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A looming humanitarian crisis in the land Orwell forgot

Turkmenistan, a desert republic of 5.6 million people and widely considered to be one of the world’s most repressive states, is heading towards a humanitarian catastrophe the effects of which could be geopolitically significant.

October 31, 2017 - Christopher Schwartz - Issue 6 2017MagazineStories and ideas

Photo by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska

A potential humanitarian crisis, with geopolitical ramifications across Central Asia and the Middle East, may be imminent in a country few in the West have heard of and even fewer can find on a map: Turkmenistan. While there is still a chance for the country to reverse its course, it is highly unlikely it will, as the ruling regime appears to be hell bent on maintaining its power at all costs. This is the deeply troubling assessment by analysts and news agencies observing the country – one of the world’s most closed societies, rivalling the likes of North Korea. It is unknown whether a humanitarian crisis would lead to the state’s partial collapse. However, rumours of a possible Russian intervention upon Turkmenistan’s border with Afghanistan and speculation of backdoor negotiations with the Persian Gulf rivals of its neighbour and erstwhile trading partner, Iran, are among the many worrying signs that the government is struggling to manage a rapidly evolving and complex situation.

Opulence and Orwellianism

In the annals of totalitarianism, North Korea occupies a special, terrible place, having come the nearest to achieving George Orwell’s great nightmare. Yet, often overlooked is Turkmenistan, a desert republic of 5.6 million people on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. In a 2016 list of the world’s most authoritarian societies, compiled by The Telegraph and based on data collected by Freedom House, Turkmenistan was ranked the worst place (North Korea came in third, behind Somalia and Syria).

Like others on the list, Turkmenistan is isolationist and strives for self-sufficiency, or at least the appearance of it. This approach is nicely summed up in the government’s “policy of neutrality”, established following independence in 1991, which in official propaganda is spoken of almost in spiritual tones. On the plus side, Turkmenistan’s neutrality translates to a general disinclination to interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbours. On the negative side, it also translates into a careful avoidance of international attention, especially anything critical.

Sitting atop the world’s fifth-largest proven gas reserves, the country is believed to be capable of enormous economic growth. According to some estimates, in 2016 alone its gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 6.2 per cent. Yet, Turkmenistan is notorious for spending its wealth on grandiose and impractical construction projects. Highlights include one of the world’s largest telecommunications relay stations (in a country where internet penetration is said to be only 15 per cent), an international airport in the shape of a falcon (and according to some reports, it is sinking into the sand and underutilised) and perhaps most infamous of all – a solid gold statue of its first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, that slowly rotates to follow the sun. Many of these monstrosities are located around the capital, Ashgabat, and a seaside resort called Awaza that has the capacity to house several thousands of tourists but sits empty – a luxurious ghost town. This would be comical were it not for the fact that such grandiosity is actually as central to Turkmenistan’s unique brand of totalitarianism as its vaunted neutrality.

Turkmenistan can be thought of as a kind of anti-North Korea. It is no less insane, no less cunning, but it lacks a serious military-industrial complex so it does not use war to sustain itself. Rather, the regime prefers to promote the country – both internationally and domestically – as a prosperous, peaceful and happy society. In a way, Turkmenistan could thus be considered an experiment in whether totalitarianism can be sustained through the illusion of prosperity rather than the illusion of war, in contradistinction to George Orwell’s Ingsoc.

Total state control

“Independent critics and their families, including in exile, face constant threat of government reprisal. Authorities continue to impose informal and arbitrary travel bans on activists and relatives of exiled dissidents and others,” Human Rights Watch reports. Many dissidents and independent journalists have disappeared within the Turkmenistani prison system. Not even members of the regime are safe: counted among the vanished is a former foreign minister, Boris Shikhmuradov, who has not been heard from since 2002.

Independent news agencies that cover Central Asia – ranging from The Diplomat, NewEurasia Citizen Media, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and Chronicles of Turkmenistan – have all reported harrowing stories of psychiatric torture. According to a 2012 report by the religious rights watchdog Forum 18: “The interlocking nature of Turkmenistan’s human rights violations appear designed to impose total state control of all of society. Denial of freedom of religion or belief is intertwined with denial of the rights to freedoms of assembly, of speech, of expression and freedom of movement.”

