Magazine article Business Credit

Hot Spots: Turkmenistan

Magazine article Business Credit

Hot Spots: Turkmenistan

Article excerpt

Following the death last December of President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov, "elections" were held on February llth in preparation for which the HaIk Maslakhaty, a Soviet-style people's assembly of 2,500 delegates, not only changed the constitution so that former Deputy Prime Minister and Interim President Gurbangulu Berdymukhammedov could run, but also unanimously nominated him. Technically, there were six candidates in the contest for the highest office in the land. For one thing, though, they were all from the same party (the only one officially allowed), and, for another, since Mr. Berdymukhammedov was the only contestant to get the Halk's unanimous vote, there was no doubt that he would be elected.

Since taking office, he has been sending mixed signals about his regime's direction. In his remarks at the inauguration, he said that he would continue the course set by the late Mr. Niyazov and would honor existing agreements on natural gas exports-a clear effort to reassure Russia, whose Gazprom relies fairly heavily on Turkmen natural gas. But at the same time he seemed to herald change, hinting at an intention to embark on a number of social and educational reforms. Many outside observers seized on such remarks to support their notion that the reforms to come will be big, but this is a relative term and one needs to keep in mind where Mr. Niyazov left off when he died; under the self-declared Turkmenbashi, the Father of all Turkmen, the country allowed no public dissent. The President ruled with an all-powerful security apparatus inherited from the Soviet KGB. The jails are filled with political prisoners. Internet access is severely restricted, and just receiving a telephone call from abroad tends to arouse the suspicions of the internal security service.

Mr. Niyazov ordered regional hospitals closed and imports of medicine restricted, on the grounds that Turkmen "are too robust to get sick." Outside of the glittering capital Ashgabat, rural regions-where nine out of 10 Turkmen live-are desperately poor. Niyazov insisted that, since village Turkmen can travel to hospitals in the capital, they do not need their own medical clinics. And since, for the most part, they cannot read, they do not need libraries. While the government has been maintaining that unemployment does not exist, since the state provides work for every citizen, much of this work is menial (such as sweeping streets) or seasonal (such as harvesting the cotton crop). Joblessness, in reality, is at least 20% in Ashgabat and considerably higher than that in rural areas.

This is the background against which one must judge the modest reform promises Pres. Berdymukhammedov has made. He has heralded a number of moves to effect change in agriculture, social assistance programs, education and the economy. Inter alia, he has indicated that students will be given access to foreign universities. Doctors will be sent to Western hospitals to acquire modern skills. Primary schooling is to be extended to 10 years. Access to the Internet is to be allowed universally. The first Internet cafes have already opened, and, assertedly, "soon each public school will have Web access."

But even if all the promised reforms were to become reality, the ensuing change would hardly be revolutionary. Berdymukhammedov is, to quite a degree, a puppet of the nation's security forces. He has made it quite clear that any change will come slowly, and that there will be no Western-style political reforms, since "as for democracy, this tender substance cannot be imposed by applying ready imported models. …

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