A Modern Dynasty: the election of Serdar Berdymukhamedov6 min read
On March 12, Turkmenistan established the first modern dynasty in Central Asia by electing the son of the former president, Serdar Berdymukhamedov. Despite the many promises Berdymukhamedov made during his campaign for a more transparent and prosperous country, his reign is likely to bring little change. Testament to this is his father’s desire to maintain a strong grasp on power in spite of passing the torch.
Although there has been little change in the country’s power structures, the current economic upheaval brought on by the wars in Afghanistan and Ukraine, coupled with the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, will pose many challenges to maintaining the status quo for Turkmenistan’s youngest president. As Berdymukhamedov settles into his new role, it remains to be seen how he plans to tackle the issues crippling their economy other than with lofty promises.
Staging an election
The resignation of former president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov came as a shock to many as presidential elections were not set to happen for another two years. This was compounded by the fact that the elections were to be held a month after he announced he would be stepping down on February 11. However, it was clear that the time crunch was not going to be much of an issue after the Democratic Party, the ruling party of Turkmenistan, nominated Berdymukhamedov three days later. Seven other candidates made bids for the presidency, but they made little attempt to campaign, and all remained loyal to the Berdymukhamedov administration. It was hard to tell that there was an election happening at all; there were no formal debates between candidates and the elections were announced in the middle of the night as if officials were trying to hide the fact they were even taking place.
Unsurprisingly, Serdar Berdymukhamedov won with 73 percent of the vote, running on a platform to “deliver more transparency, more jobs, and more food”, despite providing no concrete examples of how he plans to deliver on these promises. What was surprising about these elections was the percent of the vote he secured, as in the last elections held in 2017, his father secured 97 percent. The candidate with the second-highest percentage was Hydyr Nunnayev, deputy rector for scientific affairs of the Turkmen State Institute of Physical Culture and Sports, who received around 11 percent. Many reporters have joked that they might have just confused him for the president’s son, this seems unlikely given the many reports of polling officials assisting voters by showing how to vote for Berdymukhamedov.
Old authoritarianism with a fresh face
This newfound modesty of the ruling family could possibly stem from the political unrest that took place recently in neighboring Kazakhstan. The Turkmen media provided no coverage of the protests in January; however, residents are still aware of what happened, especially those living close to the Kazakh border. There is undoubtedly concern that this could inspire some in Turkmenistan. The factors that led to the protests also affect Turkmen residents, with prices of food and supplies continuing to skyrocket. Many have speculated this could also account for why Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov stepped down early from his office. Still, there have also been rumors that it could have been due to medical concerns.
Regardless of the motivation to formally leave office, Gurbanguly has no intention of releasing his grip on power completely. As it stands, he is set to remain the speaker of the Senate, the second-highest ranking in the Turkmen government, as well as the chair of the State Security Council and the supreme commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Gurbanguly has also made an appearance at nearly every formal event that has taken place since Serdar’s bizarre inauguration. Some of his most notable appearances were on the first call between the new president and Russian President Vladimir Putin and a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping the next day. Given his decision to remain so visible in the public sphere, it could point more towards the election of Serdar simply serving as a small gesture of positive reform to an increasingly disgruntled public, however thinly veiled it might be.
Electing a new president will only do so much to placate the populace after the novelty begins to wear off, especially if the promised changes fail to materialize. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic prices have shot up by around 300 to 500 percent in some cases after the government began to stop subsidizing staples. As families struggled to put food on the table amid this surmounting inflation, Gurbanguly continued his trademark showboating, including erecting a 19-foot gold statue of his favorite dog. Turkmen citizens have started to become fed up with the mishandling of state resources, despite not being able to express these frustrations publicly. One anonymous source told Radio Liberty that “Turkmen don’t want political power to remain in the hands of the Berdymukhammedov family. People believe the situation in the country will worsen further if someone from this family becomes president.”
The actions that Serdar has taken so far in his few weeks as president have done nothing to dispel these fears. During his first Cabinet meeting on March 25, he filled all governmental positions with the same members as his father had done, except for Muhammetguly Mukhammedov, the new deputy prime minister. He then told his Cabinet to establish a seven-year plan with no input on his part on how this should be developed. This lack of direction was also reflected on April 4 when he stated that the country needed to expand the agricultural center, but provided no examples for how this could be achieved. Serdar’s inability to provide any real agenda for his presidency, along with the continued hand-holding by his father, does not paint an optimistic picture of what lies ahead for the country.
Stories of Serdar’s behavior in his previous roles have provided no more comfort about the new president. The official narrative is that he is “humble and kindhearted”; however, several sources have disproved this facade. One claims that Serdar has threatened to “twist the necks” of several of his subordinates on multiple occasions and shows a general disregard for average citizens. Other sources have stated that while acting as governor of the southern Ahal Province, he refused to meet with anyone that came to his office. This behavior suggests that he is likely to approach the role of president in the same way as his father, perhaps even worse. During every official address, he is seen scowling, barely looking up from his notes. Even at his own inauguration, he did not smile a single time; it seemed as though he did not want to be there. Given his behavior at his last positions, it might be possible that he does not want the presidency at all, more content to enjoy the rewards of his father’s kleptocracy that has likely led to his wealth.
As many Central Asian leaders have tried to have their own children climb the ranks of their governments, the election of Serdar Berdymukhamedov has been the most successful attempt. However, the lack of vision behind his leadership and demonstrated disregard for his fellow citizens might prove to have catastrophic consequences for Turkmenistan. As the country continues to feel the strain of COVID-19, they are likely to feel little relief under Serdar Berdymukhamedov. With his father constantly in his shadow, the country under Serdar will functionally be a copy of the last, perhaps just a bit less flashy.