Turkmenistan: And the award goes to...

Turkmenistan: And the award goes to...
The March election was a poor exercise in democracy, according to the OSCE's vote monitors. / Turkmenistan government website
By Akhal-Teke: A Eurasianet Bulletin October 19, 2023

More than seven months after Turkmenistan held what was, when considered in democratic terms, a pointless parliamentary election, the report card is in.

In its final report on the March 26 polls, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE’s) vote-assessing body delivered a predictable litany of criticisms.

ODIHR, as the body is known by its initials, can usually contrive some praise of technical issues to sweeten the medicine, but even that was lacking.

Beyond the lack of competitiveness, the suffocating control over the media, the non-existence of real choice, and the absence of voter engagement, monitors noted that many election personnel had little understanding of their job and that the legal framework for conducting the vote was inadequate. Bewilderingly for an election where there is no competition, ODIHR observers found multiple indications of ballot box-stuffing.

Turkmenistan not only does not know – or want to know – how to hold a fair election; it does not even know how to pretend to hold a fair election.

There is no evidence that the country’s international partners are too bothered.

The OSCE’s chairman-in-office, Bujar Osmani, visited Turkmenistan and held meetings with a whole array of top officials, including President Serdar Berdimuhamedov, on October 9, the day the final election report was published. It does not look, going by what little public information was made available, like the defective elections were even brought up in conversations.

Osmani, who is also the foreign minister of North Macedonia, met first during his visit with Dunyagozel Gulmanova, the chairwoman of the Mejlis, as the lower house of parliament is known. Despite the Mejlis being, by the OSCE vote observers’ own reckoning, a hollow and unrepresentative body formed through a sham process, Osmani praised it as “an important partner for implementing OSCE initiatives.”

This inadvertently tells a rich story about the value of “OSCE initiatives” in Turkmenistan.

Berdimuhamedov certainly seems satisfied. Knowing that there was little chance his words would be challenged, he spoke to Osmani of how Turkmenistan “attaches great importance to upholding … human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law” and how – wink wink – “interaction with the OSCE in this direction will continue in the future.”

In the real world, even the most fundamental rights of Turkmen citizens are being trampled, a fact attested to by the extreme difficulty that many experience in getting hold of international travel documents.

As RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlykreported on October 16, the number of people in the Lebap province applying for a passport is apparently now so high that it is not even possible for applicants to put in their papers for the document before May 2024.

This is not a matter of bureaucratic lethargy. The authorities are clearly throwing hurdles in the way to deny people the ability to move freely out of the country, as is their right. In September, Azatlyk reported that migration officials were refusing to accept applications from people with Soviet-issued birth certificates, meaning that those people then had to go through the time-consuming process of getting that document updated. The broadcaster also reported from Balkan province on the increase in the rejection of applications from people with children who are still minor or those who were unable to provide paperwork confirming the absence of a criminal record among relatives going back three generations.

The OSCE assists Turkmenistan in the area of travel documents, incidentally. Not in how to issue them more seamlessly, but on how to detect their fraudulent use – as if Turkmen passport control needs an excuse to stop people from leaving or entering the country.

Stopping people from going to Turkmenistan is something that the government does effortlessly by default.

It appears that the Turkmenistan Golf Federation wrote a letter dated October 11 to the hopeful participants of the Ashgabat Golf Cup tournament that was scheduled to take place this week to inform them that the event has been postponed to next year over COVID-19 restrictions.

The existence of the letter was initially reported by Russia-based website Golf.ru, but the article has since been pulled.

Returning to the topic of the Mejlis, Amsterdam-based website Turkmen.news carried an entertaining article earlier this month dwelling on how the chamber is populated, to use the publication’s own language, by work-shy “parasites.”

One name of note in the chamber is that of Aylar Nuryeva, a recent university graduate who appears to have earned her spot by virtue of her father being deputy foreign minister Vepa Khadzhiyev. Nuryeva is currently on maternity leave.

Others, like Atamurat Muradov, similarly benefitted from nepotism, but have been forced to fall back on their wits to remain in favour. Muradov’s older brother, Gochmurad, was removed from his post as deputy prime minister in February 2020.

As Turkmen.news explained, all Muradov used to do in his job as parliament press liaison officer was call in state media and stand to one side while deputies gave on-camera interviews. Once Muradov’s brother was out of the picture, though, the MP was forced to prove his relevance. He took, in a moment of inspiration, to writing out cue cards for deputies speaking to TV journalists.  

“The trick worked: now Muradov is deemed a valued specialist, and nobody is talking about his dismissal,” the website concluded. Such are the lawmaker’s achievements that he regularly receives state awards, Turkmen.news reported.

The awards go in the other direction too. State media reported on October 10 that President Berdimuhamedov had been awarded the Arkadag medal – so named in honour of his father, the former president – in recognition of his “worthy contribution to the successful implementation of the state’s humane social policy.” The resolution to bestow the medal was adopted by the Mejlis.

Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.