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Turkmenistan's Failing Political Culture

Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at a State Security Meeting in Ashgabat on March 29: "There's the door!"
Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at a State Security Meeting in Ashgabat on March 29: "There's the door!"
Late last month, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov sacked his national security minister for "shortcomings in his work." Charymyrat Amanov had held that influential post since 2007. Earlier this year, the president severely reprimanded the minister for "poor performance of duties and shortcomings at work."

However, Berdymukhammedov awarded Amanov a state decoration as recently as October. In fact, the president's relationship with his national security minister has been something of a rollercoaster ride for years. In May 2009, Amanov was reprimanded for unspecified shortcomings. In 2008, though, he was promoted to major-general and given a citation praising his conscientious performance of duty and his personal contribution to strengthening the state security of Turkmenistan.

Now, though, the state news agency has reported the Prosecutor-General's Office has again exposed unspecified "shortcomings."

Tried And 'True'

Of course, reprimanding, warning, or dismissing ministers and other officials is nothing new in Turkmenistan. Such measures are often followed by banishment or prison. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that over the last two decades in that authoritarian country, the practice has become the normal political process. This form of cadre replacement became the norm under former President Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled the country for 21 years.

Analyst Catherine Fitzpatrick has noted that under Niyazov, national security chiefs were regularly used to investigate their predecessors before themselves becoming the target of the next witch-hunt.

During the last 19 years, the National Security Ministry (known until 2002 as the National Security Committee) has been headed by nine different people. According to official information, four were convicted and sentenced to prison terms: Dangatar Kopekov (eight years), Saparmurat Seydov (six years), Muhammad Nazarov (20 or 25 years, depending on the source), and Poran Berdiyev (25 years).

Moreover, Niyazov developed a taste for reproaching senior officials on state television, a spectacle that provided an entertaining distraction for the powerless people of the impoverished nation. Presidential dismissals were sure to draw huge audiences, which Niyazov used to bolster his own image as the sole protector of the people and the country. Few people seemed bothered by the vagueness of the president's accusations or the one-sided, patently unfair dismissal process the hapless ministers had to endure.

Brief Honeymoon

After Berdymukhammedov became president in 2006, it seemed as if he was moving away from such witch-hunts and toward a more transparent cadre policy. No matter how much ordinary people hated their corrupt ministers and enjoyed watching them being humiliated on television, more sophisticated observers welcomed the move away from such tactics as a sign of progress for the country's political system. But the change in climate -- if there was one -- didn't last long.

Although Berdymukhamedov didn't take up Niyazov's practice of shaming officials on television, he continued issuing vague reprimands and warnings and giving bizarre orders. Once he claimed his ministers were ineffective because of inadequate education and experience, and he ordered them to improve their computer skills.

Berdymukhammedov is a prisoner of the restrictive political culture he inherited. Educated in the Soviet era, Turkmenistan's political elite have been the victims of a continuous purge for more than two decades now. Niyazov retained only like-minded individuals noted for their loyalty to him -- including Berdymukhammedov himself, of course. The most competent managers have long since been tried and discarded, and many of the country's most energetic residents have managed to flee their oppressive homeland. The pool of competence has been drained dry.

Replenishing it is problematic. The Soviet education system has been almost completely destroyed by neglect and cult-based education policies. Those who can rush to send their children to study abroad if possible or enroll them in the new Turkmen-Turkish schools that have been opened up by the Turkish government. These schools offer the opportunity to gain computer literacy and to learn English; consequently, students emerge with a more Western way of thinking and a better understanding of the global situation.

No Easy Answer

Like Niyazov before him, Berdymukhammedov does not trust these relatively well-educated youths. He fears they have been infected with ideas of liberty and democracy, and so he is vigilant to prevent them from achieving too much.

Many of the officials Niyazov dismissed were later accused of corruption. Most of the time, the accusations were more than credible. A system with low state salaries and money from the hydrocarbon sector sloshing around without any accountability is a perfect breeding ground for corruption.

The cadre purges simply reinforce this situation. A profound distrust has emerged between the president and his officials -- both fully aware that despite praise and awards, eventual dismissal is inevitable and unpredictable. The more competent an official is, in fact, the more likely that the ax will fall. Ministers thus have strong incentives to try to take advantage of their situation and make as much money as they can as quickly as possible.

Transparency International ranks Turkmenistan 172th out of 178 states surveyed in its most recent Corruptions Perceptions Index. Despite the purges, humiliations, and threat of prison, there is no end to the queue of sycophants eager to try their hand at being a minister or a governor. Meanwhile, the energy-rich country falls further into poverty and decline and moves further along the road to becoming a failed state.

Yovshan Annagurban is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL