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Turkmenistan: President pardons with one hand, purges with the other

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Aisha Berdyeva
Publication Date 23 August 2007
Cite as EurasiaNet, Turkmenistan: President pardons with one hand, purges with the other, 23 August 2007, available at: [accessed 30 May 2016]
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Aisha Berdyeva 8/23/07

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's administration has gone on a public relations offensive to soften the country's despotic image. At the same time, Berdymukhammedov is conducting a secretive purge, indicating that the president is more concerned with consolidating power than genuine liberalization.

The most prominent development in the nascent PR campaign was the August 9 pardons of 11 individuals, who were convicted in connection with the 2002 assassination attempt against former leader, Saparmurat Niyazov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The most prominent prisoner to gain freedom was Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, who served as the country's chief mufti from 1996-2003. While Ibadullah's received 22-year jail term in 2004 for alleged treason, experts in Central Asia believe the real motive for his imprisonment was his resistance to Niyazov's efforts to make the Ruhnama, the lifestyle guide that the president supposedly penned, required reading in the country's mosques. Meanwhile, the main figures in the assassination attempt, including former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov and former ambassador to OSCE Batyr Berdyev, remain behind bars.

Berdymukhammedov announced the pardons during a cabinet meeting that was broadcast on state television. He indicated that mass pardons of prisoners would become a regular feature of his administration. State television also broadcast comments made by the beneficiaries of early release. "In the remaining part of my life, I will work and serve our people, our country and our president," said a clearly grateful Ibadullah on August 13.

The manner in which the pardons played out suggests that Berdymukhammedov wants to influence both domestic and external opinion, striving to convince erstwhile critics that his administration is drawing a clear line between itself and the despotic practices of Niyazov, who died in late 2006. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

A source with detailed knowledge about the functioning of the Turkmen government said that Berdymukhammedov has assembled a team of experts that is responsible for crafting the PR campaign. "A wide range of specialists are conducting in-depth analysis ... to calculate potential steps aimed at improving the general opinion about the country," the source said.

"Without this, the Turkmen political and economic system just cannot survive, and the current president – who, between you and me, is far from being a politician – won't manage either," the source added.

Some of Turkmenistan's toughest critics in the past, including the United States, are now eager to secure Turkmenistan's participation in lucrative energy ventures, and thus are apt to seize upon any evidence of a political thaw to help strengthen a case for closer political and economic relations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In a speech made in Ashgabat on August 14, visiting US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Sullivan voiced Washington's desire "to 'turn the page' in our relationship," and then went on to outline a broad agenda for economic cooperation.

Domestically, the efforts to burnish Berdymukhammedov's image have been undermined by several factors. For one, some of the recently released prisoners may be out of jail, but they are far from free to express their opinions. Ibadullah, for example, has been effectively prohibited from returning to his hometown of Dashoguz. Instead, he will remain in Ashgabat, where he will serve on the president's religious council. Thus, he will remain under the close supervision of administration officials.

Meanwhile, reports continue to circulate in Ashgabat that Berdymukhammedov is conducting a purge of top-level officials. The purge began in May but appears to have gained fresh momentum in recent weeks. The first high-profile official to fall was the head of Niyazov's presidential guard, Akmurat Rejepov, who reportedly received a 20-year jail sentence. Also caught up in the initial wave of arrests was Rejepov's son, Nurmurat, a security officer, along with Murat Agayev, who was reputedly one of Niyazov's closest business associates.

Secrecy has surrounded the purge. No official announcements have been made about arrests or prosecutions, but that hasn't kept information from circulating in the capital. In a reflection of the severity of the government's approach, family members and close associates of those arrested have also reportedly suffered punishments, according to a Turkmen citizen with first-hand knowledge of Berdymukhammedov administration's activities.

In recent weeks, a new wave of arrests has swept over the capital. Former agricultural minister Paizygeldy Meredov was reportedly arrested in early August in connection with financial misdeeds involving cotton exports. Meredov's son was also arrested.

In addition, the former deputy head of Niyazov's presidential property management department, Alexandr Zhadan, has been detained, and two other close associates of Niyazov – Vladimir Khramov and Vladimir Umnov – are reported to be under house arrest. All three men are believed to have been privy to many of Niyazov's most closely guarded state secrets, especially those involving the deceased Turkmenbashi's financial interests.

To some observers in Ashgabat, Berdymukhammedov's action toward political enemies, whether real or perceived, is reminiscent of the behavior of Niyazov, who regularly reshuffled top government personnel in an effort to maintain his own unquestioned authority. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "These are the old methods under the new 'banners' of a liberal, a democrat and a nationwide-elected president!" an Ashgabat resident who follows political developments said about recent developments.

Editor's Note: Aisha Berdyeva is a pseudonym for a Central Asia-based reporter who specializes in political and economic developments.

Posted August 23, 2007 © Eurasianet

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