Turkmenistan: The North Korea of Central Asia

Hidden from the major politics of the world, in Central Asia lies a relative large country. This nation is totally unknown to most people. Like Uzbekistan, the Republic of Turkmenistan has little saying in world politics and imperialist conflicts. The country is relative young as it was founded in 1925 as part of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. Turkmenistan was then called the Turkmen Socialist Soviet Republic or Turkmen SSR. In December 1985, Saparmurat Niyazov was made leader of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan. He was a die-hard Stalinist and supported the August coup of Stalinists against Soviet president Gorbachev. After the failed attempt to save the USSR, Niyazov quickly declared Turkmenistan independent of Moscow and became its first president. In this role he created a country that can be called the North Korea of Central Asia!  

The Khanate of Khiva was the name of the state that ruled parts of modern day Turkmenistan from 1511 to 1917. Like many feudal societies the Khanate was an absolute monarchy. Its monarchs were called Khan’s and they regarded themselves ”superior” to ordinary peasants. The Russian Empire took control over Khiva in 1873, but allowed the Kungrad dynasty to remain in power. Khiva became a protectorate of Saint Petersburg (capital of the empire)!

In February 1917, the last czar was forced to abdicate. A power struggle began between the Provisional Government and local councils (soviets) of workers and peasants. The conflicts led to the second revolution called the October Revolution in November 1917. As the soviets took control of Russia, the Khanate of Khiva faced an uprising of Turkmen tribesman who rebelled against the absolute monarchy of Sayid Abdullah. By the end of 1919, the Red Army of Soviet Russia overthrew the regime of the Khan. On the territory of the former Khanate, a soviet republic was build called the Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic. This republic lasted five years before the administration of Joseph Stalin started to divide Central Asia among ethnic lines!

On 13 May 1925, the Turkmen Socialist Soviet Republic was founded with Ashgabat as its capital. As a backward feudal country it was not on the top list for massive industrialisation. Stalin would however relocate many factories and means of production to Central Asia during world war 2. Like all republics of the USSR, Turkmenistan suffered under the regime of the red czar. Hundreds of mosques were destroyed and many deeply religious Muslims were prosecuted by the state-atheist government. Stalin however changed his attitude towards religion during the war. His army started to use Muslim soldiers from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. So he reopened the mosques and allowed Islamic blessings to be given to Red Army soldiers!

In urban areas such as towns and cities, the old way of life changed rapidly. The nomadic lifestyle of many Turkmen ended with Soviet rule. However in rural Turkmenistan, the traditional ways were kept. Despite all the revolutionary propaganda from the communist party and the totalitarian culture it forced down, many farmers remained traditional. Moscow ordered many ethnic Uzbeks and Russians to migrated to the Turkmen SSR. Soon the Russian language and culture were becoming dominate. Administration work was done in Russian and most Turkmen were raised to speak Russian and see Soviet Russia as the ”revolutionary center of the world”. This great Russian chauvinism would remain until Saparmurat Niyazov became president of the Republic of Turkmenistan!

Muhammetnazar Gapurow was the Stalinist boss in town from 1969 until 1985. Under his administration the standards of living both rose and fell. Turkmenistan was relative underdeveloped, its factories were outdated by the 1960’s and were in need of modernisation. Moscow gave little attention to the needs of Turkemenistan. For them it was a far-away republic and unlike the Baltic states not within sight of western propaganda!

Gapurow worked as leader of the local All-Union Leninist Young Communist League in the 1950’s. This was the place were all members of the nomeklatura (name for the elite) started their political career. Corruption, nepotism and bribery is how you got power in Stalinist Turkmenistan. As the 60’s began, Gapurow supported Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. His unconditional loyalty to the big boss in Moscow made him popular with the neostalinists. They made Muhammetnazar Gapurow leader of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan to serve their interests!

