Sucking up to Dictators Is Harder Than It Looks

Inside the failed attempt to turn Central Asia's most insular regime.


September 21, 2009, was a day of blitz diplomacy for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: She had more than eight and a half hours of bilateral meetings to juggle, along with a marathon of press briefings and camera sprays at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York. But one of her sit-downs that day required particular finesse. It was with an obscure dictator whose name alone presented a challenge — Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the president of Turkmenistan. He came into the room with an immediate advantage: The United States needed his help. Clinton needed to convince him to let NATO transports through his country, a move that would ease pressure on U.S. supply lines into Afghanistan and probably save some U.S. troops. The usual approach — money — would not work with energy-rich Turkmenistan. It was a test of her skill as a diplomat.

The Turkmen leader, a squat, unimposing former dentist, had arrived at the Waldorf earlier in his new armored limousine. (His minders had planned to rent one in New York, but the rental office would not allow them to drill a hole in the fender to insert a little Turkmen flag. They were forced to buy the machine outright for nearly half a million dollars, a source close to the delegation said.) Having come to power fewer than three years before, Berdimuhamedov was still a novice statesman, impressionable and often bashful in public. His predecessor’s death in 2006 led to a murky succession process that jailed the man in line for the post and gave him absolute power. The meeting with Clinton would be his first, and it would prove be a defining moment for his encounter with the West. It did not go well — either for the dumpy dictator or for the still newly minted secretary of state.

With the stakes particularly high, Clinton put aside the topic of Afghanistan and energy supplies and began to push Berdimuhamedov on human rights, asking about the hundred or so Turkmen students who’d been kept from studying at the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan. In doing so, Clinton might have helped push a warming-up dictator back into the cold, jeopardizing a critical supply route to Afghanistan in the process — and highlighting the difficulties of diplomacy with autocrats whose help the United States needs.

Berdimuhamedov didn’t have a lot to live up to when he took over the Turkmen presidency in 2006. Before that, Turkmenistan was viewed in the West as a hopelessly isolated place, or as one Western embassy official called it, "Weirdestan." Its international image was shaped by its hermetic leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, whose zany personality cult was often compared to that of North Korea’s Kim Jong Il. Especially toward the end of his 16-year reign, Niyazov’s whims became very erratic, and they were usually enforced as the law.

In 2001, he prohibited young men from wearing beards, long hair, or gold crowns on their teeth. Having dubbed himself Turkmenbashi, or Leader of All the Turkmen, he banned recorded music from being played in public places and cracked down on the performance of opera and ballet, which he deemed "unnecessary." Some calendar months were renamed after him and his relatives, and his book of philosophical musings — the quasi-mystical Ruhnama — was made part of the core curriculum for students of all ages.

Education was a particularly thorny issue for a dictator who sought to control his population by keeping them ignorant of the outside world, banning the Internet and restricting foreign books. Niyazov’s government cut back basic education to nine years from 10, making it nearly impossible for Turkmen students to qualify for admission to educational institutions abroad. So, by Turkmen standards, it was a dramatic advance when the new president extended the school term to 10 years so students could study in foreign countries.

"It was a huge step forward," said one of four senior Western diplomats interviewed on condition of anonymity in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat. "Under [Niyazov] there had been total isolation. Even inside the country travel was restricted. The new president changed this…. But then these students started coming back home with Western ideas in their heads, holding rallies, getting interested in change."

The new president reacted to the Westernization of his students with suspicion: He held 100 Turkmen students back from attending the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan, the most egregious example in a wide campaign of small-scale harassment against students attempting to travel abroad. The move was a major disappointment for many Western officials who thought Berdimuhamedov would bring quick and radical change. Still, compared with those of other Central Asian states, Turkmenistan’s human rights environment remained fairly mild, and it was improving. There was no opposition, no independent press, only the barest beginning of free enterprise, and a pervasive network of secret police. But violent crackdowns and reports of torture and political imprisonment are not nearly as common as in Uzbekistan, for example, or Tajikistan. Two of the diplomats in Ashgabat therefore felt Clinton’s criticism was misguided, an attempt to act as "the world’s moral police, which is just counterproductive sometimes," one of them said.

Apparently, Berdimuhamedov felt the same way. Days after the Waldorf meeting, the Peace Corps learned that the Turkmen government had blocked its latest initiative in Turkmenistan. The initiative’s focus was to be the education system. No explanation was given, and the 47 volunteers who had already received their approval documents for the trip had to be reassigned to other countries. "We’ve been working in Turkmenistan since 1993, and nothing like that had ever happened before," said Joshua Field, a Peace Corps spokesman in Washington.

It has since become clear that more serious consequences would follow, with the worst affecting the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. In the fall of 2008, Gen. David Petraeus took the helm of the U.S. Central Command and made it one of his priorities to get Turkmenistan’s help on the Afghan war. He realized the potential: Unlike Afghanistan’s other neighbors, Turkmenistan is a stable and mainly secular country with good roads and railways. Its border with Afghanistan is 750 kilometers long, and the need to truck supplies across it was quickly gaining urgency.

