- By Steve LeVine<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov generated yuks during the 1990s, given eccentricities such as his variable taste in hair color, his creative renaming of months, days, cities, and ports, and a megalomaniacal festooning of his photo and bust everywhere. But Niyazov also had less-amusing habits, such as truncating high-school education so that Turkmen students couldn’t qualify for foreign universities — not to mention his taste for big bribes. All of it made many people celebrate when he died of heart disease in 2006.
But as we learn in the latest WikiLeaks cables, not much has materially changed since President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov succeeded him. For starters, Berdymukhamedov is a dead ringer for Niyazov, as anyone visiting the country can see: The new president has taken down his predecessor’s portraits and frequently replaced them with his own.
A Dec. 17, 2009 cable signed by Sylvia Reed Curran,the charge d’affaires in the U.S. embassy in Ashgabat, relates a chat with an unidentified source with apparent proximity to Berdymukhamedov. Turkmenistan’s leader, Curran’s source tells her, is "vain, fastidious, vindictive, a micro-manager, and a bit of an Akhal Teke nationalist." (Akhal Teke is a Turkmen tribal zone near Ashkabad. It is also a prized horse breed.) Later in the cable, Curran adds that the president is also "suspicious, guarded, strict,very conservative, a practiced liar, ‘a good actor,’ and (again) vindictive." (Of course Berdymukhamedov himself might not agree with any of that, seeing as how he views himself as "an author, surgeon, pilot, sportsman [and] statesman,"Curran said.)
Regarding Berdymukhamedov’s opinion of Turkmenistan’s various tribes, he once told Curran’s source that there is only one kind of true Turkmen: the Akhal Teke people, specifically from "the area between Kakaand Baharly." That would be Berdymukhamedov’s origins, one presumes. (Curran did not mention Berdymukhamedov’s views of Turkmen horses, but one imagines that he regards Akhal Teke as the only true horses; horses from other parts of Turkmenistan not being the true type.).
This focus on the Akhal Teke tribe makes Berdymukhamedov barely tolerant of outsiders, Curran writes:
Berdymuhamedov does not like people who are smarter than he is. Since he’s not a very bright guy, our source offered, he is suspicious of a lot of people. Our source claimed Berdymukhamedov did not like America, Iran, or turkey, but likes China. (COMMENT: Berdymukhamedov probably views other countries in terms of what they can do for him and his country, rather than in terms of like or dislike. END COMMENT.) He also asserted that the president is not fond of either Uzbek President (Islam) Karimov or Kazakhstan President (Nursultan) Nazarbayev.
The other thing that hasn’t changed much is the landscape for foreigners attempting to do business: they must pay a lot, according to another Curran cable, this one written a week later, on Dec. 23.
In order to do business in Turkmenistan, the Russian company Itera spent some 30 million euros on a presidential yacht for Berdymukhamedov. At first, the president wasn’t totally pleased, seeing as how he "originally wanted a larger yacht similar to one owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich." But then he relented when he learned that such a seacraft wouldn’t fit through the Rostov canal system leading to the Caspian. At last satisfied, Berdymukhamedov posed for a "photograph sporting a navy blue sailing cap, a French-style white and blue striped shirt, and binoculars hanging around hisneck," Curran writes. Such spending is de rigeur among business people, Curran says:
As local businessman XXXXXXXXXXXX said, "The gift of a yacht might be for an onshore gas deal, a chicken farm, or works already in progress. Nothing is free in this country."