Turkmenistan – The Politics of Isolation

By Rayomand Bhacka

Turkmenistan has taken its place as one of the most repressive regimes of the 20th Century. The former Soviet Socialist Republic has been led by its founder – Saparmyrat Nyyazow from 1985 to his death in 2006. However, the hopes of Political and Social reforms pinned by the west on his successor – President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow have been dashed as the regime turned out to become more repressive and authoritarian. 

During the same period, Turkmenistan possessed one of the world’s largest Natural Gas Reserves and is increasingly being recognized as a Global Energy Player. It finds a place among a few countries which are capable of producing significant amounts of Natural Gas available for export, as well as an active interest in diversifying export routes, and today proves to be China’s largest Natural Gas supplier with a considerable margin. Practically, however it faces challenges in getting its gas to Foreign Markets. Considering the competing resource agendas of a group of countries with a spiking interest in the future of the region’s gas supply lines, namely Russia, Iran, China, Azerbaijan and Turkey, among others – developments in Turkmenistan’s Foreign Relations and the outcomes of Turkmenistan’s planned long distance pipeline projects, hoping to connect to external markets, will be keenly watched.

As observed in other resource rich countries, the leadership of Turkmenistan is able to maintain it’s authoritarian control through centralisation and control of revenues from Hydrocarbon exports, which it uses to finance extensive security services and patronage networks. The sustainability of this brand of petro authoritarianism depends on the relatively small population of Turkmenistan and the state’s monopoly over the natural resources. 

While President Berdimuhamedow and his small elite circle have all the power to influence Turkmenistan’s domestic and foreign policy but they have no incentive to do so as long as they meet societal aspirations and control political rebellions. Thus, The system of Turkmenistan Authoritarianism as often argued is aimed at self preservation.

Falling Global Energy prices, the economic slump in Russia and a slowdown in the Chinese economy have not yet prompted the Turkmenistan leadership to review its long-standing policy of refusing to grant buyers equity stakes in upstream fields. Strictly in the event of an economic downturn will the Turkmen government reconsider its current stance of limiting production sharing agreements in offshore oil and gas blocks.

Although in recent years the government has steadily reduced the extensive state subsidy system put in place in 1993, this has not resulted in any significant popular unrest. Voluntary reforms are unlikely to take place and large scale popular unrests are impossible unless the lives of the citizens change. The question remaining is – Why is repressive and authoritarian rule so deeply entrenched and why have the Turkmenistan citizens experienced a total absence of liberalism since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Changing Geopolitics of Eurasia

Twenty Five years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan holds the place of the most authoritarian and repressive of all former Soviet Socialist Republics. Sapamurat Niyazov created a government system based on authoritarianism and hydrocarbon wealth. He used the proceeds of Turkmenistan’s vast oil and natural gas reserves to finance an internal security apparatus, an omnipresent propaganda machine and a measure of material well being of the citizens through deep subsidies for the basic necessities of life. 

His successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow has followed Niyazov’s footsteps faithfully and has made the Turkmen regime more oppressive and authoritarian wherever possible. Freedom of Speech, the Press, Association and Religion remain curtailed in Turkmenistan to such an extent that The Freedom House puts Turkmenistan in the same category of Dictatorships like North Korea, Sudan and Syria, at the very bottom of its Freedom in the World Index of 2016. The ability of the Turkmen to travel overseas remains restricted and it remains closed to most foreigners, making it one of  the most isolated former Soviet republics. 

But Turkmenistan is beginning to face some impending challenges as the security environment deteriorates and the country’s financial resources dwindle. Recently, there has been instability across the Afghan-Turkmen border. Reportedly, the Turkmen forces have faced difficulties in repealing militant incursions across the border. Meanwhile, low commodity prices have taken their toll on all of Eurasia’s Hydrocarbon exporters, but Turkmenistan’s reputation as one of the most authoritarian and oppressive regimes has compounded the ongoing issues of the Turkmen regime.

Over the past decade, Turkmenistan is growing increasingly dependent on China, which happens to be the only real export market for Turkmen gas. China is also Turkmenistan’s main source of foreign loans. Both of these sources provide China with a mass leverage over Turkmenistan. The prospects of a continued state of low hydrocarbon prices, Turkmenistan’s increasing debt to China and increasing competition from other Global Gas Producers make the Turkmen Economy ravaged with issues. 

Due to a fractious relationship with Russia the desire of the government of Turkmenistan to keep its citizens isolated from the rest of the world, migrant labor opportunities from Russia have been extensively called off. This has denied an escape valve to the Turkmen citizens which is used by citizens of other Central Asian countries to feed their families and to keep themselves above the poverty line. Turkmenistan has already experienced low revenues from Gas sales, a devaluation of its currency, high inflation, and shortages of basic goods, raising concerns about food security. There have been recent instances of isolated socio-economic  protests in the recent years , which is unusual for a population living in such repression and such an information vacuum. Today, after twenty five years of independence, the Turkmen political model appears far more fragile than it was believed to be.

