In 2006, when Turkmenbashi (“Father of all Turkmens”), President Saparmurat Niyazov, suddenly died and was replaced by former Health Minister and dentist Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, there was hope and open discussion that some of the more farcical eccentricities of the previous president would be removed.
Indeed, President Berdymukhamedov seem to give fuel to those hopes when some of his first moves in office were to rename the months of the calendar back to their original names (Niyazov had given them all new names based off of his own and mother’s), replacing the image of the former president from Turkmen currency except for the highest denomination, the 500 manat note (before that Niyazov’s image adorned EVERY single bank note issued by the Turkmen central bank), and even lessoning the ‘testing standards’ needed by students and teachers when it came to memorizing and knowing the Rukhnama (The Book of the Soul), which was basically a treatise supposedly written by Niyazov and meant to de facto replace all forms of holy books for the Turkmen people. Heady times indeed and cause for optimism for the Central Asian nation that is the world’s fourth-largest producer of natural gas and sometimes considered as having the potential for being a Central Asian UAE. Unfortunately, the progression of time and the lure of megalomania have proven to be too seductive a temptress. As a result, Turkmenistan may be headed back into the abyss of political dementia.
A country that once had pictures and posters of Niyazov adorning everything, from buildings to streets to books to bus stops, now seems to have a similar frequency of Berdymukhamedov posters. There is discussion that there ‘might be a need’ for the Turkmen central bank to issue a new higher denomination note, the 1000 manat, and I bet it won’t be a surprise to many readers as to whose visage is going to adorn it. While the current president repealed the rather odd ban on opera enacted by Niyazov, he has inexplicably enforced a new ban on ballet (no logical explanation seems to be offered for this thought process, humorously, although personally I would have favored the ban to be switched back). The renaming of streets and schools, especially in rural areas across the countryside, has begun in earnest, honoring either the president or members of his family. Vanity construction projects abound throughout the country, including the most recent park which contains a massive fountain holding a giant golden statue of Berdymukhamedov riding a fierce stallion (rumors persist that the statue is of course not gold-plated but solid gold). While the laundry list of ego-stroking could go on forever, perhaps the fact that the Turkmen President had the Council of Elders bestow the formal title of Arkadag (The Patron) on himself while fervently praising the new publication, Adamnama (Book for All Humanity), which he of course wrote, is the most telling: in these last two examples I would argue it is no longer about trying to replace one cult of personality for another or the attempt to erase from collective cultural memory his predecessor, but rather it is the embracing and institutionalization of such cults to a truly astounding level. The Father is now succeeded by The Patron. After having memorized and adopted your Book of the Soul, young Turkmen citizens can focus on understanding the profundities of the Book for All Humanity. The hope of a new dawn of global community normalcy and international economic engagement is dashed against the rocks of cult of personality creep.
Indeed, while it may be amusing and Willy Wonka fascinating for outside readers to learn of these strange goings-on in Turkmenistan, one should not underestimate the seriousness such creep has on the future of the country. For every street renaming or school rededication, for every statue unveiling and banknote pressing, regular everyday citizens feel essential freedoms limited and constrained. Some on the local scene would have you believe it is now more difficult as a citizen of Turkmenistan to leave the country, even for vacation, than it is for foreigners to get permission to come in to the country. While formal state statistics declare unemployment at a globally admirable 5%, most rational international agencies estimate it to be far closer to 50%. The US Peace Corps, hardly what anyone would consider a radical politically-motivated foreign agency, was banned from the country, while media and freedom of speech remains under tight state control. Security in general remains at a permanent high level. Unfortunately for the state, people no longer believe the government-propelled messages to remain a ‘stable island’ in a sea that has them surrounded by countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In the frantic height of America’s Global War on Terror both Niyazov and Berdymukhamedov utilized that opportunity to maximum ‘domestic control’ effect. The popular support and belief in such heavy-handedness today, however, seems to be dramatically dissipating. Whether that actually translates into civil unrest or disobedience seems unlikely, however: breaking a cult of personality is sometimes more complicated and more difficult than transitioning from a more ‘simple’ autocratic regime.
This is not to say nothing done by the Arkadag has been good or successful. But these accomplishments, I think, need to be placed more firmly in their contextual relativism: when people praise improvements made in schools, hospitals, internet access, or domestic travel, it is not saying Turkmenistan has become a model of democratic liberalism for other Central Asian or Caspian countries to follow. Rather, it is simply saying it has taken a small step away from the abyss that once characterized those issues under Niyazov. Normally, jumping from a -3 to a +3 on a scale of 1 to 10 is indeed cause for careful optimism. As we know, consolidated institutionalized democratic principles are not built in a day. But the worry, it seems to me, is in getting to that +3 on the scale might now be deemed ‘good enough’ by those in power. Thus the ensuing emphasis on all of these vanity projects and side endeavors that really won’t result in the improvement of any normal citizen’s standard of living or quality of life.