Starting in 2007, the Taliban had escalated their attacks against NATO convoys in Pakistan’s Khyber Pass, bombing and burning military caravans and forcing the route to close several times last year. An alternative route through the north, cobbled together after painstaking negotiations with Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, has also come under heavy attacks. And though NATO has recently succeeded in getting Kazakhstan to let nonlethal supplies through its territory, a pathway through Turkmenistan would be far more direct, cheaper, and safer. "Without a doubt, the shortest distance for these supplies is still right through Turkmenistan, and it would make a tremendous contribution to open up that line," said Thomas Sanderson, who studies the northern supply lines into Afghanistan for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Under Niyazov, there was no real chance of securing this pathway. His foreign policy centered on a strict code of "neutrality," which he used as an excuse to avoid any foreign partnerships that were not strictly commercial. Under Berdimuhamedov, however, this changed — at least at first. Berdimuhamedov, it turned out, is a dictator who’s vain about his image abroad. "For the first year or so there was a thaw," one of the senior diplomats said, asking not to be named for fear of alienating Turkmen officials. "It was like the Gorbachev effect. He started traveling to all the foreign capitals after years of isolation, and all the Western leaders patted him on the back and called him a great reformer. He seemed to like that a lot."

In April 2008, he attended the NATO summit in Bucharest, a first for a Turkmen leader, and on the sidelines he was granted a one-on-one meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush. The following month, more NATO planes were discreetly allowed to land and refuel at Turkmen military air bases. According to the Eurasian Transition Group (ETG), a Bonn-based think tank, transport flights from Western Europe to Afghanistan via Turkmenistan jumped by 15 percent starting in mid-May over the previous months of that year, when they had remained steady.

Those flights, however, were not officially acknowledged by the Turkmen government, and remained clandestine because the president was not yet ready to come out in support of NATO efforts in Afghanistan, says ETG director Michael Laubsch. It was only in February 2009 that Berdimuhamedov openly allowed the United States to fly humanitarian supplies over his territory into Afghanistan. This acknowledgement would have been unthinkable under Niyazov. It was a sign that a broader overflight agreement could be reached. But according to Sanderson of CSIS, the quota for those flights was exhausted by the end of summer 2009, and it is not clear whether it will be renewed.

"[Berdimuhamedov] has been approached on the issue of firming up the military transports many times, and it’s been a no-go," one of the diplomats in Ashgabat said. Others complained that access to Turkmen officials had become more restricted in recent months, and in October, Berdimuhamedov snubbed a conference of several hundred foreign business executives, some of whom he had personally invited during a speech he gave in New York. During the second day of the conference, the president found time to open a provincial chicken farm, but he did not show up to address the foreigners.

"Things are closing back up. You can feel it," said Giorgi Vashakmadze, development director at White Stream, a natural gas pipeline consortium, on the sidelines of the conference. "If the Americans wanted military assistance it may already be impossible to get it here."

Other delegates and speakers at the conference agreed, complaining of the fawning team of advisors and yes men who surround the president, filtering out anything but praise of his policies. The speeches at the conference drove this point home. One by one, the delegates took the podium to compliment what several called "the greatness and wisdom" of Berdimuhamedov. Two later said on the sidelines that their speeches had been redacted by the organizers, with certain customary phrases such as that one added in. "This is the only way to do business here. To be allowed to stay, you have to be respectful," one Russian-American businessman said, asking not to be named for fear of hurting his operations in the country.

Clearly, the meeting with Clinton is neither the direct nor the sole cause of Berdimuhamedov’s gradual retreat into a more Niyazov-like isolation. And a senior Western diplomat in Washington with knowledge of how the meeting proceeded pointed out that after more negotiations, the Turkmen students were allowed to leave the country, not to study in Kyrgyzstan as planned, but at the American University in Bulgaria — a compromise. Clinton’s State Department, he added, is satisfied with Turkmenistan’s level of support on Afghan supply lines. "I wouldn’t say that the meeting didn’t go well. I’d say that the meeting went pretty well. We had some disagreements about education, but we didn’t so much have a disagreement about Afghanistan," the diplomat said.

Nor is it clear that Turkmenistan’s human rights record was a major topic of discussion. During the news conference at the Waldorf that followed Clinton’s meeting, Assistant Secretary Robert O. Blake Jr. indicated that Washington was indeed trying to tread lightly. In answer to the first question — Did you discuss human rights? — he said, "It does come up. It’s just in these bilats, we’ve got kind of — we’ve only got a certain amount of time, and so we touch on the most important things."

But the whole mess points to a common dilemma in U.S. diplomacy. On the one hand, pulled punches and empty praise are essential for making progress with a regime like Turkmenistan’s. But Clinton opens herself up to attacks at home if she takes the fawning tone that men like Berdimuhamedov expect. President Barack Obama’s now infamous bow before the king of Saudi Arabia in April demonstrated the American public’s distaste for this kind of diplomacy, even in places where groveling before the leadership is customary and often required of guests.

Three of the diplomats interviewed in Ashgabat, however, thought the only way to get the Turkmen leader to cooperate is to play by his rules, which often requires silence on sensitive issues such as human rights. "It’s old-fashioned realpolitik," one of them said, arguing that Western pressure and criticism will only lead back to isolation.

For now, the United States is muddling through in Afghanistan without much help from Turkmenistan. But if things go sour with its other supply routes, Berdimuhamedov may well get the bowing and scraping he wants.

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