Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Turkmenbashi Axes Popular Minister

President Niazov's policy of weeding out potential rivals is running his country into the ground.
By Ata Amanov

The Turkmen people were shocked to read on earlier this month that the popular railways minister, Batyr Sarjaev, had been dismissed by the president-for-life, Saparmurat Niazov.


Government reshuffles are so frequent in Turkmenistan that a succession of "new brooms" has left many ministries in a constant state of flux. While most enter and leave the regime unnoticed by the general population, the sacking of Sarjaev was very different.


First of all, his dismissal was turned into a grand spectacle. Over the course of a week, Sarjaev was denounced and accused of embezzlement on three national television channels.


It was claimed that the minister had misappropriated 30 million US dollars out of a 50 million dollar public fund intended for the purchase of new trains. The alleged fraud had actually occurred many years before Sarjaev arrived at the ministry in October 2001, following the suicide of his predecessor. For good measure, Sarjaev was also accused of links with an illegal trade in petrol tank wagons.


But not one transport department official joined in the denunciations, because they did not believe the minister was guilty. "It's a real shame that Sarjaev has been dismissed, he did so much for us," one railway worker told IWPR. "At last we were getting paid on time, passenger services were sorted out and a derelict holiday camp for railway workers on a lake near Ashgabat was refurbished."


A former protege of President Niazov - who likes to be called Turkmenbashi (father of all Turkmen) - Sarjaev enjoyed a brilliant career during the Soviet period.


After independence, he served as mayor of Ashgabat, minister of oil and gas and then deputy prime minister before heading the defence ministry and leading the railways department.


Known for his diligence and efficiency, Sarjaev was popular in every position he held. "Times were tough and independence had just begun, but the city economy worked well and problems could be solved with a visit to the mayor's office - unlike today," said two Ashgabat residents, recalling Sarjaev's period as mayor of the capital.


1) "Soldiers no longer starved when Sarjaev was the minister of defence," said a staff officer in the Turkmenistan military. "It was on his initiative that the units began to develop supplementary farming. He improved the functioning of the military sector and the president thanked him for this a number of times."


Sarjaev is also credited with reconstructing the Krasnovodsk oil refinery, during his tenure as minister of oil and gas. "He was so busy all the time, the poor man couldn't visit his dying wife," his neighbours recalled.


Turkmen citizens believe that it was precisely that zeal and ability to get things done which led to Sarjaev's dismissal. The president seems to view any effective minister or high-ranking official as a potential rival and promptly dismisses them.


Sarjaev is not the first high-profile government figure to fall foul of Turkmenbashi. Khalmamed Durdyev has been accused of major financial violations during his time as mayor of port of Kranovodsk. He is being held prisoner at the personal request of the president.


Residents of Kranovodsk, renamed Turkmenbashi, believe that Durdyev was imprisoned because he had access to potentially incriminating information about Niazov.


According to the former head of the central bank, Khudaiberdy Orazov, income from the sale of oil and gas in Turkmenistan goes directly into the bank accounts of Turkmenbashi and his family. From his time as head of the Kranovodsk port, Durdyev knew details of the registration of documents and could have substantiated these claims.


Over 200 angry Kranovodsk residents protested when Durdyev was tried in June. "They marched down the main street, shouting and waving placards calling for a just trial," said one witness. While nothing could be proven against Durdyev, the court - alleged to be controlled by Niazov - sentenced him to 12 years in prison anyway.


Government reshuffles appear to have become an addiction for the president.


"I think it's self-evident that there are hardly any experienced people left in the government. It's not clear with whom he intends to build an independent nation," one parliamentarian told IWPR.


The president tends to appoint inexperienced people to ministerial positions. This suits him because whenever his government gets into difficulties he can blame them.


Turkmenistan is edging closer to a point where not a single competent minister remains in government. The president's policies have ensured that after a decade of independence, the country is facing disintegration and spiritual ruin.


If Turkmenbashi does not change course soon, chaos could beckon.


Ata Amanov and Ovez Muradov are pseudonyms for journalists in Turkmenistan