Memoir | In the Court of Turkmenbashi
The former U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan describes close interactions with a paranoid and shortsighted dictator.
This essay is part of a series by American diplomats sharing their impressions of the dramatic early years of Central Asia's independence from the Soviet Union. These memoirs were written at the invitation of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. We publish these with special thanks to Nargis Kassenova, director of Davis's Program on Central Asia.
Ashgabat in July is a furnace, and that was my introduction to Turkmenistan. In that Olympic year, Embassy Moscow encouraged its officers to make reporting trips to outlying Soviet cities. Ashgabat in the Soviet era was a sleepy provincial town, and the temperature in the 120s made it even quieter. My traveling partner and I were billeted in the inevitable Intourist. There was no air conditioning, so we bought beer in the darkened hotel lobby – unlabeled bottles with readable scraps of newspaper floating inside – trying in vain to quench our thirst, and lay in sweaty beds, stripped to our briefs.
At dusk we ventured out into the pleasant town: wide, tree-lined streets and modest architecture, accented with ceramic tiles in Turkmen tribal designs. We had reservations at the outdoor restaurant in Park Number One, the hottest ticket in town, and were ushered to a table in a packed crowd of Turkmen. We ordered vodka and shashlik, which quickly appeared, along with a gorgeous, black-haired young woman in a Western cocktail dress. She invited herself to our table, hinted at assignations, and made sure to let us know that the plight of Soviet Jews was invented by Western media and that she — a Jew herself! — thought life in the Soviet Union was so very good.
Collecting on Turkmenbashi’s pledges, 1998
Turkmenistan was now an independent nation, and I arrived in Ashgabat as ambassador in November. Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkmen president, self-dubbed "Turkmenbashi," or Leader of All Turkmen, had visited Washington in April 1998 and made a range of liberal commitments. I had the job of collecting on those pledges.
My first official contact was with the Foreign Minister, Boris Shikhmuradov. It was the first of so many meetings with Boris, then as always urbane and effervescently intelligent. Like so many other cultured, honorable officials in the court of Turkmenbashi, Boris came to a tragic end.
Days later, a Foreign Ministry Mercedes took me and my deputy, Diane Markowitz, to the gold-domed presidential palace at the heart of the city. This was one of many grandiose new constructions clad in white marble. We ascended a broad, red-carpeted staircase leading directly to the president's office, and then met the fascinating Turkmenbashi. I spent many hours in that palace and often thought of the lines of Milovan Djilas in Conversations with Stalin: "An ungainly dwarf of a man passed through gilded and marbled imperial halls, and a path opened before him; radiant, admiring glances followed him, while the ears of courtiers strained to catch his every word."
Before I assumed my post, I met with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who described Niyazov's style: "He thinks he's being charming." Sure enough, that first meeting was cordial and relaxed. Niyazov was still basking in the high of his April visit, and he delighted in the favorable attention of the United States, worried as he incessantly was about the hand of Moscow disturbing his rule. Niyazov had been a small timer in the Soviet system when he was picked to be first secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party in 1985. He had been a Central Committee staffer, an intelligent and energetic one, but what specially commended him to the attention of his superiors was that he was an orphan. The then-serving Turkmen party boss, Muhammetnazar Gapurov, earned the boot after flagrant nepotism scandals. Who better as his successor than a man with no family? Niyazov was a faithful servant of his Moscow masters, but when the reins of control were snapped with the collapse of the USSR, he revealed the piggy greed and the drive for self-glorification which only grew year after year.
At his core, Niyazov was deeply fearful. Born in 1940, he had the insecurity that came from early abandonment. His father died in World War II, and then Ashgabat was leveled in the great earthquake of 1948; his remaining family was killed and he entered an orphanage in that grindingly poor and remote part of Stalin's Soviet Union. That early abandonment engendered a desperate need for adulation – a desire to be lavishly loved and lauded, and which could never be sated.
