The diplomatic cables downloaded clandestinely from a U.S. government network and published last week without authorization by the activist website WikiLeaks have shone a major spotlight on Turkmenistan and served to validate the reporting done by exile groups about their homeland. The cables from 2009 and early 2010 expose not only the closed society of Turkmenistan, but the use of the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat as a listening post on the even more closed society of neighboring Iran. As with cables from other regions, the reports from Ashgabat illustrate how countries that seem to maintain cordial ties to both Iran and Turkmenistan -- like Turkey -- are concerned about Tehran's nuclear ambitions and skeptical of Turkmenistan’s neutrality. The cables about Turkmenistan itself don't really contain anything we didn't know from the gossip circuit of the hundreds of diplomats, businessmen, journalists, and NGOs who manage to get into Turkmenistan but usually refrain from talking publicly about their experiences in order to keep their access. Now everyone knows.
A source whose name has been redacted bluntly describes President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov as "vain, fastidious, vindictive, a micro-manager, and a bit of an Ahal Teke 'nationalist'" -- the last, a reference to the president's clan, said to be overrepresented among appointments to ministries. The Turkmen leader is described as “not a very bright guy” and portrayed as a fussy control freak. Now it is validated -- which is a victory for those working under extremely difficult circumstances at home and in exile to keep trying to tell the real story of Turkmenistan.
We learn from the cables that the Russian company Itera gifted the Turkmen leader with a 60-million euro yacht -- one that wasn’t as big as he wanted. We learn that he has put his family members into positions of influence, such as the son-in-law who runs the Turkmen hydrocarbons agency representation in London. President Berdymukhamedov is said to dislike Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, along with America, Iran, and Turkey. In fact, the only country he seems to like lately is China, which provided a $4 billion soft loan to Turkmenistan to build a pipeline.
It is too early to tell if the sensational cables will have any actual impact on relations between the U.S. and Turkmenistan and other Central Asian nations. Despite his dislikes and his capricious threats to boycott the summit in Astana of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), ultimately President Berdymukhamedov attended -- because he got his way. Some of his severest critics in exile, leaders of Turkmen human rights groups Farid Tuhbatullin and Annandurdy Hajiev, were discouraged from traveling due to threats and unable to get a visa in time for the event because Astana basically caved to Ashgabat’s pressure to block them. One activist, Vyacheslav Mamedov of the Turkmen Civil Democratic Union, managed to travel to Astana to participate in a parallel conference of NGOs. The Turkmen activists unable to travel sent a letter to the parallel meeting's organizers protesting the lack of access and providing a devastating picture of the destruction of civil society within Turkmenistan – and the lack of solidarity from the international community, which seems preoccupied with energy needs and geopolitical strategies.
A picture of a smiling President Berdymukhamedov shaking hands with Secretary Clinton was later published in the state media. The accompanying dispatch was remarkably terse, with only a comment that the meeting had taken place "in a friendly atmosphere" and that Secretary Clinton had praised Ashgabat's initiatives for global energy security. WikiLeaks may have put a chill over the meeting, and it may be that the U.S. will face problems with access now in their careful efforts to establish warmer relations with Turkmenistan.
The new charge at the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat, Ambassador Elaine Malloy, released a condemnation of the cable leaks (which she also refused to authenticate), saying it could harm sources named in the documents such as human rights activists or social workers who sought help from the U.S.. From the eleven cables publicized so far, however, there do not to be any sources matching that description. The greatest damage may be to people like the factory director in Turkmenistan who boasted to a visiting U.S. official that he could make anything the U.S. needed, including trailers for Afghanistan, or the police official who confided about the beating of a suspected assassin to a U.S. Embassy neighbor, or the Turkish ambassador referenced by name not redacted by the Guardian, who was willing to speak to his American counterparts about his fears concerning Iran's nuclear program and frank assessments of the Turkmen leadership.
During the OSCE summit, President Berdymukhamedov met with both EU Council and EU Commission presidents and the leaders of a number of countries central to the Nabucco pipeline consortium -- Germany, Austria, and Romania – although they did not disclose any mention of Nabucco. President Berdymukhamedov enthused about a German cultural festival in Ashgabat, and the success of a carpet exposition in Vienna, but while allusions were made to cooperation in the energy sector, the pipeline project was not referenced in the state media.
WikiLeaks may tell us a fair amount about past events or assessments about the corruption and authoritarianism inside the Turkmen government, such as a report on the arrest of Tachberdy Tagiev, a former high-profile vice premier in charge of liaisons with foreign oil companies who disappeared from the scene and was said to be charged with corruption in September 2009. But they can't help us predict what the autocratic Turkmen leader may do next -- we are no closer to learning whether Turkmenistan will finally sign up for Nabucco or issue a drilling permit to Chevron.
One thing is clear -- President Berdymukhamedov is paranoid about losing power, and is obsessed with foiling real or imagined coup plots. According to one alleged cable, when a cat ran in front of his motorcade, a military official was fired over the incident. As we know from the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, the president had the police eradicate all the animals for blocks under the guise of a campaign against strays which in fact included people's pets, When a driver ran into the president's cortege, he was severely beaten in prison and charged with assassination, and high-ranking police in charge of security were fired.
Once again, a hapless director of state-controlled television in Turkmenistan was given a “severe reprimand” and "final warning" for his "lax oversight" and poor management of personnel and programs. The Turkmen leader has been endlessly unhappy with broadcasting in his country, because it never can seem to show his reforms in the "golden age" and "era of revival" in quite the glowing light he wishes. Nor does WikiLeaks.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Turkmenistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Sifting the Karakum blog. To subscribe to the weekly email with a digest of international and regional press, write firstname.lastname@example.org