The revolution in Turkmenistan: myths and realities
After a series of “color” revolutions in the CIS countries and a number of harsh statements about the “last dictatorships in Eurasia” on the part of the US government and international organizations, many rushed to write not only Belarus, but also Turkmenistan as candidates for the next revolution. In this review, the author tried to analyze the factors of “color” revolutions, which in one way or another played a role in the fall of previous regimes in countries with existing revolutions in relation to the current situation in Turkmenistan.
A bit of history or, the first "color"
Actually, the “color” meaning revolution in Turkmenistan took place in 1995 and was brutally suppressed when about 200 people, mostly young people, entered one of the Ashgabat squares. The main slogan of the demonstrators was regime change, the departure of President Niyazov. The whole group was cordoned off, beaten, arrested. Two of those arrested subsequently died from beatings, the main organizers received various prison sentences. All participants were declared addicts and hooligans. At the same time, the practice of public repentance of persons involved in the case received a beginning, which were recorded on tape and repeatedly broadcast on television. The fate of several participants in those events is still unknown.
Nomenclature and "opposition"
The President of Turkmenistan, due to hypertrophied personal ambitions, has always remained extremely intolerant of the opinions of others and the authority of opponents. By virtue of this, in the early 1990s, almost all government officials who could afford even the slightest frontronism were removed and ostracized. Thus, in the early 1990s, Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliev was forced to resign, who initiated the sporadic process of forming a nomenklatura opposition. The essence of this process was that former officials, who for some reason lost Niyazov’s position, left the country for security purposes (and some, appointed ambassadors, simply did not return from Turkmenbashi’s first call) and already abroad positioned themselves as dissidents or oppositionists. Some of them managed to gather a sufficient number of supporters under their banners and lead opposition movements.
Another former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, Deputy Prime Minister, who oversaw power structures Boris Shikhmuradov, became the most famous opposition figure in one of the following waves of nomenklatura emigration. He managed to organize a meaningful opposition movement of former government officials, both outside Turkmenistan and inside the country. The activities of this movement resulted in an attempt at a coup d’état in November 2002, which the group itself called “the peaceful attempt to remove Niyazov from power”, while the authorities of Turkmenistan called it “an attempt on the life of the President of Turkmenistan”. In this story, there are still a lot of dark sides and misunderstandings. As a result of this incident, almost all the participants in the coup who were on the territory of Turkmenistan were arrested and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, and all the leaders were for life. Later, on television, the “repentance” of all the participants of the events from the opposition was shown, and some time later Boris Shikhmuradov’s book “I and my accomplices are terrorists”, written by him in prison, was published. Of course, no one, either in Turkmenistan or abroad, took this “evidence” and “self-disclosure” for the truth, but the confused and contradictory statements of Shikhmuradov’s supporters did not bring any clarity to the essence of the newcomer.
Youth and students
The complete isolation of the new generation from all the intellectual baggage of the society of the previous time has already borne fruit. The transition to the Latin alphabet and the total de-Russification of education and the information field, coupled with the total imposition of state ideology, allowed the authorities to form an absolutely new generation of youth, presenting their past only in the presentation and interpretations of state ideologists, almost completely subjugating the consciousness of youth. The lack of alternative information and its inaccessibility have already led to a complete zombie of the main part of the young generation. And those few young people who got education in urban schools gradually replenish the reserve of a loyal state nomenclature or go abroad.
Terrible unemployment and a low standard of living, especially in rural areas, are not converted into protest potential due to the low level of education and outlook, drug addiction, financial and psychological dependence on the will of the state.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the authorities of Turkmenistan carried out a systematic destruction of the entire habitat, typical and familiar to the national intelligentsia. The Academy of Sciences was closed, and the majority of departmental institutions, almost all creative unions were eliminated, large-scale reductions in doctors and teachers occurred. All famous scientists, writers, journalists, artists, architects, doctors, university professors were forced to leave the country. In the 1990s, some of them joined various opposition groups outside Turkmenistan, but now their authority and influence has almost disappeared. The rest were doomed to a miserable existence under the vigilant control of ideologues in the presidential apparatus and the relevant department in the Ministry of State Security, or to join the ranks of the developing nationalists, supplying new ideas to building state ideology based on nationalism, national exclusivity and the personality cult of President Niyazov and his families. Rare instances of “disobedience” by someone from the old intelligentsia find an immediate response from the authorities - from prohibitions to leave the country, to arrests, deprivation of housing, and the dismissal of relatives from work.
Instead of the traditional intelligentsia, the authorities began to cultivate an obedient and obscenely loyal "creative" subculture that deals with the ideological service of the ruling regime.
Military and security forces
During his reign, Niyazov several times encountered a situation when the behavior of the “power” ministers he promoted by himself began to threaten his personal power. Leaked rumors about a possible conspiracy led by Nazarov, the chairman of the State Security Committee, forced Niyazov to urgently leave the summit of the CIS heads of state in Almaty and intervene. As a result, the leadership of the KNB was dismissed and arrested. Moreover, Niyazov subsequently imprisoned ALL of the former defense ministers, the KNB chairmen, the majority of the former interior ministers. Many high ranks were dismissed, many of them were convicted in various cases, including in the case of the “attempt” and the cases of “negligence” in the investigation of this attempt. After that, not a year goes by without changing the heads of the “security” departments, and the last of the national security ministers was removed from his post “for softness”, and the new minister Niyazov ordered to look for “enemies within the state”, because, he said, Turkmenistan does not.
