Invisible Countries: Turkmenistan

Article Written by: Juliana Fernandes

In The Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino describes 55 cities explored by Marco Polo. He describes how Maurilia, for example, is a metropolis where visitors look at postcards and billboards that illustrate it as when it was a province. At that time, nobody thought Maurilia was charming, but now they idealize it. Euphemia is a city where traders gather to exchange stories. However, when they leave Euphemia, they discover that they do not remember their own stories, because the other’s corrupt theirs. Thus, Marco Polo draws the conclusion that cities are built with desires and fears, when most think they were built rationally, but that is not what keeps them solid. In this sense, the question arises: what use does fear, desires, ideas and symbolisms have for the construction of an authoritarian state? At the present, are there states administered in such an unusual way that they almost resemble the invisible cities? This text will answer these questions, analyzing Turkmenistan in a historical perspective, as well as its constitutional and governmental framework, from its independence from the USSR to the present, based on four factors: leadership, pluralism, ideology and mobilization.

Turkmenistan, the second largest state in Central Asia, was part of the USSR until 1991, when it declared independence. Since then, there have been two presidencies: Niyazov’s and Berdymukhammedov’s. Both are marked by a cult of personality accompanied by authoritarian measures and mechanisms of civil mobilization. In 1992, after independence, a constitution was adopted, wich replaced the one from the Soviet era. The new constitution established government’s legislative, executive and judicial powers, dominated by a strong executive. The president would be elected for a maximum of two consecutive five-year terms, but Niyazov extended his term to 10 years in a referendum in 1994. Moreover, even though a People’s Council (Khalk Maslahaty) was entitled to call referendums, plan economic and social policy and declare war, it only worked to validate Niyazov’s decisions. It was not just these measures, however, that demonstrated the authoritarianism of the first president. In fact, Niyazov showed his main interest was the cult of his personality, so, in addition to declaring himself president for life, he took several steps in that direction. Within these measures, those related to architecture and urban planning are the most visible. For example, at the top of the Arch of Neutrality we can see a golden statue resembling him, this being just one of the many figures and portraits scattered around the country. In addition, he also built monuments to honor the Rukhnama (“The Soul Book”), which has become a must-read in all schools, serving as a means of political propaganda and imposition of ideas. These changes, in line with others such as changing the name of the days of the week, months of the year, a crater on the moon, a canal, a city and other places for new designations related to him and his family, are costly and affect public accounts. In this sense, at the beginning of the 21st century, a large part of the State’s money was directed to a special presidential fund, a large part of which was to subsidize special construction projects such as the examples presented. Clearly, this deviation had consequences, resulting in a decline in education and health.

In late 2006, Niyazov died. As a result, in February 2007, elections were held and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov was declared president, despite allegations of fraud. He said he intended to reform Niyazov’s personality cult policies, but retained the excessive presidential powers of his predecessor. In September 2008, the Khalk Maslahaty accepted a new constitution that established a multiparty system and the dissolution of the popular council itself. According to the new constitution, the powers previously held by the latter were divided between the president and an enlarged unicameral parliament (Mejlis), whose 125 members are elected by local districts for five-year terms. The president was elected by direct popular vote for a five-year term. However, this last provision was amended in 2016, at the request of Berdymukhammedov, with the aim of extending it to seven years. In addition, the new president has the power to appoint governors and mayors. Thus, despite starting his presidency with the assertion that he would dismantle Niyazov’s cult of personality, Berdymukhammedov only replaced the cult of the former president with his own. He also gave a new name to several places and institutions and Niyazov’s Rukhnama was replaced by Turkmennama (“History of the Turks”). In fact, his actions do not differ much from his predecessor, even in terms of the desire to remain in power, as Berdymukhammedov was elected for a second five-year term in February 2012, although there were again allegations of fraud. In reality, the entire political process remained under strict government control and even the idea of ​​a multiparty system worked almost like a facade, as only parties with official recognition participated in the election, while individual candidates were carefully selected to guarantee their loyalty.

Furthermore, the two presidencies were also marked by harsh reports from several non-governmental human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The report on 2019 of the first refers to situations like the economic crisis; the abandonment of subsidies by the government; impediments to travel abroad; punishment of forms of religious and political expression and control of information and the media. In addition to these issues, the report shows as one of the major concerns the fact that independent human rights groups are not allowed, which could contribute to the continuous violation of rights, such as freedom of the media, freedom of movement, religious freedom, housing and property rights, as well as those relating to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. The report on the events of the following year did not change much, as there were social and economic crises, partly due to government’s poor management in relation to the pandemic, aggravated by the scarcity of food. With regard to this issue, the international community has already raised a number of concerns (notably the European Union and the US).

Bearing in mind this evolution of the country until today, Turkmenistan may be similar to the invisible cities, in the sense that social mobilization occurs through the proliferation and propagation of ideas, which support the structure of a State and which do not always correspond to reality. To further understand this question, it may be relevant to know the parallel established between the regime of Turkmenistan and the characteristics of sultanism, whose theme was analyzed in a thesis at the University of St Andrews. The author of this thesis, Courtney Anne Mills, begins by questioning how a country with low socioeconomic indicators, high unemployment and poverty rates, manages to support grandiose marble buildings, gold statues and other luxurious monuments. Thus, she starts at the idea that this type of grand architecture and the spread of ideological doctrines, such as Rukhnama and Turkmennama, served to impose a new national program as a method of political legitimation, concluding that a kind of “pseudoidology” has been created since Turkemenistan’s independence from the USSR. In order to achieve the parallel, Mills uses Linz and Stepan’s concept of sultanism and its four factors: leadership, pluralism, ideology and mobilization. In relation to leadership, she emphasizes the fact of the president concentrates the main institutions power on himself, showing inflexibility and intolerance. With regard to pluralism, it is easily understood that it does not exist in the country, even with the multi-party system inserted in the second presidency, which only welcomes government supporters. In terms of ideology, she says that Niyazov, for example, tried to fill the void left by the withdrawal of the Soviets with a new sense of Nation and State that, coupled with the lack of national tradition, allowed him to build an idea of ​​Nation around his personality. The issue of mobilization is particularly interesting, as it is what guarantees compliance with state rules. In Turkmenistan, better living conditions and doubled wages have been promised, but they may have only been intended to convey hope to the people, creating desires that they think the state can achieve. Also the state’s control of the media, internet services, among others, contributes to the increase and consolidation of mobilization. Finally, the aforementioned thesis emphasizes that the sultanist ideology frequently extols ancient glories and is based on an almost “invented” tradition, in order to differentiate itself from other state actors. As we can see from the case of Turkmenistan, national narratives are not only written, as these can also be projected through architecture, symbols, ideas and consequent ideologies, as well as through the use of public space.

In conclusion, considering the questions posed in the introduction, we can infer that, as in The Invisible Cities, authoritarian regimes such as that of Turkmenistan are also built by desires, fears, ideas and symbolisms. This situation is visible in the architecture and layout of the public space, which, like in the city of Maurilia, uses monuments, billboards, and portraits to exalt an idea that may not correspond with reality. In Maurilia, its inhabitants saw a province, despite it being a city; and in Turkmenistan, we see monuments that resemble a prosperous and influential country, which is not real. The wishes of the citizens of Turkmenistan are used to create measures to mobilize the population to conform to the state. The ideas in Rukhnama and Turkmennama create a kind of national identity that fills the void left by the Soviets a long time ago. Therefore, it turns out that the physical and ideological environment is often used, in order to not leave doubts on the sources of power and their expression in the president.


Be the first to comment on "Invisible Countries: Turkmenistan"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.