Turkmenistan’s Ridiculous, Predictable “Election”

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by Joshua Foust on 2/13/2012 · 5 comments

In a surprise no one could have possibly predicted, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov swept the Turkmen presidential election this weekend.

Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov won a new five-year term by capturing 97 percent of the vote, election officials said Monday, but a Western expert called the vote a democratic sham.

All of Berdymukhamedov’s seven opponents praised his leadership in their campaigns, making the authoritarian leader’s victory in Sunday’s election a mere formality. Berdymukhamedov improved on his 2007 performance, in which he secured his first term in this Central Asian nation with 89 percent of the vote.

Well that answers at least one question about the election. Last month I had wondered what his victory margin might mean:

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?

So I guess Berdimuhamedov is trying to lend the appearance of inevitability to his regime through a Nazarbayev-esque impossible victory margin. RFE/RL’s Farangis Najibullah has more to say on this:

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov spent his first months in office in 2007 reversing some of the more controversial policies of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

He reopened rural hospitals, for example, and expanded access to the Internet (albeit with severe restrictions)… The Niyazov era, which lasted from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 until his death in 2006 – has been hailed within the country as its “Golden Age.” Likewise, Berdymukhammedov has dubbed his time in power “The Era of Turkmenistan’s Great Renaissance.”

Berdymukhammedov has also continued Niyazov’s tradition of renaming streets, schools, and organizations after his relatives.

There has been a lot of questions and speculations about why Turkmenistan went through with such an obviously sham election. the BBC’s Rayhan Demytrie offers one hypothesis:

Some believe the only point of this election is to create the impression that Turkmenistan is abiding by international norms.

That matters because with its abundant natural gas reserves, Turkmenistan is keen to diversify its export routes. BP ranks its natural gas reserves as the fourth largest in the world.

Russia and China are the biggest buyers, but the EU is also seeking a share. In doing so it has been criticised by rights groups for doing business with one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

Human Rights Watch details some of the moves the EU is making in its 2012 report. “The European Union in particular continues to press forward with a Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (PCA) with Turkmenistan, frozen since 1998 over human rights concerns, without requiring any human rights reforms in exchange.”

Though some commenters tried to argue that I was wrong to draw critical parallels between how the international community — including human rights activists — treats Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, I think there really is something to draw out here. Even though HRW is critical of Turkmenistan’s human rights abuses (and they are legion), the leadership of HRW does not storm op-ed pages and Foreign Policy decrying the “blood for natural gas” relationship that seems to govern Turkmenistan’s relations with the outside world. Rather, they criticize the limited U.S. engagement with Tashkent as somehow more perfidious and morally indefensible.

I still don’t understand why the two countries are treated so very differently in the public, even though both use their geopolitical advantages to get concessions out of the West in return for Western strategic interests (energy in the case of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan in the case of Uzbekistan). But they are.

Maybe the Turkmen election offers a clue. Like most things the Turkmen government does, its weirdness is so fascinating to talk about the actual horror of people being coerced to reaffirm an abusive tyrant is almost beside the point. Islom Karimov’s “election” in 2007 had none of the crazy personality cult monumentalism that Berdimuhamedov’s did, which meant the little media attention it got was more tightly focused on regime abuses and less on “oh look he has his own tv show and books and music and outlawed dancing and stuff.”

But speech access matters a lot, too. There is a thriving, and outspoken, expatriate Uzbek activist community. The Turkmen diaspora is less vocal, and has fewer connections to western activists. Turkmenistan is also much more activist and brutal in suppressing speech and political activism. So maybe western networks, and the relative paucity of western support for the Turkmen opposition movement, matters in this as well.

Anyway, so answer Demytrie’s question above: Has Turkmenistan changed at all? The answer is, basically, a depressed “no.”

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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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Sarah Kendzior February 13, 2012 at 2:35 pm

I made the same points about the diaspora and the media’s obsession with the bizarre nature of Turkmenistan’s regime in the comments to your previous post on this subject, so I agree that those are important factors. But I think the divergent emphasis has much more to do with Uzbekistan than Turkmenistan – in particular, with the Andijon events. Turkmenistan has no equivalent of Andijon – a case of state violence that prompted condemnation, sanctions and policy changes in the international community. One of the core conditions for the removal of sanctions – an external investigation of the massacre – was never met. Because Uzbekistan’s human rights violations are more concretely linked to international policy changes, human rights groups have more ground to stand on when they complain about re-engagement with the Karimov regime, as they do in the editorials you mention.

At the same time, I agree that the advocacy role HRW plays (in terms of editorials) does not have much practical or positive effect. But I think we should give HRW a lot of credit for the research they have conducted on human rights violations in Uzbekistan – like the recent report on corruption and violence in the legal system, and their reports on Andijon. In many respects, they filled in where the international community failed in terms of investigating Andijon and its aftermath. There are different ways to engage in human rights work, and in this regard HRW has made a vital contribution. I know you respect their efforts here as well, but I think it’s an important thing to acknowledge in the context of a broader critique of their advocacy policies.

Nathan Hamm February 13, 2012 at 6:00 pm

This different was evident throughout the 2001-2005 period of fairly good US-Uzbekistan relations as well, though. I think that two factors were important then — access and the interesting way in which Uzbekistan fit into the narrative of post-9/11 US foreign policy.

The access thing is huge. When western journalists could access the country and hire stringers, reporting on what was happening in the country increased as it became clear there were only so many stories to do about K2 or Afghanistan. (Oh, and hey, remember when everyone was into Uzbekistan in academia? And how now that access is difficult, a lot of people are more interested in Tajikistan?)

Also though, Uzbekistan was almost a perfect foil to the Bush administration’s post-9/11 foreign policy priorities and narratives. If we’re promoting democracy, then why are we close with Uzbekistan? If repression leads to Islamic extremism, then why are we friends with Uzbekistan? If we support human rights, then why are we friends with Uzbekistan? A lot of this stuff still works, of course. And none of this is to say that those focusing on it aren’t genuine in their convictions.

Joshua Foust February 13, 2012 at 6:09 pm

I don’t really doubt the sincerity of people who advocate for human rights in Central Asia at all. I do, however, doubt their efficacy and sense of context (see, for example, Tom Malinowsky’s now-embarrassing act of sycophancy to Libya’s rebel movement for one example of how this advocacy can sometimes take really silly, unnecessary forms).

steven February 13, 2012 at 9:58 pm

I think that, besides the reasons already mentioned here, it’s also a matter of knowledge. Uzbekistan? Ah right, Samarkand, Bukhara, cotton, the Aral Sea. Turkmenistan? Hmmmm… Activists need to be able to sell their story to the general public, and it is simply much easier to sell Tibet than South Ossetia. And if nobody knows about Turkmenistan, then policy makers can feel comfortable doing whatever they like, which basically means promoting their businesses. Just my two cents.

Mike February 28, 2012 at 1:17 pm

I think that the main reason for differences between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in regards to the attention given to the concern of Human Rights in those two countries is that Turkmenistan is much more comfortable not being on the World Stage. Turkmenistan really hasn’t done much to draw attention to itself while Uzbekistan puts on all sorts of international events, is active in a variety of organizations and so forth. Uzbekistan wants foreign investment and asks for attention in order to achieve such. Turkmenistan knows that it will always have foreign investment so why bother doing anything?

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