It is hard to write about Turkmenistan. This country is still considered to be one of the most closed-off in the world. It is hard to understand Turkmenistan, without visiting it or living there for a few years. Nonetheless, the close nature of Turkmenistan is not as absolute these days as it used to be. We offer our readers a view on the situation in this country from the point of view of a Russian expert.
In the past several years, due to a not-so-positive socio-economic situation, a flow of migrants from Turkmenistan has noticeably increased. Today, we can easily claim that over 400 thousand citizens of the country had found a temporary or long-term work outside its borders. An overwhelming number of migrants goes to Turkey or UAE, and to a lesser extent to Russia (even though Stavropol and Astrakhan Turkmen diasporas had grown noticeably, and about four years ago, Turkmen guest workers appeared for the first time beyond Ural).
Moreover, a large number of Turkmen students attend universities in the countries of post-Soviet space. There are especially many of them in Belarus, where Turkmen students feel much more comfortable than in Russia, or even Kyrgyzstan.
Of course in the age of IT technologies and social networks it has become easier to build communication with Turkmen citizens, living outside of the borders of their home. Therefore, it is much easier to study modern Turkmenistan, provided you have a desire. However, such interest is minimal, among the countries of central Asian region and Russia.
This is much undeserved, considering Turkmenistan remains one of Russia’s neighbors. Turkmenistan is a country where, despite the difficulties of inter-state relations, local population has an overall friendly attitude towards Russia, its people and the current political administration.
Turkmenistan remains a potentially rich country, with a relatively small territory and population that could be attractive from a tourist standpoint. Besides colossal reserves of hydrocarbon stock, geopolitical importance of Turkmenistan is also determined by its geographical location, and thus transit potential.
So how are thing over there today? In order to answer that question, one needs to understand what happened with Turkmenistan, following a breakup of a once united Soviet state.
- Transfer of power
After declaration of independence, social values and waymarks had changed dramatically in the country. A one-man rule was established, with the president who started to strictly control all spheres of public life. A process of public purging of representatives of the old elite from the public space has resulted in the forming of a new one from the class of merchants, who created a political system based on the personality cult. It had one forming principle – loyalty to Saparmurat Niyazov and unquestionable execution of his will.
President’s communication with his employees, including with the managers of the highest rank, became very peculiar, objections of any kind were prohibited, and some ministers made it a habit to publicly kiss president’s hand, and talk about his god-like qualities (like summoning or calling-off rain).
Niyazov, fearing an occurrence of political or economic opposition in his country, consciously decided to break apart a society into separately existing groups, by the way of constant personnel switching. These groups structurally divide into clans, which then divide into tribal affiliations.
The most noticeable ones were: Mary, Kyzil-Arvat, Balkan, Charjou and Tashauz. Nonetheless, the main role, both then and now is played by Ahal group, headed by the first and now the second president, both of whom are of Teki origin.
In the beginning, the situation was such that any more or less significant groups, were linked together by corruption and criminal ties, and saved financial resources were used to compete for power. Niyazov’s self-preservation instinct pushed him to make sure there was no political official in his midst, who had enough political weight, to compete with him for power. This is why his entourage was never a group of like-minded people, but rather a group of divided officials, who always watched each other in order to find anything to politically destroy each other. Thus, Niyazov had created a system of checks and balances, which explains a frequent change of administrators of ministries, institutions and velayats.
Most observers explain the occurrence of Mr. Berdymuhamedov on a political Olympus, as a result of certain circumstances. In reality, there was nothing “sensational” about that, considering that at least two years, before an untimely death of Niyazov, the former was in his circle of potential candidates.
Moreover, there were six other figures on the short-list of candidates. Rejep Saparov (former vice-PM nad chief clerk of the president, Yolly Gurbanmuradov (vice-PM in charge of the oil and gas industry), Rashid Meredov (vice-PM, minister of foreign affairs who preserved his position under Berdymuhamedov’s rule), Mered Ovezov (Turkemnsitan’s ambassador in USA) and Toili Kurbanov (former minister of foreign economic relations, former Turkmen ambassador in Armenia, who voluntarily left that position and moved to USA).
It is crucial to understand that Saparov and Gurbanmuradov, were the most likely candidates, which made them implacable competitors. Still, under the system of checks and balances they neutralized each other. Each one on their own, was a threat to Niyazov, since they had necessary financial resources and support both within Turkmenistan and abroad. Thus, it was unacceptable for Niyazov if one of them left and the other one remained. But their stay in his closest circle was fitting for Niyazov for a while. With their help, he had a total control over the situation in the country. Nonetheless, not many have thought about why this system of checks had been falling apart throughout a short time period, while Niyazov was still alive. As paradoxical as it may sound, an impulse for its destruction came from Ukraine. During another round of political struggle, Yulia Timoshenko has publicly threatened her political opponents to publish the details of an agreement on pumping over of 38 bil. m-cube of Turkmen gas, throughout the area of Russian and Kazakhstan, up to the borders of Ukraine and Souther Caucasus. The gas allegedly belonged to a Hungarian company Euraltrasgas, created by one Ziv Gordon, an Israeli, in 2002.
