Government officials finding themselves in post one day and indefinitely imprisoned the next is the sort of thing one imagines happening in the days of the Iron Curtain, or in a failed South American state. But capricious and arbitrary rule by whim is alive and well in the shadowy and underexposed Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan.
Last week Turkmen Trade Minister Amandurdy Ishanov was led off in handcuffs to one of the regime’s notoriously abusive prisons alongside numerous other condemned men after publicly “confessing” to a corruption charge launched by the country’s unpredictable ruler, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. The dubious admission before a Turkmen court took place with all the theatrics of a show trial, with anonymous witnesses claiming that the authorities were motivated by the desire to look proactive in tackling corruption. Doubtless some personal scores within the regime were being settled, too.
Turkmenistan’s president, who took over from independence-era dictator Sapurmarat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov in 2006, is known for his surreal public stunts. These performances would be amusing were they not the actions of a very real modern dictator, and include lifting a barbell before applauding ministers for broadcast on state media, starring in a video in which he fires rifles and throws knives while donning action-hero combats, and appearing with obviously-dubbed vocals in a musical Christmas holiday special. Given this is a man who also spends his impoverished citizens’ money on gilded equestrian statues of himself, one is not filled with confidence as to his propensity for judicial objectivity.
If Ishanov is in fact guilty, his crimes represent a drop in the ocean for this backward and corrupt state. A recent report by the respected UK think tank The Foreign Policy Centre describes corruption as “an endemic feature of Turkmenistan’s economic life”, with Transparency International ranking it 161st out of 180 countries surveyed. Berdymukhammedov’s relatives reportedly benefit from the state’s coffers, with public funds being funnelled through state-affiliated companies run by the president’s family members as a matter of routine.
When the denounced Ishanov commences his time as a guest of the government he will face a bleak future. Not only has he been jailed for an indeterminate and undisclosed period, he will also likely face torture and unsanitary conditions. Turkmenistan has an appalling human rights record, with the Bertelsmann Transformation Index rating it 119th out of 129, and a ranking of 204th of 2010 in the Freedom House Freedom in the World Index. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office lists Turkmenistan as a Human Rights Priority Country, and the regime has been criticised by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe for lacking any of the prerequisites of a democratic process.
Critics of the government can find themselves imprisoned without proper trial for indefinite periods, with relatives kept entirely in the dark as to their loves ones’ fate. Some dissidents simply disappear altogether, in the manner in which anyone daring to criticize the Soviet regime could find themselves “unpersoned” in the 20th century. Inmates have no access to legal representation, external medical professionals or to contact with international monitoring organisations. The 'Prove They Are Alive Campaign' has also documented prison beatings and other inhumane practices within the system.
The sudden sacking of a trade minister feels like the action of a desperate regime. The government is clutching at straws to find some breakthrough for the flagging economy as it seeks foreign investment. Its systematic failure to do so, and Berdymukhammedov’s repeated failure to accept responsibility, combine to give the strong impression that Ishanov may have been an all too convenient scapegoat.
Without serious domestic reform it is unlikely that Turkmenistan’s image as an investment prospect is ever likely to improve. Its investment landscape is fraught with inherent risk, both financial and reputational. Procurement is conducted on the basis of personal and political connections with regime officials, and poor public finances and lack of currency have repeatedly led to non-payment of contracts. There is not only a lack of liquidity; there is outright government impecuniosity.
There is serial abuse of investor rights; the Cakiroglu Group suspended operations in Turkmenistan in 2018 after being owed several million dollars by the government and agricultural producers have seen their assets seized as soon as they become profitable. Russian-based telecoms company MTS witnessed its licence to use state telecoms infrastructure arbitrarily and suddenly terminated in an act that saw a monopoly restored to the state operator and losses to MTS running into the millions. Neither are Turkmen companies are not trusted abroad – the European Aviation Safety Agency banned Turkmenistan Airlines from flying within EU airspace for safety reasons.
Private sector businesses operating inside Turkmenistan risk exposure to supply chains that may include forced labour; especially during the cotton harvest thousands are forced from their homes and their regular jobs to pick cotton in Turkmenistan’s vast fields. Driven and unpaid labour includes the use of children.
While Turkmenistan’s need for economic restructuring goes unattended and its people languish in poverty, the persecution of political dissidents and the abuse of prisoners continues. Two weeks ago the deaths of two graduates in prison was documented; they had been jailed for their support of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, and another Gulen supporter, Alisher Mukametgulyev, is continually denied urgent medical assistance while he is detained in the Ovadan-Depe jail. The regime also practices the imprisonment of conscientious objectors.
As the economic crisis deepens, Berdymukhammedov is sure to look around for yet more officials to blame. In statist command economies such as Turkmenistan individuals seek officialdom for the protection and advantages it brings, but in this unreformed post-Soviet country it appears that no-one – except the president himself – is truly safe.