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

Why is Turkmenbashi Wielding the Axe?

An ongoing wave of sackings looks increasingly like an attempt by the president to scare off anyone who might be thinking about regime change.
By the.iwpr

After a sustained purge of government officials in Turkmenistan, analysts are asking whether President Saparmurat Niazov is worried about being unseated in a palace coup.

Some observers say the president, also known as Turkmenbashi, is fearful that members of his entourage might be inspired to act against him by the revolutions seen in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

In the last six months, Turkmenbashi has conducted what looks like a deliberate campaign to remove anyone with a power-base that is not entirely dependent on his own favour.

This round of sackings began with the dismissal in May of Yolly Kurbanmuradov from the post of deputy prime minister for oil and gas, and previously head of the country’s foreign trade bank.

Kurbanmuradov had been close to Turkmenbashi, but perhaps not as near to him as Rejep Saparov, who had worked with the president for 20 years. However, that was not enough to save Saparov, and he too was dismissed in early July.

Kurbanmuradov and Saparov – who are reported to have been rivals before their fall from grace – were soon arrested and charged with stealing government funds and other abuses of office. The latter was given a 20 year sentence in late July; Kurbanmuradov’s fate is still unknown.

Two key figures in the oil and gas industry followed in early August - minister Saparmamed Valiev and Ilyas Charyev, head of the state-owned producer Turkmenneftegaz. Valiev was charged with embezzling government funds and selling 100,000 tonnes of oil for personal gain, and his fall from grace was accompanied by revelations of his alleged ill-gotten gains, in the shape of a string of luxury homes and cars.

But in this patronage-based system, it is likely that his days were numbered because he was a close friend of Kurbanmuradov.

It is hard to imagine how Valiev’s alleged wrongdoing could have gone unnoticed for so long, since the president retains a tight grip on the oil and gas industry, and analysts say no new contracts are signed without his approval.

This impression is strengthened by the closure of a series of restaurants, bars and clubs in the capital Ashgabat and the Caspian port now known as Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk). Their owners are believed to have been on good terms with Kurbanmuradov, and almost inevitably the businesses are being investigated for tax fraud and other crimes.

These high-profile cases have been accompanied by plenty more. Bairamdury Annadurdyev, the head of the national carrier Turkmen Airlines; Aman Tarkhanov, director of the Bairamaly metals plant and the governors of the Ahal, Lebap and Mary provinces are among other senior officials sacked recently.

Ahal governor Myrat Atagariev differed from the norm since he was accused not so much of larceny as of handing out jobs to all his relatives, taking heroin and committing immoral acts.

“Great Leader, I admit my guilt. I have committed criminal acts,” an abjectly apologetic Atagariev reportedly said as Turkmenbashi read out a litany of accusations at the September cabinet meeting at which he sacked the governor, who had only been in the job for a year.

In the main, though, the theme of each dismissal is theft from the nation, and is presented in the tightly-controlled state media as a standard routine that goes from shock and righteous indignation to ritualised humiliation of the unfortunate minister. His lavish possessions ranging from mansions to expensive jewellery are paraded on TV.

Some cynical viewers suspect the items shown are actually the same ones every time, though few would doubt that massive corruption exists in the senior echelons of government.

“It’s becoming a joke,” said one man who lives in Ashgabat. “You see the homes and expensive cars of some former minister shown on TV and they say that he stole it all from the people - but that the president caught him and punished him.

“He didn’t build these homes yesterday, in just one day. He was minister for many years and he did steal, just as they say on television, and got rich. But to say no one noticed? That’s is just a fairytale for the people.”

According to this man, these cases will have no impact on the level of corruption, “Some one else will come along and build houses for himself in the same way, his children will buy expensive cars, and for a certain amount of time, everyone will pretend this is OK.”

So if the campaign is not really about rooting out corruption, what is the point? As IWPR reported in August, Turkmenbashi – the top political figure in Turkmenistan for 20 years - is believed to be thinking about who will replace him if and when he steps down. And he clearly does not want any of his ministers to start getting ideas.

But his current purge seems unusually sustained and wide-ranging – and with the hefty prison sentences that are now almost the rule for disgraced officials, exceptionally harsh even for Turkmenistan. The targeting of once-trusted allies, and the persecution of their associates and relatives, suggest that Turkmenbashi is fearful of a palace coup.

“It is interesting that Turkmenbashi’s methods are as predictable as they are primitive,” said a political analyst who wished to remain anonymous. “All dictators act in this way, and get rid of strong people from their entourage, seeing them as a potential threat to their personal power. And they don’t just get rid of them, they allow them no space for alternative forms of political activity, fearing the emergence of opposition groups.”

This analyst concluded, “You can see that all the officials dismissed by Niyazov have not just resigned, they have all received serious jail sentences.”

While there are no independent media in Turkmenistan, and foreign broadcast and print media, even from Russia, are effectively banned, many people in the country are aware of the revolutions which brought regime change to Georgia and Ukraine, and nearer to home, Kyrgyzstan this March.

Turkmenbashi’s decision to cut all but the most tenuous ties with the Commonwealth of Independent States in late August may have been part of his strategy of insulating his country from turbulence in other formers Soviet states.

The officials whom Turkmenbashi has appointed as replacements tend to carry much less political weight their predecessors, have little experience of the sectors they are put in charge of, and crucially, do not look like they will emerge as rivals or revolutionaries any time soon.

Special Report: No Rivals Allowed at Turkmen Leader’s Court

By IWPR staff in London (RCA No. 402, 12-Aug-05)

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