Turkmenistan has been called the Zimbabwe of Central Asia: it is a potentially rich, small country with a very poor population and a regime that has grown increasingly bizarre and repressive over the years.
Turkmenistan borders the Caspian Sea and sits between two energy giants, Kazakhstan and Iran. Like them, it wants to export oil and gas but until recently has lacked outlets to reach world markets. All that might change with the new oil pipeline that has opened on the west bank of the Caspian, connecting Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia — and with other international plans to lay pipelines across the Caspian bed.
Until that materialises, Turkmenistan remains mostly isolated and largely agricultural, in terrain that is 80 per cent desert. Fifteen years ago, the cotton industry it inherited from Soviet times made it the tenth-largest cotton producer in the world, but since then, continuous decline has seen the crop fall by one half, and critical ecological damage to large swathes of cultivated land from over-use of fertilisers and water-diversion.
One thing to have burgeoned since Turkmenistan’s independence in 1991 is the power and status of its president, the former Communist Party chief Saparmyrat Niyazov, who scores the constitutional hat-trick of being chief of state and head of government, as well as appointing all the judges to Turkmenistani courts. In 1999 his term of office was extended indefinitely by the People’s Council, which last year unanimously voted down his proposal to stand for re-election in 2009.
As might be expected in a state without parties — and the cult of only one personality — there is no freedom of speech in Turkmenistan. In April 2005 a presidential decree banned all foreign newspapers and another one closed all libraries. The TV, radio and four national newspapers are all owned by the state. Major world events have failed to reach Turkmenistan’s media and even significant news from Central Asia has gone unreported — like the massacre of civilians that took place in the Uzbek city of Andijan in May 2005.
In November 2002, through unofficial channels, it was reported that there had been an assassination attempt against President Niyazov. Arrests of journalists, political functionaries, religious believers — and relatives of all these people — followed in quick succession. Turkmenistan does not have the death penalty, but many people suspected of opposing Niyazov have ‘disappeared’ and hundreds more have been tortured.
Index on Censorship, autumn 2006