Sunday, February 12, 2012

Turkmenistan’s Elections and Some Thoughts on Afghanistan

In case you missed it, Turkmenistan held presidential elections on Sunday, February 12th. These were the second elections for the executive office in the country’s twenty-year history. Current President President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is almost certain to win.

Berdymukhammedov was first elected in February 2007 with 89% of the vote, following the death of President Niyazov, or Turkmenbashi (“father of the Turkmen people”) when the constitution was quickly amended to allow for Berdymukhammedov’s election. A dentist by training, Berymukhammedov (heretofore “Berdi”) became Minister of Health in 1997 and Deputy Prime Minister in 2001. 

While there are officially eight Presidential candidates, there is only one political party, Berdi’s Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, rendering most competitors puppet politicians in the authoritarian game of “faking elections.”

According to AP Reporter Pete Leonard’s Twitter, voter turnout in 2007 was 98.7%.  So far in Sunday’s elections, turnout reached 92%.

Even before Turkmen voters went to the polls, the international community dismissed the elections as a farce. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) did not deploy an observer mission, citing the lack of a competitive environment and freedoms.

Now, I know what many of you are thinking: who cares about Turkmenistan? Excellent question.

First, the most obvious reason is that Turkmenistan contains the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas. In November, the British auditor Gaffney, Cline & Associates presented the first, independent and credible confirmation of the Southern Yolotan-Osman, Minara and Yashlar gas fields, confirming the presence of some 26.2 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. Currently, Turkmenistan exports gas and uses the export rents to support the authoritarian regime. Berdi also recognizes the strategic importance of his country’s reserves and has used pipeline politics as a geopolitical lever, spearheading negotiations to develop the contracts and agreements for the TAPI pipeline.

Geopolitics aside, Turkmenistan’s gas industry suffers from a lack of refining capacity and would benefit from increased research and development, investments in technological upgrades and international expertise.

Second, Turkmenistan borders Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and the Caspian Sea and its history is in many ways related to and interconnected with phenomena in neighboring states.

Geographically, Turkmenistan is slightly larger than California, but has a low population of 5 billion. Most of the country is covered with the Karakorum desert. Nomadic populations and tribes regularly traversed the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border before the nineteenth century when the British and Russian empires contested for control over Eurasia’s heartland. The Russians finally conquered the Turkmen at the Battle of Geok Tepe in 1881, after the Russians were previously defeated by the Turkmen in 1879. The Turkmen and other tribes continued to cross the border throughout this time and even during the 19020’s Soviet agricultural collectivization and forced settlement of nomads, many Turkmen fled to Afghanistan to avoid the Soviet project. Today, many Turkmen (and Uzbeks) inhabit northern Afghanistan. Interestingly, the most stable regions of Afghanistan are the northern areas. While Afghanistan’s ethnic Turkmen population does not necessarily involve the Government of Turkmenistan (certainly the absence of strong institutions in Afghanistan precludes diasporic politics through lobbying, organized civil society groups pressuring politicians, etc.), understanding the Turkmen culture, patterns of behavior and how the Turkmen in Afghanistan came to be there is relevant to analyzing stability in Central and South Asia.

This leads me to my next point….

Given the historical similarities between Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and the rest of the Central Asian republics, perhaps policymakers should look to the region to play a more prominent political role. Kazakhstan, for example, is a predominantly Muslim state with a vibrant economy. President Nursultan Nazarbayev voluntarily gave up the country’s nuclear weapons in 1992 and advocates a multi-vectored peace-loving foreign policy. Kazakhstan is a great example of the security benefits accrued to states that forego nuclear weapons. Thus, while Kazakhstan is a leader in terms of nuclear disarmament and a great policy model for other Muslim states to replicate, other Central Asian states should take steps to develop their domestic institutions and economies in order to maximize national wealth and promote domestic peace.

Ensuring peaceful and democratic elections in places like Turkmenistan will set a regional precedent for stability. I do not argue that democracy in Turkmenistan will create stability in Afghanistan. Rather, for American foreign policy makers, it is important to recognize the historical, cultural and various informal linkages between the countries of Central Asia when crafting a regional policy post-2014.

Well, comrades, I am going to return to my work as I wait for the official announcement of President Berdi’s victory. 

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