The Turkmen Shuffle

 
 

On January 30, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov acknowledged on state television that the collapsing energy prices have forced the government to take “extraordinary steps.” In January 2015, just over one year prior, the authorities launched a 19 percent devaluation of the national currency, the manat. Many commentators are expecting another devaluation in the near future, and judging by the local rush for hard currency, ordinary Turkmen are also fearing the worst.

Part of the blame was placed on the head of the Board of the Central Bank, Merdan Annadurdiyev, who was publicly reprimanded on December 8. In addition, the President reprimanded Amandurdi Ishanov, the head of the State Commodity and Raw Materials Exchange, the most important economic institute in the country.

Other members of government have earned Berdymukhammedov’s ire. On July 9, the Deputy Minister for Economy and Finance, Annamuhammeta Gochieva, was dismissed for work “shortcomings.” During this outburst, the President stated that corruption was rife among employees of economic and financial institutions, with more than 80 prosecuted in recent years. Vepu Abdylhekimova, the Minister of Economy and Development, and Gapurberdy Bayrammyradova, Minister of Construction and Architecture, were dismissed.

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Regional governors have also borne the brunt of the President’s anger, with many removed from office due to their poor agricultural records. These include R. Gurtova of the Ahal province, B. Gulmammedova, governor of Balkanabat City, and Ch. Orazova, a district governor. Other names include, A. Byashimova, Atamyrat Garlyeva, Nirata Valieva, and S. Akayeva among others, making it one of the largest government shuffles in Turkmenistan’s modern history.

In times of crisis, scapegoating is a key defense mechanism of an authoritarian leadership; but perhaps an underlying recognition of the unsustainability of bureaucratic incompetence is beginning to take root.

Institutionalized Inefficiency

The infamous line declaring that “there’s a method in the madness” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is exemplified by Turkmenistan’s bureaucratic structure. Unlike democratic states, where government staff are largely drawn from an establishment with distinct career lines, and measured against the universal metrics of competence, efficiency, and professionalism; Turkmenistan’s follows a patrimonial logic. Indeed, according to a recently leaked 2012 government census, 4 percent of the population owns 45 percent of the country’s wealth, largely channeled through positions in government.

Under this form of authoritarianism, the ruler and his associates regularly intervene in the structures of governance, disregarding their internal norms, professional standards, and even ethos. The objective is to disempower institutions which could potentially rival the executive branch, and a major component of this process involves the executive directly subordinating institutions by placing himself in key positions. For example, not only was Niyazov head of state, but also Prime Minister; head of the Security Council; Supreme Commander of the National Armed Forces; Chairman of the Council of Religious Affairs; and Chairman of the People’s Council, among many others.

In addition, bureaucrats and ministers enjoy little to no security, being employed and dismissed at will regardless of their professional competence. By constantly shuffling cadres, the executive and his associates are able to eliminate rival networks and hinder the establishment of new channels of power and patronage. This revolving door policy reached absurd excesses under Niyazov, who had replaced his entire government staff by August 2000.

Local Leadership Structures

Turkmenistan is divided into five administrative velayats (provinces), each governed by a hakim (governor) and further divided into city municipalities and etraps (districts). As noted above, velayat hakims (regional governors) were shuffled regularly under Niyazov, serving a mere 10-12 months on average, with a high proportion fired and some even put in prison, with their assets seized by the regime. In total, seven of the 39 individuals who served as hakims under Niyazov were imprisoned. New hakims were brought in from distant parts of the country, with career backgrounds generally unsuited to the role, in order to detach them from local elites and ensure their dependence on the presidential office.

In his early years, Niyazov’s successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, replaced hakims less frequently; though appointments were still short, rarely exceeding a 30 month tenure. In addition, he was initially more prone to supporting bureaucratic meritocracy, such as in 2010 when he shook up the Balkan velayat as a result of its poor agricultural record. The hakim, Niyazliev, was replaced by Satlyk Satlykov, a long-serving member of the Avaza committee and well connected in local governance. This practice didn’t last long.

In contrast to his orphaned predecessor, Berdymukhammedov is more deeply embedded in family and clan networks, and accordingly allocates positions to zemlyaks (relatives). Examples are numerous, such as Ata Serdarov, a cousin who served as Health Minister until 2010 when he was gently exiled by being appointed as ambassador to Armenia. The president’s brother-in-law, Gurbanmyrat Hangulyyev has served as the Minister of Transport since 2008, and Yaylym Berdyev, another relative, was appointed Minister for National Security in 2011.

Since its independence, economic and social development in Turkmenistan has long been hindered by these patrimonial structures, which in turn hinder the development of a rational, meritocratic bureaucracy. Such a bureaucracy is essential for reforming the fledgling, hydrocarbon dependent economy. With the current economic and security crisis engulfing the country, a methodological shift in bureaucratic appointments may be on the horizon, though without the requisite political reforms, they are unlikely to be met with much success.

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