Dec 16

Inside Turkmenistan’s Economic Crisis – Part 3

Part 3: Berdymukhammedov on the brink

Turkmenistan’s economic crisis is a product of a personalised and authoritarian regime.  To return from the brink the government must do what it has never done before and begin to permit dissent.

Turkmenistan’s dependence on energy exports means that economic recovery must rely on the leadership’s steps towards mending existing trading partnerships and finding new markets for monetizing its energy resources. However, Turkmenistan’s recovery depends on internal factors as much as external factors. One possible route for the country is to liberalise its economic sector, as the Gulf states have done, in order to attract more foreign investments. However, as the experience of UAE has shown, economic liberalisation without political liberalisation does not deliver stable economic growth in the long run.

China is, perhaps, a better example for Turkmenistan as a country which liberalised its market without liberalising politics. Even so, China has had to give ground to dissenters that used institutionalised channels to make their demands and hold the government accountable to its own principles, laws, and promises. UC Berkeley Professor Kevin O’Brien defines this form of dissent as ‘rightful resistance’ (1996) in his co-authored Rightful Resistance in Rural China (2006).

The economic crisis may have elicited the birth-pains of such ‘rightful resistance’ in Turkmenistan. In the remainder of this feature, the term dissent refers to a form of ‘rightful resistance’, i.e. an expression of discontent through an appeal to the rhetoric and commitments of the elite. Today, more people are dissenting and reporting about subsistence problems, abuse of power, corruption, misappropriation, embezzlement, and extortion. These days, when reading the reports published in Alternative News Turkmenistan (ANT) and Chrono-TM, one can notice that the editors refer to unnamed insider sources more often than before. Unfortunately, the number of reports of harassment and detention of informants and journalists is also increasing (examples below). Whereas China responded with compromises to selected dissenters, the Turkmen government has, so far, responded with an increasingly authoritarian backlash against all.

Accordingly, one could conclude that the economic crisis has launched two trends in Turkmenistan. First, there is an unprecedented increase in information that is being shared from inside the country. Second, there is an increase in authoritarian dictats (see, for example, on information law of 2014 here and here) and coercive measures against any media in Turkmenistan. It appears that the economic crisis has put president Berdymukhammedov on the brink: he can either turn to increasingly authoritarian measures, betray the image of the reformer he projected to the world in 2007, and herald a new era of Niyazov-style dictatorship or he can start thinking about how recovery and liberalisation could go together in the long run to the benefit of his own political survival and the so-called common good of the Turkmen people. Although evidence indicates that he is pursuing the former option, it is critical that he begins to realise that the latter option will have to be adopted for stable economic growth in the long-term. Equally important is him coming to understand the function of dissent in highlighting the institutional failures that have contributed to the current economic crisis.  If this is understood in some regions of China, then why not in Turkmenistan?

The answer may lie in the highly personalised nature of authority in the Turkmen state.  Given the unavoidable fact that Turkmenistan remains under Berdymukhammedov’s personal rule, the country’s fate depends on which one of these options he will choose to address institutional failure inside the country. Let us put energy politics and external factors aside and focus on one of the problems that might prevent him from addressing internal problems more effectively. The problem I focus on here are the restrictions on freedom of speech, which prevent the forms of dissent that could serve as a check on economic and governmental institutions and advance the putative agendas of curtailing corruption, modernizing the industrial sector, diversifying economy, and recruiting skilled cadres that Berdymukhammedov periodically recalls during his cabinet meetings. After all, the economy has suffered not only from lack of export options but also because the institutions further down the power structure are failing due to incompetence and corruption (see latest here on administrative and governmental apparatus; see here on agriculture; on consumer products, healthcare, utilities, drug enforcement, penitentiary, military, work rights).

