Memoir | Turkmenistan vignettes 1992-95
While encouraging educational exchanges and agricultural innovation, Washington's first ambassador to Turkmenistan found government suspicion overwhelming.
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.
Over the seven years we served on three assignments to Moscow, the family and I travelled extensively throughout the Soviet Union and the successor republics. One of our more fascinating excursions was to the ancient city of Merv, later renamed Mary, in the Turkmen SSR. In 1978 Merv had just been opened to foreign visitors. According to local officials, we were only the second Western visitors in 20 years. As Americans, we were treated royally for a day before heading back to the Ashkhabad Hotel. Before leaving, we commented on the lack of men as we drove around Merv. We were told that the men had gone to work on the new canal running from the Amu Darya River to the Caspian Sea.
This was our first experience with the Turkmen proclivity to be more Soviet than the Soviets. In time, we learned that the Turkmen were per capita leaders in relinquishing personal jewelry and silver for the Soviet effort in World War II. Turkmenistan was the only republic to root out almost all its vineyards (no great loss that) in response to Brezhnev’s call for increased sobriety.
Over the next 20 years or so, Ashkhabad became a kitschy destination for Bukhara carpet searchers. On our first visit, the Tolkuchka market was a dusty platform near the airport. By the mid-1990s it had transformed into an acres-wide flea market in the desert, complete with strolling camels and hundreds of vendors with all sorts of paraphernalia and equipment. The years just after independence offered some bargains as government weavers left their jobs to freelance. They did well until the authorities imposed export taxes to support the state carpet production facilities, as the latter could not compete against private vendors.
In March 1992, Jeff White, who had been on the team that opened the embassy in Kyiv, headed the advance team in Ashkhabad (spelling soon to be changed to Ashgabat). I was directed to replace him the first week of April. Jeff sent me a cable saying that temperatures in Ashgabat had already topped 100 degrees, so I should bring light clothing. I did so only to experience nothing above 55 degrees for the next month. It was an early indication that the climate, both meteorologically and politically, could change dramatically. After all the Turkmen had voted 98 percent to preserve the USSR in March 1991 only to vote 94 percent in favor of independence that October.
Before heading to Ashgabat, I had read a history of Russian attempts, one successful, one not, to subdue the Turkmen tribes in the late 19th century. The most striking feature of the accounts was the ease with which the Turkmen tribes changed sides, sometimes as often as three times in two weeks. The impetus for a switch in allegiance was usually a dinner during which a sheep was killed and promises made. It seemed to be accepted behavior that loyalty was mutable. It also exemplified Turkmen practicality: Don’t contradict authority, don’t say something cannot be done, agree in principle, and then just go your own way quietly at your own pace.
Arrival at the Ashgabat airport in 1992 could be a harrowing experience. The free-range camels did not restrict themselves to the adjacent desert. More than one plane had to be diverted at the last moment due to the camels crossing the runway. Later, when the new airport tower was constructed, it was realized that those in the tower could not see the whole runway. Fortunately, by then the camels had been shooed away to the other side of the canal.
The temporary embassy was in an old government guest house. Offices were located on the second floor, with a bedroom for the ambassador on the floor above. Three air conditioners served the two floors. Harriet, my wife, who stayed in Moscow the first year, regularly brought down mail and DVD movies. She survived the flights by ignoring the cold, stringy chicken and the cognac which was offered before takeoff at 8 a.m.
Each Friday the embassy popped popcorn on a hot plate (not enough electrical power for a microwave until much later) and showed a movie to any Westerners who happened to be in town. No beer or wine was offered due to the lack of bathrooms. In any case, we did not have any beer or wine until a shipment from Peter Justesen, a Danish catalogue firm serving diplomats, finally arrived. We frequently had to haul water upstairs to flush the toilets.
Yet these conditions were far better than in the Ashgabat Hotel where other American staff were billeted. Their rooms sported broken windowpanes, no A/C, no toilet seats, and frequently no electricity. The elevator seldom functioned properly. The price of a room was about $30/night until the hotel manager accompanied the president to New York. The president’s party stayed at the Plaza, which charged $500/night. Upon returning to Ashgabat, the hotel manager announced a price increase to $400/night, justifying this because “the Plaza is the best hotel in New York City and the Ashgabat is the best hotel in Turkmenistan,” so rates should be comparable. Fortunately, the government stepped in, but the facilities did not improve.
One of the first initiatives the embassy undertook was to identify Turkmen who had been to the U.S. under cultural exchange programs. We located only one person, and she had emigrated to Ukraine. Relationship-building was a priority, with educational grants exceptionally pertinent. In the first year, our high school program had a quota of 24 students. The government provided us a list of 24 boys. (The government of Turkey sponsored 2,000 boys in its own program, taking many of the children of the elite, leaving us with talented but less well-connected participants.) The government claimed the Turkmen did not want their girls to study abroad. Yet we were receiving angry calls from people asking why their daughters could not participate. The embassy insisted on female participation, or the program would be canceled. Eventually, a dozen boys and four girls spent a year at U.S. high schools.
