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WikiLeaks cables: Turkmenistan president wanted yacht like Abramovich

Canals to Caspian Sea too small for big boat so Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov accepted more modest ‘gift’ of £50m vessel according to leaked US embassy cables

Luke Harding

Thursday 2 December 2010

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is “vain, suspicious, guarded, strict, very conservative”, a “micro-manager” and “a practized liar”, US diplomats say, in a stunningly unflattering portrait of Turkmenistan’s head of state

In the diplomatic equivalent of a mauling, the US embassy gives a brutal assessment of the president’s talents, and those of his ruling family. Berdymukhamedov became ruler of the oil-rich former Soviet nation – known for its megalomanic leaders – in 2006.

The cable, released by WikiLeaks but originally sent by Sylvia Reed Curran, the US’s charge d’affaires in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, fleshes out Berdymukhamedov’s humble family background.

She says he is the only son in a family of eight children. She adds witheringly: “His father is a retired prison guard with the rank of colonel. The father, many in Turkmenistan think, is more intelligent than the son.”

The cable says the president reportedly has two different families – ith two daughters and a son from his Turkmen spouse and a daughter with his Russian mistress. His Russian partner – identified as Marina – has a 14-year-old daughter with the president. Berdymukhamedov’s wife has been reportedly living in London since 2007, it adds. Several nephews are murkily involved in business, it adds.

Recalling his early career in a dental clinic, one source describes the president as someone who “never forgets”. He is also “very clean and neat” and requires all around him “to be the same.” When Berdymukhamedov became head of the clinic “he insisted that the other men who were there had creases in their pants”, the cable reports.

Its most damning section reads as follows: “Berdymukhamedov does not like people who are smarter than he is. Since he’s not a very bright guy, our source offered, he is suspicious of a lot of people.” The president “did not like America, Iran or Turkey but likes China”, it adds.

In a separate cable from the embassy in Ashgabat, diplomats reported that the president wanted a giant yacht like Roman Abramovich but had to settle for one small enough to reach the Caspian Sea.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov received a €60m (£50m)yacht as a “gift” from the Russian gas and resources company Itera. He was so pleased with his new toy that in September 2008 he held a cabinet meeting on board.

“President Berdymukhamedov appeared in one photograph sporting a navy blue sailing cap, a French-style white-and-blue striped shirt and binoculars hanging around his neck,” said a cable from the US embassy.

Unfortunately nobody knew how to sail the Italian-made yacht, named Revival. The problem was quickly solved with a call to a Swedish-owned shipping firm. It was bluntly told to provide “a master, a chief mate and a chief engineer”, the cable says.

One unnamed expatriate source told the US: “The president had originally wanted a larger yacht similar to one owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, but that yacht would not fit through the canals leading to the Caspian Sea and thus Berdymukhamedov had to settle for this one.”

Intriguingly, the same source added that the president’s “pool of automobiles consists of a Bentley, a Mercedes Mayback (gift of a German company), a Range Rover, and a Cadillac Escalade”.

The president’s son-in-law, though, got a rap on the knuckles after acquiring too many fancy homes in London, one cable reveals.

Dovlet Atabayev was the subject of an internal investigation. “Supposedly the young man is in trouble for having acquired some nice real estate in the London area.”

Atabayev is the head of the London office of Turkmenistan’s state agency for oil and gas. He was one of several officials who had “got into hot water” for alleged “ostentatious corruption”, US diplomats said.


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December 5, 2010 at 4:55 pm

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WikiLeaks cables condemn Russia as ‘mafia state’

Kremlin relies on criminals and rewards them with political patronage, while top officials collect bribes ‘like a personal taxation system’

Luke Harding

Wednesday 1 December 2010

US and other western diplomats believe the Russian government is a corrupt ‘mafia state’, according to WikiLeaks cables.

Russia is a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy centered on the leadership of Vladimir Putin, in which officials, oligarchs and organized crime are bound together to create a “virtual mafia state”, according to leaked secret diplomatic cables that provide a damning American assessment of its erstwhile rival superpower.

Arms trafficking, money laundering, personal enrichment, protection for gangsters, extortion and kickbacks, suitcases full of money and secret offshore bank accounts in Cyprus: the cables paint a bleak picture of a political system in which bribery alone totals an estimated $300bn a year, and in which it is often hard to distinguish between the activities of the government and organised crime.

Among the most striking allegations contained in the cables, which were leaked to the whistleblowers’ website WikiLeaks, are:

• Russian spies use senior mafia bosses to carry out criminal operations such as arms trafficking.

• Law enforcement agencies such as the police, spy agencies and the prosecutor’s office operate a de facto protection racket for criminal networks.

• Rampant bribery acts like a parallel tax system for the personal enrichment of police, officials and the KGB’s successor, the federal security service (FSB).

