Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Defection shakes tyrant

WASHINGTON, Nov. 6 (UPI)-- Saparmurad Niyazov, who crowned himself Turkmenbashi, or "Leader of all Turkmens," is the despotic leader of the gas-rich Turkmenistan, a country in Central Asia bordering Afghanistan. And as of last week, he is in trouble.

On Thursday, Boris Shikhmuradov, Turkmenistan's ambassador to China, and one-time foreign minister and first deputy prime minister, defected to Russia, throwing down a serious challenge to Niyazov.

Great power politics, multi-billion dollar energy projects, and the war in Afghanistan provide the backdrop for the emerging power challenge in one of the exotic — and depressing — corners of the globe.

Niyazov, who was the Soviet communist party first secretary in the 1980s, has been running a repressive dictatorship. He was ignored by larger neighbors for a long time. But now, with the growing conflict in Afghanistan next door, Niyazov is finding his regime is attracting unwelcome international attention.

Turkmenistan lacks the population of some of it neighbors. But it occupies a key location, right beside Afghanistan and Iran. It also borders the energy-rich Caspian Sea.

Niyazov has decorated his capital Ashghabat with parks, fountains and ubiquitous statues of himself, just like the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. In 1999 he became president-for-life, and his rotating gilded statue now adorns a bizarre, three-quarters size replica of the Eiffel Tower.

Shikhmuradov, Turkmen political opponents say, was for a long time Niyazov's political ally. "The foreign and internal policy of Niyazov is to a great extent Shikhmuradov's policy as well," said Murad Esenov, a former Turkmen diplomat who is currently Editor of "Central Asia and Caucasus," a regional studies journal published in Sweden.

"When I was arrested in 1994 in Moscow, Shikhmuradov, then-vice premier, arrived to Moscow to demand my extradition. But now he is in the same position (of being a persecuted opposition figure) as I am," Esenov said.

Esenov said Niyazov is widely seen in Russia, the West and by investors from Asia as despotic,

corrupt and unreliable as a political and business partner.

Niyazov did not treat his former foreign minister's defection as a light matter. A day after Shikhmuradov defected, the Turkmen prosecutor general's office decided to indict him for grand theft and larceny.

According to Turkmenistan's prosecutor general, Gurmanbibi Atadzhanov, Shikhmuradov is accused of illegally selling to Russia five Sukhoi fighter jets. He is also accused of the illegal sale of 9,000 Kalashnikov submachine guns and 1.5 million bullets. Turkmenistan is seeking Shikhmuradov's extradition from Russia.

The pattern of Shikhmuradov's persecution fits a familiar pattern of how Central Asian dictators who were formally Soviet local Communist Party chiefs dealing with their political opponents and critics. Kazakhstan's former prime minister, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, and Kyrgyzstan's former vice president and mayor of its capital city, Bishkek, Felix Kulov, were also accused of corruption and abuse of office.

Russia is unlikely to give up Shikhmuradov, who is a dual Russian-Turkmen citizen. Moreover, Moscow sources told UPI that Shikhmuradov has strong connections to two key constituencies in President Vladimir Putin's Russia: the federal intelligence services and the energy lobby.

According to several sources, Shikhmuradov was for many years a KGB officer who worked under journalistic cover in India and Pakistan. They said Shikhmuradov is a close friend of Valery Otchertsov, a former deputy prime minister of Turkmenistan and now executive vice president of the Itera gas company, which is registered in Florida. Itera is backed by the top management of Gazprom, the multi-billion Russian state controlled natural gas monopoly.

Gazprom currently supplies half of Central and Eastern Europe's gas demand, and between 25-30 percent of Western Europe's. Shikhmuradov's KGB and Itera connections may make him an attractive candidate in Kremlin eyes to replace the paranoiac, megalomaniac Niyazov.

Today, Itera and Gazprom are the main buyers of the Turkmen gas for resale. With projects floating for building a 1,400 kilometer, $2 billion gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and possibly India, and for piping Turkmen gas across the Caspian Sea to Turkey and Europe, some Moscow analysts believe Russia may be deciding to exercise stricter control over Turkmen gas exports. It may be taking measures to replace the ostentatious dictator and insure its involvement in all future projects.

A former Russian energy minister who requested anonymity said he believed that Russia's intelligence services were grooming successors for Niyazov and that they had been for some time.

Niyazov may also face Russia's displeasure — and America's too — because of his declared policy of "permanent neutrality." With Russia supporting U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, the pressure is mounting on Central Asian governments to line up alongside both global powers.

According to a recent interview with Shikhmuradov published in Moscow's Vremya-MN, Niyazov's close relations with Iran and a porous border with Afghanistan have allowed many in his entourage to become millionaires pursuing drug trafficking and money laundering.

Niyazov has even offered to negotiate a peace settlement between the Taliban and its enemies. He has pledged to maintain Turkmenistan's neutrality towards the Taliban.

But if Niyazov becomes too much of a problem or obstacle to Russian energy and diplomatic interests in Central Asia, he may find his position is far more vulnerable than he imagines. And Russia's support for Shikhmuradov after his defection may be a warning that his time in power is running out.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the author of Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis

Back to the Top    Next Article