Turkmenistan’s Tentative Opening

ASHGABAT – Turkmenistan, a country rich in natural gas and strategically located on the borders of Iran and Afghanistan, may be on the brink of transformation. By reforming its educational system and giving its citizens access to global sources of information, the country could emerge as a leader of change in post-Soviet Central Asia, setting an example of openness for other closed societies, including North Korea.

Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has repeatedly and publicly announced his reformist intentions. The world needs to welcome this possibility and back his efforts.

For 15 years, Turkmenistan was held hostage to the personality cult of former leader Saparmurat Niyazov, who styled himself Turkmenbashi (“father of the Turkmen”). Niyazov destroyed the country’s health-care system and neglected its endemic poverty, while spending billions to turn its capital, Ashgabat, into a Las Vegas-style wonder of white marble and gold.

Niyazov forced students, from grammar school to the post-graduate level, to make his idiosyncratic book, the Ruhnama , the primary focus of their studies. He also isolated Turkmenistan from the outside world, forbidding access to the Internet and discouraging international travel.