Research review of Turkmenistan´s Foreign Policy
Jens Westlund, Stockholm januari 2011
During the Saparmurat Niyazov´s leadership, Turkmenistan was one of the most isolated and repressed states in the world. Several human rights organizations give Turkmenistan the lowest scores in all measurable categories. Although Turkmenistan has started to use and accepted several international human rights instruments the regime refuses to report to the United Nations. Constant shifts and changes within the Turkmen administration has resulted in undereducated and undertrained officials. Because of this the state is weak, unpredictable and difficult to understand. The officials who didn’t obey or couldn’t meet Saparmurat Niyazov´s needs risked dismissal and even prosecution with years in jail. The entire society is corrupt because of the absence of independent regulators and the media, low wages, and a general unproductive economic policy. Incentives to improve, reform, and stimulate economic development are not on the regimes agenda. The Turkmen nation, formed under Soviet Union control, has developed, in comparison to surrounding Asian countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, into a nation with high literacy, relatively good health services, and an administrative and governmental homogeneous state. During Saparmurat Niyazov (1992-2006) leadership, Turkmenistan was isolated from the world because of its Positive Neutrality, which was in part to blame for causing an absence of regional and international collaborations, including absences within areas that Turkmenistan as a whole would benefit from such as sustainable water systems, infrastructure investment, cultural exchange and trade. Saparmurat Niyazov deliberately worsened the country's health care system, education and media. No independent media was allowed to work and all print media was monitored strongly as well as censored. Rather than to open up, liberate and bring democracy to Turkmenistan, after the periods of glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s when the Soviet Union collapsed, Turkmenistan reverted back to an authoritarian state. After the switch back to the authoritarian way, any and all conceivable hostility against the regime became, and still is, strictly prohibited. The legal system is controlled by the government and is used as a political tool. Penalties are politically motivated. During Saparmurat Niyazov’s rule until 2006, medical care was dismantled and the educational system deteriorated to the point that Saparmurat Niyazov's book Ruhnama became the most important educational resource for both elementary school and the university. The Turkmen population was drained of their sense of civil responsibility and was not considered as individual citizens; they were a population without acknowledged individual rights and no belief in the future to keep them motivated. Saparmurat Niyazov´s politics and leadership has positioned Turkmenistan in the same category of development that Pakistan and the Republic of Congo are in, in terms of infant mortality.
Saparmurat Niyazov died suddenly in December 2006 and was replaced by Health Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov promised in his presidential campaign in January and February of 2007 to provide free salt, gas, electricity, water as well as promising to make reforms in health care, education and media, including internet access for all citizens. Speaking at Columbia University in New York in September of 2007 Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov told the audience that there weren’t any restrictions on the press and local NGOs in Turkmenistan. However, the truth is that there are no independent NGOs in the country, and that independent media is completely forbidden. The new regime's approach to bring liberty and open up the country to foreign investments has resulted in a good response from the world community and has caused for the new president to be considered trustworthy as well as given hope to the possibility of actions being taken to ensure the universal rights for his country’s citizens. Since Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov became president, he has visited neighboring countries, which was very uncommon in Niyazov's days, as well as attended both the CIS and SCO meetings which the global community believes is proof that the Turkmen government has abandoned isolation and has chosen a new foreign policy where they are involved in regional issues. However, complete participation has not been confirmed because of lingering application forms and the lack of interest in political commitments. There has been no improvement in the situation of NGOs, it is in fact currently worse for independent journalists and other civil organizations. The last non-governmental organization left Turkmenistan in December 2009. Doctors without Borders were not allowed to operate in the country. Also, previously, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Red Cross were not authorized to operate in the country. The government continues to prevent Turkmen citizens from contacting foreign representatives visiting the country. The three closest people around Saparmurat Niyazov, not counting the head bodyguard, still hold the same job titles, and Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has fired people from all the other key positions within the administration to make room for his loyal friends from his hometown so that he can secure and consolidate his and his government’s power. In the spring of 2010 Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov promised changes in the Constitution. For example, that a multiparty system is to be implemented and that civil organizations should be allowed to operate freely in the country. However, except for pension improvements and the restoration of schools so that students can take their exams and study abroad, nothing has happened. Students of all levels still read the Ruhnama, and it still has a major affect on the Turkmen citizen's daily lives. The state budget is a state secret, and only a few have knowledge and control over it. There is absolutely no transparency regarding Turkmenistan's oil and gas revenues. The state income is used to ensure the power of the government, and a little fraction is used to meet the dire needs of the country, so that it does not fall apart completely. Despite all the unhonored promises, the EU has agreed on a trade partnership with Turkmenistan, and the European Investment Bank (EBRD) has considered the positive developments in Turkmenistan to be considered democratic change and therefore given its approval to support projects in the country.
