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The Beginning of the End of Illusions?

Written by on Tuesday, 11 December 2007
Politics and Society, Turkmenistan
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[inspic=19,left,,0]The Radio Free Europe 5th November service published Gulnoza Saidazimova’s article entitled “Turkmenistan: A New Obstacle for Access to the Airwaves”. Unlike what the title suggests, the text is not just about President Berdymukhammedov’s last speech in which he ordered that satellite dishes be removed from all Ashgabat houses. The article also contains a broader reflection on the internal policy of the Turkmen leader. In order to present the message of the article, let me quote its lead which gives a good summary:

Since taking over this year, new Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has been viewed hopefully as a possible reformer who might open up one of the world’s most repressive societies. But a new order to remove all private satellite dishes from homes in Ashgabat — which critics say could block access to independent information — is quickly tarnishing that image.

The article made me ask myself a question to which I cannot find an answer. Is the West really so naive as to believe in liberal views of a man who was indoctrinated by the Soviet propaganda for several dozens of years and later participated in creating of one of the most repressive regimes in the world? Can reinstatement of pensions and 10-year schools or abolition of the daily obligation to pledge allegiance to the president be viewed as liberal moves?

This resembles the Western commentators’ attitude towards Vladimir Putin in the first years of his rule. He was depicted as a liberal reformer who would change Russia and open it up to the West. And what was the result? From a relatively liberal country that Russia used to be during Yeltsin’s rule it was transformed into an authoritarian country ruled by the secret service agents, gradually shutting itself away and dreaming of the return to “Soviet grandeur”. Similar opinions are expressed today about Dmitri Medvedev, whom Putin indicated as his successor. However, when writing about Putin-the-liberal, no one asked a simple question: can a former KGB officer (although “there are no former ones” as Russians like to say) be a liberal?

The same question should be posed in relation to Berdymukhammedov. Can a man who completed a Soviet university, spent half of his life at the court of Turkmenbashi as his faithful servant and never travelled abroad for more than a few days be a liberal? I would risk to say that he does not even know what liberalism really means and what values it promotes. Therefore, it seems strange that some people really believe that Berdymukhammedov could liberalize the system. They later become disillusioned, like the Russian human rights activist Oleg Panfilov, who was quoted by the author of the article as saying:

I am becoming more and more confident that Berdymukhammedov is not a liberal at all.

Did he need to hear the Turkmen President’s speech on satellite dishes in order to understand that?

I think that this way of thinking about Berdymukhammedov may lead to a sudden deterioration of relations between the Western countries and Turkmenistan. The West still grants him a credit of confidence, taking the sham measures of liberalisation at face value. But when the Western countries finally realize that this has nothing to do with democratization, they will start criticizing Turkmenistan, first mildly and later with increasing harshness. What will be the result? Berdymukhammedov – like Islam Karimov or Nursultan Nazarbaev did in the past – will feel offended by the West and choose to cooperate with Russia and China. Why? Because for him liberalization and democratization is what we now see happening in Turkmenistan. He knows no other liberalization and can’t even imagine it.

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