Turkmenistan, a Central Asian nation, achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 but did not experience much of a change in its power structure, unlike many other ex-communist states. Saparmurat Niyazov, the leader of Soviet Turkmenistan, stayed on as the new president of the independent nation. Also unlike most other ex-Eastern bloc states, it can be argued independent Turkmenistan stayed as or became even more authoritarian than during the Soviet era. President Niyazov built a cult of personality around himself, stamping out any real or perceived opposition.
Turkmenistan is not the only ex-Soviet nation that retained its communist leadership post-independence. All of ex-Soviet Central Asia, from Kazakhstan to Tajikistan, remained under its Soviet leaders after 1991. All of these regimes also remained authoritarian in nature. In recent years, however, the political structure in many Central Asian countries has evolved. Why is this, and what is happening to facilitate the democratisation of these nations?
Dictatorship’s Effect on the People of Turkmenistan
Niyazov’s control over Turkmenistan extended to the economy. His erratic policies meant that there were little to no independently-owned businesses within Turkmenistan, with the economy largely controlled by Niyazov and his companies. Today, the Turkmen economy largely relies on fossil fuels, especially natural gas; therefore, global fluctuations in gas prices can crash the economy. This has had severe impacts on daily life in Turkmenistan outside of the economy as well.
This control over the economy and its subsequent impact on the population continued after Niyazov’s death in 2006. Oil prices crashed in 2014, and then again in 2020, under President Berdymukhammedov (who was elected in 2007). This depreciated the Turkmen currency, the manat. Despite this, the Central Bank of Turkmenistan refused to lower the exchange rate, leading to citizens having to rely on the black market in order to exchange foreign currency.
The manat’s depreciation also meant that essential goods became too expensive for most Turkmen, as most of Turkmenistan’s food is imported due to the country’s climate. Because of this, citizens have had to depend on government shops for food. This has given the Turkmen government an increasing amount of control over its citizens; it has the ability to starve people whom it deems undesirable. This can be further observed as the Turkmen economy continues to shrink and the government limits the sale of food to families of prisoners (including political prisoners), as well as people indebted to the government.
Democratisation in Sight?
Thirty years after independence, however, the tide seems to be turning in Turkmenistan and throughout the region overall. The dictators that remained from the Soviet era have mostly either resigned, died, or been deposed; the only leader remaining from the Soviet era is Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan. The leadership in these nations have, in turn, changed hands, often to the previous leader’s proteges. However, this does not mean that politics in ex-Soviet Central Asia is business as usual. The new Central Asian leaders have pledged reforms, in part due to Western nations exerting pressure on these nations to improve their human rights records – even though these same Western nations may not have sparkling human rights records themselves.
In Turkmenistan, however, these promises of reform have largely gone nowhere. Although on paper Turkmen officials, including President Berdymukhammedov, have promised widespread reforms, in practice, reform has only been used as a tool to further Berdymukhammedov’s grip on power. For example, Berdymukhammedov claims to have made the Turkmen parliament a bicameral institution to “serve the interests of all social levels [in Turkmenistan];” however, this change also made him the chair of the upper house, the People’s Council, furthering his reach.
Elsewhere in Central Asia, real changes have been implemented, encouraged by pressure from both foreign and domestic groups. In particular, Central Asian youth have voiced their dissatisfaction with their governments and the need for tangible change.
To name a few examples of recent political changes in Central Asia, in Uzbekistan, the new president has instituted economic reforms that encouraged economic growth in the nation. In Kyrgyzstan, a relatively open and free democratic system of government has been built after two revolutions in 2005 and 2010. Multi-party elections have taken place, and human rights organisations are allowed to operate freely in the nation; however, suppression of the press and other human rights abuses continue.
A New Hope – Improvement in the Cards?
Ex-Soviet Central Asia, after independence, saw the authoritarian Soviet system replaced with homegrown authoritarian regimes, often led by the same leaders. In Turkmenistan, particularly, the authoritarian government has persisted through two different leaders, who both built up a cult of personality and exerted extreme levels of control over every aspect of Turkmen life. However, the first generation of dictators has largely been replaced, which brings an opportunity for real change. To encourage this, groups from both inside and outside of Central Asia have exerted pressure on Central Asian governments to institute reforms, to varying degrees of success.