Any publishing of documentation on that subject would mean a threat of international corruption scandal that would have a direct hit on Turkmen president’s reputation. Thus, he was forced to sacrifice Gurbanmuradov, who on 5th May 2005, was fired from his position, as a result of a criminal case that was started against him.
From this point on, the days of his checks and balances system were also over, with Saparov sentenced to 20 years of incarceration in Ovadan depe prison, where according to media he died in 2009.
Now the remaining contenders were:
Mered Ovezov, Turkmen ambassador to the US, has managed to preemptively move his family members and major financial possessions out of Turkmenistan, and chose to resign without taking a severance package from Ashkhabad.
Toili Kurbanov, whos mother at one point was a representative of a world bank in Turkmenistan and was part of the close circle of Gurbanmuradov, also chose not to wait for potential negative consequences and wrote a resignation letter (while in the US) to the ministry of foreign affairs, stating his desire to leave in order to study in Yale University.
Khalnazar Agakhanov, another heavyweight in Niyazov’s entourage, was found to have an oncological desease, while serving as an ambassador in Russia. It was under Berdymuhamedov, that he was appointed a special envoy to the president in Germany, where on June 29, 2013, he died at 62.
Thus, by mid-2005, not long before Niyazov’s death, Berdymuhamedov, was the only remaining candidate from the short-list, that was still a viable option.
Many observers, having noticed a slight resemblance between the former and new presidents, were quick to assume that Berdymuhamedov is Niyazov’s illegitimate son. The author of these words, is more inclined towards the version, stating that he is first president’s mother’s cousin’s son.
Why is the fact of familial relation important? It is important because if it is confirmed, the logic behind president’s actions in his late years becomes clear.
It becomes clear why, Turkmenbashy, aside from his position as the president occupied a variety of government and public positions, such as being the head of the national movement “Galkynysh” and the head of the Democratic party of Turkmenistan.
Niyazov did everything for his leave not to be sudden, aside from unexpected health problems. For this reason in December of 2003, at the XIV meeting of Halk Maslakhaty there was an election of a life-long president by a life-long head of the people’s assembly. This answered the question of power transfer.
According to a new revision of Turkmenistan constitution, approved in 2003, Halk Maslakhaty became a permanently acting highest delegating body of people’s will and gotten the powers of highest government power and management. At the same time, Halk Maslakhaty, was the only body that could block its own actions. However, Halk Maslakhaty had the powers to take away any power from the Majlis (parliament).
Thus, in 2003 Turkmenistan had went through another round of constitutional reforms, which resulted in Halk Maslakhaty becoming a fixed highest body of governmental authority and management. Also, Saparmurat Niyazov has been judicially given wide opportunities for implementing different mechanisms of power transfer, up to transforming future governmental structure of Turkmenistan into a hybrid of parliamentar-presidential republic, with a presence of the leader of the nation, preserving the main levers of power.
A sort of a pinnacle of Turkmen-brand democracy was a report in the local newspaper from October 25, 2005, saying the following: “President of Turkmenistan and the head of the Halk Maslakhaty of Turkemenistan S. Turkmenbashy, has signed order XVI of Halk Maslakhaty of Turkmenistan “approving domestic and foreign policy, conducted by the president of the neutral Turkmen state, S. Turkmenbashy.” In 2004 Niyazov’s grandson was born, who was named Atamurat in honor of his great-grandfather (S. Niyazov’s father). Birth of a successor has visibly improved the relations between Niyazov-father and Niyazov-son. By this time, as mentioned above, Niyazov had finished the creation of the mechanism of hereditary transfer of power.
This explains, why the current president was beneficial to the aging Niyazov – he needed a placeholder while he was alive, an interim president who would then pass on the ruling powers to his grandson Atamurat Niyazov. However, an untimely death, didn’t let Turkmenistan’s first president realize his long-term plans.
At the time of the power transfer, Turkmenistan has achieved certain economic success, thanks to exports of natural gas. When comparing the standard of living with neighboring countries of equal size (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), it is evident that the standard of living in Turkmenistan was noticeably better and the welfare package of social safety much richer. This was achieved in large, thanks to vertically-integrated system of government management and an establishment of a strict control over its weak links, built by Niyazov. Thus, the real threats accompanying a transfer of power in Turkmenistan, were the following: a loss of economic results achieved via Niyazov’s vertical system of government management; a breakdown of the country into several clan autonomies, in the case of a placeholder, unknown to Turkmenistani elites and the people, coming into power.
This didn’t happen however, and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, became the second president of Turkmenistan on February 14, 2007. One of the people who played a major role in him getting into power was Akmurat Rejepov – president’s chief of security. His later fate is well documented in many publications, and we are not going to retell it here, only noting that there is nothing surprising in it. As Rudyard Kipling famously said: “Ship me somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst where there aren’t no ten commandment an’ a man can raise a thirst”.
To be continued
About the author
Andrey Medvedev is a Russian political expert and an executive director of ANO CPT PolitKontakt.