Turkmenistan Is All About the Berdimuhamedovs

Central Asia is about to receive its first dynastic family.

By , a Central Asia fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and , a professor of Eurasian studies at the University of Glasgow.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov poses with an ancient Akhal-Teke breed three years old studhorse, Begkhan, that won an Inernational Annual Horse Beauty contest in Ashgabat on April 23, 2016.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov poses with an ancient Akhal-Teke breed three years old studhorse, Begkhan, that won an Inernational Annual Horse Beauty contest in Ashgabat on April 23, 2016.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov poses with an ancient Akhal-Teke breed three years old studhorse, Begkhan, that won an Inernational Annual Horse Beauty contest in Ashgabat on April 23, 2016. IGOR SASIN/AFP via Getty Images

If all goes to plan, Turkmenistan will soon become the first Central Asian state where the government becomes a family inheritance. A snap presidential election, which is not expected to be free or fair, has been called for March 12; voting is already underway. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov will not stand for a fourth term—his son, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, is running in his stead. He is all but guaranteed to win.

Turkmen developments rarely make international headlines; the elder Berdimuhamedov prefers it that way. Despite his eccentric domestic showboating, including televised New Year’s DJ sets and blatantly staged horse races, Gurbanguly has increasingly shut his state, and its citizens, off from the outside world in his 15 years in power. He has never overseen a free and fair election—and is not about to start now.

The Turkmen president is not going to retire, however, as he intends to continue on as chair of the Halk Maslahaty, the upper house of Turkmenistan’s rubber-stamp legislature. Internal regime dynamics remain murky, but, regardless of Turkmenistan’s intentional isolation, the country’s future is significant. Serdar will in all likelihood soon oversee the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves, an increasingly tense situation on the Afghan border, and the endgame of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, if you believe the regime in Ashgabat, spared Turkmenistan entirely.

If all goes to plan, Turkmenistan will soon become the first Central Asian state where the government becomes a family inheritance. A snap presidential election, which is not expected to be free or fair, has been called for March 12; voting is already underway. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov will not stand for a fourth term—his son, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, is running in his stead. He is all but guaranteed to win.

Turkmen developments rarely make international headlines; the elder Berdimuhamedov prefers it that way. Despite his eccentric domestic showboating, including televised New Year’s DJ sets and blatantly staged horse races, Gurbanguly has increasingly shut his state, and its citizens, off from the outside world in his 15 years in power. He has never overseen a free and fair election—and is not about to start now.

The Turkmen president is not going to retire, however, as he intends to continue on as chair of the Halk Maslahaty, the upper house of Turkmenistan’s rubber-stamp legislature. Internal regime dynamics remain murky, but, regardless of Turkmenistan’s intentional isolation, the country’s future is significant. Serdar will in all likelihood soon oversee the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves, an increasingly tense situation on the Afghan border, and the endgame of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, if you believe the regime in Ashgabat, spared Turkmenistan entirely.

The regime that Serdar is inheriting from his father is very different from the one that the elder Berdimuhamedov was selected to lead after the death of Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s first president. A long-term, yet relatively unknown, elite member, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov was catapulted to power after Niyazov’s sudden death in December 2006, when he emerged as the victor of a rapid process of selection negotiated behind closed doors. Soon after, he began to rule with the same authoritarian disposition of his predecessor, one of the world’s most eccentric—and brutal—dictators.

While governance standards have not improved—Turkmenistan is a consolidated dictatorship in 2022 just as it was at the moment of Niyazov’s death—Gurbanguly’s management of the country’s mono-resource economy has been nothing short of disastrous. During his time in office (1991-2006), Niyazov had a simple economic strategy: avoiding any structural reform to exploit the revenues deriving from the export of Turkmen gas reserves to run the economy as a whole, addressing the kleptocratic ambitions of his supporting elites, and offering an extensive system of subsidies that provided a safety net to the population.

After his accession to power in February 2007, Gurbanguly did not alter the economic core of Turkmen authoritarianism. As energy relations with Russia—the cornerstone of Niyazov’s gas policy—deteriorated, he managed to forge a close relationship with China, expecting to position Turkmenistan as a key gas exporter to Chinese markets. The opening of the China-Central Asia pipeline in December 2009 increased the relationship’s intensity and boosted the Sino-Turkmen gas trade. By the mid-2010s, China had become the only buyer of Turkmenistan’s main export; crushing regime dreams of development, increased dependency on Chinese gas purchases intervened to wreak havoc across Turkmenistan’s unreformed economy.

