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Turkmenistan's 'Gray Cardinal' Leaves Government

Mamedgeldyev (right) with President Berdymukhammedov at a parade marking Turkmenistan Independence in 2007
Mamedgeldyev (right) with President Berdymukhammedov at a parade marking Turkmenistan Independence in 2007
With the resignation this week of a cabinet minister widely regarded as the "gray cardinal" behind its current president, Turkmenistan has lost the last of the old guard installed by the late strongman Sapamurat Niyazov.

Defense Minister Mamedgeldyev was seen as a key figure in bringing President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to power after the sudden death in late 2006 of the man who kept tight control of virtually all levers of power in Central Asia's most insular republic.

His exit, ostensibly for health reasons, could signal that Berdymukhammedov has gained enough confidence in his post to go it alone.

"I'd say the former defense minister was a rather influential figure, and Berdymukhammedov's ascent to power came on the shoulders of Mamedgeldyev," former Turkmen diplomat Chary Ishanyazov, who is now a member of the opposition Republican Party in exile, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service.

Thank You And Goodbye

Mamedgeldyev's long run as a government power broker came to an unceremonious end in the Grand Hall of Turkmenistan's Military Academy. In what would be his last government action, Mamedgeldyev on January 21 opened an expanded meeting of the State Security Council attended by President Berdymukhammedov.

In his capacity as the council's secretary, the government's oldest cabinet member briefed the president on the state of the military reform he had been overseeing as defense minister.

Berdymukhammedov took it from there, announcing in the course of the meeting that he was accepting Mamedgelyev's resignation on health grounds, and thanking him for his faithful service to the country.

Considering that the president would go on to harshly accuse the heads of the State Border Service and the State Migration Committee for their "grave shortcomings" while announcing their replacements, Mamedgelyev appeared to have gotten off lightly.

While his new defense doctrine was adopted on his last day in government, Mamedgelyev's resignation followed strong criticism for the way he handled a shoot-out in Ashgabat in September.

Mamedgeldyev's reputation as a powerful adviser on Turkmenistan's political landscape, and Berdymukhammedov's perceived indebtedness could tie his hands, raised questions about whether "health problems" were truly behind the departure.

Mamedgelyev was the last key "power minister" from the era of Soviet-era holdout and first post-independence President Niyazov. The self-styled "Turkmenbashi," who rose to power in 1985 as head of the Soviet republic, habitually shuffled top officials only to sack them under humiliating circumstances within months.

Mamedgeldyev, who was named defense minister in 2003, was a rare exception.

Dr. Know

Parliament had made Niyazov leader for life in the late 1990s, and his death in December 2006 left no clear successor.

To the surprise of many, Berdymukhammedov took the reins as acting president within hours of Niyazov's death and won a direct election in February 2007 that was deemed undemocratic by Western standards.

While other "power ministers" installed by Turkmenbashi -- the heads of the Interior and the National Security ministries -- didn't last six months under the new regime, Mamedgeldyev continued to survive.

Although a career military man, Mamedgeldyev's training as a doctor often led him to work closely on issues involving army medical facilities. This may have helped him come to know Berdymukhammedov, who was health minister before becoming president.

Observers long voiced suspicions that his silent role in aiding Berdymukhammedov's rise to the presidency was the reason behind the defense minister's success.

So why would President Berdymukhammedov let him go?

Oppositionist Ishanyazov speculates that the move marks a "continuation" of the president's efforts to dispense with the services of those whose true loyalty can be traced to his predecessor.

"These dismissals are a continuation of Berdymukhammedov's departure from the legacy of Niyazov," Ishanyazov says. "Now it's the turn of the defense minister and chief of the border guards who were supporters of Niyazov and who were the last influential people in the power structure."

When Berdymukhammedov took power, skeptics questioned whether the former dentist would be able to assert sufficient control over the political and bureaucratic elite who thrived under his predecessor.

"First of all, [Mamedgelyev's departure] is a sign that he's able to do this -- which is interesting in itself because for...almost exactly two years, there's been a sense that maybe he doesn't have complete power, that he's sort of establishing his power," John MacLeod, a senior editor at the London-based "Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says. "Now [the fact] that he sacks all these key officials and then in the second round sacks a key security agency official suggests that he does feel that he's very confident in his powers, particularly the defense minister, Mamedgeldyev, who's been around for quite some time."

Golden Years?

Mamedgeldyev, at age 62, is eligible for a pension, and the health reasons given for his retirement would indicate on the surface that he will quietly disappear from the political scene.

But history shows that this may not be the last chapter for Mamedgeldyev. Many officials in Turkmenistan's government have been praised publicly and allowed to retire honorably, only to find themselves facing criminal charges within months.

No one, not even a long-term survivor like Mamedgeldyev, is likely to consider himself immune from possible retribution.

Prosecutor-General Gurbanbibi Atajanova, Turkmenistan's modern version of Stalin purge-era prosecutor Andrei Vishinsky, was praised for 11 years during Turkmenbashi's rule for putting enemies of the state behind bars -- only to find herself on trial just weeks after resigning in 2006.

RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Oguljamal Yazliyeva and Guvanch Geraev and Muhammad Tahir of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report