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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Niyazov Ally Turns Against Him

Itar-TassTurkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov
The former right-hand man of Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov has issued the boldest challenge the "leader of all Turkmens" has faced in the past decade, leaving experts to wonder how much damage could be done to Niyazov's autocratic regime by the defection of a one-time confidant.

On Nov. 1, Boris Shikhmuradov, who most recently served as Turkmenistan's ambassador to China, openly criticized the regime and said he was joining the "democratic constitutional opposition."

"The state of 'silence of the lambs' is no longer acceptable either for Turkmen intellectuals or for the people as a whole," Shikhmuradov was quoted as saying in an interview published Nov. 5 in Izvestia. "The country is facing a serious internal crisis and is perceived in a negative light by the international community. I am sorry that Niyazov has given the country such a reputation."

A day later, Turkmenistan's Prosecutor General's Office announced that Shikhmuradov was wanted on charges of embezzling nearly $28 million through illicit arms sales in 1994 when he served as deputy prime minister and oversaw the defense and security agencies.

The pro-Niyazov Turkmenistan.ru web site reported on Nov. 6 that investigators suspect Shikhmuradov of pocketing more than $25 million through the sale of five Su-17 fighter planes to Russia and $2.5 million through the sale of 9,000 semi-automatic rifles and 1.5 million rounds of ammunition. It was unclear whether the rifles and ammunition were also believed by prosecutors to have gone to Russia.

Media reports have said that Shikhmuradov -- who had also served as Turkmenistan's foreign minister and special envoy to the Caspian -- was in Russia, where he holds citizenship, and that Ashgabat had requested his extradition. A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said by telephone Tuesday that his agency had no official comment regarding the Turkmen official.

There has been much speculation about how Russia might take advantage of Shikhmuradov's new stance -- from whispers that it is part of a Moscow-backed plot to oust Niyazov, to theories that Russia could use Shikhmuradov's one-time closeness to the president to improve its bargaining position during negotiations over Turkmen gas.

Shikhmuradov said in the Izvestia interview that he was being persecuted on political grounds and that the president was behind the charges.

While many Central Asia watchers agreed that the criminal case was retaliation for breaking with Niyazov, some of them were skeptical about Shikhmuradov's commitment to liberal values.

Murad Esenov, the editor of the Sweden-based Central Asia and the Caucasus journal who was accused by Turkmenistan in 1994 of plotting to overthrow Niyazov, said Shikhmuradov was unquestionably a party to repressions committed under the president.

"Between 1994 and 1997, Shikhmuradov oversaw the 'power agencies.' During that time the number of people who were arrested or disappeared increased tenfold. He could not have been unaware of these events," Esenov said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "Niyazov's policies were his policies."

A Nov. 1 report by the Eurasia Group said that senior U.S. State Department officials have "privately voiced suspicions" that Moscow is backing a plan to oust Niyazov and "that such a plan would not be opposed by Washington." The report pointed to Shikhmuradov as a potential successor.

Russia is certainly unhappy with Niyazov -- both because of his haggling over supplies of Turkmen gas and the security risk posed by Turkmenistan's porous border with Afghanistan and its warm relations with the Taliban. But Esenov said he did not believe Moscow had given any indication that it would back the ouster of Niyazov.

Esenov pointed out, however, that Shikhmuradov had two strong potential centers of support in Moscow -- in the intelligence community and the energy sector. Shikhmuradov had close ties with the KGB during his 15 years as a foreign correspondent in Soviet times and with top officials at gas trader Itera, with whom he worked under Niyazov.

Esenov speculated that Moscow could use Shikhmuradov and his insider knowledge of "all Niyazov's secrets" as a bargaining chip in getting better prices in its gas deals with Ashgabat.