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Turkmenistan: Death of a God

22 December 2006

Turkmenistan: Death of a God

By Gwynne Dyer

“The narcissism of the man is really beyond description,” said Prof. Gerald Post, director of the Political Psychology Program at George Washington University. “He has essentially turned himself into a living god.” But now the god is dead.

Saparmurat Niyazov, supreme ruler of Turkmenistan for the past 21 years, was a Communist dictator who made North Korea’s father-and-son act, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, look like shrinking violets. Post-Communist, actually, since he dropped the ideology once the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, but in all practical respects Niyazov was a Stalinist until the day he died (last Thursday).

The biggest of the thousands of statues of Niyazov that litter Turkmenistan sits atop a 91-metre (310-foot) arch in the centre of the capital, Ashgabat, and rotates to face the Sun. Covered in gold leaf and wearing a flowing cloak, the statue makes Niyazov look like a pudgy Superman, but he always insisted that it was nothing to do with him. “I’m personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the street, but it’s what people want,” he said modestly. He probably half-believed that he was immortal, for he made no provision whatever for his succession. And now, suddenly, he is gone.

Turkmenistan, on the northern borders of Iran and Afghanistan, sits on enough natural gas — at least 2.9 trillion cubic metres, or enough to cover German consumption for thirty years — to guarantee its five million citizens a Kuwait-style living standard. In reality, they live more like Albanians, while the huge gas revenues have gone into prestige projects like an ice palace in the mountains, an artificial lake in the desert, and a pseudo-Disneyland in the outskirts of Ashgabat. But Niyazov’s worst crime was to destroy all political and governmental structures and replace them with his personality cult.

Niyazov renamed January “Turkmenbashi” (“Father of the Turkmens, the title he gave himself). He renamed April after his mother, May after his father, and September after his self-published book, the “Rukhnama”, a farrago of personal philosophy, quotations from holy texts and Turkmen history that was required reading for all citizens. (“On a par with Bible and the Koran, it is to be used as a Spiritual Guide to remove the complexities and the anxieties from day to day living,” he wrote in the introduction.)

Niyazov presided over a drastic fall in educational levels in Turkmenistan that has left the nation prey to every sort of extremism. He reduced compulsory schooling from eleven years to nine, stopped the teaching of Russian, and closed all hospitals outside Ashgabat. He also banned opera, ballet, beards and even car radios. No topic was immune to the exercise of his iron whim.

Under Soviet rule, there was decent health care and good education for everybody (in both Russian and Turkmen). Given Turkmenistan’s gas wealth, it was well able to maintain those services after the separation in 1991, but instead Niyazov spent the income on monuments to himself and “prestige” projects. Now that he is suddenly and unexpectedly gone at the age of 66, there is bewilderment in the streets and a frantic scramble for power at the centre.

The deputy president, Kerbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has promised an election in the near future, but he has not been forthcoming on significant details like how many candidates will be allowed. If the people in Niyazov’s inner circle can agree on a single candidate, the present tyrannical system may continue for a time, perhaps with less in the way of grotesque excess. If not, Turkmenistan is in for an interesting time.

The worst result of Niyazov’s two decades in power has been the collapse in educational standards among the younger generation, most of whom do not speak Russian and so have no access to uncensored media. Niyazov encouraged this collapse because it made for a less critical, more submissive population, but it has also produced a younger generation that is ignorant of its faith and wide open to extreme interpretations of Islam.

The other curse of Turkmenistan is clan. Niyazov was a master of the clan game, balancing one clan’s interests against another to secure his power — even under Soviet rule, that’s how Central Asia was really run — but it worked partly because Niyazov himself was outside the clan structure. (His Turkmen father was killed in the Second World War, his Russian mother and his brother died in the earthquake that levelled Ashgabat in1948, and he was raised in a Soviet orphanage.) All of his close associates have clear clan ties, and will find it much harder to play the balancing game.

There is an older generation of Turkmens, educated in Soviet times, who should in theory be able to demand and run a modern, democratic society, but after twenty years of extreme repression their will to do so is not certain. Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan has been a brutally repressive state, but one that left the neighbours strictly alone. Now it could become a theocratic state, or a failed state, or even both.

Or it could become a prosperous, democratic country that respects its citizens’ rights and creates all sorts of interesting opportunities in life for them. The Turkmens themselves will have to decide for themselves.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Niyazov renamed…introduction”; and “The deputy…time”)

Ukraine Gazprom

5 January 2006

Gazprom: What Were They Thinking?

