Political protest is beginning rise in Turkmenistan and, due to the worsening state of the economy and influence of the Turkmen diaspora, the nascent movement may even have a genuine chance of overthrowing the repressive Democratic Party of Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan is arguably the most-closed former republic of the Soviet Union and receives scant attention as a result. The vicious repression of domestic political dissent, paired with the republic’s small number of intellectuals and strong Soviet traditions – which have seen it dubbed a “Stalinist Disneyland” – has left it as a Soviet holdover on the international stage. Recently, Turkmenistan has, however, been in the spotlight, as it dubiously claims to have no cases of COVID-19 and dissatisfaction within the Turkmen public and diaspora is boiling over into protest as the state of the economy continues to deteriorate. That situation, writes Vitaly Ponomarev, is a new phenomenon within Turkmenistan and one that has the potential to lead to change, as the repressed Turkmen people are now equipped with an opposition to the leading Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (TDP) in the form of rising Turkmen voices abroad and, subsequently, at home.
Turkmenistan’s current economic woes can be attributed to the dual blows of falling natural gas prices and exports, and a reduction of food imports into the republic, ailments which are made all the worse in a political system that appears to scorn pragmatism and reform.
Turkmenistan depends on exporting natural gas to stay afloat, and the leadership has been loath to diversify the economy, leaving it as a cookie-cutter petrostate. Russia cancelled its contract for Turkmen gas imports in early 2016 and Iran suspended its in early 2017 over a contract dispute, leaving Turkmenistan mostly dependent on the export of its natural gas to China; natural gas exports to China now constitute 90 per cent of Turkmenistan’s total exports. Although Russia resumed imports of Turkmen gas in 2019, Ashgabat is dependent on Chinese demand, and Moscow shows no signs of extending its hand to reassert itself in the republic at China’s expense.
In light of this, Beijing’s recent decisions that favour gas imports from Kazakhstan as opposed to Turkmenistan can be seen as economically ruinous for the latter. Beijing seems relatively happy with its degree of influence in Turkmenistan, so much so that it feels it can weaken the republic’s economic situation without causing backlash against it and, if anything, deepen Ashgabat’s reliance upon it. The problem is compounded by the fact that over half of Turkmenistan’s natural gas exports are delivered to China through the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline, a pipeline that was financed by a loan from Beijing and is something that Ashgabat is now finding difficult to maintain. The dire situation around natural gas exports has even prompted President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, one usually fond of deluding himself, to comment on the impending recession.
Food security in Turkmenistan has also been declining for several years, and COVID-19 was the coup de grâce. Due to Turkmenistan’s geographical location and climate, it must import food to feed its population. Ashgabat imports 60 per cent of its domestic food needs and 80 per cent of that comes from neighbouring Iran. On 24 February, the government decided to shut its 1,148-kilometre border with the Islamic Republic in an endeavour to curb the spread of COVID-19, while, at the same time, halting vital food imports. Before this decision, a delicate balance was in place between domestic state-owned stores, at which most Turkmen people shop due to controlled prices, and private sector food suppliers, which are less desirable despite having a greater range of goods due to their higher prices. That balance has now been destroyed, and local people are forced to queue for hours at half-empty state-owned stores, where they might not even find what they need, or buy goods from private suppliers with money that they do not have.
Scenes that mirror Soviet times have subsequently re-emerged in Turkmenistan: long queues for basic necessities, empty shelves, restrictive rationing and citizens looking to sell whatever they have on the streets to raise money for food. Quarrels are breaking out between youths, who start queuing from 11pm, and latecomers who arrive at 4am or 5am, usually the disabled and veterans of the Afghanistan war.
In the past, few in the republic would have spoken out against the situation. Neither would the diaspora. Now there is a different feel, however, as the people have grown tired of the repressive TDP and are more willing to voice their anger and listen to the dissenting voices of Turkmen abroad. The protest movement has ‘arisen spontaneously but developed very rapidly’, writes Ponomarev, and it seems that the locals’ fear of the TDP is beginning to wane.
The diaspora has also been attracting a lot of attention. This is largely due to the presence of Dursoltan Taganova, a Turkmen woman living in Turkey who has assumed leadership of the opposition. Taganova’s perception and style of dissent mirrors that of Belarus’s Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has been an effective figure in mobilising Belarus’s current protest movement. Taganova’s presence undoubtedly injects confidence into the movement in Turkmenistan and bolsters its legitimacy abroad, further reinforcing the fact that this time, it is different.
In response to the growing dissatisfaction and protest, there is every chance that Ashgabat could fall back on repressive policies and try to snuff out the movement, Soviet style. Yet the worsening state of the economy and the populist legitimacy of the nascent protest movement make it less likely. This time, the TDP may genuinely be under threat and may even risks being overthrown if it does not act. It seems that one of the last vestiges of the Soviet Union is finally capitulating.