Having witnessed the popular revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa in the last year, that overthrew long-established dictators who had demonstratively exploited the natural wealth of their countries to support their and their families’ over-the-top luxurious lifestyles over the course of decades of their rule, one might think that the new generation of twenty-first century dictators would more carefully, perhaps more modestly, adopt this age-old tradition. But even Turkmenistan’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, not even in power for six years, is reported to abuse his position to accumulate wealth and material luxuries for himself, his family, and entourage of loyalists.
This week, the website centrasia.ru published two articles about this kind of abuse among Turkmenistan’s leadership. The site describes itself as a specialist’s reference material on Central Asia and contains background information about Central Asian countries. Creators of the site state that the resource is free of political and national bias. Nonetheless, many of its authors are unknown or writing under pseudonyms, as would be the case with exposés on Turkmenistan’s inner workings, and the reliability of information is questionable, but may provide an interesting window into the sentiments within closed societies and their halls of power. Often, the site serves as a platform for compromising materials from officials who have fallen out of favor with an axe to grind, and therefore the information provided, though plausible, must be questioned.
In his article entitled “Turkmenistan as a private garden for the Turkmen family” published on centrasia.ru, an author going by the name Kh.Agabaev describes how President Berdymukhamedov’s relatives exploit their relations for personal benefit. For example, it is reported that the President’s father provides various favors to friends and acquaintances for a minimum charge of 50.000 USD. His sisters control major foreign and local businesses and demand sizable kickbacks and close down well-run successful companies at their whims. One sister is a black market supplier of liquefied gas to Afghanistan, which passes through an unrecorded channel in the Lebap region, says the author, without naming his sources. And Berdymukhamedov’s son has assumed the position of Deputy Minister of Agriculture and is actively trying to influence the country’s personnel policy, and line his own pockets.
Like his predecessor, the mercurial dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, Berdymukhamedov squanders the state budget on vanity projects, and the population pays the price. Not only for the utterly destroyed social safety net that leaves a population without educational opportunity or health care and other services that governments should provide their citizens, but also for when the grandiose vanity projects fail. After billions of dollars have been sunk into erecting palaces and recreational facilities at the Avaza tourism resort on the Caspian Sea, which isn’t attracting tourists, according to another author on centrasia.ru, K. Niyazaliev in his article “Whims of Turkmenbashi the Second,” Berdymukhamedov has prohibited his subordinates from going on vacation overseas and decrees that they vacation in Avaza. Niyazaliev writes of the growing contempt of Turkmen officials, for whimsical decrees such as this one, alongside the famous “low bow” that Berdymukhamedov requires of governmental officials when they greet him. Berdymukhamedov’s self-aggrandizing projects that position him as some kind of a renaissance man – such as posing as a singer, a racetrack driver, a horseback rider, as well as his outlandish micro-managerial decrees ranging from state management, to the dress cut and colors his staff should wear, earn him only disdain from his subordinates.
With Turkmen governmental resources being spent on his caprices, and with little being allocated towards meeting basic human needs, we have a recipe for disaster. Prices are growing rapidly in Turkmenistan, subsidies are being withdrawn, and even members of the only political party of Turkmenistan, the pro-governmental party, are now being shaken down - - as they are now forced to pay membership fees.
It is this kind of coalescence of greed by dictators, and disregard for the well-being of their citizens, who are growing more impoverished, that caused populations to break, take to the streets, and make the revolutions that made up the so-called “Arab Spring” last year. But Berdymukhamedov’s response, seeing what happened to the leaders of those countries, is to stock up on arms. He has recently issued large purchases of special military uniforms, weapons, shields, and batons for Ministry of Interior law enforcement units, who conduct daily exercises likely to practice for a response to possible public protest. He has again shuffled his cabinet, firing a number of well-placed officials, and issuing reprimands, preventing the formation of close ties among subordinates, or the growth of influence among them. And yet, as the Niyazaliev article reports, tension seethes among the officialsh, not to mention a downtrodden public.