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Turkmenistan: New President Still Bound To Clans, Nepotism

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (AFP) October 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan was regarded as the most authoritarian of the region's five post-Soviet republics under the late President Saparmurat Niyazov. New President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has taken limited steps to liberalize specific areas. Some believe the changes are genuine and aimed at gradual democratization, but most warn they could prove symbolic and liken them to window dressing.

Berdymukhammedov has sacked some Niyazov-era officials in what could be regarded as tentative moves toward a "new guard." The most recent change came on October 8, when the national security minister, Geldimukhammet Ashirmukhammedov, and interior minister, Khojamyrat Annagurbanov, were fired. An opposition website (Gundogar) says criminal cases have been opened against both men.

"Recently, the work of the Interior Ministry has worsened," Berdymukhammedov said in a televised speech about his decision. "As I mentioned before, bribery among police has been increasing again. The Interior Ministry's departments and staff began to abuse power."

May brought what was perceived as the most daring and bold step of Berdymukhammedov against "the old guard." General Akmurad Rejepov, the influential head of the presidential guard and a trusted Niyazov adviser, was fired and arrested. An associate, Murad Agaev, who was thought to have run shadowy businesses for Niyazov and to have managed the presidential assets, was also arrested and sentenced to a lengthy prison term.

Meaningful Change?

But if reform of the political system was his goal, could Berdymukhammedov hope to force meaningful change?

"As long as that basic structure [of authoritarianism] exists in Turkmenistan -- and I think it will exist for a long time -- it's difficult to see reforms and improvements, because that kind of system does not produce reforms and changes by its very nature," says John MacLeod, a senior editor for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

"As long as that basic structure [of authoritarianism] exists in Turkmenistan -- and I think it will exist for a long time -- it's difficult to see reforms and improvements..." -- John MacLeod, Institute for World and Peace Reporting

Berdymukhammedov might genuinely seek reform, but he's unlikely to change the administrative machine because so many insiders benefit from the status quo and therefore want to maintain it, MacLeod warns.

Many foundations of Central Asian life are rooted in clans -- or groupings formed on principles of kinship and shared regional origin -- although clan influence tends to wane as authoritarianism grows stronger. Niyazov represented the "Teke" clan whose members still hold many posts under fellow "Teke" Berdymukhammedov. And the new president appears to be continuing Niyazov's practice of preference and privilege for his kin.

Arkadiy Dubnov is a Central Asia correspondent for the Russian daily "Vremya novostei" and a longtime observer of Turkmen politics. He notes several recent security and other appointees who hail from Berymukhammedov's native village of Goektepe. Dubnov cites the tight circle of powerful elite in Russia, and tells RFE/RL that Berdymukhammedov is likely to continue naming confidants and his kin to key official posts in order to strengthen his own position.

"All this resembles one [power] matrix," Dubnov says. "The Russian matrix is a clan of St. Petersburg -- there is no kinship there, but there is a corporate style, meaning those from the KGB and natives of Petersburg with whom [President Vladimir] Putin worked are trusted. Here [in Turkmenistan], it will be a clan -- close and far relatives and landsmen."

Privileged Status

Presidential offspring and relatives enjoy privileged status among all Central Asian countries.

In Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov's eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, is dubbed the "Uzbek princess" and is thought to control lucrative businesses in the energy, telecommunications, and entertainment sectors. She has never publicly expressed political ambitions, but rumors inevitably circulate about her inheriting "the throne."

In Kyrgyzstan, former President Askar Akaev's son Aidar was thought to control many businesses, and his daughter Bermet was elected to parliament before Akaev was ousted in March 2005. The new administration is not immune to accusations of nepotism. There have been complaints suggesting that President Kurmanbek Bakiev's son Maksim has filled the younger Akaev's shoes while two brothers held influential posts.

In Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon's nine children and other relatives are believed to control many companies, the stock exchange, banks, and broadcasters. One daughter, Tahmina, owns a supermarket, and her uncle runs Orienbank.

Turbulence In 'The Family'

Kazakhstan has had its own "big family" system, although the presidential family has been wracked by recent turbulence. President Nursultan Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha, was virtually once her father's shadow. She was a member of parliament, was said to control major media, and even performed opera at Russia's Bolshoi Theater. Her ex-husband, Rakhat Aliev, is a former security-service chief, and was among Kazakhstan's most influential executives and a high-level diplomat until he fell out of favor -- and now faces criminal charges if he returns to Kazakhstan. Another Nazarbaev son-in-law, Timur Kulibaev, was dismissed in August from a senior position at a major state agency, Samruk, that oversees state shares in energy and other key sectors.

In Turkmenistan, Murat, Niyzov's son, was believed to be profiting from his status and controlled the country's alcohol and tobacco trade.

Little is known about the new Turkmen president's children.

Bairam Shikhmuradov is a son of former Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who is now considered a political prisoner by rights groups. Shikhmuradov tells RFE/RL that -- so far -- there does not appear to be any "first-family" system under Berdymukhammedov.

"I am not personally acquainted with Berdymukhammedov's children," he says. "As far as I know, they live abroad, not in Turkmenistan. I understand why the president did that -- [he wants] to avoid rumors and excessive pressure on his relatives."

But with most observers reserving judgment on the new administration, it is unclear whether Berdymukhammedov's children will avoid the trappings of first-family status -- or continue what has arguably become a Central Asian tradition.

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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