The rumoured demise of Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow seem for the time being at least to be exaggerated although quite who(now established – see Jamestown Foundation source) fed the media what appears to be false news and why has yet to be established. What though can be gleaned from one of the world’s most closed nations is that all is far from well in the marbled state of Ashgabat. Whilst this will hardly be a surprise to many observers even those most hardened to Berdymukhamedow’s histrionics and vulgar excesses will have been taken aback by the president’s current ‘is he, isn’t he’ limbo-like status.
One theory – alright, I will call it my own – is that the unknown source wanted to shine a light on the basket case-status of Turkmenistan. Western media outlets have increasingly portrayed Berdymukhamedow as a bumbling but harmless eccentric at the controls of a hydrocarbon-rich nation whose attendant wealth has allowed the president to spend, and behave, with alacrity. More genial than despotic but apparently bored by an insatiable appetite for bling, marble, and self-deification, the president’s appearance in online news stories seems to be with the intention to amuse rather than horrify. Reared on stories of fossil fuel-rich nations literally having money to burn whilst their citizens luxuriate in tax-free opulence, it is assumed that all countries who through fortuitous quirks of topographic kismet are sitting on untold riches actually use their wealth to benefit the population in real time and future generations through the creation of Sovereign Wealth Funds. For those willing to look beyond the endearing idiosyncrasies and ‘for the cameras’ legerdemain they will see for every Dubai and Azerbaijan there is a Venezuela or Turkmenistan.
My reasoning is therefore rooted in quite simply the most obvious way to generate online clicks which stimulates the chattering classes: announce the death of a ruling head of state. In an era of mass media, rolling news, and the increasingly blurred lines of what is true or unsubstantiated whether or not he or she is actually dead can become almost of secondary importance. If the aim of the game was to look behind the whole hall of mirrors to take in what lies beneath the objective of bringing the president to book would finally be achieved, although whether it would facilitate downing the whole house of cards is moot.
President Berdymukhamedow has not been seen in public for several weeks; whilst his conspicuous absence continues so will the rumours of his current status. No amount of Social Media rebuttals by Shanghaied, or simply brainwashed, Turkmen celebrities declaring the president is alive, long live the president and the insistence of Uzbek Shavkat Mirziyoev that he fielded a birthday call from the man himself will serve to placate sceptics like a verifiable public appearance before the cameras. Whilst Berdymukhamedow has been viewed since the rumours surfaced going about his daily business on state television little was given away to suggest whether this was contemporary or archived footage. The Turkmen public, much in the same way North Korea’s population are sedated by wall to wall propaganda, will become so desensitized by the perpetual rehashing of Berdymukhamedow cycling, shooting, and unveiling the next statue that they will hardly notice if what they are seeing is in the here and now or a regurgitation of historic footage shown from a subtly different angle.
Whether malicious or just plain mischievous, rumours of the president’s death could be cleared up by his appearance at a scheduled event within the country or the meeting of regional counterparts. Despite reports suggesting Berdymukhamedow is in fact on location until August 15th there doesn’t seem to be a rush to assure the general public that all is well – something one would expect in countries run along relatively normal lines. A complete media silence from the higher echelons of government is though entirely in keeping with the contempt with which the current regime has for the country’s citizens. As many as 1.8 million Turkmen have fled abroad during the Berdymukhamedow reign; the rest are seemingly treated as an inconvenience who get in the way of the president’s apparent wish to turn the former Soviet Republic into his own private playground, with the nation’s cheque book firmly ensconced in his back pocket.
The fear among many Turkmen that such an uncomfortable silence will be broken not by the confirmation of the president’s existence or mortality but the rebooting of Turkmenistan for the 21st century by Berdymukhamedow 2.0 – his son Serdar. Recently promoted to governor of Ahal province the dauphin is likely to run the country along lines that pay homage to his father’s approach, instead of distancing himself from a regime that has arguably overseen an era bleaker than any under Soviet rule. Far from being an altruistic man of the people Serdar Berdymukhamedow has already flexed his muscles in a manner that proves even the youngest apples don’t fall too far from a rotten tree.
Without suggesting unfettered approval by both the Trump and Putin administrations of Berdymukhamedow’s personal take on running a country, each will be concerned by the possible destabilizing effect of the rumour and its eventual outcome. The deal struck by Russian energy giant Gazprom for Turkmen gas is extremely modest and although a welcome revenue stream for the president’s slush fund, it pales into insignificance against that brokered a decade ago between the two parties. If Russia resumed relations with Turkmenistan purely on a humanitarian footing it will in all likelihood be disappointed as to where its rubles end up. The deal suggests that Russia is pleased to receive gas from beneath the Caspian Sea but that the seller needs Moscow more than it needs Ashgabat. On this basis it will be immaterial who is running Turkmenistan, at least while there is an absence of shenanigans that change goal posts of the deal.