Turkmenistan could indeed be a UAE for Central Asia, Ashgabat its Dubai. But it is not. Not today. Such is the constant and continuous burden for a Turkmen: you keep getting a Papa and a Patron, with a Rukhnama and an Adamnama, when all you really want and need is a President with a Constitution that truly measures up to the global standards and stops worrying about the cult of personality creep.
Preventing Violent Extremism through Education in Central Asia
The UNESCO Almaty Cluster Office in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and UNESCO Headquarters, in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), held a Sub-regional workshop on the prevention of violent extremism through education on 13-15 November in Almaty.
UNESCO’s approach to preventing violent extremism through education is related to its work on Global Citizenship Education (GСED). Based on its long-standing commitment to peace and human rights education, the GCED strives to foster respect for all, create a sense of belonging to humanity and help students become responsible and active citizens. Thus, the GCED creates conditions for strengthening students’ commitment to renouncing violence and peace and creating conditions for protection from hatred, discrimination and violent extremism.
The workshop was organized within the framework of the partnership of UNESCO and UNODC on “Education in the spirit of global citizenship in support of the rule of law”. It strengthened the capacity of education stakeholders to implement educational measures and approaches to prevent violent extremism in an effective and appropriate manner. More specifically, the workshop provided a common discussion platform for a clearer understanding of the issues of violent extremism in the Central Asian region, as well as discussed new tools and innovative approaches and drew up a plan for further action to prevent violent extremism through education in Central Asia.
During the workshop, the participants also had a chance to visit the Nazarbayev Intellectual School and Almaty State College of Tourism and Hospitality Industry and observe open classes on global citizenship education and values.
The workshop brought together education stakeholders from all over Central Asia, including representatives from the ministries of education and community development, universities and research institutes, as well as youth organizations and civil society. International experts from France, UNODC, UNESCO as well as other UN agencies and international organizations also took part in the event.
Developing the IT sector will make Central Asia more united and independent
This September marked the second anniversary of the death of Islam Karimov, the former President of Uzbekistan, and the de-facto accession to power of Shavkat Mirziyoyev (who was later officially elected to the presidency in December 2016).
In record-breaking time President Mirziyoyev solved border disputes with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – which had previously been considered unsolvable, significantly strengthened relations with Kazakhstan, conducted sweeping economic reforms, and opened Uzbekistan to foreign investments.
The activity of the new reformist president led to positive changes not only in Uzbekistan itself, but in the region as a whole. The change of power in Uzbekistan – the most highly populated Central Asian country, located right in the middle of the region – marked the beginning of the Central Asian Spring, which, in contrast to the Arab Spring, has been characterized by gradual reforms and, above all, economic liberalization.
In March 2018, for the first time since the beginning of the 2000’s, a summit of the Central Asian countries’ leaders took place in Astana, Kazakhstan. It was attended by presidents of every country in the region (except Turkmenistan which was represented by the Chair of the country’s parliament). This summit, along with a notable strengthening of connections between the two most prominent countries of the region – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – laid the ground for talks regarding the creation of a new regional union, the goal of which would be to strengthen the economic independence of the Central Asian region, and later its political independence as well.
The first attempts at economic unification of Central Asian countries date back to the mid-1990’s, and were being undertaken as late as the mid-2000’s. However, each time those attempts were beset with insurmountable obstacles – the position of the late Uzbek president Islam Karimov who basically isolated Uzbekistan from any foreign influence, the border conflicts between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and the personal ambitions of the Central Asian countries’ leaders.
It is rather ironic that Uzbekistan – which for а long time halted the process of regional integration – is today, along with Kazakhstan, its primary moving force. Riding the wave of “the Uzbek thaw,” and highlighted against the backdrop of problems associated with the functioning of the Eurasian economic Union, for the first time in many years the conditions for the creation of a regional union are favorable.
For now, the countries of the region are treading very carefully when it comes to this idea. There have been too many unsuccessful attempts at unification in the past, and interstate contradictions are still too strong, as well as the differences in the countries’ approach to issues. Besides, such unification may not be well liked by the “Big Neighbors” of the region – Russia and China – who may put forth efforts to prevent the emergence of a strong and independent regional player.
The geographic location of Central Asia also provides its opponents with an advantage: each country individually (and the region as a whole) is landlocked, and as a consequence the operation of logistical and energy chains is fully dependent on the goodwill of the “Big Neighbors.” Only fundamental changes to the very structure of the regions’ economy can help overcome this dependence. Such changes are now underway.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are striving to abandon the natural resource-dependent model and develop innovations. An example of that is the “Astana Hub” – a financial and technological center which has the capabilities to speed up the technological upgrading not just of Kazakhstan alone, but the entire Central Asian region.
