The OSCE election monitors (and, umm, others) are heading out to Kazakhstan over the next few days and weeks — but not to Zhanaozen! — to keep track of precisely how Uncle Nazzy is going to maintain his one-party monopoly on the Kazakh parliament. It should be interesting, as the closure of elections in the one city you’d want to hear from the Kazakh street is going to be excluded from expressing its opinion. So much for democracy.
But almost as interesting is another election looming just to the south: Turkmenistan. The political goings on in Ashgabat are usually so banal as to be barely worth writing about — while the diaspora maintains a lively (if miniscule) blogosphere to gossip about this stuff, Turkmeni politics are depressingly stagnant. The only time it seems to attract media attention is when there are inexplicable explosions or a Neil McCauley-style shootout in Ashgabat. But this year, the election looks like it might be very interesting. For The Atlantic, I explain:
Turkmenistan’s elections are so obviously fraudulent that the OSCE declines to even monitor them, since there’s nothing to monitor. So why, then, would Turkmenistan create the sham of a crowded election field with so many candidates?
That’s the question that is preoccupying Turkmenistan watchers as the February 12 elections approach. A video leaked last month by RFE/RL shows a deranged-looking Berdimuhamedov berating his subordinates like children and insulting Turkey, whose companies are some of the only private businesses operating in the country (his remarks have sparked a minor uproar in the Turkish blogosphere).
Inexplicably, Berdimuhamedov seems determined to proceed with the trappings of a normal election no one will acknowledge as such. At this point, the only question is what percentage of the vote he will choose to accept. Other Central Asian dictators have not shied away from impossible margins, such as Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan (95 percent) and Islom Karimov in Uzbekistan ( 88 percent). Wll Berdimuhamedov meet or beat his 89 percent from 2007? Will he go higher, to lend the appearance of inevitability to his oppressive regime? Or will he go lower, to try to create the false sense of political dynamism?
Berdimuhamedov’s public irascibility — on display more and more often as time goes on — is the cause for much speculation. No one really knows what it might mean, if it means anything at all. But it is really bizarre and fascinating (and depressing) to watch. Just like Turkmenistan.