A more serious ramification precipitated by continued uncertainty of the president’s welfare and location is what an apparent vacuum in power could instigate within such an oppressed, surveilled society. Stories of queuing for basic foodstuffs are legion, in a nation it shouldn’t be forgotten that has blown tens of billions of dollars on the president’s vanity projects designed to deify his protective hand on the nation’s tiller. Whilst rumblings of such justified discontent have so far been extinguished at source those Turkmen who instead of following the herd to Turkey and Russia as remittance workers have sought a way out of their asphyxiated lives by joining Islamic State could be used by gang masters to gain a foothold in the country. Sharing a border with perpetually volatile Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and its hydrocarbon riches represents a legitimate target for any rejuvenated insurgency in the region.
This then begs the question as to what the preferred model of rule within Turkmenistan is acceptable to both Russia and the U.S. It is a given that each would first and foremost prefer a stable country that doesn’t allow terrorists a way of easement towards Russia, Turkey, and eventually Europe. Is therefore the modus operandi of an autocratic ruler better than a period of uncertainty that could potentially open the door to those they fear the most? Although the answer seems to be black or white both alternatives lead to the same potential conclusion. A country without a leader, or one in situ assuming all the traits of a megalomaniac can create conditions in which an uprising might not be practical from being initiated from within its borders but can be stoked outside of its jurisdiction. The only tangible subtext in this scenario is whether returning Turkmen evince a chance to annex their homeland into a possible Caliphate or that those at the highest levels of Islamic State in Afghanistan independently take a view that Turkmenistan’s gas riches could potentially be subsumed into the Daesh’s war chest.
The U.S are conscious of Turkmenistan’s geographic importance and let’s face it, any country with such hydrocarbon riches is rarely far from being a prominent blip on Washington’s radar. Quite whether its ultimate interest in the country is merely because Russia wishes to retain it, albeit loosely, within its sphere of influence whilst the U.S. favours trade routes that cross the country east to west, instead of the more predictable and Russo-centric north-south course, is open to debate.
Germany is a long-term ally of Berdymukhamedow, or so it would seem from the lack of admonishment from Angela Merkel towards several companies based within the country, each of whom have aided the current regime at one time or another. From supplying state of the art surveillance equipment to eavesdrop on the lives of Turkmen at home and abroad to flag carrier Lufthansa using its expertise to get the grounded Turkmenistan Airlines back on the wing, German influence is tangible and frankly unsettling. What though is of greater concern is the stashing of a reported $23 billion of Turkmen money of unknown provenance in German bank accounts. More than a king’s ransom and even the Gross National Product of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, this sizeable amount of lucre could be better used to benefit the remaining population of Turkmenistan but instead bears all the hallmarks of a rainy day fund, should hypothetically a serving or future president need to access ready cash whilst in exile. Perhaps someone from within the ruling elite squirreled away the money out of Berdymukhamedow’s clutches as an ersatz Sovereign Wealth Fund for better days ahead, should the country ever be governed by a benevolent, grounded leader. There are though too many scenarios, opinions, and answers that leave yet more questions for anything to be completely certain.
The German connection has overlapped into the current controversy as to the president’s whereabouts. One rumour to explain away the ‘death’ rumour is that Berdymukhamedow is in Germany visiting his ailing mother, who presumably is benefiting greatly from one of the finest healthcare systems on earth. If this is true, and that the pictures of the president on television after rumours of his demise first surfaced were not contemporary, there is nothing to suggest that chronicles of his Teutonic travels are anything but just another fabrication of the truth. Where though some credence can be given is the resurfacing of Germany within the imbroglio, something of which the particular spin doctor would be well aware.
More people than who would care to admit it like a good conspiracy theory. Whilst the ‘disappearance’ of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow is not a classic of its genre the number of counterplots and alternative scenarios fascinate just as much as viewing the presiding regime do its best to dismantle the ability of Turkmenistan to function, and enable its people to live with dignity. The time though is upon the Western media to dispense with the ‘and finally’ attitude towards a government complicit in countless human rights abuses and blatant squandering of money on useless building projects and attendant kickbacks, and instead deep dive into the squalid morass that has been allowed to develop unmolested and at a geometric rate from a diet of greed, hubris, and venality. That is where the real stories lie, and not of a Houdini-esque president whose smiley rounds of golf with Jack Nicklaus and equine-themed singalongs hide a multitude of sins.
Source material and further information:
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: http://www.rferl.org/a/uzbek-president-s-office-statement-on-birthday-call-refutes-rumors-of-turkmen-president-s-death/30073187.html and https://www.rferl.org/a/turkmen-celebs-try-to-debunk-rumors-of-president-s-death/30082030.html