In the absence of reliable information about the most isolated of the Central Asian states, Turkmenistan observers are often forced to sift through unsubstantiated rumors. A recent report by the opposition website Gundogar.org provides plenty of these, alleging preferential treatment by authorities to prop up the business interests of the president’s family.
The author gives no indication of his sources. This may be necessary to protect them. On the other hand, it makes it impossible to distinguish truthful information from exaggeration and hearsay.
Nepotism is no shocker in a Central Asian dictatorship. In this case, the most brazen examples given by Gundogar involve Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s son Serder. The website alleges the younger Berdymukhamedov, supposedly something of a party animal, is trying to seize businesses belonging to the son of the late President Saparmurat Niyazov (The “Turkmenbashi”), Murad.
Relatives of the Protector [President Berdymukhamedov’s chosen moniker] are trying (with some success) to get their hands on Murad’s business. After his monopoly on trade in tobacco and alcohol products was dismantled late last year, in February, Berdymukhamedov’s son Serdar, eager to expand its hotel business, demanded Murad give him the Nisa Hotel, located opposite the presidential palace, for almost nothing. However, the son of the ex-president refused, saying the hotel is the legacy of his late father.
After this, irritated by the gall "of this upstart," President Berdymukhamedov issued a decree amending the architectural plan of the street where the Nisa Hotel is situated. As a result, in late February, under the pretext of ensuring the head of state’s security, the hotel was classified as subject to demolition.
In general, the incumbent president's son Serdar has recently begun to demonstrate unexpected political activity, though earlier he shied away from taking part in public events, confining himself to the role of the [country’s] biggest businessman, master of half of Turkmenistan's national economy. One of his public appearances was at a polling station during the presidential election, where he arrived with his father and grandfather. Moreover, now Serdar regularly attends government meetings.
Serder – who the report says is about to be appointed deputy agriculture minister – is not the only member of the Berdymukhamedov clan said to prosper under his father’s reign, now officially known as “The Era of Supreme Happiness of the Stable State.”
According to Gundogar, the president’s sister, Gulnabat, has been importing huge shipments of cigarettes “despite the declaration of a far-reaching war against smoking in Turkmenistan, which has led to a sharp increase in prices of tobacco products and the introduction of strict controls on imports of these products.” Meanwhile, her son, the president’s nephew Murad, has been put in charge of constructing retail markets in the country’s provincial capitals, the website claims.
It’s a familiar pattern in Central Asia: A president promotes relatives to positions of power, sometimes grooming them for succession, and somehow they get extraordinarily wealthy. We’ve seen it in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Turkmenistan ranked 177 out of 183 countries in Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index (tying with Sudan and Uzbekistan). Hopefully one day the Turkmen authorities will give their citizens enough access to official records that someone will be able to confirm or deny Gundogar’s charges.