Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The recent sacking of two senior politicians are only the latest in a long line of staff rotations by Turkmenistan’s president Saparmurat Niazov - and suggest that he has no plans to allow a successor to emerge just yet.
The constant purges of high-level officials may also indicate that Niazov – better known as Turkmenbashi or Leader of the Turkmen – is uncertain about the loyalty of those closest too him. But although the lack of a formal mechanism for political transition is compounded by the consistent elimination of potential leaders, analysts believe the president has recognised the need to prepare the way for a successor.
Rejep Saparov held the post of head of the presidential administrative office from more than two years, and was regarded as very senior in the regime. But the end came at a July 1 cabinet meeting, at which Turkmenbashi reportedly told Saparov that he had betrayed his trust and mismanaged his affairs.
The president is also reported to have said he was giving Saparov “the easy way out”, and it did seem he was getting off lightly compared with other disgraced ministers. But on July 27, state-run television reported that Turkmenistan’s Supreme Court had sentenced him to 20 years in jail for taking bribes and being in possession of weapons. He was also accused of handing out jobs to people from his village and tribe.
His fate thus closely resembled that of the man rumoured to be his arch-rival, Yolly Kurbanmuradov. Dismissed in May as deputy prime minister in charge of oil and gas (Turkmenbashi himself is prime minister as well as president), Kurbanmuradov found himself arrested shortly afterwards on charges of embezzling millions of dollars. It is not clear whether his trial has taken place.
The two men are not the first to fall from grace in spectacular fashion. Since Turkmenistan became independent in 1991, there have been at least 120 dismissals of ministers, and 40 or more regional governors and mayors have been thrown out.
Many of these officials have faced prosecution and long prison terms for corruption charges.
Long service and heavyweight status are no protection against the constant purges, as both Saparov and Kurbanmuradov found out to their cost.
One obvious benefit to the president is that he can use the heavily-controlled media to tell his people that if there is widespread bribery and corruption in Turkmenistan, he will put a stop to it the moment he finds out about it. Disingenuous or not, this tactic may deflect some public criticism away from the president towards his underlings, even though they are all hand-picked by him.
Charges levelled against officials generally relate to massive theft from whatever agency they were running, securing posts for relatives, and sometimes plotting a coup. At least the first two – corruption and nepotism – are common enough practices in Turkmenistan, though it is hard to understand how they can go on for years at a very senior level without the security services of this authoritarian state getting wind of them.
“Personally I’m pleased that [they] have gone,” said a staff member of the National Security Committee, who did not want to be further identified. “But the system was created by Turkmenbashi himself, and things won’t change with the latest reshuffle of his inner circle – they’ll only get worse.”
TWO HEAVYWEIGHTS BROUGHT DOWN
What sets the cases of Saparov and Kurbanmuradov apart from the rest is that the two men were so much a part of Niazov’s inner circle that they seemed untouchable.
Their rivalry and apparent enmity may have helped sink both of them. The two men sought to win influence with Turkmenbashi and to get their allies into key posts in government and regional administrations. Kurbanmuradov – like the president - comes from the Akhal region in central Turkmenistan, while Saparov represented a powerful interest group from Tashauz (or Dashoghuz) in the north.
The president is reported to have played adroitly on the rivalry between Kurbanmuradov and Saparov, allowing each to feed him compromising material against the other, and ensuring that whenever an ally of one was sacked, the same would happen to someone in the rival camp.
The National Security Committee officer described how the ground was prepared for destroying both careers at once.
“Our ministry had accumulated plenty of compromising material about the two latest victims of the president’s wrath, but we knew that both these figures were beyond our reach and that of other law enforcement agencies,” the security officer told IWPR. “We didn’t know why we were gathering information about them and, to be honest, doing so made us afraid.”
The officer said it came as a shock to him when “this material was suddenly requested by the president, and played such a part in deciding the fate of these two highly-placed officials”.
He believes the two men were taken down not for their crimes, but because they had become too powerful. “Both Kurbanmuradov and Saparov had grown so wealthy that they already posed a political threat to our president,” said the security officer.
Since real political opposition was stamped out more than a decade ago, the regime appears to be the only source of future leaders. Although Turkmenbashi is not prepared to allow officials within his entourage to develop into contenders for his job, he is thought to be pondering his political future. His continuing health problems – marked by the periodic arrival in Ashgabat of his team of German doctors – may be focusing his mind further.
Turkmenbashi has run Turkmenistan since 1985, when – as plain Niazov - he was appointed Communist Party leader of the then Soviet republic. In 1991, he found himself almost accidentally in charge of a new country – and proceeded to dump Communist ideology in favour of a new Turkmen national identity. The party was quickly rebranded as the Democratic Party, but over the next few years any hopes of political transformation were dashed as opposition groups were hounded out of existence – their members are either in exile or in jail.
Niazov soon started building a personality cult around his new title of Turkmenbashi – portraits of him are ubiquitous and towns, streets, buildings and even the months of the year have been renamed after him and members of his family.
