May a New President in Turkmenistan Present an Alternative for the US to Promote Reform?

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The son of Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, then-Turkmenistan Overseas Minister Serdar Berdimuhamedov seems on throughout Commonwealth of Impartial States (CIS) nations council of heads of Overseas Affairs Ministers in Minsk, Belarus on Friday, April 6, 2018.

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Credit score: AP Picture/Sergei Grits, File

After 15 years in energy, wielding authoritarian insurance policies which have stored Turkmenistan remoted and on the backside of human rights rankings, Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has determined to step down and switch his duties to his son Serdar. A snap presidential election might be held on March 12 and Serdar has already been nominated because the ruling celebration’s candidate. 

The timing comes as a shock. Berdimuhamedov has spent the final a number of years grooming Serdar for a dynastic succession, selling him up via authorities ranks to more and more high-level positions, together with deputy prime minister and chairman of the Supreme Management Chamber, which controls authorities spending. However he had two years left in his present time period and will have run for reelection. Furthermore, Berdimuhamedov has spent years constructing his personal cult of character much like that of his predecessor and Turkmenistan’s solely different president since independence, Saparmurat Niyazov.

Resolution-making processes in Turkmenistan are notoriously opaque and it’s unclear why Berdimuhamedov determined to maneuver forward now along with his succession plan. Attainable causes embody his well being, as he has suffered from diabetes for years, or being rattled by the latest unrest in Kazakhstan, which started with standard protests over rising financial and social disparities. Though protests are uncommon in Turkmenistan, the nation has been gripped by a extreme financial disaster for a number of years, and there are indicators that popular dissatisfaction is growing

Serdar’s victory within the election is past doubt. Turkmenistan doesn’t have a genuinely multiparty system and has by no means held an election that met worldwide requirements. Since independence, each presidents have received with over 95 % votes, and the Group for Safety and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has assessed that the nation lacks the conditions for real democratic processes.

The true query is to what extent Serdar’s coming to energy might open the door for any political, financial or social reforms, and whether or not the worldwide neighborhood, together with the USA, might seize the second to strengthen engagement with Turkmenistan and promote reform and growth. 

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Serdar is more likely to preserve his father’s insurance policies and unchallenged energy. He’s already recognized for the authoritarian way he exercised his authority in his a number of positions inside the Turkmen administration. Furthermore, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov virtually definitely will keep hold of the levers of power, a lot as his counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan did after resigning in 2019. There are already studies that Berdimuhamedov will stay in his positions as speaker of the Senate and as chairman of the Safety Council. It will restrict Serdar’s room to provoke any sweeping modifications that run counter to his father’s views.

Nonetheless, regardless of their commonalities, there could also be sufficient distinction between father and son to open a sliver of alternative for change. Serdar not solely has extra and broader authorities expertise than his father did when he got here to energy, however he has additionally spent vital time exterior of Turkmenistan, together with in Moscow, the place he attended the Russian Overseas Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy and was connected to the Turkmen Embassy, and in Geneva, the place he attended the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He’s additionally of a special technology, one used to the higher openness of the digital age. When saying that he would step apart, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov stressed that it was essential to flip over energy to “younger leaders … in accordance with the excessive necessities of modernity.” 

Serdar seemingly is not going to be able to problem the fundamental parameters of his predecessors’ international coverage, such because the nation’s official standing of neutrality or the function of China via its investments within the gasoline sector. His time in Moscow might have resulted in stronger ties to the Russian authorities. Nonetheless, his expertise overseas might make him extra open to international companions, together with within the West, and his want to deal with not less than among the severe financial and social points going through the nation could lead on him to give attention to creating international financial relations, particularly by growing cooperation with international nations and traders. 

The scenario within the nation is dire. Hydrocarbon accounts for nine-tenths of Turkmenistan’s export earnings, and the 2014 fall in world hydrocarbon costs significantly lowered the state price range. This resulted in weakening the social welfare system, in addition to the already frail education and health systems, and triggered serious food insecurity, resulting in rationing within the state shops on which a majority of the impoverished inhabitants relies upon. This dire financial scenario has additionally resulted in large unemployment, now estimated at 60 percent, particularly amongst younger folks and in rural areas. The dearth of alternatives has led almost half of the inhabitants to to migrate, a quantity virtually unprecedented in a rustic throughout peacetime, leaving just some 2.8 million people out of a beforehand estimated inhabitants of 6 million.

Higher openness might enable U.S. corporations to interact in numerous sectors and contribute to the diversification of Turkmenistan’s economic system, which is at present virtually completely driven by the extractive sector. An elevated presence of U.S. and different Western corporations might additionally carry extra social company engagement; vocational coaching may very well be significantly helpful given the poor schooling system. A good modest opening might enable for some elevated funding in different sectors, for instance schooling, well being, and setting. 

However this elevated engagement should include higher efforts to advertise democratic reform, nonetheless small to start with, and respect for human rights. This may very well be performed bilaterally or although worldwide organizations such because the OSCE, which already has a small presence on the bottom. An excellent place to begin could be to have Serdar start to offer data on those that have disappeared within the nation’s jail system for greater than 20 years, beginning with two former international ministers: Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdiev. This might be one of the best ways that Serdar might sign his intention to the worldwide neighborhood that his authorities is able to strengthen relations with the West. 

The US and others have to be cautious to not fall into the lure of getting investments and even well-meant engagement misused by the kleptocratic system of corruption created by the primary two presidents of Turkmenistan to the advantage of their households and different elites. Serdar himself has been part of this system, and along with his father behind him, seemingly will proceed it. As an alternative, the USA and different like-minded nations ought to give attention to investing in sectors that profit the overall inhabitants greater than the political regime and its elites.

After all, with out vital reform of the authoritarian nature of the federal government, U.S. room for maneuver and the affect of worldwide engagement is more likely to stay modest. It could prove that Serdar is rather like his father, and nothing will change in Turkmenistan. However even when the possibilities of making a distinction are slim, they’re price taking. The folks of Turkmenistan deserve it. 

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