Freedom in the World 2021 - Turkmenistan

NOT FREE
2
/ 100
Political Rights 0 / 40
Civil Liberties 2 / 60
LAST YEAR'S SCORE & STATUS
2 / 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.
 
 
 

Overview

Turkmenistan is a repressive authoritarian state where political rights and civil liberties are almost completely denied in practice. Elections are tightly controlled, ensuring nearly unanimous victories for the president and his supporters. The economy is dominated by the state, corruption is systemic, religious groups are persecuted, and political dissent is not tolerated.

Key Developments in 2020

  • The government denied the presence of COVID-19 in Turkmenistan throughout the year, despite evidence of widespread respiratory infections and a surge in deaths.
  • Constitutional changes that were approved in September called for the abolition of the Khalk Maslahaty (People’s Council) and the creation of an upper house of parliament with the same name. The new chamber was set to be convened in 2021.
  • Citizens engaged in a series of rare demonstrations during the year to protest the worsening economic situation. The events were typically triggered by local breakdowns in public services.

Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4

The president is directly elected for an unlimited number of seven-year terms, extended from five years under a 2016 constitutional revision. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the incumbent, was reelected for a third term in 2017 with 97.69 percent of the vote amid turnout of over 97 percent, according to official results. His eight token opponents were either nominees of state-backed parties or members of the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT) who ran as independents. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) criticized the election process for failing to present voters with a genuine choice and noted that it took place in a strictly controlled political and media environment.

A2 0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4

The unicameral Mejlis is composed of 125 members elected from individual districts to serve five-year terms. Parliamentary elections are tightly controlled by the state and feature no genuine competition from opposition candidates.

In the March 2018 elections, the DPT won 55 seats, the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and the Agrarian Party each took 11, and candidates nominated by groups of citizens secured 48. Voter turnout was reported to be approximately 92 percent. The OSCE found that the elections “lacked important prerequisites of a genuinely democratic electoral process.” Observers said that while there was a semblance of pluralism, all parties and candidates supported the president, and the absence of media diversity interfered with citizens’ ability to make a free and educated choice.

In September 2020, the parliament and president approved amendments to the constitution that abolished the 2,500-seat Khalk Maslahaty, a body that included Mejlis members as well as a variety of unelected officials and community leaders. It was set to be replaced in early 2021 with an upper chamber of parliament that would have the same name, leaving the Mejlis as the lower house. The new 56-seat chamber would include eight members each from the country’s five provinces and Ashgabat, selected by the respective governors, plus eight members appointed by the president. The speaker of the new chamber would also be the president’s constitutionally designated successor should he fall ill or die in office.

A3 0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0 / 4

The legal framework for elections is neither fair nor impartially implemented. The Central Election Commission (CEC) is appointed by the president and operates with little transparency. The law allows virtually no opportunity for independent fundraising or campaigning. In the 2017 presidential and 2018 parliamentary elections, the CEC organized and funded all campaign activities, according to international monitors.

The constitution and electoral code were amended in 2016 to remove the upper age limit of 70 for presidential candidates, extend the presidential term from five to seven years, and eliminate the right of public associations to nominate presidential candidates.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 0 / 4

The party system is dominated by the ruling DPT and controlled by the executive branch. The 2012 law on political parties specified the legal basis for citizens to form independent parties, but barred parties formed on professional, regional, or religious lines, and those created by government officials. Nevertheless, Berdimuhamedov subsequently announced plans to form two new groups—the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and the Agrarian Party. Both were then openly organized by sitting members of the DPT and formally registered in 2012 and 2014, respectively. The Agrarian Party won its first parliamentary seats in 2018.

B2 0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0 / 4

Turkmenistan has never experienced a peaceful transfer of power between rival parties through elections. Berdimuhamedov had served in the government of his late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who in turn had ruled the country since before its independence from the Soviet Union. The Soviet-era Communist Party became the DPT in 1991 and remains in power to date. All genuine opposition groups operate either illegally or in exile.

B3 0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 0 / 4

The authoritarian political system offers voters no meaningful alternatives to the ruling party. At an informal level, politics within the regime are thought to be influenced by regional patronage networks, or “clans,” that control different parts of the state and economy.

B4 0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0 / 4

Members of the ethnic Turkmen majority and the president’s tribal subdivision in particular are favored for leadership positions. While women and members of ethnic or religious minority groups formally have full political rights, no segment of the country’s population enjoys the practical ability to engage in independent political activity. About a quarter of candidates elected to the Mejlis in 2018 were women.

C Functioning of Government

C1 0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 4

The president, who is not freely elected, has ultimate decision-making authority. The executive branch determines laws and policies with no meaningful input or oversight from the rubber-stamp legislature. The Khalk Maslahaty that was abolished in 2020 had been revived in 2018 after being previously abolished in 2008. It was formally considered the country’s top representative body, surpassing the role of the much smaller Mejlis. However, it met infrequently and mainly endorsed the president’s decrees and policies.

