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An Assessment of Turkmenistan’s Non-Failed and Non-Started Transition

Tiago Ferreira Lopes tarafından yazıldı.

The high hopes of the 1990’s that the dissolution of the Soviet Union would lead to an inevitable liberalization, modernization and democratization in all the newly established Republics was met with the realization, in the early years of the XXI century, that the path towards substantive democracy is less linear, less unilateral and less inevitable than that initially predicted. Nevertheless, it is inaccurate to assume that the transition failed in post-Soviet Turkmenistan. Because a transition can only fail once it begins…

Re-reading Transitology: from preordained democratization to uncertain outcome

The high hopes for full democratization of the post-soviet space can be traced back to two quintessential academic works. The first remark was made by Dankwart Rustow when he stated that “the genesis of democracy (…) has not only considerable intrinsic interest for most of the world; it has greater pragmatic relevance” (1970: 340).

At that time Leonid Brezhnev was the leader of the USSR, following the interesting leadership of Nikita Khrushchev that had partially opened and modernized the USSR and reversed the most repressing and totalitarian legal dispositions of Stalin after the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Khrushchev’s early reforms had given a new impetus to the USSR and it seemed that the USSR could mutate internally via progressive modernization and eventually substantive democratization.

The second influence on transitologists highly hopeful expectations came from John Williamson’s Washington Consensus (1989). The concept posited that liberalization of the markets would lead to democratization of politics. The concept would be harshly disproved by reality throughout the 1990’s and the first decade of the 2000’s.

It comes with little surprise that in the end of the 1980’s, experts in the field of Transitology were arguing that “transitions were delimited, on the one side, by the launching of the process of dissolution of an authoritarian regime and, on the other, by the installation of some form of democracy” (O’Donnell, Schmitter, 1986: 6). In other words, a transition would only be successful if the initially authoritarian regime would end-up by becoming more democratic in style and nature.

To be accurate, there were academics that had warned against the high expectations of most transitologists. Adam Przeworski was one of the first ones, when he wrote that “those (…) who found in the transitions to democracy in Spain, Greece, Argentina, Brazil or the Philippines a readymade model for Hungary, Poland, or the Soviet Union were looking for the symptoms of pneumonia (…) [and] did not diagnose the cancer” (1991: 21). The message was clear. There was a need to keep in mind that the successes of the third wave of transitions (in Southern Europe and Latin America) would not be repeated during the fourth wave (post-Soviet space).

In the middle of the 1990s the emergence of conflicts in Transnistria (Moldova), Abkhazia (Georgia), South Ossetia (Georgia), Chechnya (Russian Federation), Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenia/Azerbaijan), Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan dampened the expectations for a linear, predictable transitional path. Alfred Stepan and Juan Linz were crystal clear when they argued that “authoritarian regimes are not necessarily in transition to a different type of regime” (1996: 39).

The end of the 1990’s brought the realization that “the experience of the first decade of Post-communism subverts (…) most of the prevailing ideas and paradigms in the analysis of democratization and democracy” (Fish, 1999: 795) since the contextual specificities and institutional legacies were dramatically different from those faced by the countries of the third wave of transitions.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s several transitologists had become more sceptical about the inevitability of the democratization of regimes. The argument made was that “the post-soviet transition should not be regarded as preordained, as if there is an inevitability about the future form the post-Soviet states will take” (Smith, 1999: 2). In this regard transitions become “the interval between one political regime and another, and its chief characteristic is uncertainty” (Gill, 2000: 44).

It becomes clear that transitions are specific moments of political contestation in which the institutional and structural pillars of a certain socio-political space are open to full contestation. Unlike in reformation, in which the institutional system is redesigned in its practices but not in its nature and in which the structural pillars are only gradually changed; in a transition the nature of the institutional system is open for contestation and the structural pillars might be subjected to rapid and radical transformation.



Overview of Turkmenistan’s historical path

Turkmenistan’s history is as fascinating as complex. Early accounts position proto-Turkmen tribes, from the third century BC to the fourth century AD, inside the Kingdom of Parthia. Parthia is mostly known for its fierce and successful opposition against the powerful Roman Empire. In the eight century the land was engulfed by the first Arab-Muslim expansion; Turkmens became part of the Umayyad Caliphate.