The simultaneous development of an IT ecosystem of innovations in the countries of Central Asia will create new possibilities for regional collaboration, as well as for collaboration of the Central Asian IT sector with global centers of the IT industry.
Central Asia’s old economic model relied on each of the countries having different and separate economic relations with its “Big Neighbors” and – facilitated by those “Big Neighbors” acting as intermediaries – with countries of the West. The new Central Asian model envisions the five countries – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan – being integrated into a common economic market and having direct connections with Western markets, bypassing the intermediary function of the “Big Neighbors.” As shown through the success of the European Bank’s ‘Investing in Central Asia’ forum which aimed to highlight opportunities for business expansion into the region, Central Asian countries will become integrated into the world ecosystem both in the information and economic realms.
However, in order to implement this plan both the Western business world and the political decision makers have lots of work ahead of them. As the new “IT tiger,” Central Asia may be interesting to the world industry’s giants only as a united region, and they must view it as such already, by extending a certain credibility to the new economic initiatives originating in that region. This means opening regional offices in the local IT clusters and entrusting them first with outsourcing and then with R&D, serving as evangelists of the new economy in contacts with representatives of the Central Asian countries’ governments, and considering the possibilities of investing into local startups jointly with governments. Western policymakers will need to get ready to provide the most favorable environment to the IT industry for any trade and economic relations with countries of the region.
As energy exports are the foundation of economic well-being for the majority of the region’s countries, it places those countries in the position of competitors who are dependent on their neighboring states, above all Russia and China. Developing advanced technologies, attracting Western investments and Western experience, and creating a Central Asian IT market will serve a dual purpose: in reducing the Central Asian countries’ dependence on their neighbors, and in becoming the catalyst for unification processes in the region.
Turkmenistan, the heart of the Silk Road
Over 140 years have passed since Ferdinand von Richthofen, a German geologist, geographer and traveler and the president of the Berlin Geographical Society, coined the term Silk Road. Several more decades had passed before scholars in different countries became seriously interested in this phenomenon of the antique and medieval world and began to study specific routes of caravan trade where Turkmen land had an important place. The Silk Road era, which lasted for more than 15 centuries, has left thousands of monuments and landmarks along the entire route from the Mediterranean to the Far East. Many of them are located on the territory of Turkmenistan.
In the modern era, the legendary route is being restored in a new quality, carrying the idea of revitalizing and strengthening trade, economic, humanitarian, and cultural ties between states and peoples. In his book, “Turkmenistan, the Heart of the Silk Road,” Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, citing facts of national history, ancient tales and legends, as well as events and developments from the country’s modern life, notes that a fundamental role in the evolution and active use of the Silk Road, each of its branches being on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites, belongs to, among others, the Turkmen people.
Thus, as our state carries out major transport projects of the century, a modern history is being written and the idea of restoring the Silk Road – the heart of which is independent and neutral Turkmenistan – is being revisited.
The Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran transnational railway line that has been put into operation can carry up to 10-12 million tons of cargo and makes it possible to connect to transport infrastructure in the east and south, gaining access to dynamically developing markets. Turkmenistan believes it is essential to focus efforts on ensuring that the opportunities for Central Asian and Caspian states arising in connection with these major transit projects be used to the maximum degree possible.
Convenient and safe international corridors using rail, motor, air, and water transport ensure the sustainable development of the entire region, foster neighborly relations between nations, strengthen cooperation, expand the volumes of trade turnover and help address a number of social issues. As a strategic goal defining the contours of a new, large-scale format of cooperation on the continent, they help create wide-ranging and promising geoeconomic configurations. In this context, it is important to note that an international sea port in the city of Turkmenbashi is due to be put into operation in the very near future.
The state invests heavily in modernizing the material and technical base of the transport sector and improving management through modern technology. High priority is given to developing sea and river transport infrastructure. Active work is under way to improve passenger and cargo transportation, develop ports and port facilities, and streamline state oversight over the safety of shipping and navigation.
Central and South Asia is a space for active international cooperation. Ancient trade routes passed across these territories for centuries, bringing Asia and Europe closer together. At present, countries in these regions play an important role in expanding global economic partnership. The implementation of projects in these areas opens up great prospects for the optimization of transport, energy and cultural ties in the Eurasian space. Therefore, as Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov noted, our region is emerging as a major link in the formation of a new trade and economic partnership model on the continent, which, in turn, opens up opportunities for creating a platform for more wide-ranging cooperation. This is a vivid example of deeply innovative thinking in the global geoeconomic configuration and a vision of strategic perspectives for its development.
First published in our partner International Affairs
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