Could a New President in Turkmenistan Provide an Opportunity for the US to Promote Reform?
It may turn out that Serdar is just like his father, and nothing will change in Turkmenistan. But new opportunities for engagement amid leadership change are worth exploring.
By Sebastien Peyrouse (originally published on Diplomat)
After 15 years in power, wielding authoritarian policies that have kept Turkmenistan isolated and at the bottom of human rights rankings, Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has decided to step down and transfer his duties to his son Serdar. A snap presidential election will be held on March 12 and Serdar has already been nominated as the ruling party’s candidate.
The timing comes as a surprise. Berdimuhamedov has spent the last several years grooming Serdar for a dynastic succession, promoting him up through government ranks to increasingly high-level positions, including deputy prime ministerand chairman of the Supreme Control Chamber, which controls government spending. But he had two years left in his current term and could have run for reelection. Moreover, Berdimuhamedov has spent years building his own cult of personality similar to that of his predecessor and Turkmenistan’s only other president since independence, Saparmurat Niyazov.
Decision-making processes in Turkmenistan are notoriously opaque and it is unclear why Berdimuhamedov decided to move ahead now with his succession plan. Possible reasons include his health, as he has suffered from diabetes for years, or being rattled by the recent unrest in Kazakhstan, which began with popular protests over growing economic and social disparities. Although protests are rare in Turkmenistan, the country has been gripped by a severe economic crisis for several years, and there are signs that popular dissatisfaction is growing.