These kinds of failures could be better addressed if the totalitarian control on the citizens was loosened and minimal freedoms to speak and dissent afforded. Today, the Turkmen government approaches problems in the following manner: there is no economic crisis, failure, and other issues if no one reports about them. Needless to say, that does not fix anything. Even if we are to cynically dismiss any appeals to dissent because Berdymukhammedov’s concern with social problems end where his concern with self-preservation begins, the argument still holds. As the Arkadag (the Protector), he must deliver or, at least, pretend to deliver. He has not ended free utilities yet, although he wishes he could. And he still cares to portray the image of prosperity and well-being, as we have seen previously by the examples of storekeepers being ordered to keep their shelves full. Whether he realises it or not, dissent, and the public hearing of it, is crucial to the Arkadag’s hold on power and the constitution of his authority.

Today, ordinary people cannot report their day-to-day challenges, problems, and the injustices they experience without fear of punishment. Fortunately, there are brave people in Turkmenistan who speak up against corruption and make problems public despite the risks they face in doing so. These people can and do show where, how, and why the economy is suffering. Unfortunately, the state is fatally concerned with fighting the rumours and information about problems rather than the problems themselves. The state fights information at its very source.

Several examples suffice:

  • Hekim Hajiev, a mechanic at the Repair and Maintenance Department of the Turkmenneft State Oil Company, after exhausting all possible means to inform relevant state institutions about the embezzlement of public property, corruption, and abuse of power in his organization, published his letter addressed to president Berdymukhammedov on ANT website hoping that it will catch the president’s attention. He is now facing threats and abuse for this report. His life is in danger.
  • It has been more than a year since the imprisonment of Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a civil journalist who reported to ANT about social and economic problems in the Balkan region, for the alleged possession of banned substances. Nobody knows about his fate in prison.
  • On October 7, 2016, the police detained a 62-year-old Galina Vertyakova after she posted about her experience with local authorities on Odnoklassniki, a popular Russian social network. She now faces a criminal case accusing her of money extortion.
  • RFE/RL reporter Soltan Achilova has faced repeated attacks and harassment and, on December 3, another RFE/RL journalist Khudayberdy Allashov was arrested and beaten on charges of possessing chewing tobacco, a banned substance in Turkmenistan.

While these and many other people are now prevented from reporting about social, economic, and political problems, the problems themselves remain and are growing.

The suppression of these voices is, of course, connected to clientelism at the executive levels of the institutions, if not the uppermost executive level of the government. However, it is certain that one of the reasons for scrapping the two main entities of the energy sector was to reduce, in a single blow, a large number of elements in a corrupt system. So, it is reasonable to suppose that the president has some concern about corruption. As Singapore’s example shows, reduction in administrative bodies contributes to reducing the instances of corruption; yet, a true measure against corruption is and always has been the reduction of the democratic deficit at the social level and an increase in the possibility of dissent.

The Turkmen government will not be able to achieve a full economic recovery without letting the information on social and economic circumstances be delivered by the ordinary people and journalists. The crisis must show Berdymukhammedov, who is probably concerned most of all with preservation of his power, that this step introduces no risk to his presidency. On the contrary, freedom of speech is important for the preservation of power in the current economic crisis. Speaking out, making public the injustice and corruption in the peripheral bodies of administration, law enforcement, and governance feed information that is essential for targeted policies on pertinent problems, which in turn carry the president’s burden of proof. Again, Berdymukhammedov could take his lead from China where senior officials tolerate dissenters in some cases because dissent allows the identification of incompetent and corrupt officials and prompts corrective actions that prolong and absolve autocratic power.

