President Berdymuhammedov’s court consists of a handful of political survivors but mostly protégés drawn from his tribe.
President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov’s policy of appointing kinsmen and people from his home area to positions of power risks alienating other important groupings, commentators say.
In a country as closed as Turkmenistan, political connections and spheres of influence are hard to identify. IWPR interviews with experts inside and outside the country indicate that Berdymuhammedov governs via the same kind of hierarchical network as his predecessor, the late Saparmurat Niazov, albeit with significant differences in the people he chooses to have around him.
Berdymuhammedov was elected in 2007 after a precipitate rise to power.
When Niazov, who styled himself Turkmenbashi – “Leader of the Turkmen” – and was the centre of a Stalinist personality cult, died suddenly in December 2006, there was no obvious successor. But within days, an inner circle had cleared the way for Berdymuhammedov so that he was not only acting head of state but was eligible to run for the presidency.
After his election, Berdymuhammedov promised a break with the past – improvements to health and education, both areas where Niazov had made damaging cutbacks – and even hinted at political liberalisation. However, the move towards democratic governance and respect for human rights never came, perhaps because Berdymuhammedov himself was a product of the Niazov system and depended on its hierarchical structure and its ability to eliminate dissent for his survival.
If he did not institute root-and-branch reforms, he did make structural changes such as abolishing the cumbersome Khalk Maslakhaty, a national congress that in theory had supra-parliamentary powers but in reality served merely as a rubber stamp.
Berdymuhammedov rapidly set about removing Niazov-era officials from positions of power, so that most top figures have now been replaced except for a handful of significant figures. Even Akmurat Rejepov, the powerful head of the presidential security service believed to have been instrumental in engineering Berdymuhammedov’s ascent to power, was sacked and then put in prison in 2007.
In their place, the new leader appointed people who owed loyalty to him, not Niazov.
As an orphan, Niazov had no close relatives to place around him. Berdymuhammedov, who does, has nevertheless followed the same path and has not placed many immediate family members in senior positions, unlike some other Central Asian leaders.
One of the most visible of his identifiable relatives is a brother-in-law, Dovlet Atabaev, who heads a presidential agency overseeing the control and use of oil and gas resources.
Others operate under the radar, for example relatives who are widely believed to be expanding their control over businesses including cafes, restaurants, internet cafes and shopping centres.
Instead of immediate relatives, Berdymuhammedov selects members of the Teke, the Turkmen tribe to which he belongs, to fill important and even not-so-important posts. Almost all come from south-central Ahal region, where the capital Ashgabat is located. A commentator in the capital Ashgabat was able to reel off a long list of ministers, past and present, from this background.
“There’s no question of any clans having any influence these days except for the Teke. They control everything,” the commentator said.
The Turkmen traditionally divide into several large and many smaller tribal groupings, each based in a different part of what is now Turkmenistan.
The Teke of the south-central Ahal region were important throughout the Soviet period. Two other important but politically marginalised tribes are the Yomud in the west, in areas close to the Caspian Sea; and the Ersari who live in eastern areas adjoining Uzbekistan. The Teke tribe is also dominant in the southeastern Mary region, but this branch is sidelined from power despite sitting on major natural gas reserves.
“Approximately 70 to 75 per cent of the top posts in government, in the presidential council and other institutions are held by people from Ahal region, ” another local observer said. “Berdymuhammedov tries to back only his own Teke, the ones from Ahal, which makes the Teke of Mary unhappy.”
Furthermore, he said, Berdymuhammedov was placing his own people even in other regions where their Teke tribe is not dominant. He described this process as “Ahal-isation”.
Niazov too came from Ahal region, and favoured Teke tribe members from there. So Berdymuhammedov’s policy does not represent a break with the past, just the systematic removal of his predecessor’s allies and protégés.
A university lecturer in Turkmenistan teacher expressed concern that giving preference to a such closed network, Berdymuhammedov could alienate other important groups.
“Berdymuhammedov is following the path pursued by the former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiev, and getting more and more drawn into clan affairs,” he said, referring to allegations by Bakiev’s opponents that he dispensed senior positions and business opportunities to family members. Bakiev was deposed following popular unrest in April.
“He is digging himself into a hole when he makes some appointment and shows a preference for his local Teke tribe, and specifically [those from] the areas he comes from, and when he offers patronage to his numerous family members. People will tolerate this, but they’re whispering about it, memorising all the details and telling one another. The rumours are proliferating, and sprouting ever more additional detail. None of that can bring any good.”
For the moment, the lecturer said, “It’s a good thing the other tribes are not showing their irritation openly, but how long that can last?”
A Turkmen historian, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he disagreed that tribal rivalries were the main threat to Berdymuhammedov.
Instead, he said, the main danger would be if the president crossed swords with an inner circle of political figures who have remained in place since Niazov’s time.
Analysts name a group of three figures led by presidential aide Viktor Khramov, the others being Vladimir Umnov, also a presidential aide, and Alexander Zhadan, deputy head of the presidential administration. They are of Russian rather than Turkmen background.
A former diplomat said the three helped mastermind the transition of power after Niazov’s death, and remained powerful figures behind the scenes.
An Ashgabat-based analyst said it was Khramov, above all, who pulled the strings, but that he preferred to stay out of sight.
“He has personal oversight over the oil and gas sector. With the help of Zhadan and Umnov, he also controls other important areas such as ideology, the media, international relations and education,” the analyst said.
A journalist who left Turkmenistan recently and moved to Russia said Khramov played a key role in defining the Turkmen state’s ideological direction and the limits to press freedom, acting as the regime’s de facto chief censor.
He said Khramov began wielding serious political influence when the late Niazov was in power.
“He was the ‘eminence grise’ under former president Niazov and has continued this under the current president Berdymuhammedov,” he said.
Asked why Khramov did not make a bid for power himself given that he was so influential, the former diplomat explained that as an ethnic Russian, he was not eligible to run for presidential office, for which only Turkmen are eligible.
He added that Khramov enjoyed the benefits of unrestricted power without being exposed to public scrutiny. “As he’s doing this unofficially and with no unnecessary publicity, he doesn’t have to take responsibility,” he said.
Some analysts, like a former top official interviewed by IWPR, said the three men could attribute their political longevity to backing from Moscow, which nurtures good relations with these Russians so as to secure its position in the natural gas market.
Russia has historically been the major purchaser of gas from Turkmenistan’s vast reserves, and is resistant to schemes that would all the Central Asian state to export gas to Europe without going through its pipeline network.
One area where Moscow has been unable to exert influence is in assisting Russians in Turkmenistan who are sidelined from many educational and employment opportunities because of the government’s Turkmen nationalist policies. They are under constant pressure to renounce the dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship many took out in the Nineties, and have seen the influence of Russian language and culture wane.
The former top official said members of the Khramov-led group had little interest in improving the lives of ordinary Russians living in Turkmenistan, and cared only about their own political survival.
Aisha Khan is the pseudonym for an IWPR trainee journalist. Additional reporting by Inga Sikorskaya, IWPR’s editor for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.
The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.