When gas and oil was discovered, the Turkmen SSR started a major modernisation program. Factories were overhauled and new buildings were constructed. Workers were given apartments to live in which was a luxury as few had homes with electricity or warm water. However the economy soon faced the limits of its capacity under a bureaucratic top-down system. A planned economy requires democratic participation for workers and consumers. The Soviet economy was neither democratic nor were workers asked to participate in the planning process. Government bureaucrats were in control and they made all economic decisions. Naturally this ineffective way of planning led to mismanagement and stagnation. By the dawn of the 1980s, the living standards were dropping as the economy was stuck in red tape and bureaucrats who cared little for working class needs!

Party boss Gapurow did not cared. Like his master Brezhnev, he lived the life of a small king. His circle of nepotistic friends had the good life, enjoying western (capitalist) products, good homes and a nice car. Gapurow’s family were also given important positions inside the Turkmen SSR, strengthening the big boss. When Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet-Union, he noticed that the ruling caste of Turkmenistan were totally out of touch with reality. So he ordered Gapurow to be replaced by somebody more loyal his Glasnost and Perestroika program. Gorbachev used a cotton-related corruption scandal to force Muhammetnazar Gapurow into retirement!

Saparmurat Niyazov replaced Gapurow. He was however no ally of Gorbachev as the Communist Party of Turkmenistan was among the most most hardline and unreformed party organizations in the Soviet Union. The ruling caste of the communist party was slow to implement Glasnost and Perestroika. Niyazov himself never liked the idea of giving the people freedom to criticize him or his administation. Like all Stalinists he only cared for himself and like his predecessor loved the power and wealth that came with it. Corruption and nepotism did not ended, in fact it kept growing in the Turkmen SSR. In January 1990, Niyazov was ”elected” Chairmen of the Supreme Soviet of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic. As general sectary of the communist party he was already de facto leader of Turkmenistan, but as chairman Niyazov also made himself state leader, a position held by a political puppet in the past!

On 19 August 1991, the KGB and Stalinist hardliners tried a coup to prevent the collapse of the USSR. Saparmurat Niyazov supported the coup and the removal of Soviet president Gorbachev. However after 48 hours it became clear that the working class of Moscow rejected the coup. They rose up and demanded the return of Gorbachev. Boris Yeltsin (who was leader of Soviet Russia) used this moment to declare Russia’s independence from the Soviet-Union. Knowing that the Soviet façade was over, Saparmurat Niyazov turned from a hardline Stalinist into a hardcore nationalist. He adopted Turkmen nationalism as his new ideology and Turkmenistan declared its independence on 27 October 1991. Mikhail Gorbachev was left with an empty union, betrayed and abandoned by his comrades. However in a final act of poetic justice, his government did what nobody ever held possible. They banned the Communist Party of the Soviet-Union because it had tried to overthrow the Soviet government, how ironic!

1992 in Turkmenistan was a year of rapid changes. All symbols of revolutionary socialism had to be removed and replaced by symbols of Turkmen nationalism. Niyazov wasted no time, he renamed the Communist Party of Turkmenistan into Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. He changed the state symbols and named his country: Republic of Turkmenistan. However very little actually changed in the political field. The single party state was kept, opposition to the new ”democratic” party remained banned. Turkmen KGB officials remained in office and were now called KNB, Committee for National Security. In 2002, this KNB was dissolved. Its members were put to work as part of the Ministry for National Security. This changed little as the Ministry for National Security is just as cruel and dictatorial as the Committee for State Security of the USSR and the Committee for National Security!

In the center of the new regime was ”Great Leader” Saparmurat Niyazov. His self-given title Türkmenbaşy, meaning Head of the Turkmen referred to his position as the founder and president of the Association of Turkmens of the World. Türkmenbaşy wrote a holy book called the Ruhnama (The Book of the Soul). In this book he told the Turkmen people how to live. The book was forced down on all sections of society, from schools to workplaces. Niyazov’s cult of personality grew enormous. As party boss during Soviet times he was powerful, but now Niyazov could play GOD which he did!