Repression of dissent at the social level masks the problems of incompetence and corruption at the executive levels. Lack of competence and expertise is a pertinent issue at virtually all executive levels of government, administration, and industry. One of the causes of this problem is the president’s periodic practice of cabinet reshuffles. Arguably, he does this in order to prevent anyone in the government from establishing powerful networks of clients that could destabilise the power structure and threaten his rule. The downside of such stability is that no one that is rotated into an office is entirely clear how to manage the institution most effectively. They know their appointment is temporary, and so they attempt to get the most out of the position for their self-interest. Such strategies of circulation and control are not working for the economy. What is necessary are the reduction of reshuffles and, if personal rule is to remain a feature of Turkmenistan’s politics, the introduction of term times with possible reappointment upon evaluation by bodies directly under president’s control (this body is called ‘Yokary Gozegchilik’, a supervisory body outside the organizational structure of the Turkmen government that answers only to the president). In principle, this may not prevent cadres from eventually consolidating some sort of power and garnering their own network but, in a country with a population of fewer than 5 million people and high loyalty benefits in key positions of a relatively uncontested and small government, such worries come near paranoia and thus must be abandoned.

Going higher still, it is questionable whether the president’s immediate circle feels like it could complement his own ignorance regarding the problems of the country. The personnel that gets regularly reshuffled from cabinet to cabinet across the country comment, in extremely exclusive company occasioned to gather in the farthest proximity from the capital, that the president is indeed not well versed in public administration, economics, or law. But is there a politician that knows all this? The cabinet knows that the president is sensitive to comments that point to his ignorance. Berdymukhammedov is keen to project a near Papal infallibility and vision. This is evident in the TV transmissions of cabinet meetings: all members of the government must stand there, noses sunk just above the pen scribbling furiously on the notepad while the president gives orders on what they ought to do. They write even when not spoken too, even when the substantive content of president’s speech and decrees does not concern them.

For a leader, resolution of the economic crisis, or any crisis, requires dissent and deliberation at least with one’s own cabinet. Surely the president must know that an opinion against his stated preference might actually point at what should be his real preference. He was once a cabinet member himself. Alas, power has its own mystique and we may only hope. Yashgeldi Kakaev, the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the energy sector, has given the impression of being an open-minded and intelligent technocrat to a few Western energy and security experts who expressed hope that the energy sector in his charge could be a positive sign for the economy. The fate of this hope depends on whether the president invites Kakaev into a frank dialogue and welcomes his ideas.

Obviously, arguing for the value of dissent and freedom of speech appears to be a naïve hope given the nature of regime.  Nevertheless, the time for bringing about real liberalisation inside Turkmenistan is ripening but there is a real danger that such hopes will vanish for another generation. Citizens of Turkmenistan, observers, scholars, human rights defenders, business intelligence professionals, investors – we await how the tension between the two trends prompted by the economic crisis will play out. First, there is an increase in authoritarianism and cult of personality in the country. Second, there is an unprecedented increase in the amount of information coming from within the country through various mediums.

Expect that the first trend will keep rising. The government cannot suppress the spread of information outside its borders, so it will crack down heavily on the insider sources, journalists, and people like Hekim Hajiev, who simply want to point the attention of the powerful to the growing problems in the industrial sector and express their discontent by appealing to the president’s rhetoric and commitments without any appeals to human rights or criticisms of the existing political establishment. As the government runs out of cash, Berdymukhammedov is likely to practice increasingly coercive means to maintain the loyalty of his subordinates, which means a reduction of the size of the government and eventual totalitarian control of everything he can possibly control. Following the Asian Olympics in 2017, it is possible that radical Islamic terrorism and drug trafficking will serve as pretext for outrageous purges similar to Niyazov’s purges in 2003.

Recovering from the current economic crisis requires diversified energy exports and, more importantly, diversified economy supported by foreign investments. Berdymukhammedov is aware of this and continues to seek foreign investors. But investors are attracted by transparency, predictability and accountability – features that his regime lacks. They are also attracted by a well-functioning interior government, which requires dissent. We can only wait and observe which direction President Berdymukhammedov will steer his personal rule. In the meantime, however, we must protect the momentum of information sharing from inside the country and support those who speak up wherever possible.

* Ronald Watson is a pseudonym for a business analyst with experience of working in Turkmenistan