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The great game

The problem with moving house is that it doesn't matter whether you move 500 metres or 5000 kilometres, the logistics are mostly the same (except for the fuel bill). I moved nearer to 500 metres than the other extreme, but it's still left me wiped out, stressed out, and living out of an unfeasibly large pile of boxes.

On the other hand, it's almost all over, bar the unpacking. And I can get back to real life; viz., editing and redrafting novels, and worrying about where the ideas for the next one are going to come from.

Speaking of which, I was disappointed to learn today of the demise of Saparmurat Niyazov, President for Life of Turkenistan, aka Turkmenbashi; a supremely eccentric dictator whose weirdness was of the first water. Doubtless he was a most unpleasant fellow whose demise will be welcomed by many: but his life and personality was a vein of rich ore that I mined ruthlessly whenever I needed to come up with science fictional villains. As wikipedia puts it:


Claiming Turkmenistan to be a nation devoid of a national identity, he attempted to rebuild the country to his own vision. He renamed the town of Krasnovodsk, on the Caspian Sea, Türkmenbashi after himself, in addition to renaming several schools, airports and even a meteorite after himself and his immediate family. He even named the months, and days of the week after himself and his family; January becoming Turkmenbashi. ... Statues of himself and his mother are scattered all over Turkmenistan, including one in the middle of the Karakum Desert as well as a gold-plated statue atop Aşgabat's largest building, the Neutrality Arch, that rotates so it will always face into the sun and shine light onto the capital city. ... He was given the hero of Turkmenistan award five times. "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets — but it's what the people want," Niyazov said.

Want a science-fictional dictator? Just take and six of Turkmenbashi's weirder decrees and throw in something random like the story about Freddy Mercury, the dwarfs, and the silver platters of cocaine. Behold: instant surreal satire! Nobody need even suspect that your imagination was deficient ...

However, there's a real-world downside to the death of this annoyingly ubiquitous kleptocrat. Turkmenistan is bordered by Afghanistan to the southeast, Iran to the southwest, Uzbekistan to the northeast, Kazakhstan to the northwest, and the Caspian Sea to the west ... and it possesses the world's fourth largest reserves of natural gas, not to mention substantial amounts of oil. In short, it's a geopolitical nightmare — a mostly-moslem ex-communist dictatorship, dangerously close to two of the most turbulent satans in the malleus maleficarum of western foreign policy, and the lynch-pin that held it together has just disintegrated.

Oh, did I mention that Turkmenbashi had a designated successor? According to the Turkmenistan constitution, the head of state's succession falls to the head of the people's assembly. Unfortunately, that chair was occupied by Turkmenbashi himself.

Just like moving house, with regime change it doesn't matter whether the cause is something as trivial as a 66-year-old man having a heart attack or the United States invading a country several thousand kilometres away — the fallout is just as messy.

I don't think I'm sticking my neck out far in predicting that this one is going to be a royal clusterfuck — probably exactly the kind of memorial that Turkmenbashi himself would want to be remembered by. I don't see any way in hell that the EU and the US can avoid being sucked screaming into the political black hole that is Turkmenistan, and there's a good chance that nice Mr Putin is going to have his friends in the FSB take an interest too. Add borders with Afghanistan and Iran and the whole situation is ripe for someone — anyone — to strike a light; fourth largest known natural gas reserves is the kind of phrase that ignites wars. For the time being, deputy prime minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (and there's a name to conjure with!) has been named head of the funeral commission (which may indicate a bid to take power); but with no obvious succession and no effective organized power centres in Turkmen politics, all the ingredients are in place for a weak interim government and any amount of oil-oriented dirty tricks. Imagine Iraq in 2000, if Saddam had died of a sudden heart attack ...

14 Comments

1:

According to Wikipedia, a "sizeable minority" of the population or Turkmenistan are Russians. It would be just like Putin to try the same strategy as in the Baltic states and Ukraine, where Russia tried to parlay a Russian minority into a political power structure to insist on close ties with the Motherland. It didn't go over well with the Balts, but it damn near tore Ukraine apart, and may have resulted in another one of those exotic assassination attempts (by Dioxin ingestion).

I don't know what the consensus of historians and political analysts is, but my opinion is that the minority Russian populations in the non-Russian republics and the nearer Warsaw Pact states were intended as a long-term colonization strategy. Just one more iron in the ethnic fire in the central Asian republics, you might think, but what happens if there's a well-reported attack on Russians and/or their property by mobs of {insert-other-ethnicity-here}? It would make a great excuse to divert some soldiers from turning Chechnaya into bomb-craters, while claiming to make a strike against terrorism.

This is how the Great Game was played in the 19th Century. I doubt the Russians have forgotten how to play.

2:

"I don't know what the consensus of historians and political analysts is, but my opinion is that the minority Russian populations in the non-Russian republics and the nearer Warsaw Pact states were intended as a long-term colonization strategy."

In the non-Russian republics, perhaps, though Sovietization--the imposition of a Russian-derived but cosmopolitan culture--is probably more accurate. What minority Russian populations in the nearer Warsaw Pact states, though?