• Investigators looking into Russian mafia links to Spain have compiled a list of Russian prosecutors, military officers and politicians who have dealings with organised crime networks.

• Putin is accused of amassing “illicit proceeds” from his time in office, which various sources allege are hidden overseas.

The allegations come hours before Putin was due to address Fifa’s executive committee in Zurich in support of Russia’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup. Putin last night abruptly cancelled his trip, complaining of a smear campaign to “discredit” Fifa members. In an angry interview with CNN’s Larry King Live, recorded before the latest disclosures, Putin also denounced the cables and warned the US not to stick its nose in Russia’s affairs.

He made clear he was not amused by a US diplomat’s description of him as “Batman” and President Dmitry Medvedev as “Robin”. “To be honest with you, we did not suspect that this [criticism] could be made with such arrogance, with such rudeness, and you know, so unethically,” Putin remarked.

The principal allegations stem from a Spanish prosecutor, José González, who has spent more than a decade trying to unravel the activities of Russian organised crime in Spain. Spanish authorities have arrested more than 60 suspects, including the top four mafia bosses outside Russia.

In a startling briefing for US officials in January, González said Russia was a “virtual mafia state” in which “one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and OC [organised crime] groups”.

González said he had evidence – thousands of wiretaps have been used in the last 10 years – that certain political parties in Russia worked hand in hand with mafia groups. He alleged that intelligence officials orchestrated gun shipments to Kurdish groups to destabilise Turkey and were pulling the strings behind the 2009 case of the Arctic Sea cargo ship suspected of carrying missiles destined for Iran.

At the summit of what is known in Russia as the power “vertical” lies the Kremlin, a prime beneficiary of the entrenched system of kickbacks, bribes, protection money and suspect contracts.

In a detailed and apparently plausible analysis of how corruption in the capital works, the US ambassador John Beyrle cited one source as saying: “Everything depends on the Kremlin … [former Moscow mayor Yuri] Luzhkov, as well as many mayors and governors, pay off key insiders in the Kremlin.”

Beneath the Kremlin is a broad layer of top officials – mayors and governors – collecting money based on bribes almost like their own personal taxation system. At the next level down the FSB, interior ministry and police collect protection money from businesses, licit and illicit.

“Criminal elements enjoy a krysha [a term from the criminal/mafia world literally meaning roof or protection] that runs through the police, the federal security service, ministry of internal affairs (MVD) and the prosecutor’s office, as well as throughout the Moscow city government bureaucracy,” Beyrle noted. “The Moscow city government’s direct links to criminality have led some to call it ‘dysfunctional’ and to assert that the government operates more as a kleptocracy than a government.”

González said the FSB had two ways to eliminate “OC leaders who do not do what the security services want them to do”. The first was to kill them. The second was to put them in jail to “eliminate them as a competitor for influence”.

Sometimes the FSB put crime lords in prison for their own protection. Luckier crime leaders might end up in parliament. “The government of Russia takes the relationship with organised crime leaders still further by granting them privileges of politics, in order to grant them immunity from racketeering charges,” Beyrle noted.

The US is not alone in its assessments. In one cable, the Foreign Office’s Russia director, Michael Davenport, is quoted as calling Russia a “corrupt autocracy”.

The cables also reveal that the Americans believe Putin was likely to have known about the operation to murder Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

The Kremlin has denied involvement but a remark by another US ambassador in Moscow, Williams Burns, sums up US attitudes towards the new Russia: “Whatever the truth may ultimately be [about Litvinenko] – and it may never be known – the tendency here to almost automatically assume that someone in or close to Putin’s inner-circle is the author of these deaths speaks volumes about expectations of Kremlin behavior.”

Russia’s foreign intelligence chief said yesterday that he would order his spies to study the cables relating to Russia. Mikhail Fradkov, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service (SVR), told the ITAR-TASS news agency: “There are many issues which have been revealed by the disclosure by WikiLeaks – this is material for analysis. We shall report our conclusions to the leadership of the country.”

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December 5, 2010 at 4:51 pm

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WikiLeaks cables claim Russia armed Georgian separatists

Grad missiles given to rebels in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Russian campaign to undermine Georgia, US dispatches claim


Luke Harding

Wednesday 1 December

Russian soldiers during clashes with Georgian troops in South Ossetia. WikiLeaks cables allege Moscow armed rebels in the region. Photograph: Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images

Russia provided Grad missiles and other arms to separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and carried out a wave of “covert actions” to undermine Georgia in the run-up to the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, US diplomatic cables say.

The Kremlin’s hostile measures against Georgia included missile attacks, murder plots and “a host of smaller-scale actions”, the leaked cables said. Russian secret services also ran a disinformation campaign against Georgia’s pro-American, pro-Nato president, Mikheil Saakashvili, claiming he suffered from “paranoid dysfunction”.

