Keeping It In the Family: Turkmen President Appoints New Deputy PM for Oil and Gas

On May 13, the president of Turkmenistan made Batyr Amanov deputy prime minister, moving him from his post as chairman of the Turkmengaz state concern. Despite the obvious failings and numerous penalties imposed in his previous job, he has now been put in charge of the country’s entire oil and gas complex. Batyr Amanov is a relative by marriage of President Serdar Berdimuhamedov. His cousin Yhlasgeldi Amanov is married to the Turkmen president’s sister, Guljahan.

Fiasco leading to promotion

Just four months ago, in January 2023, Batyr Amanov received a severe reprimand and final warning from the president “for substandard performance of his duties and serious shortcomings in his work.” A month earlier, in December, he was given a reprimand over the figures for the first 11 months of 2022. Digging in the archives, we can see that “a severe reprimand with a final warning” was issued to Amanov in November 2021 as well. So, the 2021 warning turned out to be the last-but-two warning before his promotion.

There was no shortage of “shortcomings” in Amanov’s work. He was head of the state concern for almost three years, and this was hardly a successful period for the gas sector. Of course, an official at Amanov’s level has no influence over many issues. The heads of state concerns have to put up with, for example, the varied whims of the president’s family – orders to allocate money to reconstruct their palaces, demands to urgently find someone a job or, the reverse, to fire someone. But state concern chairman Batyr Amanov was not especially inconvenienced by this state of affairs, and simply tried as best he could to fill his own pockets.

The situation grew much worse in 2022, when sanctions made Russian company Gazprom turn its attention to Asian markets. With the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas, Turkmenistan had every opportunity to stand up to a competitor in its own backyard but failed to make the most of its opportunities. For example, corrupt schemes meant the Galkynysh field was not ready for the cold snap of January 2023. Gas supplies to Uzbekistan stopped for several days, at a time when the Uzbek side was deep in talks about further cooperation with Russia. The breakdown also affected supplies to China, and Gazprom has now taken top spot from Turkmenistan in the list of China’s gas suppliers.

Gas supplies via a swap arrangement to Azerbaijan were suspended at practically the same time because of shoddy equipment. And this was when Russian officials bluntly described construction of a gas pipeline between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan as inadmissible! This gives the impression that Amanov and his colleagues are not working for the interests of their own country but another.

So far only the former deputy head of Turkmengaz, Atamyrat Charyyev, has been punished for the January breakdown – with an eight-year prison sentence.

No such thing as too many relatives

To be fair, Batyr Amanov really was worried about the outcome of the inspections of Turkmengaz by the Prosecutor General’s Office. Sources report that he couldn’t sleep at night, expecting them to come for him at any moment too. He wasn’t at all confident of his career and life prospects.

Even those responsible for Turkmengaz in the Ministry of National Security were convinced that, as a result of the inspections, Amanov would be removed at best, imprisoned at worst. But instead of handcuffs (or at least being dismissed in disgrace) the official got promotion to become the “overseer” of the entire oil and gas sector in Turkmenistan. And all because he’s a relative of Serdar Berdimuhamedov. Batyr Amanov is a cousin of Yhlasgeldi Amanov who is married to Serdar’s sister, Guljahan. Yhlasgeldi’s father, Jumageldi Amanov, and Batyr’s father, Amangeldi Amanov, are brothers.

A source in the country’s government says that Amanov is the worst of all options for the post of deputy prime minister, and it’s not worth expecting him to increase the production of oil gas as promised to the president. On the contrary, the entire sector, which is in a lamentable condition as it is, faces the threat of total collapse.

Batyr Amanov is worthless as an oil and gas specialist. According to sources, his capabilities stretch as far as organizing litter-picks and other mass gatherings for his subordinates. True, he has perfected another skill – the ability to push through any project with a local or foreign company, to dream up any figures and report them upwards, as long as kickbacks are paid. This skill earned Batyr Amanov nicknames “mujahid” and “terminator” in Turkmengaz.  

Appointing their relatives to high positions has been common practice for both Turkmen presidents from the Berdimuhamedov family. Until recently Serdar’s cousin, Ahmet Geldimyradov, was deputy head of Turkmengaz. In fall 2022 he angered his cousin by hitting a senior prosecutor on the head with a bottle in a barroom brawl. After Serdar saw a recording of the fight he dismissed Ahmet. Were it not for alcohol and his explosive temper, Geldimyradov would probably have remained quietly in post for a long time. The president doesn’t need good oil and gas specialists – what he needs is for everything to be under the family’s control.

One for the roadshow

Batyr Amanov’s final speech as head of Turkmengaz was at the International Roadshow to Attract Foreign Investment to Turkmenistan’s Oil and Gas Sector. The event took place on April 26-27 in Dubai, and, as predicted, was no more than an excuse for corrupt senior officials to go on a jolly abroad.

Speaking at the forum, Amanov said that Turkmengaz would soon supply 65 billion cubic meters of gas a year. He specified, however, that this would happen “if the fourth branch [pipeline]” to China is completed. Amanov himself, his subordinates and managers know full well that construction of this branch has not even begun yet (though it’s been discussed for many years). Will this project be completed in the near future? Probably not, taking into account Gazprom’s success on the Chinese market.  