By Gwynne Dyer

It was a Ukrainian triumph, and a Russian foreign-policy disaster. Ukraine gets cheap supplies of natural gas for five years. Russia loses a big chunk of the European energy market forever.

The giant Russian natural gas producer Gazprom is effectively an arm of the Russian state, and its decision to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine on January 1st was entirely political. Russia continues to supply natural gas at subsidised prices to obedient parts of the former Soviet Union — Belarus gets it for only $47 per thousand cubic metres — but the price goes up as foreign policies diverge.

Georgia and Armenia have to pay $110 for their gas. Moldova, which has been drifting out of Moscow’s orbit, was hit with a demand for $160. (Moscow cut its gas supply on New Year’s Day, too.) Ukraine, under the former, Kremlin-friendly regime of Viktor Yanukovych, signed a five-year contract to buy Russian gas for $45 only two years ago — but then came the “orange revolution” of December, 2004, and the price changed.

Last year, Gazprom served notice that the price Ukraine paid for gas would go up by 400 percent on 1st January. If Ukrainians were going to be too friendly with the countries of the European Union, then they would have to pay the same “full market price” of $230.

Ukraine, with three years still to run on the existing contract, replied that it would pay the full market price eventually, but wanted phased increases to give its energy-dependent heavy industries time to adjust. No, said Moscow, we want a new agreement by 31 December. Either Ukraine starts paying $230 by the end of March, or it gives us full control of all pipelines crossing its territory (in which case it can go on paying the old price until the existing contract runs out), or else Russian gas stops flowing on 1st January.

Why the rush? Because parliamentary elections are due in Ukraine in two months, and the Kremlin wants to punish President Viktor Yushchenko and his party. If he agrees to a fourfold increase in the price of gas, he loses. If he gives away Ukraine’s pipelines, which carry 88 percent of Russia’s gas exports to the European Union and entitle Ukraine to take 15 percent of that gas as a transit fee, he loses. And if Russia cuts off the gas, he loses.

Just in case Yushchenko decided to tough it out, the Kremlin’s strategists leaned on Turkmenistan to break its Ukrainian contracts, and bought up all those supplies too. Ukraine buys only one-fifth of its natural gas from Russia and could do without it long enough to find other sources, but half its total gas comes through Russia from Turkmenistan. So now Moscow could cut off 70 percent of Ukraine’s supply, and really bring it to its knees.

The geniuses in the Kremlin thought of everything — except that almost all of Russia’s natural gas exports to the rest of Europe pass through Ukraine. Did they imagine that the Ukrainian government would just let its people freeze in the dark?

On 1st January, Moscow cut the gas flowing through the Ukrainian pipelines by 95 million cubic metres a day, the amount that Ukraine normally imports from Russia AND from Turkmenistan. Kiev stopped siphoning off the amount it normally buys from Russia — but feigned ignorance of the fact that Moscow had hijacked its contracts with Turkmenistan, and went on withdrawing that much larger amount. So of course the pressure in the pipelines dropped drastically, and Russia’s customers in the European Union started running out.

One-fifth of the gas consumed in the EU already comes from Russia, so a wave of outraged protests hit Moscow. Within 48 hours Gazprom had restored the normal rate of flow — and by 4 January, in a desperate attempt to repair the damage to Russia’s reputation, Moscow signed a new five-year contract that will provide Ukraine with the same amount of gas that it used to buy from both Russia and Turkmenistan for $95 per thousand cubic metres. Nonetheless, the damage to Russian interests has been extreme.

Imported Russian gas is the cheapest energy option for many European countries, but reliability of supply is a critical issue for the consumers, and Europeans are now questioning their increasing dependence on Russian gas. Germany’s economy minister, Michael Glos, said on Tuesday that his country should now rethink its decision to phase out nuclear power. Britain, facing an inexorable decline in its own North Sea gas reserves, now wonders aloud about the wisdom of switching to Russian gas. Russia suddenly looks less like a dependable commercial partner, and more like an unpredictable, essentially political player.

President Vladimir Putin has persuaded most Russians to accept authoritarian rule in return for increased prosperity: per capita Russian income is up from $80 a month five years ago to about $200 today, and the grateful voters loyally support Putin’s party and his policies. But that relative prosperity at home depends heavily on huge exports of Russian oil and gas — and he is creating big problems for himself on that front.

Russian gas is cheaper than other energy alternatives for most EU countries, but Europeans have not yet locked into that option. There will now be considerable reluctance to let the EU’s dependence on Russian supplies get any higher. Putin’s foreign-policy strategists are not nearly as clever as they think they are.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“The geniuses…dark”; and “Imported…player”)