The French construction company Bouygues has dramatically expanded its business in Turkmenistan since President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov assumed power, according to US Embassy cables, obtained by the WikiLeaks website and reviewed by the French newspaper Le Monde.
Bouygues built many of the white marble buildings in Ashgabat that became a hallmark of former president Sapurmurat Niyazov’s tenure. But the cables suggest that Berdymukhamedov, since taking over four years ago, also has developed a taste for architectural splendor. While the global economic crisis of 2008 prompted the company to scale back operations in most of the world, a cable from January 2010 says that Bouygues had added 450 expatriate employees in Turkmenistan over the previous nine months.
In addition, the amount that is required to bribe the government to meet with the president, or win a contract had increased, the cables allege, citing a well informed foreign diplomat source. Since Berdymukhammedov took power, the price that foreign contractors pay to meet with the president has risen by 10 or 15 percent, while the price of construction contracts is inflated by up to 30 percent to accommodate the payment of bribes to everyone from the smallest subcontractor to top government officials, the cables say.
The French Embassy in Ashgabat does not object to the Turkmen government's practices, the cables assert. According to one 2006 cable, based on a conversation with a French diplomat, the French Embassy has tried to distance itself from Bouygues. But, at the same time, it refrains from speaking out on such issues as religious freedom and human rights, so as to not endanger the company's contracts.
Another cable, from 2009, asserted that Bouygues had exposed itself to tremendous risk in Turkmenistan because it relies so heavily on a single client, the government. The company is thus vulnerable to liquidity problems from a single late payment. The cable also suggested that a growing number of top Turkmen officials were growing wary of the French firm.
In response to the release of the documents, Bouygues issued a statement: “The Bouygues Group wishes it be known that these allegations are defamatory. Like many international firms, Bouygues works in Turkmenistan under normal conditions without engaging in unlawful practices. Bouygues makes all reservations as to the motives that have led to the publication of such allegations.”
According to a book published earlier this year by a former French diplomat based in Ashgabat, Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, between 1994 and 2010, Bouygues built about 50 buildings in the city, amounting to over 2 billion euros.
The revelations about Bouygues are just the latest in a string of unflattering news from WikiLeaks about Turkmenistan, much related to the rampant corruption involving foreign businesses trying to operate in the country. An earlier cable described the gift of a 60-million-euro yacht by the Russian company Itera to Berdymukhamedov. A Turkmen businessman told an embassy official; “The gift of a yacht might be for an onshore gas deal, a chicken farm, or works already in progress. Nothing is free in this country.”
Joshua Kucera is a freelance writer focusing on security issues. He is the editor of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.