Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 3

By Ata Khaitov

The dramatic events in Turkmenistan since November 25 confirm that politics is indeed a dirty business. But it is still somewhat shocking to see how effortlessly and cynically Russia’s new young politicians have adapted. These are people who, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, seemed to be pursuing a relatively progressive domestic and foreign policy agenda.

The initial reaction of world powers to the assassination attempt against President Saparmurat Niazov on November 25 was relatively restrained. Initially, it was hard to understand what was happening in the “successful” totalitarian state of Turkmenistan, which is highly isolated from the outside world. Niazov, who styles himself Turkmenbashi (father of the Turkmens) had looked increasingly vulnerable over the past year, as the opposition movement gained confidence while his authority was eroded by a series of defections by former insiders.


Niazov’s response to the assassination attempt was typical of his manipulative style. First, he tried to brand Russia and Uzbekistan as supporters of the “international terrorists” headed by Boris Shikhmuradov, the former foreign minister who, he alleged, had organized the attempt on his life.

The events following that attempt revealed the true face of Turkmenistan’s totalitarian system to the outside world. Harsh repressive measures were taken against both the opposition democratic forces and ordinary people, including arresting family members of alleged conspirators, and rounding up opposition activists not even remotely connected to the alleged plot. There was also a striking violation of international standards in the search of Uzbekistan’s embassy in Ashgabat and the expulsion of the Uzbek ambassador.

Niazov also accused Russia of supporting the terrorist group and sheltering Turkmen terrorists on her own territory, in retaliation for Turkmenistan’s refusal to sell Russia any of her cheap natural gas. (Ashgabat depends on Russian pipelines for transshipment of its vast gas reserves to customers outside Central Asia.) Turkmenbashi made these crude assaults on Russia based on the very primitive calculation that the Americans, wanting to augment their own role in Turkmenistan, would seize upon these accusations and come out in his defense, as a fellow victim of a terrorist act.


U.S. spokesmen, however, began to express ever greater concern at the situation in Turkmenistan and called for an investigation into human rights violations, the use of torture in interrogation of suspects and violations of international diplomatic conventions. The silence that the world powers had maintained for so long on the issue of Turkmenistan’s totalitarian regime was broken. Of utmost importance was a statement the U.S. State Department’s deputy spokesman, Philip Reeker, made on December 3. Faced with circumstances that were extremely unclear, the United States stood firm in upholding democratic principles, despite its own very considerable interests in the country.


Unexpectedly, it was Russia who decided to exploit the nightmare, redolent of a medieval inquisition, to solve some of her own problems–and especially to increase her influence in Turkmenistan. In spite of the accusations leveled against Russia, a Russian delegation led by Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo arrived in Ashgabat on January 2. In its official statements, the Russian side did not once mention Turkmenistan’s violations of human rights and international standards in the investigation of the assassination attempt. Rushailo spoke only of giving Russia’s utmost support and encouragement to Turkmenbashi’s regime.

“Discussion was primarily on the problems involved in the war on international terrorism,” he said after the meeting, “and this included the events that occurred recently in Turkmenistan in connection with the attempt on the life of the head of state.” Rushailo also observed that “Russia has always made its position clear, and we want to underline once again that we regard what happened as a terrorist incident, and in this respect we are looking at joint cooperation between our respective law enforcement agencies and special services.” Russia pledged cooperation in coordinating extradition procedures: It seems clear that Moscow will no longer be a safe haven for Turkmen dissidents.

A quite remarkable aspect of the visit was that the Russian delegation also discussed matters associated with the extraction and transport of Turkmen gas. But one can suppose that this was part of the deal–“if you support our regime we’ll give you our gas.” The statements by the Russian delegation can only have been made if sanctioned from above–that is, by Putin. This was dismaying to democratically inclined Turkmen who had tended to regard Putin as a progressive politician.

Russia has shown yet again how inconsistent she can be when she wants to solve her problems at the expense of others. Why are Russian politicians so pleased to be supporting the most totalitarian state in the world, where dissent is suppressed using methods to which not even Stalin stooped?

