Trouble in the family: The Berdimuhamedows’ power struggle in Turkmenistan4 min read
The reign of Serdar Berdimuhamedow, President of Turkmenistan and the first and hopefully last modern dynastic successor in Central Asia, seems to be coming to an abrupt end. On 21 January, Berdimuhamedow’s father and former president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow effectively usurped his son by taking on the new title of “national leader of the Turkmen people” and control of the People’s Council (Halk Maslahaty). The Council, converted to an independent body the same day, now effectively has full control over the direction of the country. While it is unclear why exactly Gurbanguly has been granted this new title, recent events reveal there might be a power struggle brewing in the Berdimuhamedow family.
While the entire Central Asian region has undergone regular political restructuring since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan has taken this practice to an extreme. In just the last few years, Turkmenistan has seen multiple complete overhauls in the structure of its legislative assemblies. For example, the People’s Council was originally convened in 1992, dissolved in 2008, and then reconvened in 2017. In 2020, the country adopted a bicameral legislative system with the People’s Council as the upper chamber and the Assembly of Turkmenistan as the lower.
Under the country’s most recent overhaul, the legislature has been reverted to a unicameral system again, with the People’s Council becoming a separate independent body. This unelected assembly is now the highest authority in the country consisting of officials, regional representatives, members of public organizations as well as the President and his cabinet, with Gurbanguly at the helm. The Council has the ability to review and approve proposals for Constitutional amendments, foreign and domestic policy, and laws on the development of the country. While Serdar will still be acting as President, Gurbanguly will effectively be making all the big decisions.
The move to become the “national leader of the Turkmen people” is not out of character for Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who has been entirely addicted to power since first being elected in 2007. The former President even openly violated the country’s Constitution in 2021 when he was elected to the Senate while still acting as sitting President. However, the decision has many questioning why he would have groomed his son to replace him if he was not ready to fully relinquish power, and why he decided to take back power now.
One hypothesis is this was entirely an act of vanity. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is not familiar with the term modesty. The list of monuments that he had erected during his presidency, including a gold statue of his favorite dog breed, are testament to this. In fact Gurbanguly never fully stepped out of the spotlight after his son was elected. Even at Serdar’s inauguration, he received a lot of screen time, beaming while his son glowered the entire event. As time passed, his oversight did not seem to waver; Gurbanguly and his wife continued to meet foreign leaders and attend high-level meetings. It is entirely possible that after letting Serdar take over he missed having control. However, there seems to be more at play behind his decision.
Even before Serdar took over the Presidency there were concerns over his performance. In his previous positions in the government, he reportedly would threaten his colleagues and refuse to meet with his constituents. This mean streak continued after he took office in March 2022. Most recently, on 3 February, Serdar fired the head of the National Security Ministry, Gurbanmyrat Annayev, immediately after a presentation on the activities of his ministry live on national television. However, this might have also been an attempt to reassert his power after the events of January.
Beyond his unpleasant demeanor, Serdar has also proven to be inept at diplomacy and decision-making. Since the early 2000s, Turkmenistan has been heavily reliant on proceeds from exports of natural gas to China. Given the recent economic instability brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and spiking inflation rates, the country has been looking to build new partnerships. Two partners that Gurbanguly had been actively pursuing during his tenure were Azerbaijan and Turkey.
During a recent meeting with the leaders of these countries, Serdar seemed to make some progress towards building stronger trade partnerships and expanding their presence in the larger European market. However, he later backtracked, capitulating to Putin’s urging for Turkmenistan to avoid trading with Europe. Turkmenistan has a number of ambitious projects on the docket, including the massive TAPI pipeline which would cross Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Given Serdar’s recent fumbling of deals, a shadow of doubt might have been cast on his ability to navigate such a sensitive undertaking.
While Serdar had never been given full control of the country, the optics of his father’s transition to “national leader of the Turkmen people” has been extremely damaging to his image. His father has already begun his victory tour with his face plastered on walls across the country, making it clear he is the one in charge. While it was assumed that Serdar would likely overstay his tenure in the Presidency when he was first elected, the new decision might signal that someone else is going to be taking over once Serdar’s term is over in 2029. While it remains to be seen how this new dynamic will play out, one could assume that Serdar will be making less of an appearance in the years to come.