In 15 years as an independent nation, Turkmenistan has been a state where human rights, political expression and economic advancement have been shrinking rather than expanding. Condition of this Central Asian republic is largely the result of the policies of its president, Saparmurat Niyazov.
When the Soviet Union dissolved at the end of 1991, a number of its member states, such as Georgia and Ukraine, became more democratic. But many analysts, including Erica Dailey at the Open Society Institute in New York, say that for the people of Turkmenistan, the Soviet era, in many ways, was better than today.
"It is fair to say that the political, economic, environmental and social situations in Turkmenistan have all deteriorated dramatically since the Soviet period. Turkmenistan today is one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world. Turkmenistan regularly ranks among 'the worst of the worst,''' says Dailey.
"Father of All Turkmen"
The man who controls Turkmenistan is 66-year-old President Saparmurat Niyazov, who calls himself "Turkmenbashi", or "father of all Turkmen." He was elected President of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in October 1990. One year later, Mr. Niyazov was elected President of an independent Turkmenistan. In 1999, lawmakers in his one-party state made him president-for-life.
Annette Bohr at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London says Turkmenistan's president goes beyond being an autocrat.
"One is apt to label this system as authoritarian, but it's really more akin to 'Sultanism,' [which is] characterized by the leader's freedom to exercise his power without restraint [and] at his own discretion. And above all, he's unencumbered by rules [i.e., constitutional restraints and the nation's laws]," says Bohr.
Along with total political control, Alexander Gupman at the human rights group Freedom House in Washington says President Niyazov also uses his security forces to keep the Turkmen people silenced.
"We have seen a complete crackdown on civil society. There are people who are extremely disgruntled in Turkmenistan. However, it has been impossible for anyone to mount any sort of organized movement to put out that dissenting voice," says Gupman.
Many analysts say another of Mr. Niyazov's targets is the media. Elsa Vidal at the press rights group Reporters Without Borders in Paris says non-state information sources are forbidden in Turkmenistan and that reporters often are treated brutally.
"All independent [domestic] journalists have been systematically chased, harassed, muzzled and sentenced to prison. Foreign press correspondents have been kicked out. People have to go into companies or into foreign organizations if they want a chance to connect to the Internet," says Vidal.
For example, freelance Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist and human rights activist Ogulsapar Muradova was arrested in June and sent to prison. Three months later, authorities announced that she had died in custody of what they called "natural causes." Her son, who claimed her body, says she was beaten to death.
According to many experts, including Annette Bohr at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Mr. Niyazov tries to further control his people through his book of philosophy, called the Rukhnama.
"The Rukhnama is a major tool used to buttress this lavish personality cult and to create a pseudo-state ideology. It has been accorded the de-facto status of a holy book on a par with the Koran. Public-sector employees must pass regular examinations [on the Rukhnama] as a prerequisite for continued employment. You must pass a written examination in order to gain a place at a university, or even to receive a driver's license," says Bohr.
Mr. Niyazov's handling of the economy, details of which are state secrets, has produced little for his people despite having a strong source of national revenue - - the energy sector.
The U.S. government estimates that Turkmenistan produced more than 54 billion cubic meters of natural gas in 2004, from reserves of more than two trillion cubic meters. There is also oil. But nearly 60 percent of Turkmen live below the poverty line. Many analysts point out that with only 5.2 million people in the country, energy revenues should be able to eliminate poverty and improve the country's social services.
But Erica Dailey at the Open Society Institute says that money has another purpose. "The president has sole and personal control of bank accounts in the West that contain the state revenues from the sale of Turkmenistan's natural gas. And there's no indication of how much, if any of that, is being made available for social services and other needs of the country," says Dailey.
And then there is the question of who will take control of Turkmenistan after Mr. Niyazov is gone. Alexander Gupman at Freedom House says that because the president does not have designated a successor, there is great uncertainty ahead.
"A lot of analysts have predicted that violence may ensue in the struggle [for control of Turkmenistan] after he does pass away. And perhaps some groups that would normally be involved in a non-violent civic action [such as elections] are simply biding their time hoping that in the chaos that ensues, they will be able to put forward their agenda," says Gupman.
To some analysts, one post-Niyazov possibility is the emergence of a strong Islamic front. A fundamentalist group called Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which wants secular governments abolished, has a well established presence in Central Asia. And Turkmenistan could see a number of secular groups vying for political control.
With President Niyazov reported to be in poor health, many observers warn that the Central Asian nation could face turmoil in the not-so-distant future.