From 2014 onward, the Turkmen economy entered an unprecedented crisis, which persists to this day. Market fluctuations and the necessity of repaying the debt contracted with China for the financing of the pipeline reduced the size of gas revenues, depriving the Turkmen regime of the vital cash flow it required to run the economy. The elite continued to manage these revenues in a nontransparent fashion, indulging in eccentric lifestyles and embarking on lavish infrastructural projects: It was ordinary Turkmens who bore the brunt of the elder Berdimuhamedov’s economic failure, as the obliteration of the Niyazovist subsidy system led to rampant inflation, increased poverty rates, and triggered food insecurity across the Turkmen territory.

Serdar is in this sense inheriting a compromised economic system, one that is in desperate need of reform. It is however unlikely that he will engage in a major economic overhaul, reducing Turkmenistan’s dependency on its extractive sector. To our mind, Serdar Berdimuhamedov represents the candidate of authoritarian continuity and regime preservation. His career profile, which we detail below, indicates that he may have inherited his father’s taste for squandering money on vanity projects with ridiculous budgets.

Serdar has been groomed as his father’s successor for quite some time. He currently serves as deputy prime minister but has also served in the following posts, and more: chairman of the Mejlis Committee, deputy minister of foreign affairs, member of the State Security Council, minister of industry and construction, chairman of the Supreme Control Chamber, and governor of his father’s native Ahal province, where the regime is building a $1.5 billion new city construction project.

While presidential families have been prominent across Central Asia in the last 30 years—Kazakhstan’s former President Nursultan Nazarbayev previously promoted his daughter as chair of its upper house, as did Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon with his son, who also serves as mayor of Dushanbe, the country’s capital—Serdar’s itinerant resume hints at a need to at least show face with elites across the Turkmen state apparatus.

It was not always so evident that Serdar would succeed his father. He graduated from Turkmen Agricultural University in 2001, but the early stages of his career remain unclear. A year after his father assumed the presidency, he was sent to the Turkmen Embassy in Moscow. Serdar continued his studies while he was there, then moved to Switzerland to pursue a degree at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. He subsequently served as deputy head of the state energy agency, but he was placed on the political path in July 2016 when he joined the foreign ministry, under the tutelage of the long-serving Rashid Meredov. Four months later, Serdar was announced as the winner of a theretofore undeclared snap election for a vacancy to in the Turkmen parliament—it was never publicly announced how the post became available. The exiled opposition noted this was in violation of the constitution.

The upcoming election is likely to be similarly competitive, the other other candidates are all complete non-entities. The most senior are Agazhan Bekmyradov, deputy governor of the Mary region, and parliamentarian Berdymammet Gurbanov, the remainder largely directors of state schools or institutes. None has a significant public profile.

There is no precedent for such a familial transition in post-Soviet Central Asia. The elder Berdimuhamedov does appear to be taking a page from Nazarbayev’s playbook, remaining chairman of the upper house much as Nazarbayev remained chair of the Security Council after handing over the presidency. But Nazarbayev was not handing over power to a relative—in fact, conflicts between his chosen successor and relatives are believed to have played a key role in January’s violence in Kazakhstan.

It is unclear to what extent Gurbanguly will remain involved in Turkmen political life. The Halk Maslahaty has no real power of its own—the elder Berdimuhamedov disbanded the chamber shortly after he took power, reforming it only in October 2017—but his plans to continue as chair are unlikely to be resisted by his own son.

The factors that accelerated the Turkmen transition are typically opaque. Despite Gurbanguly’s relatively young age — Kazakhstan’s Qassym-Jomart Tokayev was 65 when Nazarbayev named him as his successor — there have been rumors about his health in recent years: There is, however, no evidence of a sudden deterioration in his condition. Although Serdar’s candidacy was announced only a month after Kazakhstan’s own presidential transition plan led to Central Asia’s most significant tremors in decades, the long-term nature of the process whereby the younger Berdimuhamedov had been groomed for the presidency indicates that recent events in Ashgabat are not a knee-jerk reaction to Kazakhstan’s bungled transition. Finally, the Turkmen political system thrives on the ostentation of regime unity, so it is hard to speculate whether and how the Serdar transition has been negotiated within and between the elites.

What is immediately clear is that, in the game of the Berdimuhamedovs, it is the Turkmen population that has drawn the shortest straw. Familial succession suggests no immediate change in governance methods: As they are now forced to keep up with another Berdimuhamedov, ordinary Turkmens will have to endure bad governance, repression, and a grim economy for a few more decades to come.

Maximilian Hess is a Central Asia fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Luca Anceschi is a professor of Eurasian studies at the University of Glasgow.

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