The Soviet system itself made its deep imprint on him. It was all he knew, and the system raised him from bureaucratic insignificance to the head of a Soviet Socialist Republic. Small wonder then that when he made the transition from first secretary to president of an independent nation, he preserved the form, if not the names, of Soviet institutions. In the place of Politburo members, he surrounded himself with vice chairmen of the Council of Ministers. The Supreme Soviet became the Khalk Maslahaty (“People’s Council”). The KGB became the KNB and as in the Soviet system, was a mainstay of power. And of course, he held power without effective time limit, as did Soviet leaders. The difference: In the post-Stalin Soviet Union, there was a degree of collective leadership. Tragically, no such thing appeared in Turkmenistan.
In that first meeting, I presented credentials and faithfully went through the talking points. I was new to Turkmen issues and I was new to being an ambassador, so I made the policy points faithfully. With more sophistication, I would have tossed half of them and concentrated on ones that were halfway realistic. But you learn. One of the points I urged was land reform, and indeed, Turkmenistan's state and collective farms were hugely unproductive. Niyazov pushed right back: What am I going to do with all the people on these farms? Where are they going to get jobs? They'll all head for Ashgabat. He was wrong economically, but right in a blunt, practical way.
I also followed up on the democratization pledges from the April joint declaration. One of these pledges was for "free and fair elections" in the upcoming local polls. Niyazov had not seen a free and fair election in his lifetime and wasn't about to start. That statement in the joint declaration, achieved through much arm-twisting, showed nothing as much as American diplomacy's obsession with deliverables. And few deliverables have been as ignored as Niyazov's free and fair elections pledge. We turned to energy, and that, at least, was moving in a positive direction, with plans in train for new gas export pipelines.
It was a pleasant, welcoming meeting. Niyazov loved the favorable attention of foreign powers, but more than that, diplomacy was one of the pillars of his regime’s legitimacy. Niyazov gained and held power through undemocratic fiat. He therefore sought other ways to show that his regime was genuine. The fact that world powers recognized his government and sent envoys to his palace helped.
A key point of this drive for international legitimacy came in 1995, when the United Nations General Assembly declared the "permanent neutrality" status of Turkmenistan. The fact that Turkmenistan, under Niyazov's rule, had been singled out by the United Nations in a unique fashion was something that became incessantly trumpeted. December 12, the day of the UN vote, was declared Neutrality Day and made a major holiday. In practice, the vote, like so many General Assembly votes, was meaningless. There was not a lot of competition among the great powers in having Turkmenistan as a formal ally. The real point of the declaration, though, was as an expression of Niyazov's own character and psychopathology. President though he was, he retained the mentality of a Soviet apparatchik: Moscow is all powerful. Lurking behind his bravado and grandiosity was the belief that "Moscow put me in this job, Moscow can remove me from this job." The declaration of permanent neutrality was a way of saying to Moscow, Washington, Tehran, and Beijing, "I won't bother you if you won't bother me."
And indeed, on that Neutrality Day in 1998, I was there to witness the unveiling of the Arch of Neutrality, a 75-meter tower, with a golden, caped Niyazov at the top ("Batman," as some diplomatic wags termed it), and which revolved to face the sun, or perhaps it was as if the sun revolved around him. The statue on top underscored that neutrality was all about Niyazov himself.
Another pillar of legitimacy was the claim on history. Niyazov revived the memory of long-ago Turkmen chieftains and positioned himself squarely in their line. Thus there was an additional point, beyond ego, in becoming Turkmenbashi, "Leader of all Turkmen." His Turkmenization campaign and the attention paid to Turkmen cultural styles, especially the brilliant and spirited forms of Turkmen traditional dance, reinforced this.
A final key to legitimacy was providing economic benefits to his people. The government provided free natural gas and electricity, food staples were subsidized, as was gasoline, and the promise of massive energy development was another part of this pillar. The entry into Turkmenistan of major energy companies acted in a similar way to diplomatic recognition, in conveying a sense of legitimacy.