The Turkmen Political Model

Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s first President, found himself running an independent Turkmenistan by chance, not on purpose. Trained as an engineer in what was then known as Leningrad, he came to power in 1985, when Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev installed him as the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic with a mandate to curb corruption there. 

Niyazov, however, was a conservative official and in the 1980s, Turkmenistan turned out to be a conservative republic. Like most of the Central Asian nations, Turkmenistan produced no significant independence movement during when Gorbachev launched his Perestroika policy. The population was not eager to break away from Moscow. The Turkmen voted phonomenously in a March 1991 nationwide referendum initiated by Gorbachev to decide on preserving the Societ Union but it was meant to preserve the Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics which did not have to be communist. In keeping up with that conservatism, Niyazov remained silent during the August, 1991 coup aimed at restoring communist control in the U.S.S.R.

Turkmenistan therefore experienced none of the political liberalization that swept through the Soviet Union in the 1980s. In 1990, Niyazov banned the Nationalist Unity Movement, which was aimed at the revival of Turkmen culture at a time when civil society and revivalist movements were not only tolerated but also blossoming in several parts of the Soviet Union. As the people had experienced no political or cultural liberalization, during the breakup of the Soviet Union, Niyazov had little difficulty in transforming Turkmenistan’s leadership from one-party Communist rule to the one-party leadership of the newly formed Democratic Party of Turkmenistan which succeeded the Communists. This enabled the Turkmen elites to preserve the power and institutional capacity of the Communist Party. They merely changed the ideology from Socialism to a newly formed reverence for Turkmen nationalism, with Niyazov as its chief proponent. That nationalism eventually led to the glorification of Niyazov as the Turkmenbashi, the leader of all Turkmen. 

Turkmenistan has never had a free, unopposed election since its formation. In 1992, Niyazov ran for President, unopposed, winning 99.5% of the vote. In 1994, under his injunctions, Turkmenistan became the first former Soviet Socialist Republic to propose an extension of Niyazov’s presidential term until 2002 – setting an example that Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Tajikistan would all follow. Eventually in 1999, Niyazov was proclaimed President for Life of the Turkmen Republic, doing away with the Presidential Elections until his sudden death in 2006. During his office, all dissent and rebellions were brutally repressed and pushed underground. The Media was gagged by the state, Freedom of Movement was restricted and access to the external world was highly constrained. In an effort to promote Turkmen nationalism and reduce Russian influence in Turkmenistan, Niyazov discouraged the use of Russian language. Thus, Russian language schools were closed, Russian language instruction was reduced to one hour a week and Russian language media was blocked. He also curtailed access to Russian language material in the National Library. These moves effectively cut Turkmenistan off from outside information and reduced Russia’s ability to influence Turkmen culture and information space. 

Under Niyazov, Secondary Education in Turkmenistan was reduced by 1 year – a move that weakened the quality of Turkmen Education, weakened the qualifications of Turkmen secondary school graduates and cut off any opportunities for Turkmen students to study in Russia or in any other country. Ethnic Russians were dismissed from their workplaces and persons holding a dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship were given 3 months to renounce their Russian citizenship in 2003 or face the confiscation of their properties and their eviction from the Turkmen Republic. Turkmen citizens, including those who held Soviet-era degrees from elsewhere in the Soviet Union were dismissed from their jobs in 2004.

In the same year, the government fired 15,000 Health Professionals and replaced them with military conscripts with little medical training. In 2005, Niyazov ordered the closure of all regional hospitals. These moves further weakened the education and healthcare systems in Turkmenistan, undermined the effectiveness of the Turkmen institutions and led to a massive brain drain and loss of ethnic Russians, some Russian speaking Turkmen elites and Minority Groups. This caused friction with Russia and further tarnished Turkmenistan’s image abroad.

As the Turkmen were isolated from the outside world,  the regime tried to transform a clan and tribe based country into an authoritarian state working under a one man leadership through the development of Niyazov’s personality cult. The regime’s Propaganda Machinery instructed the people to respect their leader, his family background and his alleged achievements. The capital city of Ashgabat, like many other towns was redeveloped and decorated with Gold Structures of the Turkmen Leader, expensive imported marble and elaborate fountains – which was a waste of valuable Water Resources, especially for a country in a desert region which is already scarce in water. When the names of the months were rechanged to honor Niyazov’s family members, this cult transformed from lavish to outright bizarre. Library collections were destroyed and most libraries were forced to shut down, limiting public access to books and information from the Soviet Era.  Instead, children were required to read the Rukhnama – Niyazov’s collection of thoughts on Culture, History and Morality. 

While the state propaganda machine built up the image of Niyazov as a God like leader leading a revitalized Turkmen Nation, the population received social benefits – Free Water, Gas and Electricity as well as subsidized Bread, Gasoline and Public Transportation. In case the propaganda and subsidies failed, Niyazov’s cult of Personality was accompanied by the buildup of a powerful Domestic Security Apparatus. Thus, Turkmenistan in effect became a police state more reminiscent of the Stalin Era than any of the former Soviet Socialist Republics. 

