Foreign-based news website Chronicles of Turkmenistan has claimed in a report that a deputy prime minister who died suddenly in early May may have actually committed suicide.
Official media in Turkmenistan reported on 51-year old Batyr Ereshov’s death, stating that it occurred on May 3, but gave no specifics about the cause.
A perfunctory news item on the official government website was limited instead to a glowing tribute to Ereshov.
“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.”
Chronicles of Turkmenistan suggested Ereshov may have been driven to his alleged suicide by the potential prospect of being caught up in an anti-corruption drive currently sweeping through the government. The website claimed, without citing any sources, that Ereshov’s son was arrested at the end of April on unspecified charges.
Ereshov rose to the position of deputy prime minister for industry in July 2014. That post made him one of the country’s most important and visible public figures. Earlier, in July 2013, Ereshov was the minister in charge of construction — another important portfolio.
Chronicles of Turkmenistan cited its sources as saying Ereshov has been buried in a family plot in Uzbekistan’s Bukhara province, which lies next to the Lebap province in Turkmenistan, where the late deputy prime minister was born.
If Ereshov had fallen out of favor with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, it seems to have been a reasonably fresh development.
In January, Berdymukhamedov signed a decree tasking several of his deputy prime ministers with personally monitoring developments in the country’s five regions and in the capital, Ashgabat. Ereshov was put in charge of Lebap — a region with which he was intimately familiar. His mandate was renewed again during a Cabinet meeting on April 14.
The policy of installing of presidential plenipotentiaries in the regions bears echoes of a similar control-enhancing initiative enacted by Russian President Vladimir Putin shortly after he came to power around the turn of the century. Although it has not been explicitly stated, it is likely that Berdymukhamedov is seeking to dilute the influence — and by extension wealth — accumulated by regional officials over the years. One possibility is that the government sees the squeezing of local potentates as a way to fill increasingly empty state coffers.
Citing the work of Nicholas Kunysz, Turkmenistan expert Annette Bohr has argued that Berdymukhamedov’s time in power has in fact been characterized by the ascendancy of middle-ranking governors, or häkimlar in Turkmen.
“Under [Berdymukhamedov] governors have been replaced or rotated far less frequently, allowing them greater possibilities to establish power bases. Whereas governors during the final years of [late President Saparmurat Niyazov’s] rule typically served less than a year, under [Berdymukhamedov] it has not been uncommon for some regional häkimlar to serve 30 months or longer,” Bohr wrote in her 2016 paper on Turkmenistan for Chatham House.
Most tellingly, as Bohr explains, “increased state investment in regional infrastructure since 2007, in combination with ever-rampant corruption, has provided increased opportunities for regional elites to enrich themselves and deepen patronage networks.”
One such important project in the Lebap region, for example, was the Garlyk potash mining and processing plant, built on a turnkey contract basis by Belarus. Berdymukhamedov was joined by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko for the official inauguration of the $1 billion plant at the end of March.
As the government’s main point-man for industry and the presidential envoy for Lebap, Ereshov bore intense direct responsibility for this project. And things appear to have gone far from smoothly.
Independent Belarusian media have described the project as being serially scourged by Turkmenistan’s chronic failure to pay for the work and systematic bureaucratic complications.
Reprising Bohr’s theme, there is room to speculate that the “bureaucratic complications” cited by Belarusian journalists may somehow have profited Turkmen officials on the ground.
“In the end, the plant was built, but only at the cost of incredible efforts, the mobilization of thousands of specialists, the loss of the contractor’s economic independence, losses worth tens of millions of dollars and the ratcheting up of a multi-million-dollar debt,” noted one article in weekly news magazine BelGazeta.
Whether Turkmenistan will be either able or willing to repay that debt any time soon is an unknown. Even the size of the debt is a mystery.
Although the plant was officially unveiled in March, it appears that event was largely a public relations exercise, and it will take a few years yet before the facility reaches full capacity. Which is to say that what Turkmenistan hoped would be a profitable, giant new enterprise has been turned into yet another financial liability that will take years to turn any profit, even in the best case scenario.