According to Naz Nazar, former director of RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, a key aspect of the regime’s strategy is absolute dominance over media. There is not a single independent news outlet within the country: every newspaper, radio and television channel inside Turkmenistan is owned and controlled by the government. “This is more than just a government trying to control its image, like what we see in other countries with heavy censorship,” Nazar explains. “This is a government trying to control people’s minds. And if that fails, then to stupefy and bore them into submission with repetitive, totally uninteresting content that celebrates a golden age of prosperity completely disconnected from real lives.”

Indeed, since the Media Sustainability Index’s start in 2008, out of 80 countries Turkmenistan has never crawled out from the international survey’s lowest category of “Unsustainable/Anti-Free Press”.  Reporters Without Borders deem Turkmenistan an “enemy of the Internet”. There are dark stories of the regime deploying invasive surveillance technologies and freelance hackers to pursue anyone and everyone within its borders who tries to gain access to information from the outside world.

Impending collapse

According to numerous independent news reports, despite impressive GDP growth rates, at the grassroots level Turkmenistan’s economy is seriously sluggish. There is also trouble at the highest echelons of power. The problems began in 2015 when authorities suddenly devalued the Turkmenistani currency, the manat. Since then exports have plummeted, the government has limited access to foreign reserves and bank machines have been said to be dispensing less and less cash. At the end of 2016, independent news agencies reported a temporary food shortage.

By 2017, according to RFE/RL, food prices have increased sharply (some by as much as 50 per cent). One confirmed example of a significant price hike is cheese – 200 grams of cheese rose from eight manats to ten. By way of context, three and a half manats is the equivalent of one US dollar, and the average monthly salary in Turkmenistan is believed to be approximately 500 US dollars.

All of this has been triggered by a global decline in natural gas prices, a result of a surplus in supply and a contraction in demand. Meanwhile, the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, has launched an unusually high-profile anti-corruption campaign. Several important members of the government have been swept up in the dragnet. For a government as secretive and controlling as Turkmenistan’s, such visibility on a socially and politically sensitive issue, analysts say, is a major warning sign.

According to Bakhtiyor Nishanov, deputy director of Eurasia at the International Republican Institute, the worst has yet to come. As Turkmenistan’s coffers run dry, a vast welfare state of subsidies for fuel, electricity and food, which the government has historically relied upon to placate its population, may be in danger of collapse. Indeed, the government is believed to have already implemented extensive cutbacks.

Referring to Turkmenistan’s recent hosting of the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat, Nishanov says, “Their economy is in tatters. The games cost them five billion US dollars and with natural gas prices in a downward spiral they had to cut everything in order to pay for this.” The authorities even banned their own citizens from entering Ashgabat during the games, several news agencies have discovered. Nishanov fears that the economic mismanagement has become so severe that a humanitarian crisis may be imminent. He envisions starvation and a collapse of basic services, beginning in rural areas before emerging in larger urban areas, including the capital.

Luca Anceschi, a lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow, agrees with Nishanov’s dire assessment. “The most pressing issue faced by the regime – and indirectly the population – is represented by identifying a viable solution for the revenue crisis that is severely hitting Turkmenistan’s natural gas industry, the most important production sector across the wider economy.” Yet the regime persists in its “predatory use of gas revenues,” Anceschi notes.

Something rotten in the state of Turkmenistan

Faced with potential calamity, why is the regime seemingly either unwilling or unable to change course? The answer, to paraphrase William Shakespeare, there is something rotten in the state of Turkmenistan. Grandiose projects “with little public utility [are nonetheless] crucial to the regime’s corruption agenda and its ambition of international legitimacy,” Anceschi explains. Turkmenistan’s immense construction projects are typically financed by Turkish and Arab businessmen. Many observers believe they provide ideal cover for money laundering.

Grandiosity, however, is not only a highly lucrative business; it is also a dangerous game. Earlier this year, Batyr Ereshov, the deputy chairperson of Turkmenistan’s Cabinet of Ministers – the government’s highest echelon – died suddenly at the age of 51. Seemingly healthy, no official cause of death has been given by the government, leading many to suspect foul play, as it had not escaped notice that prior to his role as deputy chairperson, Ereshov had been in charge of construction in the country.

