Several years ago this blog looked at the award of the track world championships to Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship. It was a decision taken with input from a senior UCI official with a significant financial interest in a giant construction project in the capital, Minsk. Whether coincidental or not, the awarding of the worlds served to highlight the substantial conflict of interest between the UCI’s sporting interests and the business activities of Igor Makarov, the Russian oligarch behind the now-defunct Katusha team who sits at the UCI’s top table, the Management Committee. Following that another blog post looked at Turkmenistan and how Makarov had extensive business interests there and noted the UCI was often visiting too.
It’s time to review this Turkmenistan angle because it is continuing today. Having pointed out issues in a tweet the other day, here’s a blog post to explore the issues in detail…
Bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, Turkmenistan is a tough place. Political opposition to the ruling party does not exist… because it is illegal and in the 2017 elections the President won with an impressive 97.69% of the vote and in case you’re wondering about the other 2.31% of the vote, that went to centrally-approved candidates standing in support, not opposition. It’s rated the second-last among countries for press freedom on the index run by Reporters Without Borders but there’s good news as it’s moved up one place, overtaking North Korea.
Turkmenistan scores high in other areas, notably with world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas, only Russia, Iran and Qatar have more according to BP, an energy company. It’s also got some quirky architecture. The capital city Ashgabat features a giant construction called the Arch of Neutrality that is topped with a golden statue of the country’s President that rotates to follow the sun.
In 2010 Turkmenistan announced a project to build an Olympic village full of world-class sporting venues. Only the country is not on the IOC’s long list of candidate bids for the summer or winter games this side of 2028. The idea was to offer sports facilities for all, a bold project ordered by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, often known as Arkadag, “The Patron”.
Built at a reported cost of US$2 billion, these facilities hosted 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games but the longer term viability remains and previous construction efforts for an ice-rink and other facilities have seen the installations left crumbling according to a leaked US diplomatic cable.
So what’s this got to do with cycling?
It turned out UCI President Pat McQuaid had been a visitor to Turkmenistan. That’s all good, he was supporting cycling all around the world and encouraging new facilities to be built, it’s literally the job of a UCI President. He went in 2008 and came back as one of three guests of honour in 2010 to attend the ceremony marking the start of the olympian construction ceremonies, here’s the official account:
The President noted that at the first stage of the Olympic Village Project about 30 sports and social facilities would be constructed… …About US$ 2 billion would be allocated for construction of the first facilities in the Olympic Village, said the President expressing belief that this would profoundly contribute to promoting different sports in our country, bringing up a physically strong and spiritually healthy generation, holding large-scale international competitions and achieving high results on the sports arena.
The Turkmen leader’s speech was greeted with the storm of applause. Then the Turkmen leader affixed his signature to the message to descendants and put it into a golden ball. Then the guests of honour addressed ceremony participants and organizers. The floor was given to Patrick McQuaid, President of the International Cycling Union, a member of the International Olympic Committee, Dr. Santiparb Pantija Wanija, Advisor to the President of the Olympic Council of Asia and Igor Makarov, CEO of the Itera International Group of companies, who had been recently appointed Chairman of the Russian Cycling Federation.
Note Igor Makarov pops up again as one of the other guests of honour. A Russian, he was born in Turkmenistan and was the head of Russian Cycling and the oligarch benefactor behind the Katusha team. He was also Chairman of Itera, a gas trading company that was founded in Turkmenistan, and Makarov made his billions starting out in the post-Soviet era barter trades, delivering sugar in exchange for gas contracts in Turkmenistan. Itera built up extensive operations in Turkmenistan, indeed it trumped oil majors Lukoil and ConocoPhilips to win the oil and gas extraction rights in a large block of the Caspian Sea in Turkmen waters, a project worth billions of dollars. Today he remains one of the UCI’s most senior officials, sitting on the Management Committee, effectively the UCI’s board of directors.
Indeed as McQuaid was praising his hosts and declaring he hoped to return one day to see the Olympics taking part, Makarov was busy lobbying for a slice of the action. Here’s Turkmenistan Magazine reporting:
The President and his guest also discussed a number of major projects entrusted to Itera in Turkmenistan, including the construction of a modern equestrian complex in Balkan province and others. Igor Makarov also expressed willingness of Itera to take part in the construction of the Olympic village in Ashgabat.
So Mr Makarov had a dual role. One minute he’s got his Cycling hat on… the next he’s after hydrocarbon and construction contacts. Igor Makarov started Itera and has impeccable connections in the country so he already has his foot and more in the door.
Plus ça change
That was all the McQuaid era of the UCI, right? Only it’s still going on today. Igor Makarov sold much of Itera to Russian oil major Rosneft and launched Areti (Itera spelt backwards) as a rebranded venture in the oil and gas sector and retains substantial business interests in Turkmenistan where it is bidding for more work.
Covid-19 perhaps prevented today’s UCI President David Lappartient from making it in person but the other day he took part in a video conference call with Igor Makarov – again with his two hats as a cycling official and a businessman – to lavish praise on Arkadag and promised him the UCI’s highest award as a tribute for the efforts he has made to support cycling. This is a big concern, don’t take my word for it, here’s Eurasia.org, a US organisation that covers at the region with a distinct State Department slant:
In his capacity as a member of the management committee of the cycling ruling body Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI, Makarov had a ready bauble to dangle before President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. The Russian talked up his host’s professed devotion to cycling, perhaps subtly implying that the UCI might at some stage see its way to hosting events in Turkmenistan
Eurasia.org, 2 April 2019
In fact Turkmenistan will host cycling events, the track worlds in 2021 in a decision taken in September 2018. Presumably it submitted the best bid.
Now the UCI have awarded races to various places, there were few howls when, say, Brian Cookson awarded the world championships to Yorkshire but he didn’t have a construction company bidding for work in Yorkshire at the time. A year later from awarding the track worlds Igor Makarov was appointed as a special advisor to the government on oil and gas. In March last year an official government press release goes from Arkadag and Makarov discussing bringing cycling to Turkmenistan to the “hydrocarbon resources of Turkmen sector of Caspian Sea” in a matter of paragraphs.
Friends at cyclingtips.com have picked up the story and their jovial piece covers some of the oddities of Turkmenistan and rightly questioning what the UCI is doing giving a dictator its highest award. But the here concern is not a one-off awkward award, rather what looks like a habit where the UCI is attending sporting ceremonies to cheer on cycling on Turkmenistan but unwittingly lends the Turkenistan President legitimacy and the governing body’s actions, both implicit and explicit generate goodwill and publicity for Makarov and his Areti company, a conflict of interest in plain sight for years now. It could be that Makarov’s interests are noted in the UCI’s register and but surely it’s basic governance to ensure these things are strictly separated?