Turkmenistan’s adoption of permanent neutrality – confirmed by the United Nations in 1995 – helped reorient the Security Forces in Turkmenistan away from threats of External Aggression and more towards Internal Threats to the Regime. An intensified focus of the military on Internal Threats and Political Dissent has hampered the Turkmen military’s ability to identify External Threats and protect the country from them. This has now become a serious issue, with rising instability in Northern Afghanistan near the Turkmen border, fears of the presence of the self proclaimed Islamic State, and Russia’s propensity of late to use its Military Power in Eurasia and the Middle East.

Niyazov appeared wary of any potential challenger from within the political elite – this led to purges of many government officials in order to prevent any one person or political faction from gaining too much Political or Economic power. Due to these purges, it was common for Senior Government Officials to find themselves out of favor, ultimately either in Jail or Exile. The end result was that even a notional opposition could exist outside the country. 

An alleged assassination and coup attempt against Niyazov in November 2002 led to a purge of the Political Elite and security services and reinforced the regime’s notion of isolation from the outside world. While the details of the plot remain murky, Turkmen officials accused Azerbaijan, Russia, The United States and Uzbekistan of complicity. The Minister of Defence, the Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Head of the Security Services, and Head of the Presidential Administration, among others were put through show trials and sentenced to long jail terms. Dispatched to prison camps, many have not surfaced since. They are the highest profile victims of Turkmen Totalitarianism, but many others have also disappeared into Turkmen prisons and labor camps.

The end of the Turkmen illusion

The undeniable failure of Turkmenistan’s economy of authoritarianism lies at the very heart of the Turkmen regime crisis. · Relying since 1992 on the non-transparent management of revenues arising from natural gas exports, successive Turkmen leaderships had no incentive to reform the national economy, which, in late 2017, continues to be almost exclusively based on the energy sector.

 Ensuring a constant stream of revenues represented in this sense the sole preoccupation of Turkmenistan’s economic decision-makers, who commercialised energy relations with Russia, Iran and China to guarantee a steady capital flow into the regime’s coffers. Gazprom’s withdrawal from the Turkmen gas market, the crystallisation of a tumultuous energy relationship with Iran, and the specific terms of the pay-for-purchase agreement finalised with China in the mid-2000s led to a dramatic reduction of revenue in-flows: at the end of 2017, Turkmenistan is reaping very limited financial benefits from the exports of his main resource. Shrinking revenues instigated in turn a wider malaise, which has been affecting Turkmenistan’s real economy since at least 2014.

In the regime’s authoritarian worldview, it is Turkmenistan’s wider population — and not the élites surrounding the president — that has to be hit most severely by this deepening economic crisis. At the start of December 2017, there were reports of shortages of flour across the country, with other basic goods, including cooking oil and sugar, also disappearing quickly. Food shortages — which were also reported in the autumn of 2016 — would have been unheard of just a few years ago.

Throughout the last twelve months, the availability of actual currency decreased dramatically. Turkmen authorities explain this development by pointing at the state’s efforts to demonetise the economy: outside Ashgabat, however, relatively few businesses have the necessary equipment to accept payments by bankcard. There is simply not enough paper money in circulation at the moment: bank machines are regularly out of cash, and some bank branches in the Turkmen regions have now closed. Access to hard currency is therefore extremely difficult and extends even to people trying to wire money orders to relatives abroad. Parents with children studying in universities outside Turkmenistan need to bring a package of documents to prove they are actually sending money to their child who is registered as a student at a foreign university.

At the start of 2017, Turkmen tourists abroad were limited to cash withdrawals equal to $250 per day; by November, this amount had been reduced to $50 per day. The black-market rate for the manat — Turkmenistan’s national currency — climbed from five to six to US dollars at the start of 2017 to more than nine by year’s end; since February 2015, the official rate has remained 3.5 manat to one US dollar.


Thus, the ambitions with which Niyazov initiated this regime have now been buried. Due to its isolation and dependence on energy resources, Turkmenistan’s revenues have drastically reduced, it is facing territorial threats from Russia and the Islamic State and it has fully been trapped in what is now known as China’s debt trap. A country looking so prosperous from the outside, is gloomy on the inside due to lack of transparency and the Turkmen citizens have become the cause of their own resource crisis only because they were not allowed to know more in order to draw a line between totalitarianism and democracy. I hope in the future, with the weaknesses of the Turkmen regime exposed, Turkmenistan can slowly open up and other countries can have a piece of its vast Natural Resources. Thus, freedom will always raise its head amidst the gloom of Authoritarianism.


1. Open Democracy, ‘A Terminal Crisis in Turkmenistan’
2. Carnegie Endowment, ‘The High Price of Authoritarianism’
3. Turkmenistan, Annette Bohr, ‘Turkmenistan: Power, Politics and Petro-Authoritarianism’

For more such articles, click here.