President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s visit to New York to attend the UN General Assembly this year was not as momentous as his first in 2007, when hopes were high for his reforms. It wasn’t even as noteworthy as subsequent years when UN member states, UN agency staff, and oil company executives eagerly participated in round tables at the UN with the leader of this gas-rich Central Asian state, and when business people were eager to make his acquaintance.
This year, other Central Asian leaders overshadowed Berdymukhamedov. Kyrgyzstan’s President Roza Otunbayeva was in demand for meetings with diplomats and public figures as Kyrgyzstan is running against Pakistan for a seat in the UN Security Council. Uzbek Foreign Minister Elyor Ganiev met in Washington with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, just as the US Administration persuaded the Senate Appropriations Committee to drop language from the foreign operations bill restricting military aid to Uzbekistan, opening the door for more Pentagon contracts to assist the Northern Distribution Network supplying troops in Afghanistan.
Suddenly Berdymukhamedov, with his vaguely-worded proposals for various grandiose UN committees and conferences was seemingly sidelined by the US preference for bilateralism, although Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Susan Elliott was on hand to take him on a guided tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
While the UN Secretariat has put a fair amount of resources into the Ashgabat-based UN Centre for Preventive Diplomacy in Central Asia, after more than four years of work, the secretive body has little to show in terms of impact on Central Asian states warring with each other over water and energy resources. Turkmenistan’s plan for peace in Afghanistan involving hosting talks of combatants in Afghanistan, as it did for Tajikistan’s civil war, has been ignored. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s UN correspondent Nikola Krastev reports that Berdymukhamedov’s speeches sounded particularly dense and incomprehensible this year – but they are no different than those in the past, it’s just that the receptive audience has moved on. More to the point, given Turkmenistan’s still closed nature and its lack of skilled diplomats – its mission is very small – there is some question as to whether Ashgabat has the capacity to manage the ambitious programs it is proposing. These include the Caspian Environment Forum which would serve as a permanent body to deal with environmental issues in the Caspian basin – issues like the desertification of the Aral Sea which have resisted every type of local, regional and international body already for 20 years.
To be sure, at the head of the Turkmen mission is Aksoltan Atayeva, who has perhaps an unenviable distinction as the longest-serving permanent representative at the UN, having presented her credentials to Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali back in February 1995. But, as Krastev notes, “tenure does not necessarily translate into expertise or capacity.” Atayeva’s profile is very low at the UN – Turkmenistan’s leader may make big proposals at the General Assembly every year, and Turkmenistan serves as one of several dozen vice presidents of that body, but it does not stand out. Diplomats often say that as a small country, Turkmenistan does not have a budget, yet it has not chosen to use its considerable gas revenues for foreign relations – at least at the UN in New York. Recently, a new mission to the UN was opened in Geneva, and perhaps Ashgabat plans a more visible role there.
Atayeva is one of a number of women holding senior positions in Turkmenistan that at first can create the illusion of female empowerment. It’s true of Central Asia in general that one sees more women in public office – Kyrgyzstan’s Otunbayeva is an obvious example. Some analysts attribute the greater presence of women in public life in Central Asia to the nomadic past of some of its peoples, where relations between men and women were more equal, or to 75 years of Soviet rule, where a nominal equality was enforced and women were encouraged to work, although also bearing most of the burden of housework and childcare.
But does this greater visibility of females translate into actual political power? RFE/RL recently published a list of its picks of the 10 most influential women in Central Asia, and among them was Akja Nurberdyeva, the head of Turkmenistan’s Mejlis, or rubber-stamp parliament. Running a body totally subordinate to the president hardly seems like a triumph for women’s rights, yet RFE/RL still saw Nurberdyeva hopefully as understanding of “the need for change” but then attributed to her a situation where she was “prevented from action by loyalty to the regime” – a kind of oxymoron. (Women less loyal to the regime and more bent on change become RFE/RL correspondents, like Ogulsapar Muradova, who was arrested for helping a French documentary film crew and died of torture in prison.)
RFE/RL says Nurberdyeva has “taken steps to open up her isolationist, energy-rich country to the rest of the world” by which they meant organizing obviously presidentially-approved exchange trips by Mejlis members to the European Parliament – one of those well-meaning enterprises where some Western planners hope that if Turkmens see a democratic parliament, it will somehow rub off on them. That seems unlikely, given that they are in a body whose chairman, Ovezgeldy Atayev (Nurberdyev’s predecessor and no relation to the ambassador) was swiftly removed and arrested because he stood in the way of Berdymukhamedov’s unconstitutional sweep to power.
Looking at the head or parliament or a UN ambassador or other female heads of various Turkmen agencies, you get the impression that the male leaders of Turkmenistan see outward-facing political representation as women’s work, while the real decision-making is done behind closed doors without them. The women in public office serve as kind of social hostesses to keep the semblance of participation going while the real action is elsewhere.
There are other female officials, such as Education Minister Gulshat Mamedova, who appear to have a great deal of power, but only within the confines of serving a patriarchal system vertically managed by the president. Mamedova recently accompanied Berdymukhamedov on a trip to Lebap velayat, where local officials in agencies under her management collected funds to give her a present, as is the usual custom, the independent émigré news site chrono-tm.org reported.
Although herself a seeming symbol of women’s equality, Mamedova curiously ruled during her visit that married women should no longer serve as secretaries in educational institutions, and that only unmarried women could take these positions. Perhaps she was implying that women should remain in the home, but there was a more immediate concern. Teachers and education workers are the main audiences deployed to attend numerous state-organized patriotic festivals and concerts, which are increasing in the run-up to Turkmenistan’s 20th anniversary of independence in October. Evidently single women are expected to have evenings more free than women married with children.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Turkmenistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Sifting the Karakum blog. To subscribe to the weekly email with a digest of international and regional press, write [email protected]