C2 0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0 / 4

There are no independent institutions tasked with combating corruption, which is widespread in Turkmenistan. Anticorruption bodies have allegedly been used to extort revenue from wealthy officials and businesspeople. Crackdowns on corruption are typically selective and related to conflicts within the ruling elite.

In July 2020, Bakhtiyar Bashekov, a former district leader in Ashgabat, was sentenced to 22 years in prison for embezzlement, only two days after being removed from his post. It was reported in October that Merdan Govshudov, the deputy minister of education until his dismissal in September, had been tried, convicted, and sentenced to imprisonment for corruption in the education sector.

Genuine checks on nepotism and conflicts of interest are lacking. Serdar Berdimuhamedov, the president’s son and presumed political heir, was appointed governor of Ahal Province in mid-2019. In February 2020, he was appointed minister of industry and construction operations. The president’s brother-in-law, Nazar Rejepov, has benefited from preferential government contracts; his firm is a subcontractor for the construction of a highway between Ashgabat and Türkmenabat.

C3 0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0 / 4

Decisions on monetary policy, large-scale contracts with foreign companies, and the allocation of state profits from hydrocarbon exports are largely opaque and ultimately controlled by the president, without effective legal limits or independent oversight. Government officials and state-owned companies are not required to disclose their basic financial information to the public.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the government refused to admit to the disease’s presence in the country and failed to publish any data regarding the number of cases and deaths. This denial directly contradicted independent evidence of increased respiratory ailments and deaths, as well as the government’s own belated introduction of measures such as mandatory mask wearing and movement restrictions. Health workers faced tight controls on their communications, among other hardships. The lack of publicly available information led to a surge in rumors, and many ailing citizens opted to avoid seeking care because they feared how they might be treated in state hospitals.

Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 0 / 4

Press freedom is severely restricted. The state controls nearly all broadcast and print media, and the state-run internet service provider blocks websites that carry independent news coverage or opposition-oriented content. Some citizens are able to access foreign satellite broadcasts, but the government continues efforts to remove receivers from houses in the countryside.

Independent journalists, particularly those affiliated with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), are subject to harassment, detention, physical abuse, and prosecution on trumped-up charges.

In September 2020, Ashgabat resident Nurgeldy Halikov was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to a prison term of four years after reportedly sharing a photo of a World Health Organization (WHO) delegation’s July visit to Turkmenistan with the independent news website Turkmen.news; the photo was also shared on Instagram.

D2 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 0 / 4

Legal restrictions, state monitoring and harassment, and the risk of penalties including fines and imprisonment have virtually extinguished the ability of individuals to freely practice religion. A 2016 law on religion maintained existing bans on religious activity outside state control, imposed a higher membership threshold for the registration of religious groups, and required all registered groups to reapply for registration. Senior Muslim clerics are appointed by the government, and Muslims who do not follow the officially approved interpretation of Islam are subject to persecution, including lengthy prison terms.

Members of unregistered religious minority groups continue to face raids, beatings, and other forms of harassment. Turkmenistanis who conscientiously object to compulsory military service for religious reasons risk imprisonment. In September 2020, Myrat Orazgeldiyev, a conscientious objector and Jehovah’s Witness, was sentenced to a one-year prison term for refusing military service, despite his pleas to undertake a civilian alternative. Four other conscientious objectors had been imprisoned earlier in the year, according to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18.

D3 0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 0 / 4

The government places significant restrictions on academic freedom, limiting research on politically sensitive topics and imposing onerous obstacles to the recognition of degrees from foreign institutions. Curriculums in schools and universities are controlled by the government.

In August 2019, schools were instructed to celebrate the government’s achievements since Turkmenistan gained independence from the Soviet Union. That October, educators were instructed to review and teach Berdimuhamedov’s writings.

In 2020, public health social-distancing measures were used as a pretext to sharply reduce classes in the country’s schools that used Russian as the language of instruction.

D4 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 0 / 4

Private discussion and the expression of personal views are highly restricted due to intrusive supervision by state security services, including physical surveillance, monitoring of telephone and electronic communications, and the use of informers.

In recent years, the government has employed increasingly sophisticated methods to monitor the population. Authorities have reportedly used special software to eavesdrop on voice over internet protocol (VoIP) calls, operate computer cameras remotely, and record keystrokes. Social media users who post critical comments about the government are subject to intimidation and imprisonment, and restrictions on social media sites, cloud storage services, and virtual private networks (VPNs) have intensified. The government also reportedly monitors the online contacts and posts of its citizens abroad.

A 2019 law further expanded the government’s ability to monitor communications systems, regardless of their ownership. Also that year, the National Security Ministry reportedly enlarged its system of informers in universities to identify students who were critical of the government.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 0 / 4

The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and the 2015 Law on Assemblies defines the right of individuals and groups to hold peaceful gatherings with prior authorization. However, the law grants officials broad discretion to block assemblies, and the authorities do not allow organized antigovernment demonstrations.

