WikiLeaks has not had any alleged US diplomatic cables from Ashgabat to release since last December, but yesterday produced one dated September 24, 2007 about a US meeting with Turkish businessman Ahmet Chalik, described as an "insider" who played an unusual role in the Turkmen leadership for 15 years until he lost his status after the death of dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. Involved with deals from textile to energy and active in relations with US oil companies during the Niyazov era, Chalik was notorious for currying favor with the Turkmen regime by ordering translations of the Ruhnama cult book.
Chalik describes President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov as "weak" and "beholden to outside interests, principally Russian." (This was in 2007.)
At a four-hour dinner with Ambassador Richard Hoagland, then chargé of the US mission, Chalik described how he began investing in textiles and construction in 1992, and then later energy. He was such a close confidante of Niyazov's who "treated him like a son" that he was given Turkmen citizenship and even made vice premier.
Speaking candidly about the then-new Turkmen leader, Chalik said:
"It's been eight months. We hear good words (from Berdimuhamedov), but we see no actions. Nothing has changed -- except they've taken down Niyazov's pictures and put up Berdimuhamedov's. Turkmenistan cannot recover from Niyazov and become a relatively normal country without democracy, an open economy, and rule of law."
When Hoagland asked him for more information about Berdymukhamedov and "who put him in power," Chalik replied, "The guys with the guns." That's a reference to the siloviki, the people in the power ministries of interior, security and defense.
Chalik described Berdymukhamedov as a "nice guy and relatively competent," but "certainly no one with a national political base or political ambitions of his own." He said those who put Berdymukhamedov in power -- the ministers of national security and defense -- did so not so much to protect their own interests as to defend the interests of others -- which Chalik implied was Russia.
When invited to speculate about rumors that Niyazov did not die a natural death, Chalik replied enigmatically, "Follow the money," and then elaborated that Niyazov signed an agreement in 2006 with China to become the first major foreign power to challenge Gazprom's hold over Turkmenistan's gas exports.
Chalik sounded a theme seen in past WikiLeaks revelations, that Berdymukhamedov had put only "incompetents from his own tribe," the Geok-Tepes of Ahal Province, in government, by contrast with Niyazov who kept the clans in balance. He also expressed regret at the people thrown in prison, like the former minister of culture, and said "the guys with guns" forced him to do this.
Most interestingly, when Hoagland reportedly said Turkmenistan had been the most independent from Russia of all the Central Asian states, Chalik challenged his view, and claimed Russia maintained close connection to the Turkmen power ministries through "the traditional Soviet-era mafia-intelligence agencies," and singled out Hojimurad Altayev [Khojamurat Altayev], deputy minister of national security as supposedly a "key Russian mafia (s) link in the government" of Turkmenistan.
Yet fast forward past this cable, and we know Altayev fell into terrible disfavor by March 2008, when he was dismissed for "grave shortcomings in his work and committing acts defaming the high title of officer of the Armed Forces of Turkmenistan," turkmenistan.ru reported at the time.
Altayev suffered more than the usual bureaucratic dismissal all too common under Berdymukhamedov's rule -- he was stripped of his military rank of colonel, state awards, and financial and other privileges. It's not known what exactly he did wrong -- maybe it was due to his ostensible connections to the Russians -- but his dismissal came at a time of other firings that seemed to be about displaying a commitment to reform as we commented in 2008.
The US was most keenly interested in getting Chalik's assement of Berdymukhamedov's readiness to get Turkmen gas flowing to the South Caucasus, and mentioned a feasibility study of that era. Chalik replied that Berdymukhamedov, while interested, was non-committal, and probably because he "cannot make this decision on his own" -- an intriguing claim about the figure everyone on the outside sees as indispensable to every deal. Asked who *was* the decision-maker, and whether it was (now disgraced) Tachberdy Tagiyev, then deputy prime minister for oil and gas, Chalik again replied, "No, it's the guys with the guns".
Chalik also attempted to clear up the mystery of why the US had problems in gaining cooperation with the Ministry of Education on foreign exchanges: "The ministry doesn't make any decisions. It's the KGB," i.e. the Turkmen Ministry of National Security.
Ultimately, the Embassy, while appreciating Chalik's comments as "part of the puzzle," didn't give credence to his seemingly conspiratorial theories about Russian influence.
"We see no broad and concrete evidence that Russia is pulling all the strings behind the scenes," wrote Hoagland, because if anything, Russian was openly worried about its position with Turkmenistan and getting the Prikaspiisky pipeline deal signed (later shelved).
The intervening years since the 2007 cable have seen Russia's position considerably diminished, replaced by China, with its more than $8 billion soft loan to Turkmenistan, yet Ashgabat still feels the need to ritualistically repeat mantras about its "friendly, constructive relationship" with Moscow.