A year ago, when Turkmenistan was celebrating the ascent of Serdar Berdimuhamedov to its presidency, I wrote an article entitled “Meet the Old Boss, Same as the New Boss.” That was a serious understatement. A year later Serdar lives even deeper in the shadow of his father, former President Gurbanguly “Arkadag” Berdimuhamedov. For less than a calendar year, the two men ruled in a tandemocracy. But Serdar’s father recently reasserted his primacy in the power structure, taking on even more elaborate titles, reconstituting institutions with himself at the helm, and consolidating his powerful role in the country.
I had intended to write this piece as a “Year in Review” of Serdar’s first year in office, reflecting and examining what has changed, what has not, and what we have managed to learn about Serdar’s leadership style and vision for Turkmenistan. Events have overtaken this anniversary.
Serdar ran for president in what can only be described as a tightly orchestrated election, predetermined to anoint him as his father’s successor. As much of the world was busy emerging from pandemic lockdown, Serdar’s accession was perhaps one of the most-overlooked events of 2022. He is the country’s third president, but what has resulted from the new leadership? To what degree has there been real change? And what is his father up to with his reorganization of the Halk Maslahaty?
Arkadag— Pater Familias
Serdar’s father announced his decision to step down as the country’s second president on February 11, 2022, ensuring that his son would inherit power without challenges. The then-head of state explained that he was stepping aside in favor of the country’s young leaders. However, instead of retiring, the elder Berdimuhamedov retained his leadership role as chairman of the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council) — the upper house of the Milli Geňeş (National Council or parliament) — and his informal title “Arkadag” (protector). He continued to make international visits to heads of states, attended government meetings, and was praised regularly in local media. Arkadag’s persistent hold on power begs the question of why he bothered to pass the reins to Serdar.
The Berdimuhamedovs realized that succession plans are just that: plans. Plans can be derailed, and in Central Asia often are. Arkadag’s own rise to power came about upon the death of Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmyrat “Turkmenbashy” Niyazov, when the legal designee, Speaker of the Mejlis Ovezgeldy Atayev, was arrested by the State Security Council and sent to prison. Despite some rumors that his son, Murad, might take on a leadership role, Niyazov’s children were not even allowed to remain in their homeland. Certainly, that is not what Niyazov had anticipated.
When Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov died in 2016, a non-family member succeeded him and dramatically changed the country’s policies. In contrast, nearby Azerbaijan’s president Heydar Aliyev had demonstrated that dynastic succession could work in post-Soviet space when he passed the baton to his son Ilham. All these leaders held personalistic authoritarian sway over their respective countries, but the manner in which succession was handled is what came to define their legacies.
More salient here is that Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov was paying close attention to all of this. He observed that dynastic succession is possible, but only with precision planning. The next country to watch is Tajikistan, where President Emomali Rahmon is clearly grooming his son, Rustam Emomali, for leadership.
Rumors, a key source of information in Turkmenistan where all media are subject to state censorship, suggested that Serdar’s political career was underway as early as 2016 because his father had type II diabetes and was experiencing serious health problems. Serdar’s father began moving him rapidly through jobs in the government to give him experience and set him up as president one day. In rapid succession, Serdar became a member of parliament, deputy foreign minister, lieutenant governor, governor, minister, and deputy prime minister. Astute analysts of the country had bet that Serdar was going to become president as soon as he turned 40; that is the age of eligibility according to the constitution. Indeed, he turned 40 in September 2021, and he became president the following February. There is simultaneously an internal bureaucratic as well as a family logic at play here as the leadership has shifted from a cult of personality to a cult of the family.
Until this year, Turkmenistan’s legislature, the Milli Geňeş, was bicameral. On January 21, 2023, Turkmenistan’s leadership transformed it to a unicameral legislature by dibanding the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council) as the upper house. Serdar then approved of a new body — albeit with the same name — as the “supreme” independent body with the power to amend the constitution as well as control both domestic and foreign policy. Its other responsibilities are painted in rather broad strokes, to include “political, economic, social and cultural development” programs. It seems there is no sphere of life that the Halk Maslahaty will not regulate.
