Turkmenistan’s dynastic transfer of power has a twist

Turkmenistan’s transition ushers in a new hybrid model of governance, but its entrenched authoritarian system and all-pervasive kleptocracy is unlikely to change.

Expert comment Published 22 March 2022 4 minute READ

As Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine at the end of February, authorities in Turkmenistan – an autocratic post-Soviet state with the world’s fourth largest gas reserves – avoided any talk of the war and instead urged citizens to vote early in the snap presidential election on 12 March.

As predicted, Serdar Berdimuhamedow – son of long-time president Gurbanguly – garnered the majority of the vote and was sworn into office, ushering in the Central Asian region’s first dynastic succession and only the second such transfer of power in the entire post-Soviet space.

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is set to retain his role as chair of the parliament’s upper chamber, the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council) – a position that will allow him to oversee and directly influence state policy in addition to wielding power behind the scenes.

Are two Berdimuhamedows better than one?

Turkmenistan’s current transition model is unique. By combining a dynastic succession with a ruling duumvirate, Gurbanguly appears to be hoping to avoid some of the pitfalls suffered by previous succession models in the region – such as in neighbouring Kazakhstan where ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev ruled as part of a political tandem with the hand-picked president, Kassym Jomart-Tokayev, creating heightened intra-elite conflict and ending in violent failure.

By combining a dynastic succession with a ruling duumvirate, Gurbanguly appears to be hoping to avoid some of the pitfalls suffered by previous succession models in the region

Such scandals make leaders look vulnerable. Considering the paramount need to secure kleptocratic revenues and the presidential legacy, the smart autocrat will attempt to hand-pick a successor – ideally a son or daughter – whose loyalty is unimpeachable. Going down the dynasty route and filling the halls of government with relatives can work quite well – until it fails and things fall apart in grand fashion.

In Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev’s son-in-law Rahat Aliyev, whom he had been grooming for succession in the late 1990s/early 2000s, was convicted of plotting to overthrow Nazarbayev’s government and ultimately died in prison in Vienna. The daughter of the deceased president of Uzbekistan, Gulnara Karimova, whom many believed was a potential successor to her father, also ended up in prison following a spectacular downfall as a result of her illegal business activities and use of social networks.

Dynastic succession did take place successfully in Azerbaijan when, in 2003, President Heydar Aliyev stepped aside in favour of his son, Ilham, who remains in power to this day. However, Aliyev Senior died a mere 42 days after the swearing in of Aliyev Junior, leaving the ‘living father-son transfer of power model’ essentially untested.

The more consolidated and compact the authoritarian regime, the more openly the grooming of a successor can take place. This is the case in Turkmenistan and also Tajikistan, whose president Emomali Rahmon – in power since 1994 and Central Asia’s longest-serving autocrat – clearly plans to hand power to his eldest son Rustam Emomali, currently chair of Tajikistan’s National Assembly and mayor of the country’s capital Dushanbe.

Similar to Nazarbayev’s original plan, the elder Berdimuhamedow does not plan to fully step back from power. In a blatant constitutional violation, before the election Gurbanguly simultaneously held the posts of president, chair of the Cabinet of Ministers and leader of parliament’s upper chamber.

As Turkmenistan has no vice president, and the posts of president and prime minister are one and the same, in his capacity as head of the People’s Council he is now the second highest ranking official. In addition, the chair of the upper chamber is next in line for the presidency, which means Gurbanguly is slated to take power again if his son dies or is incapacitated.

But politics in Turkmenistan is a scripted affair. Of greater importance for the presidential duo than the mechanics of succession and the intricacies of the constitution is the way the new father-son tandem can lower the risk of contestation over of state assets among the country’s elites.

The new hybrid model should prove an easier act to pull off in Turkmenistan compared to most other post-Soviet states, as the country’s elites are relatively small in number and highly consolidated. The extended Berdimuhamedow family is already firmly in control of many lucrative sectors, particularly trade, where they amass personal fortunes.

