PANNIER: A very Turkmen coup

PANNIER: A very Turkmen coup
Look who's looming over Serdar again. / Turkmenistan state news agency.
By Bruce Pannier January 27, 2023

It was on February 11 last year that then-Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov addressed the Halk Maslahaty, the upper house of parliament, announcing to the gathered deputies that after more than 15 years as president he was stepping down.

“The road to public administration at a new stage in the development of our country should be given to young leaders,” Berdimuhamedov said, paving the way for a snap presidential election that was conducted in March.

Apparently, however, the young leaders have failed in their task. On January 21, 65-year-old Berdimuhamedov, following what you might term a very Turkmen coup, returned as head of state, albeit with a different title.

At a session of parliament, deputies conferred the title of “National Leader of the Turkmen People” on Berdimuhamedov, reconfirmed him as chairman of the Halk Maslahaty and then amended the constitution to change the Halk Maslahaty into a new state body with powers previously reserved for the president.

It all amounted to a quite amazing show of no confidence in the sitting president, Berdimuhamedov’s son Serdar, and an unprecedented switch, for any country in Central Asia, of authority from the executive to the legislative branch of government, even though technically, the recreated Halk Maslahaty is an independent state body.

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, a leader with costly foibles so bizarre he sometimes sprang to global attention (as here on "Tonight with John Oliver" in 2019), is back (Credit: screenshot).

It also puts Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, as chairman of the Halk Maslahaty, back in charge of Turkmenistan.

In hindsight, it could be that the former president, now head of the supreme organ of the government, might have just initiated a back-up plan.

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov pitched the idea of a bicameral parliament at the start of 2021. Turkmenistan’s parliament had always been unicameral, as the Mejlis.

By March 2021, the constitution had been amended and the Mejlis became parliament’s lower house.

In April 2021, Berdimuhamedov was named chairman of the Halk Maslahaty, now the upper house.

This was in fact unconstitutional as the Halk Maslahaty chairman is next in line to take over for the president if the latter is unable to carry out the duties of office, and Berdimuhamedov occupied both positions.

The move also set the stage for a dynastic transfer of power that allowed the father to closely monitor the progress of the son. Many believe Serdar was never more than a figurehead these past 10 months and that his father continued to run the country, while remaining next in line constitutionally to take power if something happened to Serdar.

Many transformations

The Halk Maslahaty has undergone many transformations since Turkmenistan became independent in late 1991.

When Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, proposed its creation in February 1992, he said it should consist of all the key members of the government, local officials, business community representatives, artists, scientists, members of the clergy, and others.

None of its members were elected in a popular vote and it was an unwieldy body, but it served to give formal approval to the at times bizarre whims of Niyazov.

In September 1996, the Halk Maslahaty called for Niyazov to be made leader for life.

In August 2002, it approved Niyazov’s idea to rename the days of the week and months of the year.

The Halk Maslahaty was then elevated to a position above parliament in August 2003 in response to the November 2002 assassination attempt on Niyazov. Turkmen investigators claimed part of the plot involved quickly assembling the 50 Mejlis deputies after Niyazov was dead and approving a new leader and government.

The Halk Maslahaty at that time had more than 2,000 members spread out across the country. It was difficult to hastily convene a session. That fact mitigated the quick approval of a new leader in the wake of a coup.

The Halk Maslahaty repeatedly rejected Niyazov’s almost surely disingenuous proposals to hold another presidential election, and to later allow him to retire. But the body proved it could transfer loyalty easily when Niyazov died in December 2006 – the Halk Maslahaty quickly approved the then relatively unknown health minister and former dentist, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, to be acting president.

That development came after the Halk Maslahaty stripped the speaker of parliament, Ovezgeldy Atazov, of his position. The constitution said the speaker should have become acting president. Instead Atazov was quickly charged with inciting inter-clan rivalries and arrested.

Berdimuhamedov went on to abolish the Halk Maslahaty when changes were made to the constitution in 2008. He replaced it with a Council of Elders. But after being elected for a third presidential term in February 2017, he resurrected the Halk Maslahaty to replace the Council of Elders.

The next year, as an economic crisis deepened in Turkmenistan, the Halk Maslahaty approved Berdimuhamedov’s proposal to cancel free allotments of gas, electricity and water that the state had provided to citizens almost since independence.

Changes ‘needed’

On 11 January 2023, when he spoke to the Halk Maslahaty, Berdimuhamedov said changes to the legislative branch of government were needed. He said a commission would be formed to work out the amendments, but there was no mention of a commission when the amendments were approved 10 days later.

Why it was necessary to significantly upgrade the Halk Maslahaty’s status now is not entirely clear, but the move almost certainly stems from the elder Berdimuhamedov’s disapproval of the performance of his son as president.

Serdar Berdimuhamedov never seemed comfortable with the mantle of leadership.

Even when he was being rapidly promoted through the ranks of government; from parliamentary deputy in 2016, to deputy foreign minister, provincial governor, and by 2021, deputy chairman of the cabinet of ministers, he seemed ill at ease in footage broadcast by state media or photos published by state press.

When he was elected president, Serdar was only 40-years-old. The leaders he has met with on state visits or at summits are significantly older and more politically experienced.

The meeting Serdar had in December with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who were both pushing Turkmenistan to ship gas to Europe via their countries, is an example. Serdar’s first state visit as president to Russia last June, when he met with Vladimir Putin, who pressured Turkmenistan not to ship gas to Europe, is another.

The word is that Serdar is not a good negotiator.

At a time when there is renewed interest in Turkmenistan’s major export, natural gas, it could be that the elder Berdimuhamedov believes it is important that he leads any talks on potential new gas exports.

Serdar is of course still president. Yet his father might think Serdar needs more experience before he continues representing Turkmenistan in meetings with foreign leaders.

For whatever reasons, Serdar has certainly been stripped of his powers.

The Halk Maslahaty has been made responsible for, among other things, domestic and foreign policy, security and military affairs and proposing and adopting legislation and constitutional changes.

As one article has suggested, “the law adopted … makes the president of Turkmenistan completely dependent on the Halk Maslahaty” as “any decisions and resolutions of the [Halk Maslahaty] must be implicitly implemented by all civil servants, primarily the President of Turkmenistan.”

Portraits of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov are being hung all over the country again and he is featuring more prominently on state television.

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is not president, but in his roles as National Leader of the Turkmen People and Chairman of the Halk Maslahaty, he is clearly running Turkmenistan again.