There are plenty of grounds to question Donald Trump’s nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state, but so far people have missed an important one, namely his direct role in striking up business with one of the world’s loopier and most deadly dictators: Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov — let’s just call him Berdy from here on out — of Turkmenistan.
ExxonMobil is a fossil fuel company with ties to various corrupt overseas regimes, just like its foreign and domestic competitors. If you’re an energy company, you chase oil and gas and a lot of it is found in places ruled by dubious regimes. But the only one his Democratic critics (and most of the media) want to talk about is Russia, for obvious reasons.
Turkmenistan is far more repressive than Russia and Tillerson’s role there makes it quite interesting. ExxonMobil is in bed with various dictators, but Tillerson inherited most of those relationships, such as Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Kazakhstan (where Mobil bribed its way in before the two companies merged).
But when he took over as CEO in 2006, Exxon had been kicked out of Turkmenistan four years earlier by Berdy’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, a deranged thug who had ruled the country since it was a republic of the former Soviet Union.
A Stalinist, Niyazov decreed himself “Turkmenbashi, father of all Turkmen,” and built statutes to himself around the country. The biggest was the “Arch of Neutrality,” which had a 40-foot-tall statue of himself at its pinnacle and revolved so the Turkmenbashi’s face followed the sun. Nonetheless Exxon and other oil companies for years tried to promote Niyazov as a budding reformer in Washington, until they fled or were booted from Turkmenistan because he was so unstable and corrupt that they couldn’t make money.
Some oil companies have been shy about returning even after the Turkmenbashi died and was replaced by Berdy, who is just a little less crazy than his predecessor but a Stalinist in his model. He won 97 percent of the vote in the 2012 presidential election, up from 89 percent in 2007, in balloting that were deemed to be obvious shams. Though the country has plenty of energy reserves, most of the population, predictably, lives in poverty as very little of the oil and gas wealth trickles down.
To appreciate the full crazy of the Berdy regime, here’s a story about his orders to the state bureaucracy to create a hockey league — in a desert country where temperatures can climb to 120 degrees. And check out what happened when Berdy came to believe that a cat had tried to assassinate him.
There’s really no good reason to do business in Turkmenistan, but Tillerson successfully and aggressively courted Berdy after taking over as CEO. In September 2009, Berdy and Tillerson met in New York to discuss ExxonMobil returning to Turkmenistan. The following year, a company delegation traveled to the country as part of a trip organized by the US-Turkmenistan Business Council.
In October 2010, ExxonMobil opened a new office in the country and was one of the “Gold Sponsors” of the Turkmenistan International Oil & Gas Conference. Ties between the country and ExxonMobil have expanded since and state media portrays Tillerson and ExxonMobil in the most flattering terms, because its presence there is a huge PR coup for the regime.
So, sure, congress should look at ExxonMobil’s relationship with Putin, but it’s more useful to examine the full scope of the company’s overseas ties. But no one wants to look too hard because that raises questions about American foreign policy in general and the inevitable dirty alliances that must be struck when your economy is still largely dependent on global oil, and will be for a long time.