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Majlis Podcast: Turkmenistan's Official 'Body Count' On The Rise

  • Bruce Pannier

The only government official truly safe from being sacked is the president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

The only government official truly safe from being sacked is the president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov visited his country’s northern Dashoguz Province in mid-June. He fired seven district officials and reprimanded nine others.

Berdymukhammedov visited the western Balkan Province at the end of May. Twelve provincial and district officials were fired and 13 others reprimanded. Qishloq Ovozi has written about earlier dismissals this year.

Regular dismissals of Turkmen government officials have become something of a tradition. The only person truly safe from being sacked is the president. A very, very small number of officials have lingered on; you could count them on one hand.

But 2016 has already been different. The rate at which officials are falling or receiving warnings about “shortcomings” is more accelerated than seen before in Turkmenistan.

To look a bit at the history of the tradition of the “Turkmen sack” and explore what might be prompting this recent, unprecedented wave of dismissals, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, organized a majlis, or a panel discussion.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir* moderated the talk. Luca Anceschi, chairperson of the Central Asian Center at Glasgow University, participated in the Majlis podcast, as did Ruslan Myatiev, who runs the Alternative Turkmenistan News website. I like talking with both of those guys, so I joined in also.

The symbol for the Turkmen government’s coat of arms should be a turnstile."

Turkmenistan’s people -- and those watching the country from outside -- have long grown accustomed to an endless rotation of officials. The symbol for the Turkmen government’s coat of arms should be a turnstile.

Myatiev explained that these changes of officials have reached the point where "very few people know who their governors are, who their deputies are, what their duties are..."

As concerns “who” they are, most of us stopped even trying to learn their names, since they don’t stay in their positions for very long. As Anceschi said, “The fact that we can’t even remember their names shows...that the politics of Turkmenistan is really personalized.”

And the ultimate person in the country’s politics, the one who makes policy is, seemingly, the president. That is, of course, currently Berdymukhammedov. But the architect of Turkmenistan’s unique system of governance is Berdymukhammedov’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

That system includes a steady reshuffling of officials, most believe, to ensure that no one could ever have the time to develop a support base of any kind and potentially become a rival to the president.

There are inherent problems with this constant rotation.

Turkmenistan is an isolationist state. Few people get in and few get out. That extends to education. Turkmenistan’s education system has been hit hard since independence, to the point where some required course material deals with the mythology of the president that the state has been pushing on the people for 25 years. Subjects that could provide valuable management skills are not stressed in the curriculum.

“I think that they lack competence,” Myatiev said, “because for 30 years Turkmenistan did not manage to prepare young professionals, who have, for instance, received Western educations...”

Anceschi explained, “The reasons they’ve been appointed are not because they are more competent than their predecessor.”

Loyalty to the president is clearly key in Turkmenistan’s system, but Myatiev said that, beyond that, “God knows what [the president’s] criteria for these [appointments] are -- whether it’s tribal things, whether it’s personal devotion, whether it’s anything else."

And Anceschi said officials “are staying [in office] only if the president wants [them] to stay.”

So that brings us to the present and the wave of dismissals this year. As opaque as Turkmenistan’s internal affairs are, it is clear the country is suffering serious economic problems.

The dismissals of dozens of provincial and district officials, and a few ministers, this year seems to show some desperation on the part of the government.

Anceschi characterized the Turkmen government as a “highly paranoid regime” and said this trait can be seen in these recent mass dismissals.

“When you have seven or eight dismissals at willayat (provincial) level or even etrap (district), you have to think that someone must have said to the center there might be a problem here or there,” Anceschi said, adding, “Decreasing loyalties are punished pretty quickly.”

It was noted that despite a shrinking state budget, officials are required to meet government targets that would be difficult to achieve in better economic times. Without adequate funding or proper resources, these officials inevitably fail to fulfill their work.

In the meantime, Anceschi pointed out the average tenure of some district or provincial officials is not even long enough to become familiar with the requisite tasks.

Beyond that, Myatiev noted, it is not just the district chief or his deputy involved. A new official, Myatiev said, “gets a new assistant; he gets new key personnel within that district. It can be as low as changing a school director or a factory chief.”

Stability and productivity are difficult in such a situation.

The panel agreed this constant replacement of officials was generally counterproductive but is especially detrimental during these current hard economic times.

But these frequent dismissals do serve some purpose.

Myatiev said, “It’s a very expected move by President Berdymukhammedov, given the financial state of the country.” And Anceschi added that many officials “are sacked because the government needs that kind of rotation.” It makes other officials afraid, providing a crude form of motivation.

But Anceschi also said he senses “an elite instability” and noted that Berdymukhammedov appears to “trying to narrow down the elite and make himself the center of a patronage network which is narrower and narrower.” Anceschi added that in some ways this could be a sort of rite of passage.

“Berdymukhammedov has got to the point in which his grip on power is so stable that he can do exactly the same things that Niyazov was doing,” Anceschi said.

And he has an opportune moment. The pieces of the “pie” the elites are fighting for are getting smaller and that, to some extent, probably explains some of the ministerial dismissals. The rich in Turkmenistan will not stay rich by taking from the poor. Turkmenistan’s people are too poor to offer much. So it is necessary for the rich to rob from the rich.

But when a top official falls, so, too, do all the lower level officials whose fortunes were tied to that individual. That is leading Turkmenistan into dangerous territory.

The panel looked at these issues in greater detail and discussed other topics related to the dismissals in Turkmenistan, the patronage network, and how people such as Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov have managed to stay in office for long periods of time.

Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

* Muhammad will be heading to RFE/RL's Washington, D.C., office soon. We’ll miss him in the Prague studio, but he will continue to moderate the Majlis podcast from the U.S. capital. All the best in Washington, Mr. Tahir!

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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