Economically, he has survived thanks to the country’s two principal export commodities, natural gas and cotton, which bring in much-needed hard currency, although the continuing reliance on Russia’s pipeline network for gas exports has left him dependent on Moscow’s conditions.
A succession of presidential elections – which most external observers believe were rigged – only made Turkmenbashi’s position more unassailable. In 1999, a national congress suggested that he should be made president for life, although this does not seem to have been ratified in law.
Now Turkmnenbashi appears to be vacillating between a lifelong presidency and holding an election. He has mentioned 2009 as a possible date, and suggested that parliament might pick three or four candidates for the top job. “The future of the state shouldn’t depend on the will of one man,” he told a cabinet meeting in April. “That will bring no good.”
The president has a history of ordering officials to tone down the personality cult – but these demands seem disingenuous as nothing ever happens – so it is too early to see whether his election proposals are genuine, or merely a ploy to bolster his power and flush out dissidents in his entourage.
Turkmenbashi first floated the possibility that he might step down at a meeting of the People’s Council or parliament in summer 2003– with the proviso that a worthy successor should be waiting in the wings.
In early 2005, at a cabinet meeting screened on Turkmen television, Niazov raised the issue again. He concluded that for the moment, he was “temporarily irreplaceable” as head of state, since he could not see a realistic successor.
Neither Kurbanmuradov’s nor Saparov’s successors – Guichnazar Tachnazarov and Aganiaz Akiev, respectively – look like they fit the bill.
A political commentator in Ashgabat pointed out that Tachnazarov and another new deputy prime minister, Atamurad Berdiev, who has overall responsibility for developing the energy industry, are – unusually -“experts in their fields”.
“Yes, these people are less corrupt,” he said, referring to Akiev as well. “You could [also] say they carry much less political weight…. The main point is that these people have no political ambitions - for now at least - and they’re not clan-based figure; they’re more like hired managers.”
IWPR’s anonymous source in the ministry of economy and finance predicts little improvement, whatever personnel changes are made.
“Neither the president nor the newly-appointed senior officials are aware of the true situation either in the country as a whole or in specific sectors. None of the new people will dare present the true picture to Niazov. That implies that we’re going to keep on moving towards a total [economic] collapse.”
It is hard to identify other government figures who – if Turkmenbashi chose – could be nurtured as possible successors. With Saparov out of the way and Akiev seen as too minor a figure, the role of key player in the president’s entourage ought fall naturally to the speaker of parliament, Ovezgeldy Ataev, but he too is seen as lacking the right stuff to take on a more serious role.
Experts both inside Turkmenistan and abroad cite a number of politicians who are in the president’s good books.
Among them are Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov, the current ambassador in Washington, Mered Orazov, and Toili Kurbanov, a former envoy to Armenia currently studying at Yale University.
Analysts will now be watching to see what Turkmenbashi will do with parliament. He has indicated that he wants to increase the number of seats from 50 to 120 and grant more power to the legislature.
Once the issue comes up at the next parliamentary session due in October, the reform could be a convenient time to get rid of Ataev and appoint a new speaker.
One potential candidate for the job is Mered Niazov, the president’s son.
Mered, who lives much of the time in Vienna, has not been subject to the same public grooming that preceded the ascent of Ilham Aliev, who took over the presidency from his father Heydar in Azerbaijan; or Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev’s daughter Dariga, who combines media interests with running a political party.
But a former staffer in the ministry of internal affairs believes it is a real possibility.
“I can tell you for sure that the president is thinking seriously about who will succeed him,” he told IWPR. “It’s clear that even under Niazov the powers of the future president will be reduced by the constitution in favour of the parliament.
“I think that Niazov’s son Murad may become head of parliament. At any rate, in the past two years he’s been to Ashgabat frequently. His visits aren’t trumpeted, but he never used to come here so often. I also happen to know that he is studying the Turkmen language intensively – something he wasn’t noted for before.”
A former senior intelligence official now living abroad agreed with this prediction, saying, “There’s a high probability that Murad Niazov will make an appearance in the top echelons of Turkmen politics. He’s [also] got significant business concerns in Turkmenistan.”
NO HEIR YET APPARENT
For the moment it’s business as usual. An official in the defence ministry told IWPR, “There’s nothing special about the sackings of Saparov and Kurbanmuradov. Even if he falls seriously ill, our president will stay in power.”
This official suggested that Turkmenbashi was a canny operator who might exploit the recent decision by Uzbekistan to end the United States’ use of their airbase at Khanabad, and offer a Turkmen site just as conveniently located near the Afghan border. That way he would secure international support for his rule.
“We’re now negotiating with the Americans about their using the Mary-2 airbase. Our old boy knows exactly what he’s doing – so long as he hasn’t said a definite no, he’ll stay on as president forever. Turkmenbashi has all he needs to negotiate terms with both Russia and America.”
The strength of the Turkmen president’s position suggests that the reshuffles and purges will continue as long as he is still considering what to do.
As a joke popular in Turkmenistan has it, “In Soviet times people would pay bribes to become a minister. Now they pay bribes to avoid becoming a minister.”
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