What are the “Wild Cards” in Turkmenistan’s Succession Struggle?
While several days have past since the death of Turkmenbashi the Great, the succession situation appears no clearer. Although sources in both the U.S. and Russia stress the geopolitical significance of the country and its future, any international attempts to influence the succession process appear to be happening only behind closed doors. With the security situations in Iran and Afghanistan becoming more uncertain and the gas needs of both Russia and Europe becoming more critical, external forces have steered clear of calling for any political reform or transparent processes for succession in the totalitarian state. Instead, most international forces seem to be hoping that the elite in the country will be able to peacefully decide upon a new dictator to ensure a smooth transition and the maintenance of status quo in this small, resource-rich, and bizarre dictatorship.
That being said, the transition will not necessarily be smooth. At present, Turkmenbashi’s personal doctor, Kurbanguli Berdymukhammedov, has taken over the reins of control and has imprisoned the constitutionally decreed temporary leader, Oraz Atayev. While Berdymukhammedov is technically ineligible to participate in presidential elections according to the constitution, rumors that he is the illegitimate son of the deceased dictator raise the question of whether he will indeed make a bid to succeed Turkmenbashi the Great. At the same time, Russian analysts suggest that a power struggle may already be underway between Agageldi Mamedgeldyev (Minister of Defense), Geldimukhammed Ashirmukhammedov (head of the KGB), and Akmurat Redzhepov (head of the Presidential Guards). In the context of these assumed power plays going on within the security forces, however, there are several “wild cards” that might be exploited by either internal or external groups interested in influencing the course of events. Here are a few of them:
In the context of Turkmenbashy’s personality cult, it is understandable why many people would believe that the next leader could be his son, Murat Niyazov. Some analysts, however, have already ruled out this variant. Aside from Murat’s general lack of interest in politics, he has a scandalous history that includes allegations of an extreme gambling habit. Furthermore, the Turkmenistan constitution stipulates that the country’s president should be 100% ethnic Turkmen, and Murat’s mother is not Turkmen at all, but is of Slavic origin. Whether or not Murat Niyazov becomes a candidate to succeed his father, his family could be utilized in a variety of ways. While she has long been isolated from international attention in an elite apartment in Moscow, Turkmenbashi’s widow Musa could be a critical source of compromising information on her deceased husband’s rule. Thus far, little if anything has been heard from either Murat or Musa, but it will be interesting to see what (if any) role they may play in Turkmenbashi’s funeral tomorrow.
Russian sources have suggested that Turkmenbashi’s personal accountant, Alexandr Zhadan, disappeared a few days before the announcement of the dictator’s death. Furthermore, the source reporting on this has suggested that Mr. Zhadan fled Ashghabad with “important documents” that could be important tools in a succession struggle. Aside from Zhadan and any information he may be harboring, some Turkmen opposition figures have already begun bringing up the question about Turkmenbashi’s “special” bank account in Deutsche Bank. “Following the money” is certainly likely to yield some interesting facts useful to anybody trying to influence the power struggle in the country.
As a recent post on neweurasia suggests, Turkmenistan’s exiled opposition has yet to play a significant role in discussions about succession. Shell-shocked from accusations of being behind “colored revolutions” in the former USSR and over-burdened with machinations involving Iraq and Iran, the U.S. appears to be going out of its way to avoid engaging the exiled opposition of Turkmenistan. Russia, however, may not be as shy about this option. Aside from publicly requesting Germany to open the books on Turkmenbashi’s bank accounts, a group of exiled Turkmen oppositionists has also recently reached out to Ukraine for support. While such a move is unlikely to yield any results, it is not out of the question that the opposition could be utilized by forces trying to influence the succession scenario and/or bring down the façade of the cult of Turkmenbashi. The real “wild card” in this equation, of course, is the imprisoned Boris Shikhmuradov, who is probably the one opposition figure most likely to garner respect within the population and among the international community. At present, however, there does not appear to be any discussion of letting Shikhmuradov out of prison and there are questions about whether he is still cognizant following the mental (and probably drug-induced) attacks he appeared to have suffered during his show trial in 2003.
The Foreign “Businessmen”:
Finally, there is one more unknown that could upset what various forces seem to hope will be an orderly transfer of dictatorial rule in Turkmenistan. This is the murky group of foreign businessmen who have long been allegedly inside Turkmenbashi’s inner circle. The one person in this group who is well-known in the public sphere is the Turkish textile-baron turned energy broker, Ahmed Chalik. Having established a close relationship with Turkmenbashi in the early to mid-1990s, Chalik quickly became a critical factor in the country. With help from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), Chalik established a textile producing factory in Turkmenistan in 1996. For his role in the development of industry in the country, Turkmenbashi subsequently bequeathed upon him awards and even a position as the “Deputy Minister of Textiles.” Most recently, Chalik has become involved in the transportation of oil and gas as one of the architects of the proposed Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline that will be interconnected with the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline. While Chalik is usually seen as a self-interested businessman, he is also allegedly connected to the Turkey-based Sufi Muslim missionary group led by Fathullah Gulen. Thus far, Chalik has only been cited in the Turkish press as mourning the death of his dictator friend, but Turkish analysts have also suggested that he could play a major role in determining Turkey’s future relations with Turkmenistan. Tomorrow at Turkmenbashi’s funeral, it will be interesting to see where (if anywhere) Ahmed Chalik sits and with whom.
Perhaps the gods of sustainable autocracy will look kindly upon Turkmenistan in this period of transition, but there are also many “wild cards” that could muddy the waters. Regardless, it will be very difficult for any new leader, dictator or not, to maintain the crazy cult of personality and isolation policies of the country, which have served to deliberately “dumb-down” an entire generation of Turkmen youth. Thus, if stability can be maintained in the country over the short term, it does not mean that it will last for long.