The state news agency reported on May 14 that lawmakers mulled the matter earlier in May, acting on the instructions of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who has worried out aloud, and angrily, about the problem.
This latest cycle of professed concern appears to have been sparked by revelations of corruption among leading officials in the energy industry. Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Affairs Maksat Babayev announced in a government meeting on May 15 that law enforcement officials are investigating. “It was noted that people engaging themselves in this type of criminal offense have no place in Turkmen society. The deputy prime minister calls on all managers to take all measures possible to uproot such negative occurrences,” the state news agency reported.
Signs are that the problem goes much deeper than just the energy industry, however.
In early May, Berdymukhamedov ordered the firing of the general prosecutor, strongly implying that the official had been caught taking backhanders. “Today we are considering a very unpleasant matter for all of us about bribery and corruption among those law enforcement officers whose duty it is to fight against any unlawful actions and violations of our national values,” Berdymukhamedov told the State Security Council on May 4, visibly angered, as he announced Amanmyrat Halliyev’s dismissal.
Another 10 employees of the prosecutor’s office were also fired.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, later cited sources as saying that Halliyev had been arrested along with 50 former subordinates.
Berdymukhamedov likewise issued a severe warning to Interior Minister Isgender Mulikov, claiming that his agency was rife with bribery and abuse of office.
The Turkmen government has not previously seemed overly concerned about the issue of graft, notwithstanding its adoption of anti-corruption legislation in 2014.
As the U.S. State Department’s Office of Investment Affairs has noted in its climate statement on Turkmenistan, the opaque nature of the country’s economic system “provides fertile soil for corruption.”
“American firms have identified widespread government corruption, usually in the form of rent seeking, as an obstacle to investment and business throughout all economic sectors and regions. It is most pervasive in the areas of government procurement, the awarding of licenses and customs,” the climate statement noted.
And in its latest Nations in Transit report, Freedom House scored Turkmenistan’s corruption ranking down from 6.75 to 7.00, the lowest possible score. The downgrade was “due to evidence of total state capture, extending from petty bribery at the local level to embezzlement at the highest reaches of the government, and new evidence of nepotism for the president’s family,” Freedom House said.
Many outside observers believe the alarm about corruption is not connected with a sudden desire on the part of the Turkmen leadership to promote the rule of law. Other motivations are probably driving the current campaign, but discerning the precise cause or causes is pure guesswork, given the closed nature of the political system.
The country’s economic decline could certainly be a factor. In recent years, while corruption appears to have intensified, the population’s living conditions have steadily worsened. Shortages of staple goods in stores are commonplace, and prices have been steadily increasing. The government is now threatening to scrap the generous welfare subsidies that compensate for chronically depressed salaries and limited life options. Meanwhile, official repression of anything remotely resembling dissent is worsening.
The sudden and sharp decline is in large part linked to the collapse in prices for Turkmenistan’s only substantial export commodity — natural gas. Not only have prices fallen for gas, but Ashgabat has in the past year or so managed to lose two significant customers — Russia and Iran — retaining only China, which pays little for the gas it buys and is, in any case, owed billions by Turkmenistan.
Despite all that, Turkmenistan is going full steam head with preparations for its showcase Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, an 11-day event taking place in September. The amounts of money spent on the event are eye-watering. What is dubbed the “Olympic Village,” whose construction has required the forcible displacement of hundreds of homes, has cost around $5 billion to complete. A swanky new airport in the shape of a falcon cost another $2.3 billion. Even that was not enough to prevent the terminal from slowly sinking into the sand, requiring emergency remedial work.
The apparent vanity project could be another factor. According to Radio Azatlyk, it is the Martial Arts Games that is helping to generate so much clamor at the top. The broadcaster cited a source as saying that Berdymukhamedov’s dressing down of Mulikov was sparked by frustration over his inability to “attract funds [for the games] from wealthy people, including businessmen and officials.”
“In Ashgabat and the regions, dozens of well-known entrepreneurs have been arrested and asked to help with money to organize the Asian games — and in case they refuse, they are threatened with consequences,” one Radio Azatlyk report stated.
Berdymukhamedov is said by sources to have been particularly enraged to discover that senior police officers and prosecutors have been found to be hoarding large stashes of cash, while he has had to plead with entrepreneurs for any money they could spare.
Such is the level of panic about budget shortfalls that workers in the oil and gas industry have reportedly had around one-fifth of their salaries withheld, while an unspecified number have been placed on unpaid leave.
Such revelations raise questions about whether all the recent dismissals and admonitions of top officials somehow lead back to desperation over the games.
In mid-May, other top officials received “severe” reprimands — a formal warning that typically precedes dismissal — included Central Bank Chairman Merdan Annadurdyev and Finance Minister Muhammetguly Muhammedov.
Berdymukhamedov has complained that the Finance Ministry was struggling to “control the financial status of ministries and departments,” and was failing to draw up proposals to remedy emerging problems. He said that government departments are facing mounting debts, which is leading to a slowdown in industrial development.
In the absence of firm details, which are unlikely ever to be forthcoming, it is difficult to know if this is simply economic mumbo-jumbo or indicative of other, more sinister, issues.
Among those to lose their jobs recently have been the head of the presidential administration, Mamedniyaz Nurmamedov, who had only filled the post since January, the head of the state Environmental Protection and Land Resources Committee, Mergen Annabaev, and even the general director of the state Turkmen Horses Association, Yazgeldi Annayev.
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