Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Fueling the Next Turkmenbashi

By David G. Young

New York City, December 28, 2006 --  

High energy prices are encouraging despotism in Turkmenistan and throughout the world.

The death of Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niazov ends one of the most bizarre of the personality cults that emerged in the 20th century. His 15 years in power of independent Turkmenistan read like an international edition of the news of the weird. He renamed months on the calendar after himself and his mother. He wrote a rambling stream-of-consciousness book and made it required reading in schools. He renamed cities and geographic features after his self-appointed title of "Turkmenbashi", and built monuments in his likeness all over the country. Most infamous of all, he built a giant golden statue of himself in the capital city of Ashgabat that always rotates so it faces the sun.

But Central Asian democrats have little hope for reform in tightly-controlled Turkmenistan, where a Soviet-style candidate selection process virtually ensures that another strong man will come to power. There is simply no reason for the next leader of Turkmenistan to seek reform. Whoever controls the government also controls the billions of dollars to be made from the fifth largest reserve of natural gas in the world. And with petroleum prices continuing to ride high compared with historic levels, energy markets will provide plenty of funds both to repress Turkmenistan's people and make its next leader fabulously rich.

Though seldom discussed, it is undoubtedly true that these same economic influences are emboldening authoritarian regimes around the world. The strong economic and political reform movements that were sweeping Russia and Iran a decade ago occurred during a period of low oil prices. Economic stagnation in both countries led to public dissatisfaction and pressure to open the political system, and stimulate the economy through liberalization. With public coffers now bloated with new-found gains from high oil prices, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad know they can thumb their noses at the West without the need for economic cooperation.

Of course, there is not a perfect correlation between energy-rich countries and despotism. North Korea's flamboyantly eccentric dictator Kim Jong Il has long ridden high at the reigns of his resource-poor country through smuggling, forgery, drug trafficking and other criminal activities.

But it is clearly true that a guaranteed source of income allows leaders with despotic tendencies to run amok. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is a great example. As the country's treasury has been flooded with petrodollars, Chavez has fund populist handout programs that keep the nation's poor masses voting him in power. At the same time, excess funds have been used to create and shore-up like-minded regimes in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba. Given the total absence of petroleum production in Nicaragua and Cuba, the case of Venezuela shows how petrodollar-funded despotism can expand its reach beyond the petroleum producing world.

With hundreds of millions of East Asians progressing toward the same energy-hungry middle-class lifestyle as found in the West, it is likely that high energy prices are here to stay for the near term. Unfortunately, this probably means that the level of despotism in the world's petro-states will continue to rise as well. This is terrible news for the people who suffer under these regimes, and terrible news for Western powers trying to keep such regimes in check.

From the Western perspective then, the regime of the great Turkmenbashi is at least a more palatable alternative. For all his internal repression, at least Niazov didn't spend his petrodollars corrupting the affairs of other countries. With hundreds of billions of dollars fueling the corruption of petroleum producers, having the corruption directed inwards is perhaps the best result the West can expect.

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