A number of small, spontaneous demonstrations took place during 2020, with citizens protesting economic deterioration and local breakdowns in public services. For example, a protest in Türkmenabat in May came in the wake of powerful wind storms in April that had damaged property and led to electricity shortages. More than a thousand people were reported to have participated, demanding that local authorities assist with cleanup efforts and restore electricity. In September and October 2020, protesters successfully opposed the attempted closure by police of flea markets in Türkmenabat and Bayramali, where people had begun selling their belongings in response the dire economic situation. Authorities generally responded to the year’s protests with a combination of concessions and police intimidation.

E2 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0 / 4

Onerous registration and regulatory requirements effectively prevent most independent NGOs from operating legally or receiving foreign funding, and activities by unregistered groups can draw fines, detention, and other penalties. Individual activists face intimidation and harassment, as do the family members of human rights activists working in exile. Among other cases during 2020, lawyer Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev was arrested in Balkanabat on hooliganism charges in September, reportedly for his alleged links to activists abroad; he was tried later in the month and sentenced to six years in prison.

E3 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 0 / 4

Workers have a legal right to join trade unions, but there are no protections against antiunion discrimination, and strikes are prohibited. The government-controlled Association of Trade Unions of Turkmenistan is the only union organization permitted to operate.

F Rule of Law

F1 0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 0 / 4

The judicial system is subservient to the president, who appoints and dismisses judges unilaterally. In practice, the courts are commonly used to punish dissent and remove potential threats to the president’s political dominance.

F2 0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0 / 4

Arbitrary arrests and detentions are common, particularly for dissidents, members of unapproved religious groups, activists, and journalists who work with foreign organizations. The authorities frequently deny defendants’ basic rights of due process, including public trials and access to defense attorneys.

F3 0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0 / 4

Prison conditions are extremely harsh, and security forces routinely use torture to extract confessions or punish inmates, which can result in deaths in custody. Turkmenistanis are also subject to enforced disappearance; in a 2019 report, the Prove They Are Alive! human rights campaign identified 121 people who remained forcibly disappeared in the country. Physical abuse and hazing in the military has reportedly led to several deaths among conscripts in recent years.

F4 0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 0 / 4

Employment and educational opportunities for members of non-Turkmen ethnic minorities are limited by the government’s promotion of Turkmen national identity, and activists who advocate for minority rights have faced persecution. Traditional social and religious norms help to restrict women’s access to education and economic opportunity; there are no legal protections against sexual harassment in the workplace.

The law does not protect LGBT+ people from discrimination, and sexual activity between men can be punished with up to two years in prison. In May 2020, a well-known entertainer and several other young men were sentenced to two years in prison on “sodomy” charges.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 0 / 4

Freedom of movement is restricted, with frequent reports of individuals being barred from traveling abroad; officials are reportedly instructed to prevent Turkmenistanis under the age of 40 from leaving the country. The government is known to prohibit the families of dissidents and prisoners from leaving. Internal passports and a residency permit system also obstruct travel within the country. Despite these restrictions, unpublished government statistics suggest that nearly two million people emigrated during a 2008–18 reporting period, with many of them seeking to escape the dire economic situation.

Although the government refused to admit to the presence of COVID-19 in the country in 2020, additional restrictions on freedom of movement were imposed as illnesses and deaths increased. Under rules in place for part of the year, citizens seeking to travel across the country were required to undergo an examination at a clinic, obtain permission from the police, buy a plane ticket, and take a COVID-19 test. In November, a stricter two-month ban on such travel was imposed, with any exceptions requiring approval from special local commissions. Bribery reportedly played a role in the permit process throughout the year.

G2 0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1 / 4

The constitution establishes the right to property ownership, but the deeply flawed judiciary provides little protection to businesses and individuals, and the president’s relatives monopolize key sectors of the economy that are not directly state controlled. Arbitrary evictions and confiscation of property are common.

G3 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4

Domestic violence is reportedly common, but few victims file complaints with the authorities, and the government has not made significant efforts to monitor, prevent, or combat the problem. Reporting and prosecution of rape are similarly limited. While polygamy has long been illegal, it apparently persists in practice; a 2018 law was meant to reinforce the ban. Schoolgirls in Mary Province were ordered to undergo mandatory gynecological tests in 2019 after local officials claimed that some girls were secretly giving birth to children or undergoing abortions.

G4 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 0 / 4

The government forces thousands of students, public employees, and other citizens to participate in the annual cotton harvest with little or no pay. Impoverished residents of rural areas are especially vulnerable to trafficking abroad for forced labor or sexual exploitation, and the government does little to address the problem.

The state’s mismanagement of a weak economy, including soaring inflation, has inhibited opportunity and imposed hardship on the population. Persistently low oil and gas prices have driven down vital export revenues in recent years, leading to reports of unpaid wages and shortages of basic goods. To raise funds, the government has at times increased various fees, cut subsidies, and pressured officials, businesspeople, and ordinary workers to make “voluntary” contributions. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the existing crisis, especially in relation to food shortages and rationing. Also during the pandemic, medical personnel were reportedly forced to work in dangerous conditions and locations, and to pay for their own protective equipment.

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