Sadly, his economic instincts were Soviet, with an overlay of personal grandiosity. I've mentioned the state farms that he insisted on preserving. The state also maintained its own commodities exchange. And in the all-important energy sector, he maintained a tight grip through the state companies of Turkmengaz and Turkmenneft. Critically, he adopted Gazprom's policy from the 1980s on gas exports, in which the state took no part in exporting gas but sold the gas at the Soviet borders. Gazprom later shed that policy, understanding that it could capture real value by participating in downstream sales, but Niyazov remained stuck in the 1980s. To this day Turkmenistan retains the mantra of "we will only sell gas at our borders." It has become a pillar of state policy, and like most policies of the Turkmen state, is dysfunctional.
And like the Soviets, Niyazov insisted on ideological dominance. He correctly saw free thought and innovation as inimical to his continued rule, and the toleration for alternative viewpoints became narrower and narrower. One problem: In 1998, there was no state ideology. He remedied this the next year by "writing" a tome called The Ruhnama, a mishmash of platitudes, folklore, banalities, and repetition. He also promoted Turkmen language, culture, and ethnicity. All non-Turkmen faced discrimination – the many Azeris, Uzbeks, Tajiks – but Russians most of all, and most understood that they had no future in Turkmenistan. They sold their apartments and furnishings and cars and moved north. We watched it week by week. So many of the non-Turkmen were educated and technically skilled elites who were valuable for a productive economy, but what did that weigh against Niyazov's insecurities and obsessions? All Russian language schools were closed except for the time-honored School Number Seven, which catered to elites, and the government began to squeeze Russian from public discourse, including roadside advertisements, while mandating spoken Turkmen. This notwithstanding the fact that Turkmenbashi's own native language was Russian, and, in the words of one of our local employees, he spoke Turkmen like a truck loader.
Against these unfavorable conditions, the embassy worked hard to bring edges of modernity into the nation. Our embassy was a small one, around 20 U.S. direct hires, but I was very lucky with our team and especially with my DCMs, Diane and then Eric Schultz. Sad to say, we had the advantage in that poorly managed economy of being able to select wildly overqualified local employees. One of our guards had been an airline pilot, another a physician, and the cook in my residence was a hydrodynamic engineer.
Our diplomatic corps in Ashgabat numbered about two dozen. My closest ties were with fellow NATO members, foremost among them the British ambassador, Fraser Wilson. We were eye-to-eye on nearly everything. The German ambassador, Jürgen Keilholz, was also a close ally and very strong on human rights. The French were also good allies, and on energy issues, the Turks. Turkish firms were deeply involved in construction and energy infrastructure, and in that period, Niyazov trusted Turks more than he trusted his own countrymen. The Turkmen ambassador to the United States at that time was a Turk, not a Turkmen.
We in the embassy understood that any hopes we could have for Turkmen development and for productive relations with Ashgabat had to be denominated in the long term. So much for deliverables. It was as clear as that bright desert sky that Niyazov was going to do nothing positive quickly, and so the long game it was. Over drinks on my terrace, I mused to a visiting USAID official: "The golden statues of Niyazov are going to come down. Our job is to make sure that new ones don't go up." We failed.
We placed a great priority on our student programs, and we also worked hard to bring in speakers and technical experts through USAID, through the U.S. Geological Service, and through our public diplomacy programs – anything to try and open that society up. The internet was in its infancy in Turkmenistan. We had one internet terminal in the embassy, which connected at 2kbps. Turkmentelekom had private lines available at 20 times that speed, and I finally got one installed in the residence, over the solemn warnings of my staff.
Peace Corps was posted throughout the country, but we had a 50 percent volunteer dropout rate. Some of their programs – "community development" – were vapid, others like English teaching and health education were hugely popular and effective. We had wonderful opportunities available to young Turkmen for study in the United States all the way from the high school through the master’s degree level. God knows the need in Turkmenistan was the greatest in the former Soviet Union.
Yet every year we faced a mountain of resistance from the Turkmen bureaucracy. Exit visas were still required to leave the country, and every year the embassy team fought for weeks and weeks to allow our scholars to travel. We also faced a battle in the selection of the students. The government wanted us only to select ethnic Turkmen for the scholarships. We told them that we would shut down the program before we discriminated, and during my tenure, we managed to hold the line.
