Staunton, January 10 – Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has long been worried about the implications for his dictatorial regime of Afghanistan and the return home of his citizens who had gone to the Middle East to fight for the Islamic State. But the protests in Iran have truly frightened him, according to sources close to his office.
The reasons are not far to seek: Turkmenistan adjoins Iran, and many of the protests in Iranian cities involved ethnic Turkmens, Fergana analyst Atadzhan Nepesov writes; and the Iranians began by complaining about economic problems shared by Turkmens and then demanded regime change (fergananews.com/articles/9731).
Berdymukhamedov has good reason to have such fears, the Fergana writer says, especially since he recently cancelled special subsidies that his government had promised the population would last until 2030, a move that has worsened the economic situation in Turkmenistan and appears to be overcoming clan and family divisions he has long relied on.
By cancelling those benefits, Nepesov says, the Turkmenistan leader “violaged for the first time the unspoken agreement” between the population and himself in which the people would give him unquestioned loyalty in exchange for his giving them “a paradise in which everything is free.”
Like the late Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov, Berdymukhamedov is quite prepared to drown any protesters in blood and is skilled in playing up the differences among the Turkmens who are far less a unified nation than are the Iranians or the Uzbeks. But the conjunction of his cancellation of benefits and the Iranian events has frightened him, the analyst continues.
Over the last year, there have been indications that Turkmens are more prepared to engage in protest activity than at any time in the recent past, with people in one district taking to the streets to protest the end of certain benefits and others refusing to go into the fields to pick cotton as the government has always required them to do.
Berdymukhamedov is afraid that these still isolated protests will coalesce especially now that Turkmens have a model for such behavior in neighboring Iran. But instead of trying to calm the situation by making concessions in advance, he has decided as has always been his custom to “tighten the screws,” directing his special services “to be on the alert.”
Over the last 12 months, he has convened his national security council 17 times, Nepesov says; “and each time he has insistently demanded that the force structures not allow any shaking of the socio-political situation.” In this, he has placed particular hopes on the ministry of national security.
At the same time, the analyst points out, there is good reason to think that Berdymukhamedov will avoid becoming too dependent on that ministry given that ministry as he certainly recalls what happened in 2002 when its senior officers revolted against his predecessor who only by his good fortune found out in time and put more than 70 senior officers in prison.
But the last four months make it clear that the current Turkmenistan leader still plans to rely first and foremost on repression. In September, just before he abrogated the social contract, he called on the security forces to ensure “the formation of a positive social and political climate in the country” in their own distinctive way.
In October, Berdymukhamedov ordered the ministry of national security to crush the protests that had arisen in rural areas. And he ordered the arrest or expulsion of foreign journalists and used government-controlled media to attack all of his opponents most of whom now are forced to live abroad. And in December, he called on the security ministry to work closely with the military and interior ministry to ensure quiet.
An Ashgabat lawyer told Nepesov that he is “convinced tha tBerdymukhamedov, frightened by the events in Iran will broaden the list of prohibitions in the country and make Turkmenistant into even more of a police state,” thus unintentionally stoking “popular anger” and making an eventual explosion more likely.
There is certainly evidence of this: In recent weeks, the Turkmenistan regime has banned cars of any color except white and prohibited women from driving. So many people have been detained, the lawyer continues, that there is no space to hold them at the traffic police detention center.
What Berdymukhamedov needs to understand is that if his repression sparks general protests, the very first of his officials to go over to the side of the demonstrators will be those in the national security ministries. “I know whereof I speak,” the lawyer says. No one wants to die for Berdymukhamedov.
Many others consider the Turkmenistan leader’s reliance on fear as a mistake, especially now that Turkmens can see with their own eyes on the Internet or from travels into Iran what is taking place in their southern neighbor – even if the seven government channels of Turkmen state television never show anything.
“A source close to the government,” Nepesov continues, “says that Berdymukhamedov still has time to change his failed and dead end domestic policy and to win the true trust and respect of the people. But the misfortune is that there is no one in the country capable of telling” the president that he needs to do this to his face.