Meanwhile, the Mejlis (former lower house of parliament) will stand alone, distinct from the supreme power of the new Halk Maslahaty, and is charged merely with watching over the economy and “current issues.” The Mejlis has always been a rubber stamp legislature and that is only codified now.
This restructuring was reportedly designed to improve the legislative system and modernize it, although it was reformed just two years ago. This will be the fourth time that the government has been rearranged in the country’s 31-years of independence. The more salient purpose is to codify what was already the case: Serdar may occupy the office of the president, but his father still runs the country.
The new Halk Maslahaty now consists of nearly all high-level government officials (executive, legislative, and judicial) as well as low-level local officials like häkims (appointed district governors or mayors) and arçyns (elected heads of councils in towns). All are appointed to the council. Also on January 21, Serdar decreed his father as head of the Halk Maslahaty, naming him “Hero of Turkmenistan, the Honorary Elder of Turkmenistan, Arkadag of the people, National Leader of the Turkmen people Gurbanguly Mälikgulyýewiç Berdimuhamedov.” As the head of the most important body, Arkadag now occupies the country’s most powerful position. While the president is a member of the Halk Maslahaty, the real authority is vested in its head — the “National Leader.” Moreover, Arkadag’s comprehensive title leaves nothing to the imagination and importantly includes immunity from prosecution for him and his family. Such privilege will likely last as long as Berdimuhamedov blood runs through the leadership’s veins.
Geopolitical Balancing Act
Despite Turkmenistan’s long, self-imposed isolation, which rests on its policy of official neutrality, the leadership is working to balance the interests of nearby great powers. A quick look at the most prominent issues concerning the United States, China, and Russia will serve to illustrate.
The United States
The United States has become a relatively marginal a player in Central Asia compared to Russia and China. Whereas former Secretary of State John Kerry stopped in Turkmenistan during his tenure, Antony Blinken skipped it during his recent trip to the region.
However, from November 6-8, 2022, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu did visit Ashgabat, where he signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on cooperation in the fields of health and medical sciences between the U.S. government and the government of Turkmenistan. The MOU provides for collaboration in areas of health such as “public health services, including emergency disease outbreak responses, scientific and applied research in preventive and clinical health, implementation of e-health solutions, and prevention, surveillance and control of communicable diseases and noncommunicable diseases.” The countries intend to implement this MOU through “consultations, exchange of specialists and information, joint projects, participation in symposiums and conferences, publication of articles, as well as other ways of cooperation in areas of mutual concern.”
In addition, Lu discussed the launch of the Economic Resilience Initiative in Central Asia (ERICEN). “Through the Initiative, the United States will provide $25 million in funding to bolster regional trade routes and capacity, educate and train a skilled workforce, and attract international investment to Central Asia.”
On the margins of the February 28 C5+1 meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, Blinken discussed the potential for partnership on climate issues, security, and economic growth initiatives with Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov. This trip aimed to suggest another option to Central Asia’s current associations with China and Russia. Despite Blinken’s choice to leave Turkmenistan out of his travels, Lu’s earlier visit does indicate an interest in not utterly ceding the area in this era of “great power competition,” as well as in developing east-west corridors that would not include Russia.
China has been Turkmenistan’s largest trade partner for the past 12 years, and natural gas is at the heart of that relationship. There are currently three pipelines running from Turkmenistan to China, crossing Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, with the great majority of the gas flowing from Turkmen sources. They are known as Lines A, B, and C. Line D is still under discussion.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the establishment of a strategic partnership between Beijing and Ashgabat and 31 years of diplomatic relations, Serdar made a state visit to meet Xi Jinping in Beijing, January 5-6, 2023. During the trip the two leaders elevated the level of Chinese-Turkmen relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership. An important topic of conversation during the meeting was intensification of gas cooperation, including plans to construct Line D. The two agreed to “intensify cooperation” and discussed the future of hydrocarbon sales.
