The president’s son will face growing domestic challenges and an increasingly turbulent regional order.

On February 12, without waiting for his term of office to end in 2024, President Gurbanguly of Turkmenistan announced early presidential elections on March 12. Four days after the decision, the president's 40-year-old son Serdar Berdymukhamedov registered as a presidential candidate, nominated by the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. Serdar Berdymukhamedov meets the formal criteria.

The incumbent president’s son has had a long official career. Between 2016 and 2020, he was a member of parliament; between 2008 and 2011, he worked at the Embassy of the Republic in Russia; in 2018, he became Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. For about two years, he headed the government of the Akhal province, and his last major position was as Minister of Industry from 2020 to 2021.

Whether he truly earned all his positions or owes his career and promotion to his origins will become apparent when he inevitably leads the country.

There are also media reports about his authoritarian tendencies. Like his father, Serdar is known as a tough man who would lead with an iron fist and not tolerate criticism.

On the one hand, the experience and harsh rule under Saparmurat Niyazov, the first leader of the country, and Berdymukhamedov, contributes to the apparent longevity of their power in Turkmenistan. On the other hand, any irremovability of power is a ticking time bomb.

Authority is strong, but it comes at a cost. Researchers, NGOs and rights watchdogs have noted that the political system is based on excessive control and corruption. On the latter, the Central Asian country keeps pace with record-breaking countries such as Syria, Yemen, and Libya, all of which are in active war. 

A change of face ⁠— father instead of son ⁠— may not be enough to address local challenges. 

Regional turmoil

Turkmenistan is the most closed and, therefore, most unpredictable country in Central Asia. For more than 30 years, since the formation of the independent republic, its leaders – first Niyazov then Berdymukhamedov – have maintained a multi-vector and non-aligned foreign policy.

In contrast to Kyrgyzstan, where there was a bitter struggle between the United States and Russia for influence and military bases; Kazakhstan, which is completely oriented to the Russian integration model; and Tajikistan, which has territorial disputes with Kyrgyzstan, the Turkmen capital Ashgabat keeps its distance from all alliances, and maintains good relations with its neighbours.

Even with troubled Afghanistan, Turkmen leaders have been able to find common ground. During the civil war in the 1990s, Niyazov managed to be friends with the Taliban and their Northern Alliance opponents and supplied oil to both sides.

However, with the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the increasing regionalisation of global politics, it has become much more difficult to maintain neutrality and non-alignment. The clearest example is Kazakhstan, where Russia's influence was already strong. When a crisis challenged the legitimacy of the local government, it was Moscow who came to the capital Nursultan’s aid, tying the future of an officially "multi-vector" Kazakhstan even more closely to itself.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have made up their minds about their future: militarily and economically, they are focused on Russia, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Security concerns and the demand for Russian support have grown, especially after the change of power in Afghanistan and the attempted coup d’etat in Kazakhstan. Only Turkmenistan is left.

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, 64 years old, is seemingly confident. One could even say overconfident. The opposition is weak and virtually non-existent. There are statues and pictures of the leader everywhere. There were no serious protests as in Kazakhstan. 

But a closer look on the ground shows brewing challenges. Officially, unemployment in the country is less than five percent, but unofficial estimates cite the number to be several times that. The system is conserved with a combination of corruption and strict control of the internet, and the departure of the population abroad. 

The only chance of leaving the country is to buy a ticket to Türkiye and stay there. After Iraqis, Turkmens lead in the number of Turkish residence permits. Officially, there are about 120,000 natives of Turkmenistan living in Türkiye; another 100,000 have short-term residence permits.

People are fleeing Iraq for obvious security reasons. So, if unemployment is low and life is booming, as depicted in video clips with the president, why are Turkmens leaving their own country? The head of state is well aware of these looming threats. During his tenure, there has been more than one change of power in Kyrgyzstan, the president of neighbouring Uzbekistan has died, and there has been a power transfer in Kazakhstan. Central Asia is undergoing a transformation, and each leader has had his own response.

Regional power shuffles

There was a power shuffle and chaos In Kyrgyzstan and in Kazakhstan, the "successor-technocrat" operation with Kassym-Jomart Tokayev coming to power. In Uzbekistan, a man from the system, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, ended up at the helm after the death of the previous ruler. The Turkmen leader seems to have chosen a more straightforward method: the transfer of power from father to son.

Serdar Berdymukhamedov will be facing many challenges. The demand for greater openness and integration with the world, the Covid-19 crisis,  and the country's systemic problems such as corruption and unemployment will provoke revolutionary sentiment. They can only be extinguished with effective management, reforms, and economic growth. Whether Serdar Berdymukhamedov is capable of all this is unknown.

Neighbouring countries have a definite interest in a stable Turkmenistan. Even if it is adverse to integration projects, order in Ashgabat gives Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan confidence that they have a peaceful neighbourhood. In the event of instability, migrants will flee to neighbouring countries that already suffer from overpopulation, poverty, and high unemployment.

Beijing also benefits from Turkmenistan's stability because it is China's primary gas supplier. Russia would be interested in dragging the republic into its Eurasian system, but so far, Moscow appears content with Turkmenistan's membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States. The same can be said about Türkiye. Turkmenistan also joined the Organization of Turkic States as an observer country in 2021 and took part in its meetings. Iran is also pleased with its current level of cooperation⁠ — it has recently agreed to supply Turkmen gas to Azerbaijan via Iran.

Very soon, on March 12, Turkmenistan will enter a period of serious trial. Whether it will emerge from it weakened, modernised, or further mothballed depends on the desire and ability of the young successor president and the mood of the Turkmen people. 

Either way, Serdar Berdymukhamedov will not strike out on his own. He will be watched over by his father, who retains his position as head of parliament and the title of patron of the nation⁠—"Arkadag"⁠—“The Protector.”

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