Election in a hurry

The official reason for calling snap elections was Gurbanguly’s expressed wish to pass the presidential baton to a younger generation. But his rationale for holding elections two years early at the relatively young age of 64 remains the subject of much speculation.

Although rumours have circulated for years that Gurbanguly suffers from diabetes, the actual condition of his health is one of many carefully guarded state secrets. Given the elder Berdimuhamedow’s well-publicized penchant for horse-racing, public singing, shooting, cycling, car racing, flying planes and even DJ-ing, it is conceivable that the ex-president simply grew tired over the years of micromanaging the day-to-day affairs of state and was driven to ensure the early continuity of the family’s rule.

Serdar had been in grooming to take over the presidency for six years. The constitution was amended in 2016 in order to lower the age limit for the presidency to 40 – a threshold that Serdar reached in 2021. In April of that same year, Gurbanguly was unexpectedly elected to the upper chamber of parliament and, a few months later, chosen as its head. The idea of holding early presidential elections was then first mooted in November 2021.

Serdar appears dour and distinctly lacking in rhetorical flair. Official media in Turkmenistan paid scant attention to him until November 2016 when he became a parliamentary deputy, marking the beginning of a meteoric rise through various government posts, including governor of the country’s most important province and positions in the hydropower sector as well as the agriculture and foreign ministries. In 2021 he was appointed a deputy prime minister, given a seat on the State Security Council and named the chair of the Supreme Control Chamber, a body that oversees government spending.

The entire electoral campaign was limited to just one month, making it practically impossible to nominate other candidates, while minimizing the chance of derailing the transition process. Serdar officially won just under 73 per cent on a claimed 97 per cent turnout, while none of the other eight candidates – all lacking in significant political experience and appearing to be running for the sole purpose of filling out the ballot – received more than 11 per cent.

Serdar’s modest victory with only slightly more than 70 percent of the vote came as a surprise, especially when compared to official claims that his father had received more than 97 per cent of the vote in both of the last two presidential elections. Yet, an overwhelming win to rival his father’s previous victories could have appeared as an embarrassment and even unseemly.

Of greater importance for the presidential duo than the mechanics of succession and the intricacies of the constitution is the way the new father-son tandem can lower the risk of contestation over of state assets among the country’s elites

The announcement of the final vote took an unexpected three days as, according to unofficial reports, administrators were required to spend the entire night from 13-14 March changing ballots in districts where Serdar had not been selected by voters.

Ballot stuffing, mis-recording of votes, and other vote-rigging practices were reportedly on full display. One Radio Liberty correspondent claims officials from an electoral district in Lebap Province telephoned a family to demand they ‘send at least one member to the polling centre’, prompting the family to send an 11-year old boy with both his parents’ passports.

A familiar policy trajectory

For years, Turkmenistan’s economy has been marked by widespread poverty, inflation, unemployment, and abysmal levels of food security, prompting an exodus of around two million people over the last decade according to indirect data on emigration.

But the main methods of governance will almost certainly remain intact under the new president, namely systemic embezzlement of state revenues, a near total absence of reliable statistics and other information, and the harsh repression of any dissention from officially-sanctioned policy.

Turkmenistan’s dynastic transfer of power has a twist 2nd part

As is the habit of most new leaders, Serdar is likely to undertake his own brand of reforms, such as reshaping his cabinet, but will not alter the basic structure of the authoritarian kleptocracy that forms the bedrock of the country’s polity and economy.

Compared to his father, Serdar has much more work and study experience abroad and is considerably more tech-savvy. As a result, the new president could be tempted to follow – albeit in a limited fashion – the example of Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who improved relations with neighbouring states after coming to power while continuing to spurn liberalization at home.

Turkmenistan’s recent transfer of power might offer a new transition model for the region’s autocrats, but the structure of the country’s kleptocratic system means that Serdar’s style of governance is likely to follow old, tired patterns.