The EU and the EBRD are not alone in wanting to develop business opportunities in Turkmenistan, nor are they alone in approving loans. In June 2010 a U.S. delegation of 40 companies visited Asjgabat to learn what the country had to offer in business. It turned out that Turkmenistan’s investment climate and their political will to further reform was not sufficient enough for these countries to invest. China has however been successful, and the new partnership between Asjgabat and Beijing in terms of energy is hot. China has recently built a pipeline through Turkmenistan and has established good relations and commercial contracts with the government. Russia has started to follow China’s initiative with great suspicion. China and Russia have different reasons and methods of influencing the Asjgabat government. China and Russia also have not expressed the same demands on Human Rights as the EU and U.S. have, which could explain why these two nations have a greater potential link to the Turkmen government and why a "Western" penetration of their eastern political sphere hasn’t happened yet. Securing gas- and oil contracts without compromising power and control over the country's wealth is the Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s primary goal. The EU has attempted to enter Turkmenistan through the prospected Nabucco pipeline, however, these attempts have proved to be very difficult because their possibility for oil goes hand in hand with the Turkmen government’s level of democracy and ensured human rights. Turkmenistan does not need Europe as much as Europe needs Turkmenistan’s gas. Turkmenistan has secured a gas trade agreement with Russia which will supply Turkmenistan with a relatively high income for a relatively long time into the future. Turkmenistan now also has the pipeline agreement with China which further secures an economic income as well as securing that Saparmurat Nijazov’s Positive Neutrality remains intact thus keeping demands on Human Rights and democracy out of the picture which ensures the future of the current Turkmen government. When Turkmenistan is critiqued by the international community, the government simply isolates itself and redeems itself by referring to its recognized neutrality. This concept of neutrality is still masking the regime’s true purposes. By creating international support and recognition through promises of future reforms, mainly to Western governments, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has achieved his primary goal in securing and consolidating his power, as well as keeping the external (western) influence, such as increased transparency and human rights, distant. After the dismantling of Turkmenbasji and "The Golden Age of Turkish Men," Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has made an image of himself as the "Founding Father and Leader of the Great Renaissance Era," which is an era of which the Turkmen people and the global community are waiting for. So far, these are only empty promises about a future that has not yet developed.
Research and articles about Turkmenistan's foreign policy during Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov´s era is sparse, mainly because it has only been three years since the transfer of power and the limited research on the country. The Spanish think tanks Fride and the International Crisis Group (ICG) published in January and February 2007 articles just before Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov took over as president, one which was titled Turkmenistan after Turkmenbashi: Transition Without Transformation and Turkmenistan after Niyazov (ISG). In this article it appeared that the regime had a decision to make: to remain isolated or to liberalize their politics. However, the people making this decision were tainted with a dark shadow because of their drive and desire for power thus making no major changes in opening up their politics possible to predict. Stephen J. Blank has, since this article, published his study in September 2007 called Turkmenistan and Central Asia after Niyazov. He focused his study on describing the great powers struggle over influence in the new regime as well as on discussing the issues of who would become the successor after Saparmurat Niyazov’s death. Actual data about the true political motives and decisions have therefore not been published. Since Blank’s article, Human Rights Watch presented an article in November 2007 titled Human Rights Reform in Turkmenistan: Rhetoric or Reality, The Quaker Council for European Affairs presented an article in December 2009 called The Nabucco Gas Pipeline: A change for the EU to push for change in Turkmenistan, and CEE Bankwatch Network presented in June 2010 the article Nabucco and Turkmenistan: Our energy security, Turkmen's misery. These three separate articles examined whether Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s willingness to reform was actually true or fake. The articles concluded that the new regime’s declared reforms have so far has been a smokescreen for the international community. Their aim has been to establish international recognition and gain time to consolidate their power.
