On assuming the presidency, Berdymukhamedov made some initial reforms that toned down some of his predecessor’s policies. The most egregious initiatives, such as renaming the months of the year and the days of the week after Turkmenbashi’s family members, a ban on ballet and even the prohibition on listening to music in cars, were all lifted. Yet despite these small signs of reform, nothing more has been forthcoming. While the pathological state paranoia that so thrived under Niyazov has also been toned down, travellers wishing to visit the country continue to go through the same rigorous visa channels and must be accompanied by guides in most cases.
Turkmenistan’s foreign policy is also unchanged; good news for Russia, which secured promises that its lucrative energy contracts would be honoured by the new regime.
Berdymukhamedov has also retained Niyazov’s declaration of neutrality, and his ability to keep out radical Islam in a volatile region has allowed the country to safely fend off harsh criticism from the West. The latest phase of Turkmenistan’s development is called ‘the New Era’, superseding Niyazov’s ‘Golden Age’, and while the personality cult of Turkmenbashi still survives in the form of monuments and statues throughout the country, there’s a mood of moving on in the air, with few people even wanting to talk about the man who dominated every aspect of daily life for the past two decades. Yet portraits of Berdymukhamedov are ubiquitous and while the new president hasn’t exhibited the same lust for adoration as his predecessor, he himself enjoys no meagre personality cult.
With its enormous oil and gas reserves generating billions a year for the government, Turkmenistan today has the potential to be a very wealthy country, though for the time being these massive revenues are being used not for much needed education and infrastructure investment, but on largely unnecessary vanity projects. A new gas pipeline connecting Turkmenistan to China opened in late 2009, ensuring access to the world’s fastest growing economy and more economic stability beyond the control of Russia, yet it continues to look unlikely that this economic progress will be matched by political reform and democratisation any time soon.