Do Turkmenistan’s Energy Reserves Offer an Opening to Reform?

Turkmenistan is, by any measure, one of the worst dictatorships on Earth. Its democratic processes and civil society are so degraded that they deserve scare quotes. Its attempts to promote itself as a Western-leaning proto-democracy are so facially ridiculous that even the State Department does not believe them.

Turkmenistan does, however, offer something of a raw case study in the idea that trade creates democracy.

This idea has waxed and waned in popularity since it was first put forth formally in a series of articles in the 1980s. Depending on the year, the best proof of its fundamental soundness or total absurdity is China, a fascist state that has made its entire raison d’etre acting as the planet’s exporting factory. Western-produced luxury and high-tech goods have flooded into China over the last two decades especially, and it has leaped right into the middle-income trap as fast as possible on that basis.

The democratic results are as mixed as the news. Public protest is still met with jail time, laogai, executions, and punishment of family members. On the other hand, a trickling class of dissidents, artists, and reformers has given some currency to the idea that openness to Western trade has led to openness to Western freedoms.

The jury is, as they say, out. Turkmenistan is trying to be a new test case.

Its carbon reserves are, as with many other states in the area, significant, and as extraction and location methods improve, growing. It desperately wants more trade and more foreign legitimacy. On the other hand, to call it a pariah state is to do a profound disservice to all but the most brutally murderous regimes on Earth. We know, from experience with China and Russia, that trade with kleptocracies and fascists enriches the power-holders first, and trickles down, if at all, terribly slowly.

On balance, now is not the time to use enriching its political class as a tool to bring Turkmenistan kicking and screaming into the nineteenth century. Perhaps after the next regularly scheduled political uprising has started the process of building a civil society; but for now, this would be illogical and a disservice to the cause of democracy, and the well-being of Turkmenistan’s innocent people.

Leave this, at most, as a carrot, and make the tyrants wait.

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