If there were a global prize for Most Bizarre Dictatorship, Turkmenistan's model would surely vie for the top spot. The country's president, Gurbanguly “The Protector” Berdymukhamedov, will be inaugurated for a second term on Friday after claiming an immodest 97% of the vote in the 12 February election, widely written off as a charade.
Western politicians and investors have largely kept away from this energy-rich central Asian republic, deeming the regime too unreliable. But that may be about to change. The country has recently opened major gas pipelines to China and Iran, and is considering taking part in the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline project. Soon, what goes on in this batty autocracy could matter to the wider world, not just its impoverished citizens.
All for show
Some claim the fact that elections were held at all as evidence of a modicum of progress. The country's last leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, didn't even bother with the formality: he made himself president for life.
Niyazov, who called himself Turkmenbashi or "Father of the Turkmen", lavished millions on an eccentric personality cult during his long, repressive rule: building gold statues of himself which rotated so they always faced the sun, naming months of the year after family members, and banning ballet, opera, and all recorded music at public events. He also slashed social programmes and his security forces routinely tortured suspected opponents.
When Niyazov died in 2006, there were small signs of hope: his successor and former dentist, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, hinted at the need for reform, and started to dismantle the omnipresent personality cult.
But since then, very little has changed. Reporters Without Borders finds that "the state's absolute control of the press remains untouched", and Human Rights Watch details a catalogue of abuses that make Turkmenistan, still, one of the most repressive regimes in the world. There are signs, too, that one cult is replacing another: bookshops are full of Mr Berdymukhamedov's own works, and a new mosque has been named after him.
And although Berdymukhamedov put on the show of holding elections, his henchmen didn't even bother with the pretence of another party: all the token "opposition" candidates came from Berdymukhamedov's ironically named "Democratic Party of Turkmenistan".
Not a friend indeed
“The goal of elections is not to create a mechanism for expressing the will of the people,” Azhdar Kurtov, a Russian analyst of the region, warns in the New York Times this week. Instead, they are meant “to trick those people, and the rest of the world, into believing Turkmenistan has a political process”.
As Europe's leaders search for ways to become less dependent on Russian energy, they may consider working more closely with Turkmenistan. This would be a mistake, and a betrayal of the country's long-suffering citizens. Dialogue – and pipeline deals – must only happen in return for the meaningful, sustained reform the country badly needs.
Further reading: Human Rights Watch's collection of reports on the continuing repression.