Turkmenistan: Small stature, big statue

Turkmenistan: Small stature, big statue
Hail Arkadag. / State media.
By Akhal-Teke: A Eurasianet Bulletin February 8, 2023

When Turkmenistan’s president tells you to go, you run.

On February 3, Gurbanmyrat Annayev, the head of the National Security Ministry, the latter-day KGB, took the podium at a routine state security council meeting to deliver a rundown of his activities and efforts to “maintain peace and tranquility” in 2022. His summary dwelled inter alia on what his ministry is doing to improve the capabilities of the staff.

Annayev’s own capabilities have been found, alas, to be short of the mark. Once he finished his presentation, he was informed by President Serdar Berdimuhamedov that he had been fired. On receiving the news, Annayev all but raced away from the podium. The people managing the state broadcaster’s YouTube account ensured this detail was not missed by making it the thumbnail in their upload of the evening news.

At any other time, this might look like a meaningless triviality, but ever since January, when Berdimuhamedov’s father and the former president, Gurbanguly, elevated himself to the bespoke position of “national leader,” it has been difficult to get a sense of Serdar as the man truly in charge. Little symbolic acts to demonstrate that the president still inspires awe and reverence among his underlings may be seen as a way to shore up his diminished stature.

Another trembling drone, Nazar Atagarayev, is being moved from his position as head of the migration service, to take over from Annayev, and little is likely to change. Thus, in terms of personnel management the move may be of only marginal significance, although Atagarayev’s ascension appears to mark a vote of approval for the work of the agency tasked with the all-important job of policing and limiting the movement of Turkmens in and out of the country. What is more, being only six months older than President Berdimuhamedov, Atagarayev, who is just shy of 42, is decidedly of the new generation of apparatchiks.

In other business at the security council meeting, Berdimuhamedov fired the head of the Supreme Court, Guvanchmyrat Ussanepesov, along with two of his deputies, Musamyrat Soyunov and Orebay Mukhammedov.

If Berdimuhamedov the younger is concerned with his stature, for his megalomaniacal father it is all about the statues. State daily Neutral Turkmenistan reported on February 3 that a 43-metre-high monument titled Arkadag – the grandiloquent honorific with which the former president must be addressed – has been installed in the central park of a newly built city also called Arkadag. The monument consists of an 11-meter sculptural composition of Berdimuhamedov standing on a column emblazoned with wheat spikes that in turn rests on four columns set within a 65-meter-diametre fountain. Images of this spectacle have yet to appear on state media. The creator, Sarag Babayev, is the same artist responsible for the golden statue of Berdimuhamedov majestically riding a tentatively salient steed. 

When officials are fired, they should be happy if that is the worst happening to them. Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news published a report on February 6 on dramatic goings-on at the state gas company Turkmengaz, where at least six officials have been arrested over an apparent accident at the Galkynysh field that led, among other things, to the temporary suspension of gas deliveries to Uzbekistan. An audit from the Prosecutor General's Office obtained by the outlet estimated the cost of those missed deliveries at $59.7mn. Fines for failing to deliver contracted volumes to China are not included in that sum. The technical fault that led to the six-day halt in deliveries experienced in January appears to have been caused by the unusually cold weather, but such excuses will not wash with Berdimuhamedov. 

While much of this saga has played out away from public view, but for Turkmen.news reporting, Turkmenistan has made a show of delivering an unspecified volume of liquefied gas to Uzbekistan as a gesture of “friendly and brotherly support,” as Neutral Turkmenistan put it on February 4. Reading between the lines, this was clearly designed as a sop to keep Tashkent from making a stink about the whole thing.

The Turkmen.news report cited above separately provides fascinating insight into the extent to which Russia’s Gazprom has succeeded in planting informants and proxies within the Turkmen state gas industry. This is no small matter since Gazprom may, starting from March, also start delivering gas to Uzbekistan, in effect rendering it a commercial rival to Turkmengaz.

And this is not the end of the bad news for Turkmengaz. As Turkmen.news reported elsewhere, the three-way gas swap arrangement with Azerbaijan and Iran that had been in place since early 2022 was also suspended in mid-January, again for technical reasons related to the cold. Excess moisture in the gas pumping equipment apparently led to freezing. This equipment was already of dubious quality – so much so that it compromised the quality, and therefore also the value, of the fuel, according to Turkmen.news sources.

To compound matters, the reason that Turkmenistan agreed to pump gas to Iran in the first place was that the latter had purportedly committed to paying back $2bn in historic unpaid gas bills. Failure to keep up with these payments has threatened the future viability of the swap arrangement.

Again, Russia is there lurking in the wings. In late October, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari told the Fars News Agency that his country was interested in buying gas from Russia for its domestic needs so as to free up capacity for the sale of its own gas to third nations.

A big issue impeding that plan from going ahead was the lack of a transit nation. Since Azerbaijan’s capacity was otherwise engaged with its swap arrangement with Turkmenistan, it looked to be out of the running, but this may now have changed.

Turkmenistan has over the last few years been cozying up to Russia, which it finds to be a partner that is pleasingly non-meddlesome, but it may now find that this supposed dependable ally is playing it for a fool.

Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.