We also had a program to create a business school at Turkmen State University. Professors from Texas A&M University developed a two-year curriculum, lectured in Ashgabat, and hosted Turkmen professors in Texas. This was a happy and successful program, again targeting the successor generations, but within a few years this too fell victim to the deadening hand of Niyazov's government.
Niyazov botches investment wealth
Through these obstacles, the president and I maintained a warm relationship. Throughout 1999 and early 2000, the overall positive tone continued even though we were fighting through the issues I've mentioned and a dozen others besides. Since there was only one decisionmaker in Turkmenistan, I found myself bringing even modest problems into the president's gilded office. We met regularly and often spoke at the many ceremonial events.
It wasn't unusual for my cellphone to ring, and to hear Foreign Minister Shikhmuradov summoning me to the Palace: "The president wants to talk with you." We each enjoyed the meetings. My Russian was good enough so that I could work without an interpreter, and we liked to jape and joust.
Once, chatting as we walked out of his office, I said to him, "Saparmurat Atayevich, your personality cult is worse than Stalin's."
His reply: "Steve, it's not like that. Understand – it makes me uncomfortable, but the people want it.”
The next day, for the first time in memory, the front pages of the Turkmen newspapers carried no picture of Niyazov – to show that there was no personality cult.
In our long meetings, and two hours was not unusual, I took notes and kept a running list of the leader's gem-encrusted rings and watches. His jewelry was mesmerizing. Once as we were again concluding a meeting, I noticed a new bauble on one finger, and said "Saparmurat Atayevich, nice ring! Where did you get it?"
A sly smile appeared. "A lady gifted it to me."
"Why don't women give me gifts like that?"
He put his arm around me: "Steve, it's because I'm the president, and you're only an ambassador."
He was energetic, calculating, intelligent, and had considerable personal gifts. A Turkmen friend told me that in his time as Soviet first secretary and then, as the new president, he would travel the country. He would walk into a factory, remember names of people he had met years before, and reminisce about their families: He had been a skilled retail politician. But age and illness and power took their toll. He was a different, more suspicious and paranoid man after his 1995 heart bypass operation – Turkmen insiders flagged that event as the turning point in his rule – and the deterioration was steady. That meant that the Niyazov of the late ‘90s and beyond was a strange mix: In meetings and in social occasions alike, he would joke, laugh, argue, and cajole. (His officials, however, always took care to show extreme deference, rising whenever addressed.) At banquets he was a solicitous host. Yet he created and sustained a system of grinding brutality and brooked no opposition to his grandiosity and dictatorship. I came to describe him as a cross between William Bendix in The Life of Riley and Caligula (for the younger generation, think Family Guy and Caligula).
Still, that time in Ashgabat saw a stream of high-ranking U.S. visitors and prospective American investors, and that kept him in a positive mood. Turkmenistan then had the world's fourth-largest natural gas reserves. In the Soviet era, it exported 90 billion cubic meters per year northwards, into the Soviet industrial heartland. With the nosedive in Russian and Ukrainian economic activity, however, exports plunged, and it was forced to sell at knockdown prices. Independence offered the chance to export to world markets, and thus two new, massive pipeline projects were under consideration: the Trans-Afghan Project, TAP, which would supply gas into energy-short Pakistan and possibly India. And the Trans-Caspian pipeline, TCP, which would take Turkmen gas across the Caucasus and into Turkey.
The energy path was not uncomplicated. Niyazov mistrusted foreign companies. He hated the fact that they wanted to make business decisions on their own. He wanted to approve all decisions great and small.
Turkmenistan therefore was late to the game in welcoming foreign investors, while Kazakhstan opened its arms to Chevron even before independence, and Niyazov's Azerbaijani rival, Heydar Aliyev, signed the "Contract of the Century" with major companies in 1994. Only a few small-tier companies operated in Turkmenistan in the 1990s. Prominent among them was Bridas, which the government nationalized in 2000, and as a consequence, was later made to pay a hefty arbitration award. Mobil Oil was exploring throughout Turkmenistan in those years but had no operations.