The two leaders also discussed enhancing people-to-people ties through medical cooperation, acceleration of the establishment of cultural centers, and vocational education projects such as Luban Workshops, which could be culturally significant as Turkmenistan hosts only a handful of foreign entities of any type.
Although Serdar’s first foreign trip as president last year was to Mecca for the Umrah Hajj, he made his first state visit to Russia, where Russian President Vladimir Putin decorated him with the Order of Friendship for consistently building friendly relations and strengthening Turkmenistan’s strategic partnership with Russia.
Putin has not traveled much in the past few years, so it is noteworthy that he reciprocated, visiting Turkmenistan and Tajikistan in June 2022, when Turkmenistan hosted the Caspian Summit. Putin is not welcome in many places these days, so in-person meetings in Dushanbe and Ashgabat were an opportunity for Putin to deepen his ties at a crucial time.
Less than six months later, in his own visit to the Kremlin, Arkadag received the Order for Service to the Fatherland from Putin. The ambiguity over which “Fatherland” he serves was perhaps intentional. Ashgabat has been cozying up to Moscow lately, hosting visits from Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, as well as Alexei Miller, the CEO of Gazprom, Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, and Deputy Prime Minister for Agriculture Aleksey Overchuk. Valentina Matvienko, chair of the Russian Federation Council, was in Ashgabat in May 2022 as well.
Moscow has made much of the bilateral ties between itself and Ashgabat, with Putin noting that “Russia-Turkmenistan relations reached a very high level of a strategic partnership, just short of becoming an allied relationship.” Putin also underscored that he expects relations to continue as they have been, stating, “We proceed from the fact that Turkmenistan’s policy [regarding] Russia will continue in the traditional way worked out by you [Arkadag].” This is yet another sign that the old order will not dislodge.
Moreover, you will not find Turkmenistan’s government showing support for Ukraine. Its representative chose to be absent and did not cast a vote in any way in any of the United Nations’ resolutions to condemn Russia. Abstention was an option — one the rest of Central Asia seized — but the delegate avoided even that, lest it be on the record in a way that could alienate Moscow.
As time moves on, Turkmenistan watchers should pay attention to what Serdar is allowed to do as a barometer for the degree of control he retains. While Serdar is ostensibly leading the government as president, plus serving as the armed forces commander in chief (with rank of “general of the army”), he is riding his father’s coattails in the family business. This is a case of hereditary authoritarianism. The family continues to consolidate power with no motivation to change anything for the better. At public events, the people chant “Arkadagly Serdara Şöhrat” or “Glory to Serdar with the Protector (Arkadag),” underscoring that the father has his son’s back.
Serdar’s remit is unlikely to amount to much as long as his father lives. And, given that no one lives forever, what does this mean for the stability of the Turkmen political system?
One needs to keep an eye on Kerimguly, Serdar’s young, adult, and recently married son. He is a favorite of Arkadag and could be the next in line. Might Kerimguly supplant Serdar? Could the laws be changed to allow for an even younger president? Or will Arkadag’s Halk Maslahaty create a wholly new position for the young man?
And what does any of this mean for the Turkmen people? For 30 years Turkmen have been told that change comes from the top, and they have no political agency. Yet, Turkmenistan’s youth are not unaware of what lies beyond their borders, and they yearn for more. Despite having the world’s slowest internet, the country’s few internet cafes are always full; American Corners, which house libraries, provide support for TOEFL exams, and offer internet access, are always at capacity with waiting lists to use a computer; local private schools which charge fees for courses in foreign languages or computer classes are busy. Even the Iranian Cultural Center in Ashgabat has a full roster of people studying the Persian language. There is untapped human potential in Turkmenistan.
Nevertheless, the way pieces of the country’s dynastic puzzle come together will be an important determining factor for the direction of the country. While a Berdimuhamedov is in charge there will be no significant improvement in lives of the Turkmen people and only the illusion of good governance.