The news of the passing of the president of Turkmenistan’s grandmother offers a curious insight into how information circulates in a pathologically closed nation.
The source that broke the news was, of all places, the official website of the president of Tajikistan, which released a message of condolence. Turkmen state media only got around to posting a notice about the death of Ogulabat Berdymukhamedova, 86, on the following day, on April 8.
That the Tajiks had this information so early was because Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhamedov had been due to visit Dushanbe this week. That trip, as well as the business forum that was slated to precede it, will now be postponed.
Ahead of this information emerging, there was no evident sign anything was awry in the Berdymukhamedov household.
On April 5, a couple of days before Berdymukhamedova’s passing, the president met in Ashgabat with a group of U.S. business representatives led by the familiar figure of Eric Stewart, president of the U.S.-Turkmenistan Business Council, a lobby group. Stewart’s crew was tailor-made to meet the evidently narrow area of realistic investment opportunities that American businesses might find in Turkmenistan: the vice president of the gas turbine sales division of GE Gas Power, a representative from the John Deere farming machinery giant, the vice president of renewables company, and the chairman of a refinery projects developer.
A couple of names in this group did stick out though.
One was John Reese, the vice president of Nicklaus Companies, who is in Turkmenistan once again hawking golf courses. The country opened its one and only golf course in 2017, but the U.S. company linked to the eponymous sporting legend Jack Nicklaus, is reportedly eager to add three more. Fresh alarm over looming potential water shortages caused by a major canal project in neighboring Afghanistan is unlikely to deter the Turkmen government from spending large sums on an irrigation-hungry sport that almost nobody in the country watches or plays. In Reese’s home country, golf enthusiasts worry what dwindling rivers there might mean for the sport, but few such concerns are on show in Turkmenistan. (Although, in fairness, another aspiring investor, a Turkish businessman, on April 4 lobbied his company’s services in the construction of desalination plants and advanced irrigation methods).
No less absurdly, another hopeful U.S. investor was the chief executive of Smartmatic, a company that bills itself as a world leader in electronic voting machine technology. And it may well be successful in flogging a few thousand machines since the Berdymukhamedov regime is deeply enamored of anything that smacks of digitalization. The elections themselves will, however, continue to be shams.
On which subject, Berdymukhamedov on April 6 presided over the first session of the new parliament since the country filed en masse to stage-managed polls on March 26. Not that it is of any significance, but the head of the elections commission provided a definitive account of the outcome of the vote, which has seen the ostensibly ruling Democratic Party take 65 of the 125 seats available in the Mejlis. The Agrarian Party and the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs will have 24 and 18 MPs, respectively. Another 18 elected deputies ran as independents. The last Mejlis elections saw fully 48 independents voted into the legislature, so the function of this engineered process appears to have been to consolidate, albeit in an entirely artificial and fundamentally meaningless fashion, the concept of party politics.
In a nod to gender representation, the outgoing chair of the Mejlis, Gulshat Mammedova, is to be replaced by another woman, Dunyagozel Gulmanova. The new speaker has indubitably earned her appointment by dint of her hard work, but the seriousness with which the authorities are pursuing gender equality is undermined by the distinct notion that much of this agenda is being pursued for show at a purely surface level.
On the same day as Gulmanova got the nod, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry held a patronizing event under the title, "The Turkmen woman: A model exemplary in public and state activities.” One of the archetypal women invited to attend was the poetess Gozel Shagulyeva, who can often be spotted at public events gushing with praise for the president and his father, the former president and now-National Leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
Gadfly Turkmen activists, most of whom are compelled by profound repression to base themselves abroad, will insist on bringing up how women in abusive relationships have nowhere to turn to for support, how the state has gradually shrunken access to family planning resources, and how women face widespread harassment. A nongovernmental group called Saglyk has done sterling work in trying to remedy the patriarchal state’s indifference through such measures as creation of a Turkmen-language app that helps women track their menstrual cycle and get information about their rights.
Going by the remarks made by President Berdymukhamedov at the opening of parliament, one priority for the incoming lawmakers may be to look at overhauling the armed forces. Without offering any specifics about what he meant, Berdymukhamedov said the time had come to revise legislation regulating military conscription and the status of military personnel. The army should be staffed by people strong in will and sound of mind, he argued, suggesting in effect that those qualities are currently very much lacking.
Reading between the lines, as one must, it appears that professionalization of the armed forces and perhaps an easing of the conditions of conscription, which compel any young person able to do so to flee the country, will be on the agenda.
The same day that the U.S. businesspeople came visiting, Berdymukhamedov met with guests he clearly deems far more consequential. One was the head of the Russian republic of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov, another regular habitué of Ashgabat. Moscow’s policy on Turkmenistan is to channel economic cooperation through two provinces with a cultural and geographic affinity. So it was that Berdymukhamedov also held talks on April 5 with Igor Babushkin, the governor of the Astrakhan region, which like Turkmenistan opens onto the Caspian Sea.
Business cooperation was on the agenda with both men. Minnikhanov and Berdymukhamedov recalled approvingly that a Turkmen-Tatarstan business forum had taken place on March 15-16 and that this and other events would doubtless soon bear fruit. The chat with Babushkin focused on cooperation in logistics and shipbuilding. One much-discussed plan is to establish a shipping corridor between the ports of Turkmenbashi and Astrakhan so as to enable Russia’s trading pivot southward.
Incidentally, Babushkin arrived in Ashgabat as part of a five-nation, round-the-Caspian motor rally. One can only imagine what the people of Astrakhan make of their governor taking himself off on this two-week lark.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.