Evidently, the presence of U.S. forces in Central Asia following the events of September 11 has been bothering Russia. As has the fact that Turkmenistan was the only Central Asian country where Russia had no military presence. And there is Turkmenbashi’s intractability over economic issues: the threat of Russia losing a share in Turkmen gas earnings (if a pipeline is built across the Caspian or through Afghanistan), and Niazov’s swinging back and forth on the question of how to divide the resources under the Caspian Sea. All this apparently justifies Russia’s hasty offer of support for Niazov’s policies.

So yet another dictator who enjoys Russia’s support has officially been added to its pool of political assets. But Moscow will find it very difficult to discreetly defend Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il and Turkmenbashi simultaneously. She could change her mind at any moment and ditch Turkmenbashi, but it all depends on what she can get out of the alliance.

Shikhmuradov’s activities, especially in the last few years, have shown him to be pro-Russian. Russia therefore naturally backed him. Now, however, everything has been turned on its head. It looks as if Turkmenistan’s young progressive movement, which will not easily be brought to its knees, will gain in strength, though now this will be without any regard for or reliance on Russia as the progressive nation they once believed her to be. The shortsightedness of Russia’s policy will therefore only harm her long-term national interests in the region.

This is the greatest blunder that Russia could have made, and she needs to remember just how unreliable Turkmenbashi’s policy towards any of Turkmenistan’s partners is, because everything may be overturned at any moment.


Clearly, some reaction from the United States is to be expected as soon as Russia begins to augment her presence in Turkmenistan, in whatever form–cooperation in the war on international terrorism or increased Russian involvement in gas extraction and export.

There is growing opinion in the United States that serious attention needs to be given to investigating the policies of the Turkmen dictator, who was actively engaged in dealings with the Taliban and is still harshly oppressing his own people, violating international diplomatic norms, and refusing to join in the interregional cooperation on the war against narco-business. He is doing all this under cover of his purported principle of “neutrality.”

On January 4-5 Ashgabat’s main department store burnt down. This may well have been the work of opponents of the Niazov regime, who have said they intend to commit further such acts. The regime’s opponents comprise a significant part of the population, which finds itself suffering from Turkmenbashi’s repressive regime. The future course of events in this country may be along the lines of Romania or Yugoslavia, although naturally with elements of an especially Asiatic brutality. This, Russia should be aware, is nothing to do with international terrorism. Or do they mean to wage a war on the Turkmen people?

Turkmenbashi’s one trump card is his state’s geopolitical position and energy resources, which he uses sometimes as a carrot and sometimes as a stick. However, Turkmenbashi’s warped mind prevents him from seeing that Turkmenistan’s geopolitical position and wealth are not one and the same as him, but exist independently of him.

The closer Russia gets to Turkmenbashi now–on the pretext of the war on terrorism but actually in support of his totalitarian regime–the further Turkmenistan will naturally be from the democratic nations, and above all the United States.

Emboldened by having enlisted Russia’s backing, Turkmenbashi reacted to American expressions of concern at the situation in his country with accusations of slander and deceit. On January 8, the newspaper Neutralny Turkmenistan carried a letter from Turkmenistan’s newspaper editors in response to the statements made by Philip Reeker. They expressed their disapproval of the behavior of the U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan, Laura Kennedy, in allegedly speaking with Shikhmuradov on the phone and voicing her sympathy for the Uzbek ambassador. This was a classic Turkmenbashi move: Having gained the support of one world leader, he then spits in the direction of the other, as his usual “trade-off” in such matters. This “balancing act” will be progressively more difficult for Turkmenbashi to maintain–and he will have to wave goodbye to his neutral status.

So the Russians ought not to feel pleased about the current situation, or to portray the results of their diplomatic efforts as any kind of success. How much will you have to pay for the gas that Turkmenbashi has promised you? At the moment it’s not costing you much at all, apart from the lives of a few Turkmen citizens, but what about later? Time will tell. Russia’s hopes of extending her influence in Turkmenistan are as insubstantial as Turkmenbashi’s belief that he is immortal. The cost to Russia of her political shortsightedness will be very great, and unfortunately no less so for Turkmenistan.

The facts of the attempt made on the life of President Niazov of Turkmenistan on November 25 are still not clear, but it was nevertheless an important sign of a serious crack in the country’s totalitarian regime. Events have shown that it is imperative for the world powers and especially the United States to give serious attention to Central Asia’s totalitarian systems, so as to prevent any further deterioration of the situation, not only within these countries, but in the region as a whole.

Ata Khaitov is an independent observer of Turkmenistan.