"Just one more iron in the ethnic fire in the central Asian republics, you might think, but what happens if there's a well-reported attack on Russians and/or their property by mobs of {insert-other-ethnicity-here}? It would make a great excuse to divert some soldiers from turning Chechnaya into bomb-craters, while claiming to make a strike against terrorism."

Russian involvement in Turkmenistan is inevitable, perhaps even on the pretext of protecting the Russophone minority. Turkmenistan isn't Kazakstan, though; Turkmenistan's Russophones are a mainly urban population, declining as is the wont of settler minorities after empire.

3:

But..but...who's face will they put on the yogurt pots now?

I'm glad to see somewhat more respectable authors than me have also ripped Turkenistan out of RL and into the pages of their work. It makes me feel less like the fraud I am :P

4:

We may laugh at Niyazov's wilder enthusiasms (indeed, I have) but come on - which of us, in our deepest darkest hearts, finding ourselves the absolute ruler of a nation, with the power of life and death over its populace, wouldn't be tempted to rename the capital after our favourite Labrador or the days of the week after the members of Jethro Tull, just because we could?
Seriously, that phrase `fourth largest known natural gas reserves' is scary indeed, and I wonder if the Turkmen realise what's coming.

5:
What minority Russian populations in the nearer Warsaw Pact states, though?
I sit corrected; I was conflating the western republics like Ukraine snd Belarus with the WP countries like Poland.
Russian involvement in Turkmenistan is inevitable, perhaps even on the pretext of protecting the Russophone minority.
Probably true. This begs the rather frightening question, if intervention in Turkmenistan is successful, will the Russians be motivated to intervene in others of the southern republics? And what will the reaction of the Muslim world be?
6:

And what will the reaction of the Muslim world be?

I can think of an answer in one word (three letters, begins with "b", ends in "d"). Remember, it was the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that (with CIA funding) brought us Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and Al Qaida. Another Russian occupation doesn't seem likely to end on a happier note.

(On the other hand, the status of Turkmenistan as a former SSR will moderate the response compared to, say, a Russian occupation of a moslem country that was never part of the Near Abroad; and if Putin's got any sense, he'll start by trying to use soft power rather than the mailed fist. Diplomats are, after all, cheaper than tanks -- and if Turkmenistan's new rulers want to sell their gas, they need to export it to somewhere. Like, oh, Gazprom's refineries ...)

7:
if Putin's got any sense, he'll start by trying to use soft power rather than the mailed fist.
Well, of course that would be the prudent course (did I just say "prudent" in the context of imperialistic strategy?). But I'm not sure Putin will be willing to wait very long for the velvet glove to work. This is, after all is said and done, the man who may very likely have ordered the bombing of a Moscow apartment building in order to create a better pretext for the war in Chechnaya (and Bush "looked into his soul" and found a friend!).

Putin and Bush have both acted like naughty little boys who've found a long stick to twirl around in a wasp nest, and, being the stupid little boys they are, I don't trust either one of them not to up the ante with a firecracker in the nest.

An additional reason to worry is that the old troika of Party, Army and KGB isn't pulling the sleigh any more; the KGB now controls what remains of the party, and as far as I can see nothing much is controlling the Army. If some cabal of generals decides that forcing Putin's decision to commit troops to Turkmenistan is a good thing for them, there's not much to stop them.

if Turkmenistan's new rulers want to sell their gas, they need to export it to somewhere. Like, oh, Gazprom's refineries

This may, sad to say, be the best outcome for all concerned. Does anyone know if Russia is actually getting the oil and gas out of Chechnaya? Has that adventure actually paid off, or has the level of combat shut down production?

8:

One thing about Turkmenistan to bear in mind is the choices for getting their gas out. As Iraq has showed, pipelines are vulnerable to sabotage, so the routing has to pass through stable countries. If the Americans invade or attack Iran, they pretty well throw the control of routes to Russia, and even then it's only indirect control.

9:

People have floated the idea of a gas pipeline running through the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan and/or Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan, and thence overland to Turkey. There was apparently an uptick of interest this past year. Predictably, Russia and Iran are opposed to this, and claim that international agreements dealing with the Caspian Sea would require consent by all five countries which border on the sea.

10:

Well, if China wants the gas (and they may well do), they might negociate new pipelines. That'd be...interesting.

11:

Bruce Cohen: "Well, of course that would be the prudent course (did I just say "prudent" in the context of imperialistic strategy?). "

It's a reasonable word to use. An example would be George H.W. Bush.

12:

Turkmenbashi could almost be a reincarnation of infamous Roman Emperor Commodus, who did very similar things. Maybe there's a manual somewhere for megalomaniacs that has been graven on stone and handed down for generations. Rule No.34(b): Appoint your pet gerbil as Finance Minister...

Re the gas problem, it's almost enough to make one believe in a God with a warped sense of humour. Look at the placement of natural resources around the world, often right underneath some of the most unstable and downright fruitcakey regimes imaginable. Yikes!

13:

Alex: alternatively, consider the possibility that the instability and fruitcakeyness is a consequence of the location of petrochemicals under their feet, and the meddling it stirs up ...

14:

That's rather a rude way to talk about Texas...

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on December 21, 2006 9:14 PM.

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