Occupying high office in Turkmenistan is never a comfortable affair, but this has been an especially bad week.
On May 3, the 51-year old deputy prime minister for industry Batyr Ereshov suddenly dropped dead from unknown causes. The following day, the president fired General Prosecutor Amanmyrat Halliyev and another ten more junior prosecutors amid accusations that they were taking bribes.
Ereshov’s sudden death has sparked much murmuring and gossip. He was one of Turkmenistan’s more visible political figures and had never appeared superficially to be in any ill-health.
But official media did not dwell on the causes of death, limiting themselves instead to dry obituaries listing his achievements. There it was stated that he rose to the position of deputy prime minister in July 2014 — this is a more senior ranking than might first appear, since Turkmenistan has no prime minister, as President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is in effect both head of state and the leader of the Cabinet. Earlier, in July 2013, Ereshov was the minister in charge of construction — another important portfolio.
“His many years of conscientious service and important contributions to the development of the nation’s industry endowed Batyr Ereshov with great respect among his colleagues,” the official obituary read. “Memories of Batyr Narkulyevich Ereshov as a capable manager, highly qualified specialist and noble citizen will forever remain preserved in our hearts.”
Halliyev’s fate is no less mysterious. What bribes he took, how much and from whom is not disclosed. The number of dismissals hints at a particularly deep-set problem with corruption, but the real scale can only be guessed at.
“Today we are considering a very unpleasant matter for all of us about bribery and corruption among those law enforcement officers whose duty it is to fight against any unlawful actions and violations of our national values,” Berdymukhamedov told the State Security Council.
Berdymukhamedov called on the chairman of the Supreme Court to “thoroughly review the cases” of the fired officials and he went on to warn all present that any similar “heinous acts will always be firmly counteracted, regardless of the position held.”
Turning to Halliyev, he excoriated the General Prosecutor for his “inability to adopt timely measures against corrupt subordinates taking bribes.” In a largely formal gesture, Berdymukhamedov said he was requesting parliament to consider Halliyev’s dismissal. Lawmakers duly granted that request a few hours later. It is not certain that Halliyev himself is actually accused of taking bribes.
In Turkmen terms, the 43-year old had become a very big beast indeed. He had filled his position for relatively long period in Turkmenistan — since August 2013. Before that, from 2011 to 2013, he was chairman of the Supreme Court.
Berdymukhamedov also issued a severe warning to Interior Minister Isgender Mulikov over reported instances of bribery and abuse of office among employees in his department.
In the official vernacular of Turkmenistan, which is directly carried over from Soviet times, a “severe warning” typically precedes dismissal, suggesting Mulikov is now treading on very thin ice indeed.
While no specific details have been provided about the exact indiscretions committed by the chided officials, the public nature of their dismissals and dressing-downs are suggestive in of themselves.
Claims of sudden concern about corruption are hardly convincing since Turkmenistan is not only acknowledged to be one of the world’s most graft-ridden nation, but the government has also largely spurned international initiatives intended to address the problem.
Even chronically non-transparent neighbor Uzbekistan, for instance, has gone through the motions of acceding to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Istanbul Action Plan on corruption, in 2010, which subjects the country to regular reviews and monitoring.
Turkmenistan relies, as in much else, on its own internal resources to enforce some kind of limits to the proliferation of graft. In practice, this boils down to recurrent admonitions issued by the president.
In January 2016, for example, Berdymukhamedov ordered the dismissal of one of his top aides, Palvan Taganov, who was in charge of trade affairs and the state commodity and raw materials exchange. Regional media later reported Taganov had been arrested, although this was never confirmed.
At a February 1 Cabinet meeting, Berdymukhamedov then took one of Taganov’s former charges, deputy Trade and Foreign Economic Relations Minister Resulmyrat Meredov, to task for “serious shortcomings” and fired him on the spot. It was strongly implied, but not spelled out, that this dismissal too was motivated by suspected corruption.
Berdymukhamedov also complained at the time of corruption in the country’s economically vital oil and sector.
It is hard not to imagine that this sudden rediscovered anxiety about corruption does not somehow stem from the catastrophic state of the economy, which has been torpedoed by plummeting global prices for energy commodities. That such showboating by the president will make any positive impact, however, is highly dubious.