Given the cadre leapfrog in power structures, the complete incapacity of the armed forces, the lack of authority of one or another rank of power structures in the ministry entrusted to him, it makes no sense to talk about the threat of Niyazov’s power from this side. The only effective structure with special forces, its intelligence and counterintelligence, is the personal security service of the president, which has repeatedly proved its absolute loyalty to its patron.
One of the weak points of the “Turkmen statehood”, as Niyazov himself noted, is tribalism, cronyism, fraternity. In Soviet times and in the early years of independence, this factor was never overlooked by the authorities, because it was he who was the basis for the flourishing of corruption. Given this, Niyazov approached the solution of these problems as a colonizer of his own provinces. He began to send people from other areas and belonging to other clans or tribes than those who dominate in this area to key posts and to power structures of the region. This provided him with a guarantee that local elites would not gain excessive political and economic independence, and rather frequent changes of these officials, but on the same principle, generally reduced the threat of strengthening regional elites to a minimum.
Niyazov went the same way to eliminate manifestations of tribalism in the central authorities. Several laws were passed regulating the activities of government officials, including a separate law prohibiting the joint work of relatives and fellow countrymen or persons belonging to the same tribe in the same state structure. Considering the fact that each official, when appointed to a government post, is obliged to submit his pedigree to the third generation, such family ties are easily identified.
However, this problem is not limited to the clan presence in government structures. From Soviet times to the present, there are quite influential and rich families in almost every tribe, in all regions of Turkmenistan. Niyazov is trying to weaken this or that clan by any means: repressive actions are being carried out, property requisition under far-fetched and existing pretexts, but he does not go for large-scale cleansing because of fear of provoking mass clashes, preferring to “disassemble the structure in parts.” Taking into account the isolation of the main places of compact residence of these clans and the length of transport communications, we can talk about the likelihood of any local conflicts of population with the authorities, but not about the spread of mass unrest throughout the territory of Turkmenistan.
The Sunni branch of Islam, professed in Turkmenistan by an absolute majority of the population and adapted by local folk traditions, has never presented a serious danger to the state system and has not taken orthodox and aggressive forms. Moreover, it was thanks to the support of the state that Islam regained its position in the society, which ensured the loyalty of religious authorities to power in the period of independence in the early 90s. However, excessive state intervention in religious affairs, the forceful (volitional) appointment of the head of Muslims of the country, the use of religion as the imposition of state ideology and the cult of Niyazov’s personality, generated certain discontent in the ranks of believers. Cases of the refusal by several mullahs to preach ideas from President Niyazov’s book “Ruhnama” along with the Koran were noted. Leaflets with appeals of non-violent opposition to such innovations began to appear in various regions of Turkmenistan. This fact suggests that there are already religious groups in Turkmenistan that have gone through the first stage of formation and have begun active underground work and mass agitation among the population. However, due to the rather weak religiosity of Turkmen society in the generally accepted sense, these actions do not yet find broad support among the population.
In all, without exception, the “color” revolutions of recent times, free or oppositional media played one of the main roles, through which the parties opposing the authorities could convey their ideas, appeals, lead propaganda, appeal to public opinion, including international.
And in this area, the authorities of Turkmenistan have completely eliminated all possible threats. There are no independent media in the country, they all belong to the state, more precisely, to the president himself, who is the founder of all central newspapers, and his profile adorns all television channels. The only foreign channel ORT is relayed in Turkmenistan in the post-censorship record and not more than 4-5 hours a day. Subscription to foreign newspapers and magazines is completely prohibited in the country; the import and distribution of non-political periodicals, mainly of an entertaining nature, is allowed by private parties. For more than two years, the broadcasting of the Turkmen service of Radio Liberty has been jammed in all major cities of Turkmenistan. Internet access is strictly organic and controlled, a large number of Internet sites publishing materials about Turkmenistan are blocked.
The main "revolutionary" driving forces of society, the "revolutionary" potential in Turkmenistan on a state scale is currently almost completely absent. There is a possibility of local conflicts in various regions of Turkmenistan, where local elites are dissatisfied with abuses by the central authorities, but the leaders of these elites are aware that they do not yet have the resources that will allow them to confront, including political (not underground) and in an armed struggle against the central authorities.
In the longer term (5-10 years), for the authorities of Turkmenistan there may be a significant threat from the force of “unconventional Islam” that has not yet entered the broad public arena. Given the constant replenishment of the potential recruitment base at the expense of unemployed and illiterate young people, this threat may eventually become the main one.
On the other hand, given the rapid "learnability" of the regime of President Niyazov and the absence of psychological barriers before conducting large-scale repression, we can expect that the near future and these potential threats to the regime will be eliminated.