In the eleventh century the Turkmen tribes were part of the Seljuk-dominated Khorezm Empire. The Seljuks share with the Turkmen the same ethnic origin, since both “are descendants of nomadic Turkic tribes known as the Oghuz, which migrated to the land, from the southern Siberia and northern Mongolia around the ninth century” (Peimani, 2009: 174). The Khorezm Empire did not survive the Mongol raids of 1218-1221. With the division of Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire, the majority of Turkmen tribes fell under the rule of the Chagatay Khanate with the exception of the tribes to the Southeast that were engulfed by the Ilkhanate.

In the fifteen century the Turkmen tribes of the North came under the influence of the newly emerged Persian Safavid Empire while the Southern tribes became nominal subjects of the Uzbek rulers of Khiva and Bukhara. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries “the Turkmens suffered attacks from the north first by Kalmuk and Noghay tribes, then by the Aday Qazaqs” (Annanepesov, 2003: 128).

The Russian Empire conquered nowadays Turkmenistan in the end of the nineteenth century, demarcating its current borders under the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1895. Local rulers were granted with substantial cultural, educational and economic autonomy as long as they would remain politically loyal to the tsar and to his representatives.

“Turkmenistan was proclaimed a republic in October 1924 when Central Asia was divided administratively by the Bolshevik government in Moscow” (Nissman, 1997: 635), immediately after the collapse of Russian Empire (1917) and following the victory of the Bolsheviks in the subsequent Red-White Civil War (1917-1922).

Interestingly the policy of Russification of the 1930’s-1940’s, implemented in all other Central Asian Republics and in the Caucasus, had little success in Soviet Turkmenistan. According to Igor Lipovsky “Russification was impeded by highly unfavourable climatic conditions which stood in the way of development of agriculture and industry” (2012: 56), which allowed the Turkmens to retain a distinct, less Soviet-oriented, sense of identity. Turkmens were once again de jure nominal subjects of an external power, but de facto autonomous.

The combination of a harsh climate with severe geomorphological characteristics might explain the isolation of Turkmenistan. This isolation led to the brewing of a hard-line social and political conservatism. In this regard, it is easier to understand why “during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, Turkmenistan had a reputation as one of the most conservative and backward Soviet republics” (Cummings, Osh, 2002: 115).

The events of 1991 that led to the implosion of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new political players in many of the newly sovereign republics, resulted in the nominal dismantling of Turkmenistan’s Communist Party but structurally and de facto nothing changed. Saparmurat Niyazov, leader of the Republic since 1985, remained in power. We can safely conclude that “since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkmenistan has emerged as arguably the most authoritarian state in Central Asia” (Sabol, 2010: 5) and the one less prone to change.

Post-Soviet Turkmenistan: a non-failed, non-started transition

“Turkmenistan has been referred to as a worst-case scenario of post-soviet development” (Norman, 2007: 19), especially since the death of President Niyazov in 2006. The isolation of Turkmenistan coupled with the energetic resources of the country allowed the elites to resist to internal turmoil and external influences. There was never open contestation of Turkmenistan’s structures and institutions in the 1990s.

In that regard, we can argue that“Turkmenistan functions as an integrated economic and social system, which  keeps the population docile through a mix of basic needs satisfaction, benefits for the presidents’ clients and a pervasive security apparatus” (Pomfret, 2008: 16) that keeps external interference at bay. Foreign Relations with the European Union, stipulated under the Interim Trade Agreement of 1998, did not mean a strengthening of the civil society or a softening of the nature of the political institutions.

In what regards Politics, it is clear that Turkmenistan remains President-o-centric like it has been since the Soviet times. The death of President Niyazov in 2006 and its replacement by President Berdymukhamedov did not brought any significant change. Since the declaration of independence and sovereignty the country has faced the fact that “although the Constitution of Turkmenistan stipulated the formal existence of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, in practice only the executive branch exercised any real power” (Bohr, 2007: 709).

