TURKMEN ELITE RESHUFFLES
By Slavomír Horák (06/17/2009 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Turkmenistan’s domestic politics remain in the shadow of a new round of the “Caspian gas game,” which in the last two years has centered on this energy-rich country. However, the external actors have thus far achieved few concrete results. A deeper look at the new regime in Turkmenistan makes evident the unpredictability of the regime, which arises very much from the personality of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov himself. His manners increasingly seem reminiscent of the policies of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.
BACKGROUND: Parliamentary elections were held in Turkmenistan on December 14, 2008, in accordance with the provisions of the new Constitution and the new Election Law. The September 2008 constitutional amendments significantly simplified Turkmenistan's overall institutional design, and the constitution brought about a new delineation of power. Nevertheless, all the changes were beneficial to President Berdimuhamedov, enabling him to remain Turkmenistan's president for life in an even simpler way than was the case of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbashi). The latest 2008 parliamentary election cemented a harsh authoritarian system based on the political culture established by Turkmenbashi. As a result, President Berdimuhamedov achieved exactly what he wished for – a completely obedient parliament. Although OSCE observers were invited to monitor the ballot for the first time in Turkmenistan's history, their presence served mostly as legitimization for the ruling regime.
The first session of the new Parliament in January 2009 left no doubts about who really rules the country. In disregard of the formal separation of the legislative and executive governmental branches under the new Constitution, president Berdimuhamedov introduced his own candidate, Akja Nurberdiyeva, as speaker of parliament. He also formed all parliamentary committees, which, according to the Constitution, is the prerogative of the parliament itself.
IMPLICATIONS: Frequent purges and reshuffles in the government, state administration and major enterprises continue to be the key feature of the Berdimuhamedov regime. Large-scale changes took place in January/February 2009. About one third of the members of the Cabinet of Ministers were dismissed and others received severe warnings, which in Turkmenistan's political culture should be understood as a clear sign of their upcoming dismissal.
To a larger extent than under the previous president, the Ahal-Tekke (the leading tribe in Turkmen politics since Soviet times), particularly from the districts of Gökdepe, Baharly and Abadan, dominate the country. As of today, regional fellows of Berdimuhamedov, e.g. Minister of National Security Carymyrat Amanov, Prosecutor General Cary Hojamyradov, and Defense Minister Yaylym Berdiyev, as well as Berdimuhamedov's former medical colleagues, among them Minister of Health Care Ata Serdarov, occupy the most important posts within the government. By contrast, the position of representatives of the western (Balkan) region who were previously in control of the key oil and gas industry – such as Annaguly Deryayev and Garyagdi Tasliyev – was undermined as a consequence of repeated cadre rotations in January and May 2009. In addition, the headquarters of the national oil company, Turkmennebit, were moved from the town of Balkanabat (former Nebit Dag) to Ashgabat in January 2009. This was intended to further decrease the status of the Balkan region in Turkmenistan's political life.
The case of Isgender Mulikow is telling of Berdimuhamedov’s increasingly unpredictable cadre policy and of intra-clan skirmishes in today's Turkmenistan. This government official long worked in the Interior Ministry and reached the post of Deputy Minister. In February 2009, he was made head of the Police Department in Dasoguz Welayat in northern Turkmenistan, only to be called back to Ashgabat as a new Defense Minister in May 2009 after the previous minister was sacked.
Not even people in the closest and, as one would think, untouchable circle around President Berdimuhamedov can be sure of their positions. Yusup Isangulyev, the former head of the Presidential Administration and, according to credible sources, a rival of the president’s main advisor for ideology and propaganda Viktor Khramov, was fired on March 16, 2009. If this change was in fact engineered by Viktor Khramov, it likely reflects that Khramov has again become one of the most powerful allies of the President.
The President has not even shown mercy to his most loyal supporters during the stabilization period of the post-Niyazov regime. Long-term Defense Minister Agageldi Mämmetgeldiyev and Chief Commander of the Border Guards Bayram Alovov were until recently the last direct witnesses in government of Berdimuhamedov’s enthronement. Mämmetgeldiyev quietly retired in January 2009 instead of the usual imprisonment which one would have expected, while Alovov was demoted in rank and released from the army. The new young Chief Commander of the Border Troops Myrat Yslamov, who replaced Alovov, comes from the eastern Lebap Region, but is considered to be absolutely loyal to President Berdimuhamedov. Personal loyalty to the president thus continues to be the most important precondition for a political career in contemporary Turkmenistan. Nevertheless, it provides no guarantee from being sacked.
In March 2009, President Berdimuhamedov publicly warned also the Prosecutor General Cary Hojamyradov, dismissing the city prosecutor of Ashgabat. However, Hojamyradov still remains in his position, remaining one of the most powerful figures in Turkmenistan and gathering compromising material on other members of the ruling elite. Nevertheless, remembering the fate of his predecessors, one can easily expect his dismissal in the near future. The latest developments in the Prosecutor General’s office also provide evidence of the continuing “Turkmenization” of the government and state administration, since many non-Turkmen staff of the office were cleansed in February 2009.
Thus, Minister of Foreign Affairs Rasit Meredov and Vice Premier for the oil and gas sector Tacberdi Tagiyev, are the last remaining influential persons of non-Ahal-Tekke origin within the President's inner circle who have survived all the government purges under Berdimuhamedov. Both are considered to be real professionals in their respective fields. President Berdimuhamedov apparently needs them to foster relations with the rest of the world through the strategic oil and gas industry. Nevertheless, both of them were already warned by the President in January 2009. The long-term Deputy Foreign Minister for Caspian affairs, Hosgeldi Babayev, was dismissed in late 2008 and Tagiyev received a reprimand. Thus, both Meredov and Tagiyev can be sacked anytime.
CONCLUSIONS: The latest changes in Turkmenistan’s government demonstrate all the key features and development trends peculiar to President Berdimuhamedov’s cadre policy: personal loyalty, Turkmenization and “Ahalization” of the Turkmen elites. President Berdimuhamedov further consolidated his position as the indisputable leader in Turkmen society. The power of Berdimuhamedov’s patrimony has also strengthened in the last months. But even his closest relatives and countrymen as well as his most loyal officers face the risk of immediate removal. President Berdimuhamedov, just like his predecessor, is able to reshuffle any cadre according to his own judgment. As of today, the only powerful and intangible non-Turkmens in Berdimuhamedov’s government are in the Presidential Administration.
On the ideological level, the opening ceremony of the Gurbanguly-hajji mosque in the city of Mary in March 2009, the gradual replacing Turkmenbashi’s Ruhnama with books reportedly written by Berdimuhamedov himself in the educational process, as well as nationwide preparations for the forthcoming July celebration of the president’s 52nd birthday are indicative of the growing personality cult of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.
Thus, the obvious unpredictability of the Turkmen leader, continually dismissing and appointing ministers and other high ranking officials at will, and his growing personality cult are important features of Turkmenistan’s regime that should be taken into account by anyone seeking to do business and foster political contacts with Turkmenistan. Berdimuhamedov’s impulsiveness might well affect his foreign partners in the same manner as they already affect his officials.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Slavomír Horák is Research Fellow at the Institute of International Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is co-author of the recently published Dismantling Totalitarianism? Turkmenistan under Berdimuhamedow (Silk Road Paper, March 2009).