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Is Turkmenistan's secretive presidency becoming a family affair?

Son of Berdymukhamedov 'the protector' rises amid political and economic changes

Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov arrives for the Japanese emperor's enthronement in 2019: His succession plans are stirring speculation as his son rises through the ranks.   © AP

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- In the closed world of Turkmenistan, one man dominates the political scene: Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the long-ruling president. Recent developments, however, are leading observers to wonder if the leadership is about to become a family dynasty.

Serdar Berdymukhamedov, the president's only son, is rising rapidly through the ranks of government. Over the last few years he has held a range of increasingly important posts, sparking rumors of a potential dynastic succession in this energy-rich former Soviet republic in Central Asia -- later if not sooner.

In February, the younger Berdymukhamedov's resume received a boost with his promotion to a deputy prime minister post. He also took a seat on the influential State Security Council and became chair of Turkmenistan's Control Chamber, a key body that oversees how public funds are spent.

The rumblings about the future of the presidency come as the country forms a new parliamentary body this Sunday -- and as it aims to weather COVID-19's economic fallout while wringing more income out of its gas reserves.

Serdar Berdymukhamedov turns 40 in September, making him eligible to run for the presidency if his 63-year-old father should decide to take a back seat. That remains a big "if," as the sitting president has shown no indication of wanting to step down. One variable is the state of his health, long rumored to be poor, although the truth is always hard to ascertain in such a secretive state.

Luca Anceschi, senior lecturer in Central Asian studies at the University of Glasgow, acknowledged that Serdar Berdymukhamedov's recent appointments make him "one of Turkmenistan's most prominent elite members" and place him in a position to establish his own power base. Nevertheless, he is skeptical about the prospects of a dynastic power transfer.

"Whether this [power base] will become wide enough to allow the ultimate accession to Turkmenistan's presidential post remains to be seen," he told Nikkei Asia. "To my mind, many obstacles -- all connected with elite management -- continue to limit Berdymukhamedov's capacity to appoint his own successor through familial links."

In another political shake-up, local council representatives on Sunday will meet to handpick 48 members for a new 56-seat upper house of parliament called the People's Council. The remaining eight members will be appointed by the president. .

Turkmenistan is hailing this as a move to enhance popular representation, although the body will not be elected by universal suffrage and is unlikely to do anything to dilute Berdymukhamedov's all-encompassing power. Turkmenistan, which has no political opposition, has never held elections deemed to be free and fair by credible international observers.

Anceschi sees the new upper chamber as typical of Turkmenistan's tinkering with its parliament to suit short-term aims.

Turkmenistan's leaders "have constantly tampered with the size, roles and competencies of the different chambers forming part of the Turkmen Parliament, in order to adjust the institutional configuration of Turkmenistan's legislative power in line with their authoritarian agenda," Anceschi said.

People gather for the introduction of a statue of Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on horseback in 2015. He adopted the title Arkadag, "the protector."   © Reuters

Turkmenistan has had two presidents since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Saparmurat Niyazov and Berdymukhamedov, who took over in 2006 after his predecessor died in office. Cults of personality developed around both men: Niyazov reveled in the title of Turkmenbashi, "leader of the Turkmen," and Berdymukhamedov adopted the title Arkadag, "the protector."

At the height of his reign, Turkmenbashi had a 12-meter, gold-plated statue of himself erected. It rotated so that he always faced the sun.

Arkadag, a keen horseman, also had himself immortalized in a golden statue. It depicts the former dentist astride a horse on a cliff of white marble. Once the health minister under Niyazov, he is portrayed as a man of action, often seen on a bicycle or doing motor sports. He fancies himself a musician as well, twanging his guitar or rapping with his grandson. He even finds the time to be a prolific author, having penned more than 50 books.

Niyazov and Berdymukhamedov have led Turkmenistan down an inward-looking path, shunning the outside world. The current pandemic is a case in point -- the country continues to claim that COVID-19 has not found its way across its borders, despite reports to the contrary from within.

Either way, Turkmenistan is unlikely to be immune to the economic aftershocks of the global downturn.

On March 11, President Berdymukhamedov offered some rare insights into upcoming debt burdens. He revealed that $1.35 billion is needed this year alone to service international creditors. A sizeable chunk of that, $895 million, is owed by the fuel and energy sector -- with most of this likely to be paid back to China in the form of gas deliveries, according to Eurasianet.

Officially, Turkmenistan's statistics continue to paint a rosy economic picture, with gross domestic product growth for 2020 standing at 5.9%, down from 6.3% in 2019. The International Monetary Fund predicted 1.8% growth for 2020.

The shelves in Turkmenistan's state-run stores selling subsidized food tell another story. They are often empty and people struggle to find essentials like flour and cooking oil. Prices in private-sector stores are on the rise, according to reports from inside the country, putting further strains on overstretched household budgets.

Workers launch construction work on a portion of TAPI -- a pipeline that would link Turkmenistan with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India if it ever gets off the ground -- near the town of Serhetabat, Turkmenistan, in 2018.   © Reuters

One commodity that Turkmenistan has in abundance is gas. It is estimated to have the world's fourth-largest reserves. But finding markets has proved tricky, and right now Turkmenistan urgently needs new outlets for its vast resources if it is to mitigate the headwinds buffeting the economy. China is by far its biggest market, with Russia, where exports resumed in 2019, a distant second.

The quest for new sales opportunities has seen Turkmenistan look across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and south to Afghanistan.

In January, an agreement was reached to jointly develop a long-disputed gas field that lies on the maritime border of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan in the Caspian. There are hopes that this cooperation could one day open doors for Turkmenistan to export its gas to Western markets via a Trans-Caspian pipeline.

However, Anceschi sees such an option as "politically risky and financially demanding" and with no guarantee that the pipeline would be economically feasible.

In February, Turkmenistan also received security guarantees from the Taliban over the long-mooted but long-stalled TAPI pipeline that would deliver gas from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India -- should it ever be completed.

Anceschi is not holding his breath on this front either.

"I see TAPI as a virtual pipeline, one that exists in discourse yet it continues to represent an infrastructure project of difficult, if not impossible, construction," Anceschi said.

It will take years for Turkmenistan to solve its gas conundrum, which the younger Berdymukhamedov may end up inheriting at some point down the line.

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