Grandiosity – and the illicit profits it brings – takes priority over everything else, even the need of the citizens to eat. For example, in March during the lead-up to the games, the salaries of state workers were reduced by 50 per cent, according to RFE/RL. The question is whether the policies of grandiosity and neutrality, for so long equally crucial to Turkmenistan’s stability and which mutually reinforced each other, are beginning to diverge. If so, grandiosity might force Turkmenistan to abandon neutrality, albeit unofficially. The regime might begin to quietly seek aid from the outside world, and that could lead to complex geopolitical entanglements.

A perfect storm of negative developments may be bearing down on Turkmenistan. One of them is Taliban activity along its border with Afghanistan, which has been dramatically building up over the last few years and may be in danger of boiling over. There are signs that Turkmenistan may be seeking material assistance from Russia. For instance on October 2nd this year, Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Ashgabat. During the meeting, Putin and Berdimuhammedov signed a “strategic partnership” agreement, the content of which is unclear. Fourteen bilateral documents in total were signed during the meeting, including agreements for intergovernmental co-operation in agriculture, migration and combating illegal drug trafficking. Some analysts speculate that Ashgabat and Moscow may even be discussing actual boots on the ground along the border, similar to a long-standing arrangement between Russia and Tajikistan vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

Another development is a dispute with Iran over gas prices and Turkmenistan’s decision to cut off gas exports to Iran in January 2017. Ashgabat claims that Tehran is 1.8 billion US dollars in arrears. Although Tehran does not deny the debt, it wants the arrears to be reviewed and has been threatening to begin legal proceedings against Ashgabat in the International Court of Arbitration. Again, regional analysts speculate that this is a situation which could quickly get out of hand for the Turkmenistani authorities. They point out that representatives of the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait – rivals of Iran in the Middle East – were featured prominently in the lavish opening ceremony of the 2017 Indoor Asian Games, held recently in Ashgabat. In their view, this could be an overture from Ashgabat to Abu Dhabi.

The attraction of a Turkmenistani-Arab partnership, analysts say, should be evident to Iran: Ashgabat needs new markets and investment, Abu Dhabi needs to triangulate against Tehran. Turkmenistan’s position astride Iran’s northeastern border combined with an estimated two million ethnic Turkmen living along that space makes the country a potentially attractive ally. Of course, such speculations should be taken with a grain of salt. Understanding the internal machinations of the Turkmenistani regime is much like reading tea leaves. The most senior Arab representative to have been involved in the games was Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, a Kuwaiti politician and current president of the Olympic Council of Asia. Kuwait is actually actively trying to broker a resolution in the recent diplomatic crisis between the other Gulf States and Qatar (seat of Al Jazeera and seen by its neighbours as being in league with Iran), and hence would seem an unlikely geopolitical conspirator. Besides, the Turkmenistani government has so far neglected the Iranian Turkmen; it has little reach among them, including intelligence.

Still, the danger is that if a Turkmenistani-Arab partnership of some kind did emerge, it would inevitably entangle Turkmenistan in the growing rivalry between the Gulf States and Iran – a rivalry described by many Middle Eastern analysts as a regional cold war for dominance that has already devoured Syria and Iraq.

A way out?

“The Turkmenistan government will never openly admit to having a problem”, Nishanov says. “But their situation is not unprecedented.” He points to the example of neighbouring Uzbekistan – another country with a frightful human rights track record – that is also very high on the list of the world’s most closed societies. “If this crisis happened in Uzbekistan, the government would be faced with a choice: face resistance or permit greater freedoms,” explains Nishanov.

Indeed, over the last year the world has witnessed the Uzbekistani government deciding to permit greater freedoms. It has also been reaching out to its neighbours, including its old enemies Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Not incidentally, Uzbekistan has also recently reached out to Turkmenistan in an attempt to establish more cross-border trade.

“Although the Turkmenistani side of that trade is likely to be very opaque, maybe with this new relationship Uzbekistan can now come to their rescue if a crisis really hits”, Nishanov hopes.

If it is true that Turkmenistan is approaching the precipice, observers can only hope that its leadership will follow Uzbekistan’s example and not leap into the abyss.

Christopher Schwartz is a freelance journalist focusing primarily on Central Asia. He is based at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and is earning a doctoral degree from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.

This article was first published in the Issue 6/2017 of New Eastern Europe. Subscribe

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