The play’s the thing in Turkmenistan (II): political syncretism/mysticism

Turkmenistan has officially created a second political party, thereby formally ending two decades’ worth of one-party rule. But is there substance behind the change? NewEurasia’s Annasoltan thinks not. In fact, the whole thing seems not only fake, but at a deeper level, even somewhat insane.

Kenneth Brannagh as Hamelt in "Hamlet", Act II, Scene II.

Editor’s note: Turkmenistan has officially created a second political party, thereby formally ending two decades’ worth of one-party rule. But is there substance behind the change? NewEurasia’s Annasoltan thinks not. In fact, the whole thing seems not only fake, but at a deeper level, even somewhat insane.

“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” — Hamlet, Act II, Scene II.

What is to be thought of the recent establishment of a second political party in Turkmenistan? Ostensibly, the idea is to juxtapose the liberal and economic to the democratic and populistic, as the new entity, the Party of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists (PIE), is comprised of businessmen, industry leaders and financers, vis-a-vis the established entity, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (Türkmenistanyň Demokratik partiýasy) (DPT). But more importantly, PIE’s creation has formally brought to end Turkmenistan’s twenty-year-old system of single party rule. The question is whether it’s brought it to an end really, and that remains to be seen.

Let’s wind the clock back two decades ago. After Turkmenistan became an independent state in 1991, the country’s then-political leader Saparmurat Niyazov changed the Communist Party of Soviet Turkmenistan, which he had been leading, into the the DPT. He promised democracy and a second party in the following years — promises he never fulfilled.

The current president, Berdimuhammedov, has wanted to be seen as being quick to do away with the Niyazov era. At first, everyone timidly hoped this would mean true modernization, but instead, whatever pure intentions may or may not have been there at the beginning, it has translated into simply swapping one regime of enforced narcissism with another.

Nevertheless, there are differences between the narcissisms. Niyazov could not bear even the appearance of pluralism — everyone and everything in the country had to be seen in lockstep obedience with him (even the Kara Kum desert, as when he tried to make an artificial lake out there). Berdimuhammedov, by contrast, doesn’t mind the appearance of pluralism — so long as it’s just appearance.

This has gotten him into some conceptual headaches, as when he “ran” for the presidency earlier this year (see my post: “The play’s the thing in Turkmenistan”). Particularly odd was when he invited the opposition in exile to come back home and run against him. Although none took up the offer, it would have been interesting to see what would have happened, for had he used the opportunity.

Wait, isn’t what I’m saying just now crazy? Not really. Yes, the election was lined with sycophants praising the president, and the media here is notorious for its rigorous state control. Nevertheless, to arrest or otherwise get rid of them would have been seen by the world — after all, he drew global attention to himself by putting on a play of pluralism. He also could not run the risk of them really running against him, either, thereby exposing his crimes up to this point to the Turkmen public (even as state-controlled a media as Turkmenistan’s could not prevent this from happening once an opposition figure was on the ground running for the highest office in the land).

Anyway, I’m digressing. The idea of a second party was floated two years ago, when Berdimuhammedov said that opposition parties would be set up in the country; he also spoke of the need of a “Peasant’s Party”. Again, he invited the exiled opposition back home (no deal, they replied) [Ed.: We double-checked, and actually, Berdimuhammedov never actually made a formal invitation, although the opposition says that they were in fact prepared to participate, and even at one point worked together to develop a collective stance]. The idea only became law in February, and instituted now with the formation of the PIE. However, any reference to the old invitations to the opposition have disappeared, perhaps suggestive that we, the Turkmen people, such accept the dessert given to us now.

I must confess, it all seems surreal and fake. Berdimuhamemdov’s efforts to repair the country’s standing on the international scene with displays of electoral (or architectural) flourish and proclamations of prosperity where, in reality, there isn’t any, obviously ring hollow. Still, appearances must be kept, the show must go on, and men in business suits giving somber speeches in parliament fit the bill nicely. Maybe with their newfound status, they can even entice more investment into the country, too.

But many of my countrymen are going to think that PIE is just another bunch of elite who are detached from the masses and out of touch with realities in the provinces — perhaps it is even just one more tool by the regime to signal who’s in favor and who’s out. No, the masses tend to think that genuine parties should be established, and they usually think in two ways: a Western-style liberal party based on a free market model, or a Turkish-style democratic Islamic party based on a religious communal model.

Well, why couldn’t PIE and DPT eventually become these, i.e., sans dictatorship? Perhaps they could. But they are too part and parcel of the current “mystical” system — a system that can allow more outward pluralism but is actually deeply syncretistic and hegemonic in its heart.

The president’s word is law here and there is nobody in the country who would not bow to his orders (so the media says). He is above any party, so why could there not one day be a scenario in which there are a whole bunch of political parties, but who are all loyal to him and compete to support him? Or he can split the system between the presidency and the parliament, maintaining his position as the all powerful president and controlling the parliament, similar (but far more severe) than the situation in Kazakhstan.

Political syncretism and mysticism are the heart of the show in Turkmenistan. Even history must obey the president, if not by its voice, then by its silence: Niyazov, whose likeness once graced every inch of this country, has been bulldozed into an increasingly faint memory.

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