With the world currently rocked by political unrest and open rebellion, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan on his resounding victory in last week’s elections. Apparently he won 97% of the vote! This is quite spectacular, although admittedly not as spectacular as the type of result his predecessor Saparmurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov regularly enjoyed. He could win reelection with 99.5% support. But it’s pretty good all the same.
Of course skeptics will sneer, and claim that the election was rigged. I read that representatives of the OSCE didn’t even bother to do their usual job of eating in restaurants, visiting the opera and then popping over to a couple of polling booths before wagging an admonitory finger a day later. Apparently there was no point since, according to the BBC “…fundamental freedoms continued to be restricted” in the country- which is a weird thing for an organization that monitors elections in countries where fundamental freedoms are restricted to say.
Anyway, one thing’s for sure - fair or unfair, nobody with any influence in the world wants to offend Berdymukhamedov since according to BP he’s sitting on top of the fourth largest gas reserves on the planet. It’s good to have that kind of leverage. For instance, two weeks ago when China and Russia both vetoed a condemnation of Syria at the UN, all of the outrage was directed at Russia with nary a peep heard against China. Of course, Russia also controls lots of energy but the nation’s leaders are accustomed to being hectored by the West. Indeed, Russia vs. The West insult-flinging contests are a common occurrence, and a little bit of that works wonders in Russian domestic politics. China doesn’t play that game however, and since America and Europe owe Beijing mountains of cash, Washington has opted to say very little about the Sinic aspect of the veto (although a few words were muttered on Tuesday when China’s next leader showed up in Washington).
Of course, there’s another reason why you won’t hear much about corruption in Turkmenistan. Saparmurat Niyazov was widely derided as a narcissistic lunatic in his heyday but he knew how the world worked. In 1995 he had his new state declared permanently neutral by the UN. He understood that so long as he didn’t mess about in foreign wars or fund terrorists but rather kept the oppression restricted to his own people then he could pretty much do whatever he wanted- hence the flood of gold statues, bizarre edicts and general dictatorial shenanigans. For years he got away with it until he became so eccentric that the Western media noticed and started running mocking articles on a regular basis. This annoyed Niyazov intensely, but even so, he remained free to do as he pleased.
Berdymukhamedov is less of a sinister buffoon than his predecessor. A former dentist, he spent years keeping his head down, which probably explains his rise to the top. Niyazov was extremely paranoid and regularly sacked, exiled or imprisoned officials before they could develop independent power bases. Evidently Berdymukhamedov posed no threat and survived; or perhaps Niyazov died before he could grow tired of his latest lackey.
I once spoke to a graduate of a medical institute where Berdymukhamedov worked. He told me that the future president was a dullard who was regularly berated in public by the director. Is this true? I don’t know. According to WikiLeaks, the American charges d’affaires in Ashgabat stated that the president was indeed “…not a very bright guy.” Whatever his IQ however, Berdymukhamedov clearly knows how to induce fear via the massive state security apparatus that his predecessor bequeathed him, while forcing his subjects to simulate love through a personality cult. His pictures are everywhere, he writes turgid books, and everyone is too scared to oppose his rule.
Unless the Turkmen really do love him, that is. It is hard, however, to imagine so much passion for such a mediocrity. Consider Stalin: a monster, and yet all across the former USSR he has passionate defenders. Brezhnev by contrast was relatively benign; living standards rose under his (admittedly) torpid rule and yet today he is viewed, at best, as a joke.
I visited Turkmenistan in Niyazov’s day and my experiences there left a mark on my soul. It’s an extremely strange place filled with history, psychosis and lots of people trying to quietly get by. I’d like to go back, but it’s expensive and getting a visa is not easy. Also, after a while it gets annoying to have the secret police magically appear at the table next to yours in a restaurant, or to have a state-mandated guide nipping at your heels wherever you go.
I’ve heard that some of that has changed, and the country is more relaxed now. They even have internet cafes, and not quite as many gold statues. But do they still have lots of young men, standing by the side of road, staring into space, bombed out of their skulls on smack? That’s what I want to know. Since there has been an official 2.5% decline in voter happiness since Niyazov’s day it’s even possible that there might be more of them.
Originally published 17/2/2012