The murky story of how former president of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov earlier this year essentially mounted a coup to reclaim the throne from his son Serdar, just a year after installing him as his anointed successor, is little understood outside the isolated post-Soviet dictatorship—but one intriguing account of the saga, Like father, like son: Why Turkmenistan’s Power Transition is in reverse, written by journalist and researcher Galiya Ibragimova, has been published by think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Following parliamentary manoeuvres initiated by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, president from December 2006 to March 2022, a supra-state body with almost unlimited powers is to be created, allowing Gurbanguly to retake power from Serdar.
In Ibragimova’s telling, “Things didn’t go quite as the former president had imagined they would when he stepped into the shadows after fifteen years at the helm, leaving the country in the seemingly safe hands of his son. It is becoming increasingly difficult [for Gurbanguly] to rule from behind the scenes; the state apparatus is confused as to what the hierarchy should be; and Serdar has not only been amassing more power, but has also taken a stand against his father’s corrupt relatives. Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov [Note from Ed: alternative spelling] now wants to regain control before it is too late.”
President in name only. Under the shake-up, Serdar Berdimuhamedov is ranked no higher than a minister (Credit: National Olympic Committee of Turkmenistan).
Coming to power, Serdar immediately faced numerous problems including consequences of the pandemic, supply chain disruptions squeezing flows of essential goods, rising unemployment (over 5% according to official data and a staggering 60% according to unofficial data, says Ibragimova) and inflation, standing, even by official estimates, at more than 14%.
“The situation was so serious that the people of Turkmenistan were constantly protesting, despite harsh crackdowns,” writes Ibragimova, adding: “Coming to power in such adverse circumstances could have immediately torpedoed Serdar’s popularity, but the stars aligned for him.
“Turkmenistan’s economy relies almost entirely on exporting natural gas, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused hydrocarbon prices to climb, while Turkmenistan’s main trading partner, China, finally got its economy back on track after the pandemic. As a result, revenues from Turkmen gas exports to the Chinese market (almost the country’s entire exports) grew by 51 percent in 2022 to $10.3 billion.
“Moreover, compared with Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia, the Berdymukhamedov regime began to look less abhorrent to Brussels and Washington as they sought to move away from Russian gas. Accordingly, instead of focusing on human rights as usual (Turkmenistan has the third lowest freedom rating in the world), Western officials visiting Ashgabat discussed the prospects for energy cooperation. Abandoned plans for the Nabucco and Transcaspian gas pipelines that would bypass Russia to deliver Turkmen gas to Europe were resurrected.
“Alarmed at the prospect of the West replacing Russian gas with Turkmenistan’s, Moscow rushed into the bidding war with promises to help Turkmenistan with energy technology and almost tripled its own purchases of Turkmen gas. Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of the Turkmen market, and Serdar reaped the benefits.”
As official leader, Serdar conducted all negotiations with international partners. “This,” says Ibragimova, “was not part of the former president’s plan. In stepping aside from the presidency, he had hoped to pass on the tedium of domestic politics to his son precisely so that he could focus on key issues with his country’s international partners. Yet instead of immersing himself in mundane tasks, Serdar welcomed high-level guests himself, and embarked on visits to China, Russia, Qatar, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.”
While Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov might have had a perfectly clear grasp of how his plan to rule from the shadows was supposed to work out, he had, according to Ibragimova, not explained it to anyone, including the state apparatus, bringing about confusion.
“During overlapping foreign visits, Turkmen officials did not know whether to accompany Berdymukhamedov senior or junior; who should be allocated the motorcade, security, and journalists; and whose visit should be shown on the news first,” notes Ibragimova.
What’s more, the irritation Berdimuhamedov junior was apparently causing his father by moving fast to acquire power was made worse by his stepping on the toes of some of his father’s relatives in the process.
“In January 2022, Serdar launched an attack on his powerful cousins (on his father’s side), Hajymyrat and Shamyrat Rejepov, by having their associates arrested,” says Ibragimova. “Soon after he was made president, the two fled Turkmenistan. Immediately after the elections, Serdar reshuffled the government, appointing several ministers, including a new minister of the interior, who owed their promotions to him.
“The rebellious son then proceeded to remove his aunt (his father’s sister), Gulnabat Dovletova, from her post as CEO of the Turkmenistan Red Crescent Society. Dovletova was accused of carrying out numerous corrupt schemes such as selling humanitarian aid through her network of pharmacies and collecting contributions from state employees. Dovletova’s dismissal was followed by the arrest and detention of officials associated with her.”
Serdar, recounts Ibragimova, also brought his mother, Ogulgerek, known to have strained relations with Gurbanguly, back into the public eye and decided to appoint a new prosecutor general, the latter move being the final straw for his father.
“Gurbanguly,” concludes Ibragimova, “launched an attack to regain real power, initiating a reform that transforms the upper house—which he leads—into a body with nearly unlimited powers. No changes, including personnel reshuffles, can be made without its approval, and the president is now placed at the same level as ministers. And, naturally, if the head of state is for any reason unable to perform his duties, they automatically pass to the chairman of the new supra-state chamber.”