The real political power is with the small elite circle around the President. This became obvious when this same elite was able to circumvent the Constitution after the death of President “For Life” Niyazov. To be more precise, in December 2006 “the nomination of Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov asacting President of Turkmenistan, after the death of Niyazov, did not follow the Constitutional procedures that would make Öwezgeldi Ataýew, Chairman of the Assembly (Parliament), the rightful successor” (Lopes, 2012: 9). The elite, and not the Constitution, defined the next man in charge of Turkmenistan.

Politics in post-soviet Turkmenistan have been characterized by stagnation and crystallization of autocratic tendencies, something that the local government dubbed as “stability”. There was never a moment of open contestation in which the regime structure, institutional nature or bureaucratic actions were submitted to meaningful examination and in which alternative modes of governance were de facto considered. Even the power transfer “from one personality-based regime to another was also clearly motivated by this internal elite” (Horák, 2010: 38) that holds a strong grip over the state and the society.

If we focus, for a moment, on Turkmenistan’s social evolution it is relevant to notice that “the Turkmen society remains to this day based largely on neighbour and commune relations; clan and tribal solidarity” (Safronov, 2000: 74). There is little interest in the enhancement of a substantive macro-identity linking the main tribes of Turkmenistan. On the other hand, there has been a deliberate tendency to develop a sense of national belonging through a unifying personality cult around the President that led President Niyazov to even change the calendar of the country in August 2002 (decision reversed by President Berdymukhamedov in 2008).

The stagnation of societal evolution is eased by the fact that national mobility remains elusive in Turkmenistan. In this regard, it is important to highlight that “tribes in Turkmenistan are tied to regions: the Akhal-Teke tribe is associated with the Ashgabat (now Akhal) veloyat (province); the Mary-Teke with the Mary veloyat; the western-Yumot with the Krasnovodsk (now Balkan) veloyat; the northern-Yumot with the Tashauz veloyat; and the Ersari with the Charjou (now Lebap) veloyat” (Akbarzadeh, 2001: 454). Identity is defined in relation to a certain territoriality that limits the drive for mobility.

The lack of geographical mobility, the poor development of a substantive macro-identity and the unwillingness to liberalize the economy and to modernize the bureaucracy, stems from the survival instinct of the ruling elite. It is relevant to point out that Turkmenistan’s “tribal disunity has been one of the most influential determinants [to explain the survival of] the centralized, repressive political system” (Matveeva, 1999: 32).

The use of internal tensions as a mechanism for social control is not a tool developed by the post-soviet Turkmenistan State, but it is a legacy inherited from Soviet times. In that regard there is little, if any, surprise that “Berdymuhammedov and his entourage have failed to promote a genuine process of political liberalization, and the regime continues to enjoy monopolistic control over Turkmenistan’s political landscape” (Anceschi, 2008: 36).

It is now evident that the claims of some experts, academics and analysts that post-soviet Turkmenistan had failed its transition are misplaced. Turkmenistan did not fail the transition because the transition never began. There was a nominal mutation of some institutions and practices but the nature of the regime and the structures of the regime remain the same.

At best, it is possible to argue that post-soviet Turkmenistan underwent a period of reform but never a transition. It is not wrong to assert that “the political elite hoped to create a system that would bring about necessary reforms with minimal disruption” (Kareem, 1997: 395), but to assume that those reforms were a transition is an unnecessary misconception that brings no value to the analysis of political phenomena happening in contemporary post-soviet Turkmenistan.


Dr. Tiago Ferreira Lopes
Assistant Professor at Institute of Business Administration (IBA, Karachi, Pakistan)
Researcher at the Orient Institute (ISCSP, Lisbon, Portugal)
Expert at Strategic Outlook (Konya, Turkey)

Articles posted on the 21st Century Turkey Institute website reflect only the views and assessments of their authors, not necessarily those of the Institute. They are not endorsed completely or partially by the 21st Century Turkey Institute, nor do they represent corporate policy.


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