But even if the pipeline is built, it’s far from certain that Turkmengaz will be able to realize its plan to supply 65 billion cubic meters. The country does not have the requisite number of wells nor the money to drill them. The state company is struggling now to supply 30-35 billion cubic meters of gas a year to China, while feverishly looking for investors in China, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. The roadshow was held in order to attract investors but was not a success for the Turkmen side.  

Representatives of foreign companies that took part in the roadshow are in fact well aware of the true situation in Turkmenistan’s energy sector. They probably had their own reasons for visiting Dubai, which didn’t include becoming potential investors in Turkmen companies. Until recently international exhibitions were organized in Ashgabat for such backroom negotiations. But recently the Ministry of National Security has started to show heightened interest in contacts between Turkmen officials and representatives of foreign companies. As a result, the interested parties decided to hold an event in Dubai, where it’s easier to give the all-seeing secret services the slip.

According to sources, Amanov and other leaders are well aware of this situation and extremely cynical about it. In the backrooms they themselves laugh at the figures and forecasts given from the rostrums – the very same figures that will later reach the president’s desk and be sent for publication in the state media.

As for investors, not only is Turkmenistan failing to attract new ones, it is losing the old investors too. According to a source in one of the defense and security ministries, Russian company Areti (formerly Itera) is preparing to leave the country. The company is getting rid of its offices now. Observers think that if Areti still has business in Turkmenistan, it will be only field work, so mobile offices are sufficient without any permanent buildings. After all, the Russians turned down a project to drill on the Caspian Sea shelf planned for 2021.

French company Total is planning to leave, as is Japan’s Kawasaki. Turkmen officials would do well to remember that leeches can only feed off a living organism. If the oil and gas sector finally “dies” from lack of investment and competent specialists, no one will be able to get rich on it anymore.

For the likes of Batyr Amanov, though, it’s not such a terrible threat. Over his years of work, he has already accumulated vast wealth from tenders to supply equipment, reagents, and spare parts for the oil and gas sector. But his most lucrative job was working as director of the Turkmenbashi oil refining complex – the most profitable enterprise in Turkmenistan’s energy sector. He held this post until his appointment as head of Turkmengaz.

Rats in a sack?

Personnel reshuffles in the oil and gas sector have not just affected Amanov, of course. In order to free up the deputy prime ministerial post for him, Ashirguly Begliyev had to be removed – he was appointed in February 2023 and had only just begun to get to grips with the job, putting “his” people in key positions. Observers say that members of the government were already gloating at what they thought was a disastrous end to Begliev’s three months as deputy prime minster. Then they learnt that he had been moved to a perfectly respectable job as the president’s adviser on oil and gas.

In turn, Maksat Babayev has become the new head of Turkmengaz, having already led the state concern for several months in 2017. He too went on to spend several months as deputy prime minister, then for reasons unknown was sent into “exile” – transferred to the post of head of capital construction of the Kiyanly polymer plant. It was thanks to Begliyev that Babayev returned to Turkmengaz as deputy chairman and now he’s back in charge.

It’s clear that the fortunes of Turkmen officials are changeable and depend not on objective professional criteria but on contacts and machinations that are invisible from the outside.

Experts have commented that Begliyev may not handle the fuel and energy complex as badly as Amanov, but he is certainly a poor manager. He does enjoy the president’s respect though. Serdar Berdimuhamedov is convinced that Begliyev is a “competent person,” whatever that might mean. At the same time, it’s assumed that a “competent person” won’t last long as deputy prime minister.

But analysts were wrong about the candidate to be his successor. They predicted that the head of Turkmennebit (Turkmen Oil), Guvanch Agajanov, was best placed to become the new deputy prime minister. As might be expected, Agajanov is none too pleased that Amanov has overtaken him. Another enemy of the new head of the fuel and energy complex is the deputy chairman of Turkmengaz, Murat Archayev (left on picture). Sources say that Agajanov and Archayev have disliked Amanov for a long time and will now probably do their utmost to undermine him. Amanov himself is well aware of this and ready to take preventive action.

In other words, rather than being the focus of development the oil and gas complex will be a hotbed of conflicts and scheming. Though what this sector actually needs right now is to be saved, not developed. It has a pressing need for new, highly professional leaders, a clean sweep of corrupt officials, and every possible administrative and structural reform. The oil and gas sector is key for Turkmenistan’s economy. The country’s oil and gas reserves could guarantee really high revenues for the budget, and a comfortable life for the population. But at present only those who are able “to take care of things” enjoy a comfortable life.

Some of the “careful” forget not only about ordinary people, but also that in Turkmenistan oil and gas are considered the “property” of the Berdimuhamedov family. Agajanov, Archayev, Babayev, and their ilk busily earn money from kickbacks on tenders, without even thinking about the interests of the president’s family. They are deep in collaboration on this “work” with many foreign companies. It’s quite risky, but bearing in mind all the musical chairs and lack of professionalism in the oil and gas sector, even these infringements can remain unseen for years. Maybe that’s why the Berdimuhamedovs are trying to put their relatives into key positions. It might not be much, but at least it’s control of a kind.