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Qishloq Ovozi

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.

Majlis Podcast: Turkmenistan's 'Body Count'
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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!
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered unprecedented snap military exercises at the end of March.

Turkmenistan's official policy of "positive neutrality" appears to have been slightly punctured, and the source of this perforation is Afghanistan.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, interviewed Allaberen Karyadar from the Fayzabad district of Afghanistan's Jowzjan Province. He had returned recently to Afghanistan from Turkmenistan. In fact, he came back earlier than planned "because the Taliban were attacking my village."

Karyadar added, "I came back and drove the Taliban out."

Driving the Taliban out is Karyadar's job. He is a commander of a local "Arbaky" force -- nominally, pro-government paramilitaries or local militias. There are mixed feelings about these groups inside Afghanistan.

So what was Arbaky commander Karyadar doing in Turkmenistan?

"I spent some days in the hospital, being treated by doctors," Karyadar said. He said he was not always at the hospital, though. He said he spent some time visiting "with friends" and, of course, there are some Afghan Turkmen now living in Turkmenistan.

Karyadar said he was in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, for "eye treatment." He was able to obtain a visa for the visit (and that is a very difficult feat, usually). The visa and the medical care were free.

And Karyadar was not the only person from Jowzjan who was in Turkmenistan. Karyadar said he "heard" the Qarqeen district police chief "Ayub" and another Arkbaky commander, Gurbandurdy, who we've met before in the Qishloq, were also in Turkmenistan. Also reportedly in Turkmenistan was another Arbaky commander from Jowzjan, Sapar Ra'is, and Rozi Bay, the police commander responsible for the highway that runs between Jowzjan and Faryab Province to the west.

Jowzjan borders Turkmenistan. The northern most part of the province actually protrudes into Turkmenistan and therefore is bounded by Turkmenistan on three sides.

Turkmenistan has so far attempted to avoid getting involved in Afghanistan's problems as much as possible. Turkmen officials have brought up the country's UN-recognized neutral status when speaking about the subject of Afghanistan. This shield of neutrality worked in the 1990s. It appears to have worked more recently, at least once, when some 70 to 80 armed Taliban met Turkmen border guards on an island in Amu-Darya in October 2015. On that occasion, the Turkmen border guards told the Taliban fighters they could come no further because Turkmenistan was a neutral country.

The Taliban respected the status that time. But in 2014, armed militants crossed the border into Turkmenistan and killed three border guards in February and three soldiers in May.

The Alternative Turkmenistan News website reported on June 8 that the bodies of 27 Turkmen border guards had been brought to the capitals of the Mary and Lebap provinces at the start of May for relatives to collect and bury. According to the report, which is not possible to confirm due to the opaque nature of the Turkmen government, the Defense Ministry told the parents of one of the soldiers that their son had committed suicide. The parents reportedly opened the coffin and found their son's body with 17 bullet wounds.

And Sergei Shoigu made the first visit ever to Turkmenistan by a Russian defense minister on June 8. Russian media reported that Turkmenistan agreed to accept Russian help with training and to purchase weapons from Russia. Turkmenistan had long held out against taking any Russian help and, in fact, Ashgabat continues to insist publicly that there is no problem along its frontier with Afghanistan.

Ashgabat has also never confirmed reports about a mass call-up of reserves or the deployment of some 70 percent of the country's troops and equipment to the Afghan border area.

Turkmen media did widely report on the unprecedented snap military exercises President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered at the end of March. Those drills lasted well into April.

And that brings us back to Allaberen Karyadar and what he and other Arbaky commanders and Jowzjan police officials were doing in Turkmenistan recently.

If border security has so deteriorated that Turkmen troops are again being killed, it explains why the Afghan Turkmen from a district along Turkmenistan's border are "visiting" their northern neighbor. It also explains Shoigu's visit.

It seems Turkmenistan's hand is being forced here. And judging from the visit by Karyadar and the others, Ashgabat is finally taking a side in the conflict just over the border.

Turkmenistan's policy of neutrality might be one of the latest casualties of the Afghan conflict.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir contributed to this report

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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.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws 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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