing.

Anyway, it’s a really cool place, and I tell anyone who happens to be in Boulder that they need to go there. But personal experience is the only way I know of it.

Peter April 30, 2007 at 11:01 pm

Unless something has changed with the exchange rate in the past few months, the RFE report is quite deceptive. The unofficial rate would put that 60,000 manat fee around $2.50 (according to my crude calculations), which is actualy still probably quite high for a lot of people.

The issue of Internet still remains one of principle and perception. It is ostensibly, if only highly marginally, more accessible, which supposedly placates local demand and pleases international observers.

As someone noted though, it was curious that AP photos showed armed guards standing outside the Internet cafes in question, thus sending an unequivocal signal to anybody that presumed the relaxation could be abused.

In a broader context, it is far too early to be making glib presumptions about the evolution or otherwise of political structures in Turkmenistan. It seems clear that attention is currently being focussed on external developments, which is where I think the clearest signs of change will be divined.

Indications to date suggest that the Berdymuhammedov’s approach is more defined by strategic choices and consultation than sultanistic diktats. The fact he is engaging with (and travelling to) the outside world cannot but be a good sign. A worry in this respect has to be that he may be travelling to the wrong countries. That said they are states with which his nation has strong economic and political ties, which is more than can be said for the courting West.

As well as Berdymuhammedov’s own evident preparedness to go on official (and working rather than ceremonial) trips abroad has not been limited to him alone.
A highly suggestive detail that the RFE report overlooks, for example, is the lifting of a travel ban on Turkmen politicians, as reported by AP in early April:

“Turkmenistan’s new president has lifted a ban on foreign travel for Cabinet ministers that was imposed by his autocratic predecessor as a way to prevent defections, state media reported Tuesday.

The order is the latest in a series of liberalizing measures taken by Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in an apparent effort to reverse some of the more draconian edicts by his long-ruling predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

The government-run newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan reported on Tuesday that lifting the travel ban would allow government officials to go abroad to study other countries’ experiences in various fields. The education minister will be visiting Malaysia, the trade minister will go to Russia, and other senior government officials will be making trips to Kazakhstan, Belarus and Turkey this month, the newspaper said.”

This is not all to say that Berdymuhammedov intentions are not potentially malignant, misguided or deceptive. However, a fuller and more honest analysis of events in the country makes for the only constructive approach to understanding this delicate moment in the country’s history.
It is also for that reason that the determinedly simplistic effort to cast the new president in the mould of his singular predecessor (nickname and all) leaves a poor taste in the mouth. Turkmenistan should not be treated as the joke country of the region, especially when so much is at stake.

Joshua Foust May 1, 2007 at 1:11 pm

Well, according to Oanda, $1=5200 Manat. Therefore, 60,000 Manat = about $11.5. REF/RL was using a fairly standard currency conversion tool (which of course may be inaccurate). Where did you get your exchange rate from? You can’t exactly use black market exchange prices to demonstrate the cheapness of a service.

Even so, it’s not looking like Uncle Berdi is shaping up to do much reform. He seems much more interested in hanging on to every scrap of power he has left.

Dolkun May 3, 2007 at 12:21 am

“You can’t exactly use black market exchange prices to demonstrate the cheapness of a service …”

So you can purchase $1 with 5,200 Manat? Sign me up!

Peter May 4, 2007 at 3:38 am

I got my exchange by actually being in Turkmenistan, where nobody would ever change their money anywhere else but on the black market.
At any rate the rate is immaterial, as the Internet service would most likely be payable in manat anyhow.
Of course you can use the black market rate to prove the cheapness of something.
For example, some domestic flights cost (in 2005) ordinairy Turkmen the equivalent of about 4-5 dollars, because the unofficial rate is so favourable. Meanwhile, foreigners are obliged to pay in dollars, meaning they have to pay the real price; around five times more higher.
Point being that the $11 figure in the RFE story has little or no bearing to reality, unless the correspondent was Western, in which case they may have had to pay in dollars.

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