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Turkmenistan: For Niyazov, Good Government Help Is Hard To Find

  • Bruce Pannier

Turkmenistan's president, Saparmurat Niyazov, dismissed his foreign minister earlier this month, saying the official -- who had been in office just six months -- had a drinking problem. The sacking was only the latest example of a problem that has plagued the Central Asian republic since it gained independence in 1991 -- good government help is hard to find. With the notable exception of Niyazov, no current government official has held the same post for more than two years. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at Turkmenistan's rash of government dismissals and what the high turnover rate means for the country.

Prague, 18 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In Turkmenistan, finding employees qualified to fill top government positions seems to be next to impossible. The country's president, Saparmurat Niyazov, who makes all government appointments, has a disappointing track record when it comes to making long-term hires. All of his appointments are eventually fired, sometimes after having served only a few months in office. It's a trend that many attribute to Niyazov's fear of rivalry -- and one that has had a negative impact on stability in the struggling Central Asian republic.

Most recently, the country's foreign minister, Batyr Berdiev, found his head on the professional chopping block. Berdiev, who was appointed in January, was dismissed earlier this month for allegedly failing to cope with a drinking problem. Niyazov took his traditional route of announcing the sacking in a public forum -- in this case, a session of parliament:

"Here is Foreign Minister Batyr Berdiev. He started work recently. He is a very good, very polite boy. But, unfortunately, he has some shortcomings. He drinks a lot [of alcohol]. During his short time in office we talked about this four times. I said: 'Batyr! Please don't drink.' Several times I said 'Don't drink, Batyr.' He agreed, but he continued to drink."

After only six months in office, Berdiev was fired. He was not alone. Communications Minister Ravshad Kerkavov was also dismissed this month. According to the state-owned newspaper "Neitralny Turkmenistan," Kerkavov was "not only unable to deal with his duties, [but] he even added to the trouble." Tekebai Altiyev, the minister of water management, was fired at the same time, allegedly for failing to respond to the severe drought afflicting Turkmenistan and all of Central Asia. He was the second water chief to lose his post this year.

In June, two other top officials saw their career paths take sharp detours. Serdar Chariyarov, the head of the Defense Ministry's training department, was demoted and stripped of his military rank. Defense Minister Batyr Sarjayev was also dismissed.

It remains to be seen whether Niyazov will be more satisfied by Sarjayev's replacement, Colonel Gurbandury Begenjov. In an article outlining Begenjov's qualifications for his new post, the Russian newspaper "Izvestia" pointed out that the new defense chief might be better suited for an agricultural post, as he had graduated from the Turkmen Agricultural Institute and worked as a tutor at the Bairamali Veterinary College.

Sarjayev, dismissed from his defense post, was re-appointed chairman of the country's railroad system. He replaced Khalmyrat Bardiyev, who was appointed in January but died under ambiguous circumstances in June. "Izvestia" gave this account of his death: "During an inspection of railroad tracks in Ashgabat, Mr. Bardiyev got lost in thought and was run over by a passing train." Official Turkmen explanations have been even less clear.

The rash of dismissals doesn't stop there. The Customs Committee chairman and the agriculture and education ministers have also lost their jobs this year. In fact, even the one traditional exception to Turkmenistan's chronic government turnover has proved a victim of Niyazov's apparent penchant for firing. Boris Shikhmuradov was the country's foreign minister for nearly eight years before losing his post last summer. He has since been appointed ambassador to China, but once again his days may be numbered. Niyazov suggested as much last month in accusations directed at yet another dismissed official, General Annamurat Soltanov, the military commander for the western Balkan Province:

"When you worked as deputy defense minister, as colonel general, you made illegal deals. In 1993 and 1994, when the cabinet and Defense Ministry was headed by Boris Shikhmuradov, you illegally sold our military hardware abroad. I am commander-in-chief, but no one told me about this. I found out about this deal just recently. Your signature is there. For this action, I am removing you from your post as the military commander of the Balkan Province. I am taking away your rank and casting you out of the armed forces. You will not receive any benefits for military service. In fact, you belong in jail, but I am not going to put you there. Get out!"

Those officials who are not dismissed are often subject to humiliating public abuse when Niyazov takes them to task for what he sees as poor job performance. Interior Minister Purkhan Berdiev lost his wages this month for failing to clean up crime in Turkmenistan. The mayor of the capital Ashgabat has twice lost his salary for allowing criminal activity to continue in the city. Niyazov's own press secretary was docked a month's pay when he was caught smoking in public, and the head of the country's meteorological department had his salary slashed for failing to provide accurate weather forecasts.

State prosecutors, judges, media chiefs, and regional and local officials have all lost positions for alleged corruption, nepotism, poor work, or failing to meet goals set by Niyazov. In the nearly 10 years of Turkmenistan's independence, few officials have marked even a one-year anniversary in the same office. Many have been demoted and now work in menial positions. Some have fled the country and now say they are opponents of the Turkmen regime.

The result is a culture of secrecy and misinformation. This year, for example, the Turkmen Agriculture Ministry reported a record grain harvest -- an unusual claim when neighboring Iran, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are reporting major failures in their own agricultural sectors and have appealed for help to the United Nations. Other economic figures coming out of the country are equally dubious. But in a situation where officials work under the nearly constant threat of losing their posts, Turkmenistan's trade and economic statistics are unlikely to reflect reality anytime soon.

(Rozinar Khoudaiberdiyev and Guanch Gueraev of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)