Turkmenistan is a country that doesn’t often receive much international attention, beyond the occasional article about the eccentricities of its leaders past and present or the vast size of its gas reserves. Yet, as new research by the Foreign Policy Centre shows, when it is exposed to greater scrutiny it becomes clear that it is a country facing a sustained economic and human rights crisis.
The economy has seen over a significant decline over the last four years due to falling gas revenues and a lack of hard currency, but in the last two years this has also combined with failed harvests, leaving the population facing widespread food shortages – rationing of bread, flour and other essentials in the official state shops that were once subsidised – and spiralling prices in the black market.
This economic crisis has in turn led to the regime’s repression of its people becoming ever tighter and the personality cult of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov becoming ever more grandiose, taking standard Central Asian authoritarian practices to the most extreme extent possible. Turkmenistan’s massive human rights abuses have seen it ranked as worst in the world by the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index, at the bottom of the Freedom House rankings and placing 161st out of 180 in the Transparency International rankings.
Turkmenistan uses forced labour on a massive scale, with public sector workers required to help bring in the cotton harvests. Failed harvests for grain have been matched by failed harvests for cotton, pushing even more people into the cotton fields to desperately try and meet delusional quotas that are passed down from the President.
The Prove they Are Alive campaign has documented at least 121 known cases where prisoners, including many rights activists, in Turkmenistan’s squalid, abuse-ridden prison system have ‘disappeared’. They have not been allowed to see their families for years, with no information provided about their condition or if they are even still alive.
The regime has carried out widespread crackdowns on independent journalists, human rights activists and independent NGOS. With independent voices limited to a handful of exiled websites such as Turkmen News, the Chronicles of Turkmenistan and RFE/RL’s Turkmen service Azatlyk, getting accurate news out of the country can be a challenge, as was shown by the unsubstantiated rumours over the weekend of 20th-21st July 2019 that swept the internet claiming that the President had died.
Home demolition for vanity projects such as the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games left many homeless with little or no compensation. Women have faced ad-hoc efforts from officials to prevent them from driving, buying cigarettes or wearing non-traditional dress at work. Religious minorities face persecution while state control of religion tightly restricts and side-lines mainstream worship. Sex between men remains illegal and LGBTQ Turkmen face persecution and forced medical examinations. The Government also attempts to stop people leaving Turkmenistan, and puts pressure on their families to return.
Despite the abuse meted out by the regime to its citizens, the international community has often seemed more interested in the economic opportunities on offer in Turkmenistan
However, despite the abuse meted out by the regime to its citizens, the international community has often seemed more interested in the economic opportunities on offer in Turkmenistan, notably from those gas reserves. However in addition to the current economic crises there are major structural problems.
In many ways Turkmenistan is a "Potemkin economy", with marble facades, respectable official GDP figures and a tightly controlled state run sector masking huge structural challenges and a chaotic black economy. Investor risks include: the whims of the President leading to arbitrary behaviour by a sclerotic bureaucracy; a high risk of non-payment for goods or services; endemic corruption; insecurity of legal title or contracts; the lack of rule of law and independent judiciary; as well as of course the reputational risks from being associated with such severe human rights abuses.
While Turkmenistan’s isolation means it has often been seen as immune to international influence, the current chaos does leave some, albeit limited, opportunities to create pressure for change. For example pressure can be built, as it was with some success in neighbouring Uzbekistan, to move to end the use of forced labour through pressure on cotton supply chains. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development can be encouraged to hold off on expanding lending to Turkmenistan in the absence of progress on human rights. Western countries such as the UK should be made to think again about prioritising trade promotion given the lack of reform that threatens both Turkmenistan’s citizens and international investors.