Unocal led the Transgas Consortium exploring TAP, but deteriorating relations between the United States and the Taliban, culminating in August 1998 attacks on Taliban bases in Afghanistan, sank that effort. Unocal relinquished its role in the consortium in January 1999, and the Trans-Afghan Project vanished from sight. But the Caspian route attracted significant attention.
Dan Stein of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency funded a TCP feasibility study, and this led to bids from companies and consortia to build the TCP. In February 1999, rights were awarded to Pipeline Solutions Group, PSG. This was a joint venture between Bechtel and GE Capital. PSG set up an office in Ashgabat and began the survey, engineering, and commercial work to send Turkmen gas via an undersea Caspian pipeline through Azerbaijan and Georgia and into the Turkish energy grid.
The jurisdictions made it a special challenge, aligning the leaders of four nations, two of whom, Aliyev and Niyazov, had prickly relationships. U.S. diplomacy was critical in giving the project a realistic chance. Dick Morningstar, the first Caspian energy envoy, laid the groundwork through 1999, when John Wolf took over the job. Encouragingly, they got government green lights all along the route.
And then our troubles began. Batyr Sardjayev, Niyazov's vice chairman for oil and gas, told me that Turkmenbashi wanted money up front before he would give the definitive go-ahead. How much? $5 billion would be good, Sardjayev said, though this quickly became $3 billion. The Turkmen termed this "preliminary financing." The idea was that the consortium would arrange the advance sale of gas into Turkey and turn the proceeds over to Niyazov. This was nutty.
Nobody puts billions of dollars on the table for gas that isn't out of the ground yet. What about loans then? TCP's cost was $2.9 billion. No one can saddle a $2.9 billion project with $3 billion in additional debt and expect to succeed.
Then an additional problem emerged: Niyazov wanted the ongoing proceeds from gas sales, throughout the project's life, to be deposited into the Turkmen treasury, and he would distribute the proceeds to the consortium members. This echoed Niyazov's behavior at the banquet table, handing bread and zakuski (appetizers) to favored members of his entourage: I once got an olive popped into my mouth. He wanted it known: All good things come from the hand of the leader.
That kind of financial structure was a complete nonstarter. PSG would be fronting the construction costs, aided by bank loans, and the banks needed certainty that they'd get paid back. No lender would agree to repayment at the will and whims of the Turkmen dictator. So there we had two large obstacles.
In the thick of the problems, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson traveled to Ashgabat in an attempt to break the delays. The discussions were detailed and impassioned, but all of us involved remember the visit less for the substance then for the aggressive hospitality with which Niyazov bombarded us. We drove to his massive dacha for what became a five-hour dinner with rivers of vodka and great haunches of meat on silver platters, and the next day we lunched for hours in his pink palace of a residence, when we had only fragmentarily recovered from the night before. Nothing moved Niyazov from his insistence on "preliminary financing."
At the millennium's end, PSG told the government that if it didn't get full cooperation in the first quarter of 2000, it was leaving, and sure enough, it was good to its word. At the end of March, PSG closed its office in Ashgabat, vacated its premises on Park Lane in London, disbanded the joint venture, and that was the closest TCP ever came to reality.
In dialogues with Niyazov throughout these years, I urged him to greenlight the pipeline and said that Turkmenistan had a narrow and favorable window in which to act before other gas producers, Russia especially, began to ramp up their own exports. I knew comparatively little about energy then, but this was one statement that happened to be dead on the mark: Russia and Azerbaijan have captured enviable gas market shares. If Niyazov had had the intelligence and self-possession of a Nazarbayev or an Aliyev, that pipeline would be operating right now. Twenty years onward, the chances for a bona-fide TCP remain slim.
A coda to this: After PSG left, I asked Niyazov, can we not try to put TCP back on the table? He replied, "Steve, if I had built that pipeline, Russia would have cut off my economy. I needed that money to take care of my people if Russia boycotted us." Was it true? In part. Niyazov always had an inordinate respect for his old Slavic masters. But Russia in those years under Yeltsin and the fledgling Putin was still disorganized and inwardly focused, not externally oriented, and nowhere near the obstacle Niyazov imagined. That pipeline could be operating now.
