Turkmenistan’s petro-authoritarianism is likely to continue to be fuelled by a combination of its large natural gas reserves, small population and steady global demand for natural gas, writes Annette Bohr.
Revenues from hydrocarbons exports are used by the leadership to finance pervasive security services and patronage networks. Corruption and general lack of transparency continue, with virtually no information available to the public on the budget and government spending. President Berdimuhamedow and his small elite circle have no incentive to introduce reforms as long as they are able to meet societal aspirations and control dissent. If a transition from Turkmenistan’s authoritarian regime were to take place, it would be more likely to result in a new brand of authoritarianism.
Regional loyalties still hold sway, despite efforts at nation-building. The president’s Ahalteke tribe is predominant in governing institutions and business networks. Personnel reshuffles occur regularly, but mid-level officials in particular are retaining their positions for longer, potentially allowing them to cultivate their own power bases. Turkmenistan suffers from an acute shortage of skilled personnel, a degradation of the educational system and an underdeveloped industrial base. The infrastructure, healthcare and education projects undertaken under Berdimuhamedow have tended to be of a showcase nature. The activities of the citizenry are micro-managed and civil liberties curtailed. Large-scale popular unrest is unlikely without systemic changes fuelled by economic development, higher levels of education, occupational specialization and urbanization, and a concomitant increase in the number of intellectual elites. In the long term, albeit very gradually, modern communications technologies could spawn a new set of societal aspirations.
Despite a marked increase in state diplomacy, Turkmenistan has taken few genuine steps to engage with the international community. The country has yet to capitalize fully on its position as a ‘gas giant’ and it faces considerable challenges in every direction in getting its gas to market. Exports to China should continue to provide a reliable stream of revenues, but the slump in world energy prices and the cessation of gas exports to Russia and possibly to Iran mean that Turkmenistan still needs to hedge its bets. In the event of a dramatic economic downturn, Aşgabat might reconsider its current stance of limiting production-sharing agreements for foreign firms to offshore oil and gas blocks. Efforts by Western governments and international organizations to foster development need to be made in relatively apolitical areas, such as agriculture, healthcare and education. This could include promoting efficient water usage, transparency in the health system, joint educational and cultural projects an exchange programmes. In addition, support should be given to international broadcasters, such as Radio Liberty, the BBC, the Voice of America and Deutsche Welle, to maintain Turkmen- and Russian language broadcasts to Turkmenistan, given their value as one of the few sources of alternative information for the population.
At the same time, concerns about human rights and religious freedom should be raised during bilateral meetings with the government of Turkmenistan, and Western embassies and international organizations should maintain contact with human rights activists and ensure review of Turkmenistan’s record in appropriate international forums. Legal regulations or propositions from the government of Turkmenistan likely to facilitate corruption should be brought to the attention of Western investors, and the Turkmen authorities should be encouraged to increase transparency and accountability with regard to hydrocarbons revenues.