Turkmenistan – Grooming the successor: Constitutional theory and political practice

None of the post-Soviet constitutions adopted between 1992 and 1996 allowed presidents to serve more than two terms in office. However, by now seven of the twelve post-Soviet countries in Eurasia have (or had) presidents in office who have for as long as they wished. The forerunner of this “life-long presidency” phenomenon was Turkmenistan, one of the most authoritarian and isolated countries in the world. As early as 1999, Saparmurat Niyazov, leader of Turkmenistan’s Communist Party since 1985 and the country’s first president after independence, was proclaimed “president for life.” As if this were not enough, the constitutionally mandated two-term restriction was scrapped.

Other Eurasian countries followed the lead, but adopted only one of these strategies. Thus, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon were personally exempted from re-election restrictions based on their status as “Leader of the Nation.” By contrast, in Belarus and Azerbaijan, the question was resolved systematically by abolishing any re-election restrictions in 2004 and 2009 respectively. Of the seven countries in post-Soviet Eurasia, only two chose different solutions: Uzbekistan’s President Islom Karimov, who died in 2016, had created a “groundhog day” routine by using even the smallest constitutional amendment as a reason to reset the presidential term count. In the well-known case of Russia, the two-term restriction is formally intact but has been circumvented by the president swapping with the prime minister, the latter being the second-highest government official.

However, even a life-long presidency does not eliminate the question of regime continuity. As presidents get older and weary of their office, the “succession problem” becomes a hot issue everywhere. Again, the strategies to tackle this problem are different, and not all of them are successful. Thus, in 2003 a smooth succession in power from father to son was effected in Azerbaijan. However, the first presidents of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan passed away in 2006 and 2016 respectively, without leaving a designated successor. It is remarkable that in both cases the problem was solved after only several days without violent regime breakdown.

Like Belarus’ Lukashenko (almost 64) and Azerbaijan’s Aliyev (57), Turkmenistan’s Berdymukhammedov (soon 61) seems determined not to leave this question unresolved, but to pave the way for a family member. Since 2016 the signs have multiplied that his only son, 36-year old Serdar, is the chosen successor. In late 2016, Serdar, then an almost unknown person, ran for office in Dushak electoral district No. 25 during a by-election, the announcement of which made at extremely short notice and did not even include the names of the candidates. By March 2017, Berdymukhammedov junior was heading the parliament’s committee on legal affairs. Then on 25 March 2018, he successfully “defended” his seat in the Mejlis against his rival, a deputy director of the local school, with 91.42 percent of the vote.

At the same time, Akdja Nurberdyeva, the Chairman of the Mejlis since 2007, lost her mandate. More to the point, she disappeared from the list of registered candidates three weeks before the election took place. This fact led Western observers to speculate that Serdar was about to fill this position, which had become the second-highest in Turkmenistan’s state hierarchy after the 2016 constitutional reform. Its holder takes over the duties of the presidential office if the incumbent is unable to perform them for whatever reason. However, Serdar did not become the new speaker of the parliament. Instead, Gulshat Mamedova was elected—a woman who had been appointed Deputy Chairperson (“Vice-Premier”) for Culture two years ago, replacing a predecessor who had been fired for “bad work.”

The point is that the constitution does not allow acting presidents to run for office. Thus, a designated successor would be totally misplaced as the chair of Turkmenistan’s rubber-stamp parliament. Preferably, the post should go to a person who is very, very loyal not only to the incumbent but also to his heir. In short: the best choice is a person who does not feel tempted to break the constitutional rules the way Berdymukhammedov himself did in 2006 when he stepped into the presidency after having acquired the post of acting president following Niyazov’s death. Thus, Serdar’s electoral campaign may have served to increase his public visibility and popularity, but was not meant to secure him the position of parliamentary chair. While the “operation successor” might well be underway already, things are different from how they appear to be, as we will now see after taking a closer look at Serdar’s biography and some recent developments.

Young Berdymukhammedov is an expert in foreign affairs. From 2008 to 2011 he studied at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation while simultaneously working as a consultant to Turkmenistan’s ambassador in Moscow. From 2011-2013 he continued his education at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), this time providing advice to his country’s head of the diplomatic mission to the United Nations. In 2013 and from 2016 to 2017 he headed two departments of Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2017, Serdar visited Russia several times as an official representative of his country.

President Berdymukhammedov was missing from the March 2018 meeting of the five Central Asian presidents in Astana, Kazakhstan—their first in almost ten years. He was on a visit to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. This is a remarkable fact on its own. More to our point, in his place Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev officially received Serdar. Why wasn’t it Turkmenistan’s official representative, the same Mejlis chairwoman who was about to lose her mandate in the parliament? It is certainly not too far-fetched to interpret this clear move against diplomatic protocol as Serdar’s strategic introduction to Nazarbayev as Berdymukhammedov’s “crown prince” and his symbolic recognition by the most important and eldest of the Central Asian leaders.

What followed just two weeks later was the appointment of Serdar Berdymukhammedov as Deputy Foreign Minister. The catch is that this brought him very close to Rashid Meredov, the current Foreign Minister, one of the ten Deputy Vice-Premiers and perhaps the most influential political figure after the President. In fact, as members of the inner power circle of the Niyazov regime, only Berdymukhammedov and Meredov have survived at the highest levels of the power pyramid until today. Moreover, in 2006 it was initially Meredov who was expected to be the most likely successor to the late president. He is also the Methuselah among the more than 100 Turkmenistani Deputy Vice-Presidents who have at some point been in office since the early 1990s. In the current government, Meredov is the only official who has served for more than a decade. All the other Deputy Vice-Premiers were appointed between 2017 and 2018.

Therefore, it is highly likely that the 2006-2007 power transfer was based on a power-sharing deal between Berdymukhammedov and his foreign minister. In the same vein, one has every reason to suspect that Meredov’s time is about to expire. Young Berdymukhammedov, his deputy minister, is hard on his heels. A week after his appointment, Serdar headed an official delegation to a meeting of the CIS Council of Foreign Ministers in Minsk. When he replaces the veteran, he will lose his seat in the parliament becoming the most important of all Deputy Vice-Presidents instead – but he will also be exempted from their rivalry over succession, thanks to his status as the President’s son and designated heir. Whether these events will unfold over a short or long time, and whether Meredov will be ousted in shame or retired with honors remains to be seen—as well as if and when the ongoing “operation successor” will be completed. At least, the idea behind the 2016 constitutional amendment has now become more explicit.

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