The goal of the new regime has also been to get control of gas and oil mortgages and bank accounts to keep the regime in place. Only a few "nonpolitical" reforms have been implemented, such as pension payments and the reintroduction of the full study time. This is underlined in articles from 2008 by Luca Anceschi called Analyzing the Turkmen Foreign Policy in the Era Berdymuhammedov and Richard Pomfret’s Turkmenistan's Foreign Policy. Slavomir Horak and Jan Sír have in Dismantling of totalitarianism? Turkmenistan under Berdimuhamedow from March 2009 concluded that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov wants to establish a new ideology and personality cult, without producing a real change from the previous NItazov regime. His changes are mostly cosmetic changes that have little relevance. The regime’s goal is to gain foreign business invests in the country. Slavomir Horak and Jan Sir compared official statements on the reforms in education, healthcare and media with real political activity and found that there was a big difference in what was said and what was done. However, the will to distance the new regime from Saparmurat Niyazov's politics was clear; the new regime wants to create an image of reform to improve the conditions and situation in Turkmenistan while the truth is that they wish to retain the same authoritative power and politics. The latest research in the field of Turkmen Foreign policy after Saparmurat Niyazov is Luca Anceschi’s Turkmenistan´s Foreign Policy, Positive Neutrality And The Consolidation of the Turkmen regime from 2009. This study is based on the Turkmen doctrine Positive Neutrality and it concludes that there is a correlation between the doctrine and the operational foreign policy implementation that proves that foreign policy is driven by domestic political considerations. It proves that the doctrine is intended to maintain and strengthen the power of the government and to shut out international influences through isolation.
We have participated in numerous studies proving that Turkmen foreign policy is controlled by domestic events. An open society and a political and economic integration with Western European stats are sensitive topics for the Turkmen regime because of the risk of losing autonomy. The regime preaches for democratic and economic reforms to audience outside the world, but the regime has done little to realize these reforms. What makes the Turkmen regime so afraid of implementing democracy (a multiparty system with free and independent media) and seriously introduce and support expansive economic politics that bring their people welfare and heightened prosperity? Turkmenistan has plenty of resources. Turkmenistan does not only have high gas and oil incomes; it also has an already established cotton industry and a growing textile industry. Turkmenistan’s foreign policy cannot be justified by only using and analyzing the previously named research approaches, the research subject needs – in my view - to be complemented with an cognitive perspective analysis that looks more closely at what views (subjective interpretation) the Turkmen government has. We need to understand what ideas, preconceived ideas, experiences, history, and values characterize the Turkmen government’s political approach towards the international community and their promised political direction. The case study’s thesis could be that the civil servants in the Turkmen government show a high level of cognitive consistency in the way they view their surrounding world, i.e. individuals make the world understandable by trusting their beliefs (in this case their political views/knowledge) and labor to maintain consistency between them. The theory claims that once an individual’s beliefs have developed they tend to remain intact. Certain point of views, attitudes, and values also tend to become homogeneous in political environments where having a certain political view is the only way to pursue a future career or become socially and politically accepted, so called institutionalized opinion building. Individuals with contradictory beliefs tend to be excluded from the political community which is gathered around a common political vision and belief. The process that leads to changes in individual’s social, economic, and political understanding and views is referred to in academic literature as learning, and it occurs when understanding leads to new opinions/actions that cause individuals to reevaluate their previous beliefs.
Despite the change in government when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov succeeded President Saparmurat Nijazov in 2007, the political situation is the same. There have been no crucial changes as the government is still using the same rhetoric methods. What ideas, prejudices, and values characterize the Turkmen government’s approach and attitude (political) toward the surrounding world? The study could contribute with knowledge to existing research about the Turkmen administration’s civil servants’ opinions and beliefs about their country and the world beyond Turkmenistan’s borders. Previous research shows that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov consolidates his power by appointing relatives and cadres from his home region AhalTeke. This discovery strengthens the suggestion that the people recruited to political positions not only have same political approach and vision as the president, but also share the same political opinions and values. Research has proven that by studying how foreign countries’ civil servants and other decision-makers view and interpret the world, the better we can understand and see the logic behind those foreign countries’ decisions.
Master degree in Political Scientist
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