Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 69

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niazov is spreading wider the dragnet of his purge within the state security apparatus and the military. The special state commission, created on March 4 by Niazov and headed by Poran Berdyev, has now come up with a third round of investigative reports and proposals to dismiss and, in some cases, indict senior officers on criminal charges. Berdyev, internal affairs minister until last month, was appointed head of the National Security Committee (NSC, the main agency for intelligence and political surveillance) by Niazov, with the dual mission to purge the NSC from within and to target the Defense Ministry as well.

The top casualties of the purge thus far are Muhammet Nazarov, Gurbandurdy Begenov and Tirkis Tyrmyev, who have been removed as NSC head, defense minister and commander of the border troops, respectively. On April 1 they were, moreover, deprived of their rank as generals and cashiered from the military without pension rights. In a televised session of the cabinet of ministers, with those three sacked officials present, Niazov accused them of taking bribes, embezzling budget funds “and, worst of all, [becoming] drug sellers.” Turning to the three miscreants, Niazov went on: “The investigation will continue, and we shall see how you behave. If any one of you begins to spread rumors, you will be punished. Don’t do it.”

This admonition suggests that the three–and probably their close associates in the services–have beans to spill on Niazov or his current clientele, and that a game of mutual blackmail is going on: the punishment would stop short of criminal indictment, if these officials do not make disclosures that would damage Niazov. For now, it would seem that the NSC’s sacked hierarchy possesses a residual capacity for political survival, biding its time outside the power structures. They might await–or, if they can, even precipitate–the post-Niazov era and portray themselves as Niazov’s victims, if the experience of other post-communist countries, emerging from personality cult regimes, is any guide.

As of early April, at least twenty-two officers with the rank of General and Colonel have been dismissed and cashiered from the NSC, and another thirty-eight were forced to resign from the agency, according to the investigative commission’s latest report.

NSC Colonel Bekmurat Otuzov is among the most unexpected casualties of Niazov’s campaign. A veteran of the Turkmen SSR KGB, Otuzov headed the NSC’s Investigative Department during part of the 1990s, displaying special zeal in persecuting Niazov’s political opponents. He now stands accused of having knowingly carried out “unlawful orders” from his superiors–a reference apparently to the NSC chiefs, not the president. Otuzov had been transferred to civilian duties last year, but was allowed to keep his NSC rank and privileges, of which he has now been stripped. The question arises whether Niazov is sacrificing Otuzov and other NSC figures in a gesture to the president’s opponents abroad, mostly former nomenklatura figures who ultimately turned against Niazov.

In the military, Niazov has in recent days replaced the commander of the ground forces, appointing an air defense colonel (Mashat Ovezgeldyev) to that post. The president demoted the commander of the army’s motor-rifle division from Colonel to private, and discharged him from the armed forces, “for drunkenness on the job.”

Niazov has, furthermore, discharged the commanders–all colonels–of six regional border troop regiments and that of the Caspian coastal guard. All stand accused of “serious shortcomings in their work”–apparently a reference to smuggling and related border violations. In yet another border sector–that of Serakhs, opposite Iran–the president personally publicized a case of mass brutality inflicted on conscripts by the commander and deputy commander. Twenty-six conscripts, no longer able to put up with the beatings, deserted as a group with their weapons and ammunition last year, seeking help from a Turkmen army unit stationed nearby. Caught and sentenced to prison, the twenty-six conscripts were pardoned and rehabilitated on April 3 by Niazov.

The president has, furthermore, replaced the country’s first deputy general prosecutor–who holds concurrently the post of chief prosecutor of Ashgabat; has dismissed the chief prosecutors of the Vilayets [Regions] of Lebap, Ahal and Mary, and has sacked the Mary Vilayet’s governor.

Amply publicized by state media, the state commission’s findings seem to document widespread criminal activities by the “power” agencies in all regions of Turkmenistan. Those activities include unlawful arrests and house searches, blackmail and extortion, cover-up of crimes, complicity in contraband, and narcotics trafficking, among other offenses.

The purge is now also touching some civilian ministries, the first casualty being the deputy prime minister for industry and energy, Aman Ataev. The chairwoman of the parliamentary committee on education, Velmamedova, who is a close relative of the sacked NSC head Nazarov, has been deprived of her parliamentary immunity, preparatory to criminal prosecution. This move also appears designed to ensure that Nazarov keeps silent.

Among all the “power agencies,” only the Internal Affairs Ministry–Berdyev’s alma mater–is being spared. The apparent immunity, enjoyed by that notoriously corrupt ministry thus far, casts doubt on the integrity and impartiality of the cleansing campaign. Meanwhile, the post of internal affairs minister remains vacant, following Berdyev’s transfer from that post to NSC chief. This fact, along with the selective targeting of the NSC, may presage a merger of the two ministries under Berdyev and his group of internal affairs officers now purging the NSC.

It is currently speculated that Niazov feels threatened by a possible alliance of exiled, mostly civilian nomenklatura members and his opponents within the security structures. Should this be the case, it would make sense for Niazov to view the NSC as potentially more dangerous than the internal affairs ministry, and to play off one agency against the other. He also evidently seeks to confound his critics by posing as an anti-corruption champion. Niazov is now painting a horrific picture of the situation of corruption and crime in the country, but that picture and his targeting policy are almost certainly highly selective (Neytralniy Turkmenistan, Ashgabat Radio, Turkmen Television, Turkmen State News Service, Turkmenistan.ru, April 1-5; see the Monitor, February 19, March 14, 22).