The sister’s reign. On the situation in the Red Crescent Society of Turkmenistan

Gulnabat Dovletova

Gulnabat Dovletova, the sister of Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, has served as executive director of the National Red Crescent Society of Turkmenistan (NRCST) since the beginning of 2014. In 2013, she was forced to leave her high-level job at a district administration in Ashgabat. Sources said she left the job because of her meddling in various public tenders. The NRCST has a nominal chairwoman – Maral Achilova — but it is the president’s sister who takes all the decisions.

Former employees of the Red Crescent told about Dovletova’s new orders and methods of management. Despite leaving at different times, these former employees all agreed that the NRCST had lost its original role and became a feeding trough for its new de facto leader.

Two months after her arrival at the NRCST, the pliant staff of the Red Crescent rewrote the organization’s charter, re-registered it and changed the position of the president’s sister: henceforth she became the General Director. Just a few weeks into post, the newly-minted boss began to exercise her power.

The NRCST is a humanitarian independent NGO. Its primary mission is to provide assistance to victims of emergencies and natural disasters, as well as to the poor (orphans, lonely elderly, the disabled), during peacetime and to assist the wounded and their families during wartime.

Before Gulnabat’s era, the main foyer of the NRCST showcased a large inscription that illustrated the fundamental principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement: humanity, independence, impartiality, goodwill, unity, universality and neutrality. After becoming general director, Dovletova ordered the inscription to be erased from the walls.
One of her first acts was to merge two rooms on the ground floor to create an extra-large office for herself. She also substituted the guards at the reception, sending the previous officer to another center, the Red Crescent house on 44 Azadi Street. She said that the former guard – a disabled man, caused an inappropriate, indecent sight for those who visited the main office. Most employees were sent to the basement, where she also ordered significant renovations. The portrait of her brother-president now hangs in each department, not just in the lobby as was customary before she took over the NRCST.

In most rooms, windows were bricked up, effectively walling in the employees and leaving them without fresh air or sunlight. Dovletova ordered upholstered furniture for the lobby and placed a large aquarium in the center. Among the fish, there is a large predator, which uses the rest of the fish in the tank as its food. This is an allegoric reminder that at the Red Crescent there is one shark, the general director, and all other employees are just prey.

The charter of the NRCST allows the office to open small shops to sustain its activities. Through this clause, Dovletova opened a sewing shop and two large pharmacies. At a staff meeting she ordered that every female employee should now order dresses and embroidery only in this shop and buy medicines in the office pharmacies, where prices are higher than at other points.

«Do you know how much it costs to get a license to open a pharmacy?» Dovletova asked her subordinates during a staff meeting. «One million dollars! [here she refers to the unofficial price, ATN] And now we received it! Gradually, now we will open our pharmacies across the country. From now on, no-one will receive licenses for pharmacies in Turkmenistan.»

Since she started heading the NRCST, the president’s sister introduced a strict dress code for female employees: only long Turkmen national dresses, with traditional embroidery on the collar and chest. Even just a long dress would not be enough, the traditional embroidery is mandatory. Wearing a long skirt with a blouse would also be inadmissible.

«In the traditional Turkmen family, it is considered shameful to wear a skirt. It shows that the girl is frivolous and even lustful. An easy girl that is,» she said.

Dovletova’s leadership is synonymous with a system of prohibitions. She immediately banned time off for employees: «Nobody in Turkmenistan gets time off. You will not rest,» she said at a staff meeting. This is a violation of the Labor Code. Still, now full-time employees take shifts to be on duty around the clock, even during holidays.

Dovletova banned gatherings of volunteers in the main office, despite the fact that volunteers, by statute, are the driving force of the NRCST. She banned hot meals, substituting them with dry rations. Now entrepreneurs donate sheep carcasses and employees of the main office cut up raw meat rations, before handing them out to the needy that gather at the NRCST. The president’s sister even decides who gets to receive meat and who doesn’t.

Another «innovation» brought by Dovletova was the abolition of one-off payments to people with disabilities. She argued that they already get state support. She banned holiday presents to elderly people from nursing homes, arguing that “they are all prostitutes.”

“They never gave birth to children, and even if they had them, their children bring them to the nursing home because they don’t need them. When I worked in the district administration I never allowed gifts to them,» she said to her staff.