One could speculate on the efficacy of the exchanges. Upon the return of the first contingent of students, the government encouraged quick marriages for both boys and girls to rid them of “pernicious influences.” When departing for the U.S., many of the kids were overwhelmed by their first experience on an airplane. One particularly shy girl from a desert town left clad in traditional Turkmen dress. Upon return she sported a mini-skirt and halter top. She reluctantly changed to more conservative clothing before boarding a plane to her remote home. We never heard from her again. One of the girls became an English-language newscaster on Turkmen TV, but the boys reported difficulty in getting accepted into educational programs and government jobs, as they were deemed untrustworthy.
My first impressions of independent Turkmenistan were not entirely negative. In the spring of 1992, the local paper printed editorials and letters discussing ways in which the country should be governed, especially the importance of an independent judiciary. Even the role of the collective farms was questioned. However, the relative liberalism of the early spring soon faded as the influence of the more conservative organs of the government gained sway. The security services, together with the Agriculture Ministry, easily blocked efforts by the very few progressive elements, primarily represented by the Foreign Ministry and other individuals with experience or education beyond the borders of Turkmenistan.
That spring, a few individual farmers attempted to introduce more efficient methods of grain cultivation. Given unproductive, inconvenient land at the periphery of state collective farms, they succeeded in increasing production by almost 200 percent. Some gained the approval of their collective farm hierarchy to expand, but the Ministry of Agriculture insisted that supplies and equipment be devoted to communal production procedures.
USAID proposed a program to assist the farmers by supplying grain and equipment. As the Ministry of Agriculture insisted on managing the distribution of all materials, the embassy cancelled the program. It would only have strengthened the role of the ministry and the collective farm system.
The quickly established influence of Turkish firms was another hindrance to the creation of a market-based economic system. Personal gifts and payments from Turkish firms became both commonplace and increasingly elaborate. An almost-common language and similar social and business techniques encouraged bonding between Turkmen and Turkish entities. It also helped that the president had a weakness for Turkish torch singers, who seemed to appear at every significant government social function.
U.S. policy was based on the premise that the influence of Western firms would showcase the advantages of a market economy and eventually lead to greater economic and political liberalism. This did not play well in Turkmenistan. Government officials and the president found it much simpler to single-source contracts, especially when provided emoluments which most American and European firms could not match. Personal rapport was also critical. One agricultural firm, which had gained the trust of the president, was asked by the Ministry of Oil and Gas to undertake a major overhaul of its main processing plant.
Other difficulties arose in carrying out special programs. The first series of vaccinations proved ineffective, as the vaccines required refrigeration and few outlying communities had the refrigerators or the electrical capacity to preserve the vaccines. A second shipment of vaccines complete with refrigeration and specific training was required before vaccinations could be extended beyond a few large towns.
John Deere brought in a large combine and other mechanical equipment. The president invited the diplomatic corps to a demonstration of the equipment at a collective farm near Ashgabat. In four hours, the combine harvested as much grain as three days’ labor. Yet, 10 days later, a drive by the farm showed the combine lying partially in a ditch, abandoned by the farm. The farmers found the required maintenance too burdensome and complicated.
The wet blanket thrown over entrepreneurial spirit was a major shame. Throughout the country individuals created plans for self and local development, only to be thwarted by government officials. From the efforts of budding independent farmers in the north to the operator of a licorice processing plant in the east to a man nurturing a cactus garden in the west, the spirit was evident, but the suspicion of government officials was overwhelming.
My favorite story involves an individual from the village of Kaka, about 60 miles from the capital and not far from the Iranian border. He came to the embassy in the summer of 1992 requesting to be put in touch with the head of General Motors, as he wished to open a Cadillac dealership in his hometown. Although this initiative was unsuccessful, he stayed in touch. At one point he delivered a truckload of watermelons for the 10 employees of the embassy.
In 1994 this friend returned, saying that his silly wife, who did not have a university degree as he did, had a crazy idea to organize the women of the village to make handicrafts to sell at the Ashgabat airport. About two months later his wife set up shop in the terminal. Suddenly our friend was very proud of her idea. Unfortunately, the government soon took over the shop. Our friend was not dismayed. Just before my departure he announced plans to open a truck stop on the newly expanded confluence of roads linking Iran, Uzbekistan, and the Caspian.
Pipelines going nowhere
Relations with the Turkmenbashi were mercurial. True to the avuncular identity he liked to project, President Saparmurat Niyazov could be charming when it accomplished his objectives. At first, he used the presence of the American Embassy as proof of his stature as a statesman. During the televised press conference of the visiting Turkish president, he called me up to the stage and sat me at his right hand, displacing the Turkish ambassador.
Niyazov was astute in using traditional Turkmen social structures to support his programs. He relied heavily upon village elders and local imams to disseminate and support his preferences. Although most Turkmen were cultural rather than religious followers of Islam, imams and village elders formed local opinion on almost all matters of importance, especially in remote villages. Niyazov couched almost all his policies as supported or even demanded by Turkmen elders. This included the president-for-life declaration and the construction of the golden Turkmenbashi statue, which rotated to always face the sun.
