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Disgraced Turkmen Regional Chief Dies in Jail

Once-favoured provincial governor follows the well-worn path of dismissal and imprisonment, and ends up dead in jail.
By IWPR Central Asia
Even by Turkmen standards, the fall from grace of a favoured regional chief was spectacular and tragic.

For more than a decade, Geday Ahmedov remained governor of the eastern region of Lebap (formerly known as Charjou) while other regional leaders came and went.

Last week, a car drew up at Ahmedov’s family home, and security service officers produced his body from the boot.

The funeral was swift and unpublicised, according to the Vienna-based Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights. Most people who had known Ahmedov stayed away for fear of being persecuted by the secret servicemen who remained on hand to oversee proceedings.

Ahmedov, 66, died in jail, apparently after suffering a heart attack, although it is unlikely the details will come to light.

His career ended in February with a 17-year sentence for corruption, nepotism and abuse of power.

Lebap is an important centre of both agriculture and industry, centred on cotton and grain production and processing, so Ahmedov’s long tenure as governor shows how much he was valued by President Saparmurad Niazov, who styles himself Turkmenbashi.

Ahmedov was one of only a handful of officials honoured with title of Hero of Turkmenistan, the top award given by the president.

Former members of staff in the regional government say Lebap did achieve a lot over the ten years, increasing industrial output and discovering new gas fields.

The president apparently had a warm relationship with his favourite governor, citing him as a model when admonishing other regional chiefs, and frequently visiting him to celebrate his birthday and other family events. He showered Ahmedov with gifts – a four-wheel-drive vehicle here, a tractor for his private farm there.

But although by all accounts he was a competent manager, Ahmedov was to be brought down by the corruption that dogs the entire state system in Turkmenistan. People who held posts under his rule tell stories of kickbacks and cash payments for securing senior-level jobs.

“Unlimited power, authoritarianism and corruption flourished. Harvest figures were inflated. Why not? The president wasn’t going to check them. What was important was to report that everything was OK. The Hero of Turkmenistan was on a special list,” said a former official with the provincial government.

One former factory director in Turkmenabat, the regional centre, said he was appointed by the minister for light industry and succeeded in turning the failing plant round, increasing production and paying his workers on time – a rare achievement in modern Turkmenistan. “Suddenly an order was issued for my dismissal,” he said, adding that he found out that another manager had paid a 5,000 US dollar bribe to get his job.

However, sources close to Ahmedov’s administration reported that all this came to an end when whispers reached Turkmenbashi that the governor was secretly building himself a house on the other side of the border, in the Bukhara region of Uzbekistan. The president is believed to have suspected that Ahmedov was securing himself a bolthole.

A succession of ministers and ambassadors have fled over the years Turkmenbashi has been in power. But if Ahmedov suspected his number was up, he chose the wrong country. Relations with Uzbekistan have remained poor ever since Turkmenbashi accused the neighbouring government of playing a part in an assassination attempt against him in November 2002.

Ahmedov was demoted to the rank of district government chief and was moved away from his power base to the central Ahal region in October last year. He was subsequently arrested, charged and imprisoned.

The corruption charges brought against him were almost the standard package used to destroy the careers of a succession of Turkmen government officials, in a cycle of rapid promotion followed by absolute disgrace that has accelerated over the last year.

If the charges of massive theft from the state to fund high living are accurate - and the heavily politicised and staged nature of trials means the facts are hard to discern in such cases - the question always remains why the president and his team missed the warning signs for so long before descending in righteous anger on the official concerned.

A political analyst in Turkmenistan said if rumours that Ahmedov was preparing a quick exit to Uzbekistan are true, it would hardly be surprising, since these days it is a question of not if, but when dismissal and prosecution will come - even for Turkmenbashi’s most trusted allies.

“It’s getting scary to work,” said an official in the southeastern Mary regional administration. “The repressions are now expanding to include middle-ranking officials in regional administrations. If orders are issued to find ‘enemies of the people’, like in 1937 [Stalinist purges], then they’ll find any excuse to put you in prison.”

Over the past year, a string of senior officials have been disgraced and jailed, mostly on similar charges of corruption. Last summer saw the removal of Rejep Saparov, the head of Turkmenbashi’s administrative office and a long-time ally of the president; Yolly Kurbanmuradov, the deputy prime minister responsible for oil and gas; the oil and gas minister Saparmamed Valiev; and Ilyas Charyev, head of the state-owned oil and gas producer Turkmenneftegaz.

In April 2006, chief prosecutor Kurbanbibi Atajanova – whose office oversaw the prosecutions of the above ministers – was herself charged with a string of crimes. In May, the minister of the textile industry, Dortguly Aidogdiev, was sacked in the now traditional style, with Turkmenbashi reading out a list of his alleged offences at a cabinet meeting.

Regional leaders are also trapped by another legacy of Stalinism, whereby they have to deliver on impossible economic targets. If they report failure, they will be sacked, so there is a strong incentive to manufacture positive data and send it to the government.

“The system itself does not allow one to work honestly. To be able to carry out orders, you have to resort to breaking the law,” said the official in Mary.

Turkmenbashi may be engaged in a genuine attempt to root out corruption, although many believe the campaign is simply designed to instil fear in officials and tell the public they, not the president, are responsible for economic failure.

But analysts in Turkmenistan say the problem facing the president is that as he removes corrupt but still reasonably effective leaders, he has to replace them with new figures who are inexperienced, incompetent – and just as corrupt.

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