He wanted to be August
We had successes in other areas. The last of the "Ashgabat Eight" political prisoners was freed. Niyazov was no friend of terrorists, and our dialogue on those topics was very satisfactory. Yet once PSG left, relations undeniably became more austere. Our interactions remained cordial, but we had less to talk about, and as the year 2000 ended, a curtain was descending. This had not just to do with U.S.-Turkmen relations by any means, but was part of the increasingly crazy and repressive direction of his governance.
He extended the personality cult to his dead parents (while keeping his son, daughter, and wife out of the country), and renamed the months of the year after himself and his forebears. This provoked a lovely British newspaper headline: “He Wanted to Be August, But Settled for January.” Then he renamed the streets of the capital, some bearing the monikers of himself and his parents, but most named numerically according to years, and I penned an embassy cable: "1984 Street: Niyazov Changes Street Names to Numbers." His mad scheme to remake the capital accelerated, and the sleepy, charming town of Soviet years gave way to a soul-deadening grid of white marble high-rises. Neighborhood after neighborhood was torn down, replaced by white-marbled offices, hotels and high-rise apartments. Families had lived in their comfortable, cool stone houses for decades, they had added grape arbors and terraces, and lived peacefully among longtime friends and extended relations. Now officials appeared at the door, gave them a hard forty-eight hours to leave, and then the bulldozers leveled everything. In return, they received small state apartments in distant suburbs, where the bus connections were infrequent and where water and electricity were sporadic. The human tragedy was wrenching, and knots of brave women launched public protests, but to no avail. Our rented embassy housing wasn't exempt from this, and it took vigorous appeals to get us some flexibility. But Niyazov wanted to see a capital to eclipse the modern and shining Dubai skyline, and the myriad opportunities for rake-offs and kickbacks at every level in construction were a powerful further incentive, not least for the leader himself.
We had to fight harder and harder for our student programs. The Texas A&M University partnership was collapsing. Rights violations increased, including the shameful destruction of the newly constructed Seventh Day Adventist church. The British and French ambassadors and I all drove to the church on a Sunday morning to protest. Our bilateral agenda became increasingly confrontational.
Niyazov turned against Foreign Minister Shikhmuradov, and Boris found it increasingly difficult to hide his feelings about Niyazov. So Boris was ousted and replaced by the honest and overwhelmed Batyr Berdiyev. The capable officials across government were being driven out.
My time ended. I had accepted the job as Caspian energy envoy, a position that would keep me in contact with Niyazov, and much more intensively, with a wider group of Caspian leaders, and I departed in May 2001. The president granted me no farewell call; we had butted heads too much. I saw him in years to come, including four months before his death in 2006, but May 2001 was an austere point, with so many of our hopes foreclosed.
A foreign system
The assignment remains the most intellectually challenging job I've had. Against a backdrop of human rights outrages and daily foolishness, I and our team, had to calibrate our emphasis, how we balanced the many concerns. In international affairs, like domestic, single-issue politics doesn't work. You can't let one issue monopolize the agenda, whether it's human rights, security cooperation, or investment. The ambassador is the one who has both the vantage point and the responsibility to make that balancing call.
Turkmenistan remains dear to me. In observing Turkmenistan, it's essential to remember two things. First, the system of government is not indigenous. It does not spring from Turkmen culture. It's a mechanism with roots in Leninist dictatorship, and which has been fine-tuned to give its rulers absolute power. And second, don't mistake the government for the people. There is a real, wonderful Turkmen nation out there of decent people in different tribes and nationalities with deep culture and good hearts, and not to be conflated with government policies and programs.
I have visited Niyazov's grave several times. It's in his home village of Kypchak, outside the capital. The grave is, of course, made of white marble, and there is a massive mosque a short stroll away. His Arch of Neutrality was uprooted in 2010 and placed in the Kopet Dag foothills. The gravesite and mosque are deserted. No one visits. One or two conscript soldiers patrol the grounds. Toward the end, Niyazov took on the official title of "the Eternally Great Saparmurat Turkmenbashi." Now history and society have issued their rejoinder.
Steven Mann served as U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan from 1998 to 2001.
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