Time to get tough with Turkmenistan’s President

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Time to get tough with Turkmenistan’s President

Maddad Mammadov casts light on Turkmenistan’s President Berdymukhamedov and calls on the West to do more to curb his autocratic regime’s ongoing human rights abuses.

A quick glance through a list of the world’s most preposterously arrogant people would throw up some names you’ve heard of and others you might not. I doubt many people would recognise the name ‘President Berdymukhamedov’ and yet he would be worthy of a high placing on the list for his actions as the crazy and dangerous autocratic dictator of Turkmenistan.

Last month he starred in his own musical “Holiday Special”, featuring a unique new song and in which he was seen playing the piano. This might have been impressive had the state broadcaster’s cameras not cut away from his hands whenever a note was played. President Berdymukhamedov also took on a lead vocal role, though once again technical ‘problems’ threw up questions about the performance. Either the video lagged behind the audio, or there was some less than precise lip syncing on display.

This slightly loopy publicity stunt was the latest in a long line of audacious displays that aim to sustain President Berdymukhamedov’s cult of personality. It is a style of government embraced by his close ally, former President Niyazov, a Soviet relic who styled himself “Turkmenbashi” (leader of the Turkmen people). He was vein he even went as far as erecting a gold statue of himself that rotates to ensure it always faces the sun!

In November of last year, state media released footage of President Berdymukhamedov lifting a gold barbell while applauded by an adoring cabinet in commemoration of the World Weightlifting Championship’s being hosted in Ashgabat. In 2017 the president was filmed “hitting a hole in one” at the opening of a new golf course built under the oversight of US legend Jack Nicklaus. Once again some creative editing meant that footage leads me to suspect this might not have been the tremendous sporting feat that it was presented as!

In the same year the “Tyrant of Turkmenistan” was filmed as an action hero in full combats while throwing knives and firing an assault rifle; before this in 2015 he followed his mentor’s example by unveiling a 21-metre high equestrian statue of himself in a bid to reinforce his demigod status.

In a further indication of Berdymukhamedov’s vanity, when he was filmed falling from his horse after a race in 2015 state officials enforced intensive checks on the smartphones, tablets and cameras of anyone leaving the country in a bid to cover up his sporting fail. In fact, the state newspaper, titled “Neutral Turkmenisten”, devoted 4 pages to his victory!

This is a regime that is not shy to deploy Soviet-style media tactics! Including a hilariously photoshopped picture of a Turkmen Cosmonaut aboard the International Space Station holding the country’s flag.

All of this ridiculous, vein and embarrassing behaviour would be funny but actually serves to distract from a sinister police state that oppresses its people. Turkmenistan remains one of the most corrupt and repressive regimes in the world according to Human Rights Watch. Political freedoms simply do not exist and the state ranks third from bottom in the world in the Press Freedom Index.

Predictably the president has gone to some efforts to gas off about democratic reforms, but in February 2018 these warm words were swiftly followed by “free elections” in which he got 98 percent of the popular vote.

The International Institute for Political Expertise, a research unit focusing on political risk and investment climates, declared Turkmenistan to be “authoritarian” and “oppressive” in its 2011 report – “one personality cult succeeded another”. The outlook for investors is not encouraging either, with personal contact with the president cited as the most important factor for any success in business dealings. It concludes that “corruption is part of the national political culture”, with the country earning an 8/10 rating in which 10/10 is total corruption.

It appears that the rich oil and natural gas reserves of this little-known and closed country are being squandered on vanity projects. Although Ashgabat has declared 2019 the “Year of Turkmenistan: Motherland and Prosperity”, it looks increasingly as though the indebted government is unable to meet its financial obligations. Raising serious concerns that the government itself might go broke.

Respect for property rights is scant, with the regime frequently expecting companies to pay 20-40% of their profits directly to the state budget and appropriation of assets by the government has become standard practice. A key example is the case of Russian company MTS, who were forced out of Turkmenistan in 2010 with 2.4 million users of their network being cut off, leading to company losses of $422 million. MTS returned to Turkmenistan in 2012 on the condition that they pay 30% of
its profits to the government, only to have their licence revoked again in 2017.

The case is now pending before the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, alongside that of Unionmatex Industrieanlagen, a German company that won two multi-million euro contracts for grain facility construction but has experienced systematic non-payment of debts by the regime.

Prospective investors have been advised to have a ready-made exit strategy and to ensure that any contracts guarantee arbitration rights at a commercial tribunal outside of Turkmenistan.

Although the government is in theory stable due to the dictator’s consolidation of power, the stability is of the kind that is true of any dictatorship… a certainty that can easily evaporate under the pressure of a popular uprising. The IPPE judges that political destabilisation is in fact “quite possible” in Turkmenistan, especially given the impoverished nation’s unemployment levels. It predicts that regime collapse would, due to the country’s inherent tribal and ethnic tensions, precipitate Libyan-style chaos.

And yet despite all of this, the international community seems to take no notice. We think of these former Soviet States as backwaters, unworthy of even the slightest consideration. But oil discoveries are making Central Asian states rich, and the region might even become the richest in the world over the next 50 years. Having corrupt, badly managed, nutter states in this area ought to make us shudder.

It is time President Berdymukhamedov was no longer thought of as a harmless loony but rather a dangerous demigod in an increasingly important region. When are we going to pull him up for the human rights abuses? When can we confirm he isn’t spiriting away national wealth to foreign bank accounts? When can we be sure his regime won’t crash in an orgy of religiously charged violence?

In short: when are we going to do something about Turkmenistan?

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  • Maddad Mammadov
    Maddad Mammadov
    Maddad Mammadov is a human rights activist based in Azerbaijan.
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