Sunday, January 10, 2016

Talking with author G.W. Eccles

Why Turkmenistan made a good thriller location

The action of my new novel, Corruption of Power (the second in the Leksin thriller series) takes place in Russia and Central Asia, and most of it is set specifically in Turkmenistan. This is a country I know well since, for five years, I ran the day-to-day operations of an enterprise fund that had an office and investments in Ashgabat, and each time I went there I felt that it would make the perfect setting for a thriller. It is, after all, one of the world’s most sinister countries where civilisation by western standards is no more than a fa├žade. Let me explain.
Geographically, Turkmenistan represents the heart of Central Asia. Nestled on the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea, it shares borders with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as well as the more volatile Iran and Afghanistan. With average summer temperatures between 40C and 50C, over three-quarters of its surface comprises the Karakum Desert, dry, inhospitable and deadly. Communication is poor, roads are often nearly unpassable, and locations are remote. Outside Ashgabat, itself marble-clad and extravagant looking, the fabric of the country is crumbling fast. All grist to the mill for a thriller writer.
For a century an integral part of the Soviet empire, Turkmenistan obtained independence in 1990 when the USSR dissolved. Although reputed to have the world's fourth largest reserves of natural gas, the country’s economy has tanked on its own, ill-prepared for the new free market conditions and too corrupt to make good use of its gas revenues. This situation was exacerbated by the assumption of power by Saparmyrat Niyazov, the region's former communist leader. A demagogue - power-crazed, unbalanced, at times verging on lunacy - his first actions were to change his own name to Turkmenbashi (literally, father of all Turkmen) and declare himself President for life. The bulk of the nation's vast natural gas revenues were siphoned off to a 'foreign exchange reserve account', reputedly held at one of Germany's largest banks, the purpose and management of which remains undisclosed.
Under Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan became a country where the incredible was all too often the truth. To see what I mean, just look at a few examples of the man’s excesses. In a country characterised by severe water shortages, he designed a vast lake to be built in the Karakum Desert surrounded by cypress trees, a ski resort, and an ice palace close to the capital, while simultaneously allowing the fabric of the country to crumble. He banned opera, ballet and the circus for being, in his words, 'decidedly unturkmen-like'. On another occasion he came out against the use of gold teeth and caps. 'I watched young dogs when I was young,' he pointed out. 'They were given bones to gnaw to strengthen their teeth. Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not chew on bones.' But health was clearly not always such a priority. Inexplicably, he ordered the closure of all hospitals outside the capital, sacking some 15,000 public health workers at a stroke, insisting that in future the sick make their way across the desert to the Capital for treatment!
Not surprisingly against such a background, Turkmenbashi was forced to keep the press tightly controlled – it was exceptionally risky for a journalist to speak out of turn. Like other dissenting voices (including those holding government posts), they were regularly persecuted,  tortured and/or banished to the desert. According to Russian intelligence sources, Turkmenbashi himself stage-managed a bogus assassination attempt on his own life in order to afford himself an excuse to clear out thousands of such dissidents and their families. Some were exiled or imprisoned. A few were freed. Others were never seen again
The KNB (the Turkmen equivalent of the FSB) played (and continues to play) a key role in enabling the President to maintain his iron grip on the country, and they have always been much in evidence wherever you went. Once when I was wandering around Ashgabat on a Sunday, I stopped to take a photo of a golden statue of Turkmenbashi on a horse and immediately I found myself surrounded by armed guards. What I hadn’t realised was that, in the background to my photo, was a marble staircase leading up to the entrance of the KBN’s headquarters. My camera was snatched away, though with some judicious use of my pigeon Russian I managed to persuade them to give it back. However, I was followed for the rest of the day wherever I went. It was only once I’d retired to my bedroom at the Nissa Hotel for the night that my tail finally gave up and returned to HQ!
And even though Turkmenbashi died of a heart attack in 2006, his successor has done little or nothing to redress his abuses. Each year the State of the Nation address promises reform and economic reconstruction, but these have proven empty promises and people no longer even listen. Things continue very much as before, the cult of the President (though, now the new President) continues, and the country’s record on human rights remains one of the worst in the world. The KBN goes from strength to strength, carrying out the President’s agenda unquestioningly while keeping the population compliant and uncomplaining.

Now let's check out G.W. Eccles' Corruption of Power

Independent troubleshooter, Alex Leksin, is recruited by Prime Minister Saidov when the plan to reduce Russia’s reliance on an ever more hostile Europe is put at risk. Hell bent on expansion, President Karpev’s strategy is first to shift the markets for his country’s vast energy resources to the East and Saidov has been charged with overseeing a planned pipeline for Russia’s oil through Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to access these markets. Failure could mean catastrophe, spreading the conflict raging in the Middle East to Russia’s own borders.

Fearful that the pipeline deal might be tilting off course, Leksin has only twelve days to report back before Karpev is due to sign the pipeline contract with the Turkmen President in Ashgabat.

His investigation begins in Moscow at the conglomerate responsible for planning and funding the pipeline. Once the province of larger-than-life oligarch, Lev Usenko, the group is now run by his daughter, Vika, the woman Leksin was once to marry. Trickier still is the prospect of dealing with her embittered brother, Max.

Against a background of political corruption, state-sponsored terrorism and increased Taliban insurgency, Leksin moves on to Turkmenistan, one of the world's most sinister countries, right at the heart of Central Asia. Initially his enquiries reveal nothing to cause alarm. Other factors, though, suggest otherwise: wherever Leksin goes, someone tries to kill him; people in a position to help him are assassinated; and information turns out to be misinformation.

And when at last he discovers the truth, he finds himself unsure of whom he can trust as the stakes get frighteningly higher.

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Author bio and links

George Eccles, writing as G W Eccles, graduated from the London School of Economics with a law degree and subsequently became a partner in one of the major international financial advisory firms.

In 1994, George left London to move to Russia and Central Asia during the tumultuous period that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union. His work involved extensive travel throughout Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan - often to places with restricted access to foreigners. During his time there, he advised a number of real-life oligarchs how best to take advantage of the opportunities that became available as regulation crumbled and government became increasingly corrupt. Against this background, while his novels are fiction, many of the anecdotes and scenes are inspired by actual events.

His first thriller: The Oligarch, was awarded a Silver Medal both at the Global E-book Awards 2013 and at the Independent Publishers Book Awards 2013, as well as being selected as IPPY Book of the Day.

George is married and now lives with his wife in a hilltop village not far from Cannes in the South of France. 


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