The December 21, 2006, death of Turkmenistan’s self proclaimed president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov set off an intense round of speculation about both the succession process and who might gain access to the world’s fifth-largest energy reserves, responsible for more than $2 billion annually in export revenues. Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov won the presidential race. Lieutenant-General Akmura Redzhepov, chairman of Turkmenistan’s National Security Council and head of Turkmenistan’s feared secret police since 1991, was widely regarded as the behind-the-scenes “kingmaker,” with possible ambitions to succeed to the presidency himself.
Instead, Redzhepov has experienced a swift and total fall from grace. The Russian newspaper Vremya novostei, quoting unofficial sources, reported that Redzhepov has been sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for corruption and other unspecified crimes related to abuse of power (Vremya novostei, July 31). Under Niyazov, Redzhepov had been responsible for presidential security and was widely regarded as the “gray cardinal” of Turkmen politics.
Redzhepov’s son Nurmurad, a colonel in the secret police, received a 13-year sentence, while businessman Murad Agayev, former head of the “Oriental Company” enterprise, received a sentence of 17 years. Agayev, a member of Niyazov’s inner circle and reportedly close to the late president’s daughter, had controlled Turkmenistan’s tobacco and alcohol exports and imports and reportedly had gambling interests (Kommersant, August 1).
Redzhepov’s rise to power began in the late 1980s, when he was a KGB special assignments officer attached to Niyazov, then first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR. From there his influence steadily grew.
The news is the latest twist in the nearly opaque politics of what was until recently one of the world’s most repressive and secretive societies, and follows a traditional Soviet pattern dating back to Lenin’s death in 1924, where political leaders cement their authority by subsequently reining in the secret police, which either helped them consolidate power in the first place or posed a threat.
In retrospect, glimmers of Redhzepov’s fate became visible on May 16, when Ashgabat announced that Redzhepov was being transferred to “other,” unspecified duties. Several days later news percolated out about the arrests of Redzhepov, his son upon his return from the United Arab Emirates, and a number of other former high-ranking Turkmen security officials, including National Security Minister Geldymurad Ashirmuhammedov (Gazeta Po-Kyivsky, August 1).
While the Turkmen government has made no official announcement about the trials, in retrospect the charges appear to be a case of “follow the money.” Vremya novostei reported that in May, following his detention, Turkmen secret police escorted Nurmurad Redzhepov to the United Arab Emirates, where he had earlier worked at the Turkmen embassy, in an attempt to gain information and access to bank accounts overseen by his father, which represent a portion of the massive theft of energy revenues under Niyazov, which the Vienna-based Turkmen opposition Republican Party of Turkmenistan estimated at $3 billion held in Deutsche Bank accounts that, while labeled a “Central Bank” account, were held in Niyazov’s name.
Turkmen dissidents told Jamestown that Redzhepov’s downfall was triggered by his relentless avarice, which included efforts to ship train boxcars loaded with valuables out of the country, even as Berdimukhamedov scrambled to find cash to fulfill his electoral promises to improve food supplies, pensions, hospital care, jobs, and education. Exiled opposition leader Bayram Shihmuradov believes that Redzhepov’s dismissal quickly followed Berdimukhamedov’s May 12 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi, where he gained their approval.
An intriguing element to the puzzle is that Redzhepov was actively lobbying for a proposal to build a natural gas pipe from Turkmenistan to China, bypassing Russia. In April 2006 Niyazov signed a deal with China for the Turkmenistan-China natural gas pipeline, to be in operation by 2009. The proposed Chinese pipeline would have handled 30 billion cubic meters annually and severely threatened Gazprom’s access to Turkmen gas, besides causing Russia to lose out on billions in transit revenues and imperiling rising Russian natural gas exports to Europe, its most lucrative market.
The May 12 Turkmenbashi meeting followed Berdimukhamedov’s April 23-23 visit to Moscow to discuss energy issues, during which both countries agreed to expand their cooperation. At the Turkmenbashi summit, Putin, Nazarbayev and Berdimukhamedov agreed to a Russian proposal to expand an existing natural gas pipeline that runs along the Caspian eastern coast, which blindsided Western efforts to enter the Turkmen gas market in the aftermath of Niyazov’s death (see EDM, May 16).
In its effort to uncover the money trail, Berdimukhamedov’s government is still missing a major player. Alexander Zhadan, who controlled Niyazov’s financial affairs, reportedly fled Ashgabat on December 20, the day before Niyazov died. Unconfirmed reports suggest that he might have fled to Israel. As Niyazov personally approved all energy contracts, and all revenues went into accounts controlled by him, Zhadan doubtless has unique knowledge, but he has thus far eluded Turkmen authorities.
In the wake of Berdimukhamedov’s purge of Niyazov’s siloviki, many analysts are speculating that Turkmenistan will draw closer to Russia while simultaneously expanding contacts with the West.
Berdimukhamedov, recasting himself as a moderate progressive after Niyazov, apparently realized that the old kleptocratic, megalomaniacal model of doing business hindered political stability. The billions Niyazov and his inner circle salted away in foreign bank accounts benefited only the thieves and represented an immediate source of cash to implement much-needed political and social reforms.
If Berdimukhamedov did indeed receive Russian and Kazakh “assistance” in his purge, it will come at a price, most likely in the form of Russia and Kazakhstan having first access to Turkmen energy resources, to be exported via existing and upgraded pipeline networks. In such a case, the immediate losers will be the newcomers to the Turkmen energy market — the United States and China.