Is Turkmenistan's stability a myth?

Updated on
The World

[GlobalPost Moscow correspondent Miriam Elder recently traveled to Turkmenistan where she reported on the country's stability, below, as well as its new leader and the battle for its natural gas resources.]

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan — On the surface, Turkmenistan is a sleepy country.

The capital, Ashgabat, is quiet as a ghost town, with pristine streets boasting massive newly built skyscrapers, swept to cleanliness by legions of women constantly shuffling straw brooms.

Yet underneath, storms are brewing.

The country sits in a rough neighborhood, sharing long borders with Afghanistan, Iran and Uzbekistan.

As one western diplomat put it: "They're stuck between snakes, scorpions and the Taliban."

That fact has not been lost on the United States, which has quietly been building a series of border posts in Turkmenistan, aiming, for now, to stop the flow of heroin trafficking to the country. A border post with Iran was opened in 2006, with Afghanistan in 2007 and with Uzbekistan in late October. At least two more are planned.

The issue is a sensitive one. Turkmenistan — named in official documents as Independent and Permanently Neutral Turkmenistan — has made neutrality the central pillar of its foreign policy, rejecting U.S. attempts to build a base in the country to service the war in neighboring Afghanistan and shutting Russian-manned bases soon after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Yet the potential threats to Turkmen stability are real. Sources in the capital say heroin flows freely throughout and through the country. With that could come other influences — arms traffickers, Islamic fundamentalists, the Taliban.

Turkmenistan is a mainly Muslim country, with a minority of ethnic Russians who tend to be Russian Orthodox. For now, Islam has been co-opted by the state and strict belief is not widespread.

Bazaar Ashgabat

The main bazaar on the outskirts of Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat.
(Miriam Elder/GlobalPost)

A few years before his death in late 2006, Turkmenbashi, an eccentric dictator and the country’s first post-Soviet president, built a grand mosque on the outskirts of the capital. Its halls feature sayings from the president engraved alongside phrases from the Koran — something that would be considered blasphemous in other Muslim countries.

In forging a post-Soviet identity, Turkmenbashi instituted a strict nationalism, banning things seen as alien, such as opera, ballet and the circus. The current president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has rolled this back a bit, but has encouraged nationalism in other ways, by forcing children to wear traditional dress to school, for example.

"If they fail to buid this ideology, we know what ideology they will embrace," the western diplomat said.

Turkmenistan's much touted stability rests on the autocratic rule of its president, and a population left largely complacent by a heavily subsidized lifestyle.

Unemployment, officially, stands at 5 percent. International organizations, and Turkmens themselves, put the number closer to 50 percent.

"It's hard to find work," said one man moonlighting as a taxi driver. "But in Uzbekistan it's even worse. It's expensive there, you have to pay for everything."

That’s not the case in Turkmenistan. Basic services — water, heating gas — are free. Wheat is subsidized. Each citizen gets a monthly ration of electricity and gas for their cars, and the price beyond that is negligible. Those Turkmens who do find work stand to make an average $200-$300 a month.

“They don’t need that much money to survive here, because so much is free,” said another western diplomat. “As long as you toe the line, don’t complain about the regime, about the president, then you have a good life.”

Some Turkmen disagree. The most shocking illustration of that came in September 2008, in an incident little reported because of the government’s strict control over domestic media and reluctance to cooperate with foreign media. One year later, details remain murky.

What is clear is that a group of men — former security officials, according to some, heroin traffickers according to others, active members of a local mosque according to still others — holed up in a discarded bottling plant in a quiet Ashgabat neighborhood. Having amassed an impressive arsenal of guns and grenades, they held off security forces for hours (estimates range from 18 hours to three days). A gunfight ensued. The state called in tanks. By the end of the siege, all the men were dead, along with some 50 security officials.

The siege was unprecedented in a relatively quiet country that employs a vast domestic spying network to keep a check on its own citizens.

What’s more, the siege has developed a mythical status in the eyes of some Turkmen — a lone example of the possibility to stand up to a state that hampers freedom while amassing massive wealth from vast energy resources that does not trickle down to the population at large.

“He’s a hero,” said one 24-year-old man in Ashgabat, speaking of the siege ringleader. “Everyone supported him. My neighbors and I thought, 'Should we go?' We would have gone into the streets if everyone went, but no one did.”

That would be the regime’s worst fear. While observers praise certain freedoms won under Berdymukhamedov — namely freedom of travel and access to the internet — many decry the fact that dozens of political prisoners remain in jail.

In late October, one of the country’s most prominent activists, with a history of government run-ins, was arrested on charges of hooliganism, following similar charges in December 2006 that left him briefly imprisoned and then banned from leaving the country. Andrei Zatoka, an environmental activist, claims in a letter to be published in the event of his re-arrest and obtained by GlobalPost that he is the subject of a pressure campaign by security services.

The security services — both uniformed and undercover — are ubiquitous, monitoring streets and workplaces, keeping a close tab on the people.

"They're everywhere. They appear mainly out of uniform," said one Turkmen in the city of Mary, in central Turkmenistan. "People are scared. No one criticizes our president, no one says one word against him. If you do, then it's jail."

Recently, one western diplomat said, the state has begun breaking up religious meetings, under the pretense that they are gatherings of drug dealers, in a bid to avoid organized opposition.

For now, these appear to be preventative measures. As the first western diplomat noted: “Compared to what's going on in the region it's very stable and calm."

Read more on Turkmenistan:

Turkmenistan now has opera — but real change?

Turkmenistan: The new Great Game