On his orders the names of months were changed and named after his family. He also banned the use of lip syncing at public concerts, banished dogs from the capital Ashgabat, outlawed opera, ballet, and circuses in 2001, decreed that men should no longer wear long hair or beards, banned news reporters and anchors from wearing make-up on television. All libraries outside of the capital were closed, Türkmenbaşy believed that the only books Turkmen needed to read were the Quran and his Ruhnama!

Golden statues were constructed for Türkmenbaşy, they are built to always face the sun. Meanwhile the opposition to this Turkmen: Kim Jong Il was prosecuted. The police is using the same brutal methods as used in Soviet times. Any criticism of the ”Great Leader” was enough to be arrested and sentenced to spend years in prison. To benefit from both the west and the east, Turkmenistan remains a strict neutral nation. It benefited from both Russian and American markets and is able to buy products (with American technology) even Iran and North Korea are not allowed to own!

In 2006 the European Commission and the international trade committee of the European Parliament, voted to grant Turkmenistan “most favored nation” trading status with the European Union, widely seen as motivated by interest in natural gas. Because the country has gas, the western world has never been critical about the massive human rights abuses. Turkmenistan is favored by both American and Russian imperialism!

However the President for Life did not have the eternal life. Türkmenbaşy died on 21 December 2006 due to a heart attack. His death day is exactly the same date on which he was declared leader of the Turkmen SSR in 1985, ironic indeed. The presidency went to his prime minister, a guy named: Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. He had been second since March 2001 and leader of the Health Ministry. It was Berdimuhamedow who was forced to close all hospitals and healthcare clinics outside the capital on orders of Türkmenbaşy. The ”Great Leader” only wanted Ashgabat to have access to healthcare!

Berdimuhamedow was a loyal servant, but choose to end the most bizarre aspects of the Niyazov cult of personality after he died, like reopening the closed healthcare clinics outside the capital. Unlike the secret speech of Nikita Khrushchev, there was no massive denunciation of Saparmurat Niyazov. Instead the cult of Türkmenbaşy was slowly replaced by that of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow himself. Many golden statues and monuments to the Niyazov regime can still be seen in Turkmenistan. But they lose value as the current president works hard to build a legacy of his own!

In 11 years since the death of the first dictator, Turkmenistan has reversed many of the decrees carried out by Türkmenbaşy. This does not mean that nepotism or political corruption have been reduced. The family of Berdimuhamedow is profiting massively from the fact that he controls the country. As one of the most dictatorial leaders of the world, Berdimuhamedow hold absolute political power like the Khan’s of the Khanate of Khiva. To fool the Europeans into thinking that he would bring democratic reforms, the dictator ”ended” the single party state and allowed the formation of political parties. The first party registered is the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, a capitalist party!

Other formations that make up the rubberstamp parliament are the Organization of Trade Unions of Turkmenistan (only allowed trade union, loyal to the government not workers), Women’s Union of Turkmenistan and the Magtymguly Youth Organisation (former communist youth league). The banned opposition is made up of parties like the Republican Party of Turkmenistan, Communist Party of Turkmanistsan (made up of stalinists who rejected Niyazov’s turn to Turkmen nationalism) and the Turkmen Union of Democratic Forces!

Out of all former Soviet republics, Turkmenistan remains the most dictatorial and oppressive. Niyazov and Berdimuhamedow both showed their true colors when they abandoned their Soviet façade in 1991. Together with other ex-Stalinist scum they deserve our biggest contempt and hatred. The goal of revolutionary socialists is simply, the complete revolutionary overthrow of the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. A peaceful revolution would be ideal, but the regime has shown that it does not believe in dialogue. This is why the working class of Turkmenistan need to unite in a workers party with a socialist program. A workers party will be the vanguard in the revolt against the corrupt-nepotistic government. Turkmen workers have suffered long enough. They have nothing to lose and a lot to win!


Niyazov (in white) and Berdimuhamedow (on the right).