By Paul Goble
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow, president of Turkmenistan, has begun the process of leadership transition in his country, the most closed off of any of the post-Soviet states and one that rivals the isolation of North Korea, by naming his son Serdar, deputy prime minister.
Lenta journalist Galina Ivanova says that “the position of deputy prime minister in Turkmenistan is considered the trampoline to the presidential chair [because in that country] there is no prime minister and so the position of deputy prime minister is considered second only to the president. (lenta.ru/articles/2021/03/07/turkmen/).
That is how the current president came to power and so he has decided to extend that pattern in order to reassure elites or at least give them time to organize things without the kind of break that could, given the economic crisis in Turkmenistan, lead to something like an Arab spring there, with ordinary people rising against their rulers.
In reality, even if Serdar does become president sometime in the next few years, Gurbanguly will remain a senator for life and will be the power behind the throne in a pattern already pioneered in Kazakhstan. But there are rumors that Gurbanguly himself views Serdar as only a temporary expedient and wants power ultimately to pass to his grandson, Kerim.
Kerim, however, is only 18 and is now studying in Europe. He might eventually come to power, but the Turkmenistan constitution specifies that a president must be 40. That provision would have to be changed, or the succession Gurbanguly favors is going to have to wait for more than two decades.
Rafael Sattarov, a political scientist who specializes on Central Asia, says that all three like Niyazov will come offering the population as many free things as they can, although their options in that regard have been limited by falling demand for natural gas, and instilling fear through the use of repressive measures of all kinds.
The expert doesn’t think that Gurbanguly’s plans will necessarily work out as he hopes. “The intellectual level of the children of Central Asian leaders raises questions.” And even with degrees from abroad, there is no certainty that they will be capable. “If the Turkmen elites and siloviki decide that [a future leader] is weak, the transit of power won’t work.”
But one thing is clear: the current president wants to assure key elites that nothing will change, that they will keep their wealth and sources of income, and that the population will be kept in check. Whether such a strategy will work in closed off Turkmenistan or anywhere else is very much an open question.