The apogee of Niyazov-embassy relations was his trip to the U.S. organized by former Secretary of State Alexander Haig. On a new Boeing aircraft, he set off for New York and Washington. He very much wanted a meeting with President Clinton, but this never materialized. When he later learned the embassy had not supported a meeting due to poor Turkmen government support for economic and political liberalization, he found it more convenient to ignore or bait embassy personnel. At televised performances he liked to turn to embassy officers for support of his unsubstantiated claims for agricultural production or entrepreneurial support.
The trip to the States also served to widen the existing gap, or even animosity, between Niyazov and his Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov. They were never close, often disagreeing on elements of policy, but after Shikhmuradov met with President Clinton at a luncheon in Houston, their relationship soured further. Over time, Niyazov consolidated his power while Shikhmuradov and his family continued to lose influence. This may well have been a factor in Boris’ alleged coup attempt in November 2002. He was taken into custody and has not been seen or heard from since.
Attuned to the benefits of publicity for domestic consumption, in 1992 Niyazov overcame his animosity toward Uzbek President Islam Karimov to purchase enough Uzbek marble to cover the facades of downtown Ashgabat’s buildings. Later, to publicize an agreement to build a pipeline to take Turkmen gas to Iran, he built an unconnected mini pipeline in the desert outside Ashgabat. Years later, the pipeline still stood going nowhere, but the publicity benefit had already been secured.
The search for a means of getting Turkmen gas to Europe was a priority for the government. Personal animosities played a vital role in turning down a pipeline across the Caspian. Niyazov felt that Karimov and President Aliyev of Azerbaijan repeatedly snubbed him. He rejected proposals which might be of secondary benefit to them. That left him no option but to turn to a Russian proposal, which would avoid crossing Uzbek or Azerbaijani territory. Left with little bargaining power, he did achieve a secondary goal – a promise of Russian caviar for his personal enjoyment.
Our final image of Niyazov was watching televised clips of his meeting with Queen Elizabeth. There he stood, having untied his black tie and opened his collar, being greeted by the queen who looked just a bit shocked.
Life in Ashgabat
From a personal standpoint, Turkmenistan offered many new, challenging, but wonderful memories. The Hash House Harriers spent many weekends running through the mountains and deserts with one eye searching for the correct path and the other on the alert for snakes. For the first Thanksgiving, we arranged sight-unseen for two turkeys to be prepared, only to find them still running around the courtyard when we arrived for dinner.
The first July Fourth celebration was a milestone. My wife Harriet flew down from Moscow with Baskin-Robbins ice cream, which was a huge hit, and quickly consumed, as the temperature inside the building was over 100 degrees. Ice cream played a major role in attendance at Turkmenbashi’s State dinners. That was the only time ice cream could be found in Ashgabat. We knew there would be ice cream for dessert, but the president’s table was served first. Unless a torch singer was on the program, the president and honored guest left upon finishing their dessert and before the rest of us were served.
Sometimes surprising things could be arranged. Our elder son wanted to go horseback riding. Akhal-Teke horses are renowned for their endurance but not their amiability. A ride through the desert was arranged through the country’s leading jockey. The horse ended up winning the sub-featured race at the national championship a week later. Our son decided one ride was sufficient.
The arrival of the first Peace Corps volunteers was a major step forward to developing an American community. The embassy also set up the first American school. Construction of a prefab embassy building and housing complex brought welcome relief to hotel living.
Two anecdotes most accurately describe what life was like in Ashgabat both for the embassy staff and local residents. Most apartments in Ashgabat had little access to running water except between 2 and 3 in the morning, when bathtubs and other containers could be filled. When the prefab ambassador’s residence was opened to the public, embassy staff had to be stationed in the bathrooms and kitchen because visitors were so amazed at the water pressure they would stand and watch the basins fill, empty, and fill again. The embassy staff also reported many comments to the effect that Americans are so naïve: “Don’t they know how hot Ashgabat is in the summer? Where are the window air conditioners?”
Our other lasting vision is of sitting in a restaurant watching two employees of the Foreign Ministry at a nearby table conversing on their newly distributed office cell phones. At one point they arose, walked outside, and continued their conversations with each other on their phones. Having a cell phone was such a status symbol. Too bad that within a few months when the bills for the phones came due, most of the phones were confiscated. Like much of Turkmenistan: much promise, little progress.
Despite sometimes harsh conditions, our memories are positive. We enjoyed the camaraderie of the diplomatic corps, remember our adventures, and recall how fondly we were greeted and supported by so many individuals. Turkmenistan was a fascinating assignment. We developed deep sympathy for the Turkmen people but scant appreciation for the efforts of the government to enhance their conditions. Across the country, individuals daily faced more arduous conditions than we diplomats would want to imagine. They deserve more than marble and golden statues.
Joseph S. Hulings III was U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan from September 1992-September 1995.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter. Support Eurasianet: Help keep our journalism open to all, and influenced by none.