THE BLOG

Surreptitious Totalitarianism

06/12/2015 03:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

How many people reading this have heard of Turkmenistan? The isolated central Asian nation has geopolitical importance due to its proximity toward both Iran and Afghanistan, but beyond that is virtually unheard of. The nation's proclaimed neutrality has allowed it to balance various political rivalries and maintain its relative independence. This neutrality has also allowed it to maintain an erogenous pseudo-totalitarian system with little to no opposition from the rest of the world.

This former Soviet Republic maintains one of the worst records for press freedom and individual autonomy, according to NGOs like Freedom House. It's ranking is only comparable to states like North Korea or Eritrea, states well known to have established totalitarian systems of governance. If you are to scour the web as I often do you will hear of one of the most brutal regimes on earth. The former Soviet republic had been ruled by 'Turkmenbashi', or Saparmurat Niyazov from its independence in 1991 till his death in 2006. Turkmenbashi was believed to have introduced some truly bizarre laws, perhaps most notably banning tv reporters from wearing makeup (he claimed that they were beautiful enough), and banning gold teeth for some unknown reason.

After his death, another eccentric tyrant took his place known as Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. The regime remained largely unchallenged while groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have consistently pushing for more international scrutiny toward the Turkmen regime. This seems unlikely as of 2015, as there remain key strategic interests by Western and Eastern powers in this totalitarian state. That remains the key difference between Turkmenistan and other repressive regimes similar in nature is that Turkmenistan is not hostile to the west, and if anything a close strategic ally.

Turkmenistan does not serve as a threat beyond its borders, and as such it is far less dangerous than say North Korea. The military, geographical and political situation certainly are worth evaluating, but the gross deprivation of human rights should not be ignored. Obviously the US nor any country should, or even would consider removing the regime in Ashgabat. Sanctions would be unlikely to change the nature of the regime and would only serve to hurt the people. No, the only thing the US can do is to attempt to offer benefits toward the regime for decentralizing and allowing independent voices. The regime is seemingly here to stay with no organized opposition, and until that opposition emerges it will not change without extensive benefits from the US and its other allies.

We should also attempt to understand that there remain many regimes similar to Turkmenistan even in 2015. These nations are unlikely to change until they are forced to from internal pressure, and the international community struggles to resolve issues like these. Frankly I do not know the answer to resolve these difficult policy dilemmas, as sanctions or military action will likely lead to a far worse situation. Nonetheless, for the US and Western powers to proclaim that they foster democratic values and development is far from the actual truth. These powers do not have to uphold these values, as there are a variety of barriers toward achieving 'western democratic' values, and we need to understand that simultaneously. Democracy will only emerge through internal forces, not through a foreign occupation of a country. Despite this, we can only hope that independent voices emerge in totalitarian states like Turkmenistan, and for individual autonomy and human rights to expand.