The president of Turkmenistan has approved changes to the constitution downgrading the role of parliament in favor of a revived People’s Council, canceling a minor token gesture toward democratization adopted a decade ago.
At the same time, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has followed through on his long-awaited plan to cancel wide-ranging subsidies that guaranteed Turkmen households free gas, water and electricity.
Parliament speaker Akdja Nurberdiyeva said on October 10 that the People’s Council, or Halk Maslahaty in Turkmen, which was before its abolition in 2008 drawn from a motley assortment of mainly unelected public figures and community elders, will now become the highest representative institution in the country. Nurberdiyeva said this move had previously been approved unanimously by parliament.
This change is ostensibly moot, since neither parliament nor the People’s Council exercise any independent power and are simply used to lend a slight representative sheen to the president’s edicts. In 2008, the constitution was changed to scrap the People’s Council, which typically convened around once a year to formalize important policies, and its powers were redistributed to the president and parliament. The council was an assembly that grew in size throughout the years — at its culmination it brought together more than 2,500 representatives. It was the brainchild of the late President Saparmurat Niyazov, who created it in 1992 in the would-be mold of an ancient, pre-Soviet institution that supposedly better reflected the people’s will than a fully elected assembly. In practice, however, such was the scale of People’s Council meetings that no real discussions were possible or welcomed, so proceedings were usually devoted to panegyrics to the president.
Niyazov’s designs for the People’s Council were most explicitly laid out after the alleged attempt on his life in late 2002. In one illuminating speech, he explained that it would be more difficult for plotters and political opponents to connive with a body composed of 2,507 people than with parliament, which has only a few dozen members. It feels unlikely that even Berdymukhamedov has attained such intense heights of paranoia, although it is possible that he perceives shades of grumbling among the nation’s elite as an ongoing economic crisis compels his security services to squeeze businessmen for every available cent as a way to line the state’s coffers.
The attendance during the council gatherings of fulsomely bearded village elders in woolly hats and bright red overcoats did, at least, make for handsome pictures. That Berdymukhamedov is reverting to this body as his ultimate source of legitimization speaks volumes about his disregard for even pretending to pursue democratic reforms.
“The creation of the People’s Council corresponds to the interests of the people,” Berdymukhamedov remarked.
Speaking of the interests of the people, Berdymukhamedov also signed off on a government decree abolishing state benefits in place since 1992 that provided the population with unlimited free household gas, water and electricity. In 2003, Niyazov decreed that the benefits should remain in place until 2030.
But Berdymukhamedov said on October 10, reprising earlier remarks, that the time had come to get rid of the subsidies as a way of cutting back on government expenditures.
“This system of social benefits has fulfilled its role, and the introduction of a new scale of tariffs will usher in a more cautious and rational use of resources, the prevention of excess spending and the preservation of the country's natural wealth,” the president said.
He then further justified this policy by reminding listeners that the Council of Elders, a consultative body of village leaders, had repeatedly demanded the introduction of payment for utilities.
Berdymukhamedov did note, however, that the requirement to pay for the utilities would phased in gradually.
The Council of Elders elected, on the suggestion of parliament, to reward Berdymukhamedov for his "outstanding services to the state and to society” by awarding him the title of Hero of Turkmenistan — making it the second time he has been awarded the same title. The first time Berdymukhamedov was made a Hero of Turkmenistan was in 2011, to mark the 20th anniversary of independence.
As a second-time recipient of the title, Berdymukhamedov is eligible for a one-off payment of $100,000 and tax-exempt doubling of his salary. He still has some way to go before reaching Niyazov, who was awarded the title of Hero of Turkmenistan no less than six times.