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Turkmenistan: Trouble At The Top?

Saparmurat Niyazov (file photo) By Najia Badykova

Recent events in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan clearly show that seething social unrest can be either fatal for a regime or extremely damaging. Protests in Kyrgyzstan in March led to the ouster of President Askar Akaev, while the crackdown in the Uzbek city of Andijon in May has had serious international and domestic consequences for the regime of President Islam Karimov. To one extent or another, political weakness is a hallmark of all the regimes of Central Asia.

Turkmenistan remains a special case, although it is certainly no exception to this pattern. Despite an aura of economic and social well-being projected by state-run media, the Turkmen population's general lack of interest in political processes, and the absence of an official opposition, President Saparmurat Niyazov's grip on power seems to be gradually slipping.

The disengagement of Turkmen society from political life can be explained by a deliberate, decades-long policy of repression against the opposition and the sustained political and cultural isolation of Turkmenistan from the rest of the world. In addition, the system of social safety nets that was successfully marketed to the public in the 1990s has played a major role in dulling the Turkmen people's sense of political identity, creating a perception of overall economic well-being and preventing widespread discontent with the lack of political and economic reform. This perception was in fact an illusion induced by Niyazov's propaganda machine, when in exchange and not as a result of economic prosperity people receive token economic social benefits and have essentially forfeited the basic rights enjoyed by democratic societies.

Moreover, the brutal crackdown in Uzbekistan cannot have inspired much optimism among would-be Turkmen revolutionaries and surely frightened the Turkmen population. Finally, the fact that the Turkmen opposition is disconnected from Turkmen society and exiled from the country makes it politically irrelevant, for all practical purposes.

Any real danger that confronts Niyazov, who is known as Turkmenbashi, lurks within his own government. To mitigate these threats, Niyazov regularly reshuffles officials and jails potential opponents.

Threats From Within

According to official information from Ashgabat reported by, May saw numerous arrests of mid- and high-level government officials. The chief victim was one of the system's longtime survivors, Yolly Gurbanmuradov, who was dismissed on 20 May and subsequently arrested. He began his career as the chairman of the Foreign Economic Relations Bank in 1994. More recently, he had been deputy prime minister for the oil-and-gas sector. He stands accused of embezzling millions of dollars and conspiring with foreign intelligence services to sabotage the supply of oil products in Turkmenistan, reported on 11 June.

Gurbanmuradov's arrest was followed by charges against Shekersoltan Mukhammedova, acting head of the Central Bank of Turkmenistan. reported on 31 May that she was involved in financial machinations with Gurbanmuradov.

Gurbanmuradov had been around Niyazov for more than 10 years and surely knew the rules of the game. He would have been perfectly aware that any action or decision made at such a high level without the president's blessing would have dire consequences. Consequently, it is unlikely that Gurbanmuradov embezzled more funds than was sanctioned by the Turkmen president himself.

Not Corruption, But Competition

The decisive factor in this tale was not the fact that Gurbanmuradov was allegedly a rich cattle owner, embezzler of millions, collector of countless kilograms of silver, the husband of numerous wives, or even a conspirator with foreign intelligence services to create artificial shortage of gasoline in 2004 for personal gain. The reason for Gurbanmuradov's arrest was not the corruption that is commonplace in Turkmenistan.

Gurbanmuradov had become a danger for the president. He was one of the few trusted individuals who knew the nuances of almost all major financial transactions and the inner workings of Turkmenbashi's beloved multibillion-dollar projects. For many years, Gurbanmuradov managed the oil-and-gas sector and chaired the Foreign Economic Relations Bank, which had sole control of all foreign credit lines. For more than a decade, Gurbanmuradov had been the keeper of these secrets, and the more he knew, the greater the perceived threat likely became. His hypothetical escape from the country and the possible uncovering of Niyazov's financial dealings would have caused far more damage to the regime than the amount he allegedly embezzled. His exposure of massive high-level corruption could have delivered a devastating, possibly fatal blow to Niyazov's regime.

In the period before his arrest, Gurbanmuradov continued to extend his influence over various economic sectors, indicating perhaps that he had more serious plans than fleeing the country. Over his long career, he had forged links to and alliances with groups active in both the lucrative financial and oil-and-gas sectors.

Gurbanmuradov's arrest coincides with rumors of Turkmenbashi's worsening health, which opens up the possibility of infighting among political opponents. The arrest may have been provoked by Gurbanmuradov's enemies in the government as a preventive measure. Former Deputy Prime Minister Rejep Saparov had also been a longtime favorite of Niyazov until he was demoted last year. Yet Saparov managed to stay a member of the president's team and remained Gurbanmuradov's political opponent.

By arresting Gurbanmuradov and his associates, Niyazov has ensured peace and quiet in his house for a time, but it may be inevitable that new alliances and groups emerge and such processes often outpace regular governmental purges. In both scale and frequency, the purges affect all levels of the government, creating an ever-widening pool of disgruntled former government officials across the country, from mid-level bureaucrats to high-powered law-enforcement officers from the Interior Ministry and National Security Ministry. For all his controlling qualities, Niyazov has not displayed a taste for the sort of ferociously lethal state terror that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin used to bludgeon the Soviet political class into docility. Gradually, a critical mass could emerge -- a third force that could decide to shake off Niyazov's regime.

Najia Badykova is a research associate at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

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