This just in: the Turkmen president is a micromanager!
Like many other cables exposed by WikiLeaks, a cable from Ashgabat dated December 18, 2009 tells us what we already knew. First published by the Guardian and then later published on Wikileaks sites (since taken down) this cable reports on the impressions of a source whose name has been redacted that Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is "vain, fastidious, vindictive, a micro-manager, and a bit of an Ahal Teke 'nationalist'" -- the last, a reference to the president's clan, said to be overrepresented among appointments to ministries.
Of course, those of us who have long been watching the Turkmen leader already know that he is a vanity publisher, was willing to throw a temper tantrum and not come to the Astana summit if critical Turkmen exiles were admitted, and that he is preoccupied with matters as large as global energy security and as minute as the shape of the box hedges in Ashgabat’s parks.
The cable, signed by past U.S. Chargé Sylvia Reed Curran (there is no U.S. ambassador in Ashgabat) cites a source saying the Turkmen president “does not like people who are smarter than he is. Since he's not a very bright guy, our source offered, he is suspicious of a lot of people.” The Turkmen leader is said by the source not to like America, Iran, or Turkey or the leaders of neighboring Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, but likes China -- no surprise, given that Beijing gave him a $4 billion soft loan to build a pipeline.
Other revelations about Berdymukhamedov's family don't tell us anything new not already known from the gossip circuit. Most of all, it doesn't really tell us how this authoritarian ruler might act next. He is said to be a “practiced liar" and a "good actor" in this cable -- and that's perhaps how he has kept scores of Western oil and gas companies guessing as to whether he will give them a drilling permit or whether he will participate in the Nabucco pipeline.
It's sometimes said that the dictators develop their personalities because they either had no fathers or very strict fathers -- past Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov was an orphan. Berdymukhamedov was the only son in a family of eight, and his father, Col. Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov, still alive, was a senior Interior Ministry officer in a prison guard detachment. One could speculate about his influence on his son, who is notorious for never letting out any political prisoners on various amnesties related to state holidays; the cable source adds that the father is believed by “many” to be "more intelligent than the son."
The Turkmen leader has two daughters and one son. One handy arrangement is that Berdymukhamedov's son-in-law is representative of the critical Turkmen Agency for Use and Management of Hydrocarbon Resources in Europe in London. This cable incorrectly gives that relation’s name as Yhlasgeldi Amanov ; another cable signed by Curran and dated October 13, 2009 correctly reports that the son-in-law is Dovlet Atabayev, who apparently took over international liaisons with oil companies when Tachberdy Tagiyev, Former Deputy Chairman for Oil and Gas, was arrested in September 2009 on allegations of corruption . Atabayev was said to go back to the Chinese and get the $4 billion after Tagiev was only able to raise $3 billion. Later, according to the cable, Atabayev himself was investigated himself after allegedly acquiring real estate in London.
It's not clear yet now WikiLeaks' revelations will impact Turkmen-U.S. relations. Immediately after the publication of the scathing cables, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to meet President Berdymukhamedov in Astana at the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). She was photographed together with the Turkmen leader, and the picture was published in the official state media, but with a rather terse dispatch, saying only that the meeting had taken place "in a friendly atmosphere" -- contrasting with much longer and warmer descriptions of other meetings the Turkmen president had, for example, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The U.S. Embassy hastened to counterspin the Wikileaks with a statement on the Embassy website November 30 by current Chargé, Ambassador Eileen Malloy, who said she cannot vouch for the documents’ authenticity but “deeply regrets the disclosure” -- and condemns it:
Diplomats must engage in frank discussions with their colleagues, and they must be assured that these discussions will remain private. Honest dialogue—within governments and between them—is part of the basic bargain of international relations; we couldn’t maintain peace, security, and international stability without it. I’m sure that Turkmenistan’s ambassadors to the United States would say the same thing. They too depend on being able to exchange honest opinions with their counterparts in Washington and send home their assessments of America’s leaders, policies, and actions.
Like Clinton and other officials, Malloy indicates that human rights workers, journalists and others who have spoken with U.S. embassy officials could face harassment, even imprisonment and death from WikiLeaks:
Whatever their motives are in publishing these documents, it is clear that releasing them poses real risks to real people, and often to particular people who have dedicated their lives to protecting others. An act intended to provoke the powerful may instead imperil the powerless. We support and are willing to have genuine debates about pressing questions of public policy. But releasing documents carelessly and without regard for the consequences is not the way to start such a debate.
So far, human rights activists or journalists aren’t shown as sources in the cables released to date. In fact, the greatest casualties of WikiLeaks related to Ashgabat are likely not human rights activists, but the Americans' fellow diplomats. For example the Turkish ambassador who came to the U.S. Embassy with his concerns about a possible (and unlikely) Russian-Turkmen caper involving uranium shipments to Iran isn't likely to volunteer such reports again, and could even be withdrawn; outwardly, Turkey flatters Turkmenistan, as it is among its largest trading partners and is about to sign a deal for the Turkmen-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline this month.
It is too early to say whether the cables will lead to meetings being cancelled or access denied, and we may never know about retaliation against sources. One positive unintended consequence of the leak is that the dissenters of Turkmenistan now know something that empowers them -- that the U.S. , which has generally muted its criticism of Ashgabat for strategic reasons, shares the same blunt assessment of their leader as they do.