Employees are also banned from sitting on the upholstered furniture in the main foyer, because she could see it from her office. Those who work in the basement are not allowed to go upstairs. Employees ironically describe themselves as children of the dungeon. The reason for these restrictions around the office is that Dovletova is busy all day with visitors. On weekdays, whoever wants to get a handout from the master, mostly her acquaintances, visits the office. On holidays, directors and managers of enterprises come in bearing gifts and offerings. Her driver is constantly busy taking gifts back to her house, eyewitness told ATN.

«What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is also mine»

The general director fails to separate her professional life from her private deals. Nurana, her eldest granddaughter, a 4th-grader, constantly roams the main office, not just in her grandmother’s office, but mostly in the room of the secretary of the chairwoman, Maral Achilova. The office of the chairwoman looks more like a children’s bedroom, piled with toys, dolls, textbooks, stationery, and other items not related to the needs and goals of the NRCST. After lunchtime, the secretary becomes the child’s nanny, which is very convenient, because the general director can avoid hiring, and paying, one.

Dovletova’s family has repeatedly made the news among locals. Nurana is the daughter of Gulnabat’s eldest daughter, Maral. Her husband Shamurad is the known hell-raiser nicknamed Shammy. He once almost beat to death a prosecutor, who had refused to dismiss a criminal case against a friend, someone who pushed businessmen out of the market.

Dovletova gave him control of all NRCST pharmacies. Shamurad is not only Dovletova’s son-in-law, but also her nephew, as he is the son of her sister. That is, the two sisters arranged a marriage among their children. In Turkmenistan, these marriages are common. And, unsurprisingly, this was also a topic that she brought up at a staff meeting.

«They say that I’m a nationalist, but that’s not true. Yes, I married off my daughter to my nephew. What’s the big deal, I want to save our descent,» Dovletova said.

By mixing personal and professional, Dovletova allows her relatives and close associates to have free reign. This is how Aina Garadzhaeva, her secretary and a program coordinator, seemingly does nothing in the office but regularly goes on trips abroad. Her job entails keeping a record of visitors, introducing them to the boss and sending away unwanted walk-ins. Another informal task, which she fulfills together with her boss, is to assign children to prestigious schools and universities in exchange for a bribe. It is understood that money given to Dovletova may not be refunded in case the child fails to get into the preferred school.

Meanwhile, Maral Achilova — NRCST’s chairwoman, is completely powerless. Dovletova controls her movements, her gasoline consumption (because she uses a state-owned car), and she insults Achilova every time she can. Towards the staff, Dovletova is not just insulting, but sometimes shocking. She once said: «You are all immoral, your women don’t have husbands, your men don’t have wives.» To men, she often says that they are not manly enough. She threatened a clerk saying: «Get ready for jail, I’ll imprison you!» She then fired him on charges of theft.

The general director also banned nurses working in a tuberculosis prevention program from both staff meetings and corporate parties. Sources said she is afraid of contracting tuberculosis. And this happens while the same staff stresses the importance of non-discrimination against people with tuberculosis to the wider public.

For many years the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent had put pressure on the NRCST, because it lacked reliable access to the internet. In 2013 access to the web was finally granted, but Dovletova closed this window to the outside world shortly thereafter. She also cut off a switch to long-distance calls in all departments, despite the fact that the Red Crescent of Turkmenistan works throughout the country, with more than 50 branches in various regions, districts and settlements.

«You should call them from your mobile,» she said at a staff meeting. This means that employees have to pay out of pocket to communicate with their colleagues. Despite the fact that the grants supporting the organization’s various programs provide funds for communication costs, she forbids employees to use them.

More than 100 employees have now lost their jobs, almost all programs were closed. And it seems that this situation will continue as long as the president’s sister is the general director. This is unlikely to change, because the NRCST is a very convenient post for her. It is difficult to find a more comfortable job in Ashgabat, with an office in the city center, where she can receive visitors and be accountable to nobody. Security cameras surround the entire office. A 24-hour police booth operates outside the entrance. The local area was renovated and the road expanded to make room for her large car, much to the disappointment of the neighbors.

«Twenty-five years of achievements of the Red Crescent have been destroyed. This situation benefits the authorities, because they are not interested in the development of civil society. Now international donors are unwilling to fund the NRCST. The organization that exists now carries on, but no-one cares if it fulfills its mission,» former employees of the Red Crescent said.

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