“The cumulative weight of the evidence of the last few years suggests that the Russians are aggressively playing a high-stakes covert game, and they consider few if any holds barred,” the US ambassador in Tbilisi, John Tefft, wrote on 20 August 2007 in a classified cable.

One Kremlin aim was to remove Saakashvili, Tefft wrote. But the “variety and extent of the active measures suggests the deeper goal is turning Georgia from its Euroatlantic orientation back into the Russian fold”, he said. Its aim was also to “provoke the Georgian leadership into a rash reaction that separates Georgia further from the west”.

In the cable Tefft reviewed a long list of suspected Russian actions aimed at destabilizing Georgia. These included a missile attack in Kodori – an area of Abkhazia then controlled by Georgia – the blowing up of a Georgian police car, and a suspected plot to kill an opposition figure.

Tefft said there was incontrovertible evidence that Moscow was giving “direct, if at times thinly veiled, support” to Georgia’s two separatist regions against the wishes of the Georgian government. This support was also military: “The South Ossetians have reportedly received arms and equipment from Russia, including Grad missiles, on various occasions, including during recent tensions.”

The ambassador’s leaked cables are likely to reopen the acrimonious and still inconclusive debate over who was to blame for starting the 2008 war. Russia insists Saakashvili triggered the conflict by sending tanks in to recapture South Ossetia, prompting Russia to launch its own counter-operation to protect the lives of Russian citizens.

Saakashvili, however, insists he was forced to act after intolerable Russian provocation. He has blamed Moscow for deliberately frustrating his attempts to reach a deal with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and has said the Russians financed, armed, guided and nurtured the two separatist movements.

The cables broadly support Saakashvili’s view. In his dispatches to Washington the ambassador reported that Russia’s FSB spy agency directly controlled South Ossetia, with Russian FSB agents sitting in the government of rebel president Eduard Kokoity. “In South Ossetia, many de facto cabinet ministers and advisers to Kokoity are Russian officials – in most cases believed to be FSB,” Tefft wrote, noting that the FSB agents were rotated in and out of Russia.

Russia even paid the salaries of police and other civil servants in South Ossetia – and increased their wages to stop them from defecting to a Georgian-backed rival administration. It also handed out Russian passports to 95% per cent of the enclave’s residents, Tefft said, – creating instant citizens whom Russia would “defend” the following year.

Tefft acknowledged that Abkhazia’s de facto government had a “somewhat greater degree of independence from Moscow” than its South Ossetian counterpart. But he said it was evident the Russians still had “great leverage” over Abkhazia’s Soviet-mentality president, Sergei Bagapsh, who frequently traveled to Moscow for consultations.

When Bagapsh fell ill in April 2007, he was flown to Moscow for emergency treatment on an FSB plane, Tefft said, citing information from the Georgians. Tefft went on: “Several sources have also told us that a senior FSB officer actually lives in a separate residence on Bagapsh’s presidential compound. “The cables make clear that in the months leading up to the war the Bush administration urged Saakashvili to shrug off Russia’s goading and act with restraint. In a meeting in Paris on 13 June 2007, William Burns, then the US ambassador to Moscow, advised Saakashvili to “avoid antagonizing them [the Russians]”.

Burns expressed sympathy with the predicament of Saakashvili, who told the Americans he believed Putin was “personally committed to removing Abkhazia from Georgia” – a prophecy that turned out to be correct. He said Russia couldn’t be trusted, and called for a NATO membership action plan for Georgia as a “‘deterrent’ against Russian adventurism”.

The cables also chronicle Russia’s anger and growing frustration with Georgia. In November 2006 Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Grigoriy Karasin, complained to Matt Bryza, the US deputy assistant secretary of state, after Tbilisi arrested four Russian officers on espionage charges. “Our patience is at an end,” Karasin said.

According to a cable written by Burns, Bryza said the US had warned Saakashvili not to engage in any military action. “He (Byrza) has been clear with Saakashvili: if Georgia uses force or stumbles into a conflict, Saakashvili will find himself alone, blamed by the international community for recklessness.” When the war began most western governments, including the UK, blamed the Kremlin – seeing Russia’s military operation not as a peacekeeping mission but an old-style invasion. To the chagrin of Washington, Moscow swiftly recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent, arguing that the Americans had done the same thing with Kosovo.

The cables reveal that Russia’s actions prompted much diplomatic soul-searching. On 28 August 2008 – soon after the French president, Nicholas Sarkozy, brokered an EU peace deal – the Foreign Office’s defense and intelligence officials pondered the war’s implications. Mariot Leslie – now the UK’s ambassador to NATO – dubbed it a “strategic tectonic shift in international relations”, the US embassy in London recorded.

Asked whether Russia’s decision to go into Georgia was part of an overall change of strategy, Leslie replied with exquisite equivocation. She said she was “still assessing if it was a strategic decision or a tactical decision with strategic consequences”.

Written by timeofchanges

December 3, 2010 at 6:58 pm

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