The passing last week of Saparmurat Niyazov, better know as Turkmanbashi, Father of the Turkmen, has brought his unfortunate country briefly into the limelight. Niyazov was the dictatorial leader of Turkmenistan for more than 20 years, maintaining his hold on power even as the Soviet Union dissolved. It is no secret that Niyazov oversaw the steady destruction of his country. But few people recognize just how much Western interests--both public and private--cozied up to Niyazov because of the country's rich reserves of natural gas, thereby colluding in his crimes.
When I was working as the World Bank country director for Central Asia from 2001-2006, my wife and I visited Turkmenistan a half dozen times. I even had a couple of rare audiences with Niyazov. A remarkably ordinary man, a little overweight, always in a short-sleeved shirt, charming, with a disarming smile. No horns, no bulging maniacal eyes. Ordinary in appearance, but extraordinary in his pursuit of a Stalinist style cult of personality and ruinous policies that ignored economics and common sense in equal measure.
Over the past decade, Niyazov created a land of crazy contrasts. In the south, Ashgabat, a shining city full of monuments, more fountains per square meter than any other city in the world, empty show-case hotels; in the north, the crumbling city of Turkmenabad, where I doubt that one manat has been spent on repairs since independence. Empty modern, marble-covered apartment buildings lit up at night for effect; crowded, old Soviet-style apartment blocks that are often without power. The world's most modern high-tech veterinary facility at his private race course; a presidential order to close rural health facilities. Gasoline at a few cents a liter, $2.00 airplane trips (on Boeing 727s no less), free gas and salt; a school system that was reduced by presidential edict to 9 grades--and a curricula that comprises mainly of learning by heart Niyazov's philosophical "masterpiece," Rukhnama.
Niyazov's bizarre behavior might even be funny were it not for the fact that the Turkmen people, some of the nicest, most hospitable we met in all of Central Asia, had to live with it every day.
Niyazov was a leader willing to sacrifice his people and his country for his own glorification. But he didn't do it alone. Much of the reporting about Turkmenistan since his death focuses on the leadership vacuum and whether or not the supply of Turkmenistan natural gas to Ukraine will be disrupted. But Niyazov's passing raises a different set of questions for me, questions about the world's culpability in Niyazov's systematic destruction of Turkmenistan.
Just how much money did Bouygues (the "secretive French group," as the FT calls it) make building Ashgabat? How much good could that money have done for the Turkmen people?
What was Deutsche Bank's take for managing Niyazov's money? And, while we are at it, can someone help me with the definition of "money laundering?" I could also use help in understanding where the role of the country's emasculated central bank left off and Deutsche Bank's began when it comes to managing Turkmenistan's money,
Why did the Asian Development Bank do a million dollar feasibility study to see if Turkmenistan's vast natural gas reserves could be sold south as well as north, when it was obvious that more money in Niyazov's personal Foreign Exchange Reserve Fund would have meant little for Turkmenistan beyond another palace or monument?
How could the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development be a major investor in one of Turkmenistan's largest export manufacturing companies, when its own articles of agreement state that it "may conduct its operations in countries…which not only are proceeding in their transition towards market-oriented economies, but also are applying principles of multiparty democracy and pluralism." Turkmenistan? Please!
How could the European Commission argue with a straight face that Turkmenistan was a candidate for "Most Favored Nation" status on grounds that it was making "positive steps" on human rights?
The world demands accountability when countries and leaders commit horrific acts on innocent peoples, in Darfur for example. But shouldn't there be accountability when rich countries and their agents actually contribute to a nation's destruction by aiding and abetting its destroyer? Yes, Turkmenistan has a lot of natural gas, but it also has a lot of people who deserve better.
Will the Turkmenistan fare better now that Niyazov is gone? On that score I leave you with the sober words of a close and knowledgeable Turkmen friend, who wrote me over the weekend with the following in response to my question about the country's future: "The interim government controls everything in the country. The control is even worse than under Niyazov's regime. The outcome of the future elections is clear. These guys knew how to play with the Constitution. I personally do not see any prospects for a change in the system. Unfortunately big players in the region do not push for a change in the country for democracy. Gas is the key to everything."
Such nice people, such a lousy system.