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Makarov the puppet master as UCI hands mystery award to Turkmenistan

David Lappartient (left) with Igor Makarov, and the president of Turkmenistan (right) (Image credit: Getty Images)

The UCI has confirmed it has given Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, President of Turkmenistan – a country with a human rights record described as 'dire' – "the highest distinction awarded by the UCI", despite former UCI presidents having little knowledge of such an award.

The award, kept quiet by the UCI, highlights a complex web of power structures, at the heart of which lies Turkmen-born UCI board member Igor Makarov, who has taken the past three UCI presidents on state visits to the country, where his oil and gas company holds lucrative contracts. 

In 2018, the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat was announced as the host of the 2021 UCI Track World Championships, and recent reports in Turkmen state media suggest the 2026 Road Worlds will also take place there.

Turkmenistan is described by Human Rights Watch as an authoritarian regime with severe restrictions on freedoms of expression, religion, movement, information, and sexuality. 

On Thursday, Cyclingtips published a report detailing how the UCI had awarded Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, president since 2006, a 'UCI Order' last week for services to cycling. In a Turkmen television news bulletin, Lappartient can be seen 'virtually' presenting the framed certificate via video call.

On Thursday, the UCI confirmed to Cyclingnews that it had given an award to Berdimuhamedov. When asked what the award was, a spokesperson replied: "The UCI Order is the highest distinction awarded by the UCI. It is in principle reserved for political personalities who have shown a particular commitment to cycling. Several leaders have been awarded the UCI Order since its creation."

Turkmen state TV shows Lappartient presenting the award

Turkmen state TV shows Lappartient presenting the award (Image credit: Watan Habarlary on YouTube)

The UCI did not respond when asked when it was created or who had previously received it. It later did clarify that the award was created in 2004, during Hein Verbruggen’s presidency, but still did not say who had received it.

Despite being "the highest distinction" the governing body can give, there was no announcement of Berdimuhamedov’s award, nor was any mention made on the UCI’s website or social media channels.

Contacted by Cyclingnews, Brian Cookson, who was UCI president from 2013 to 2017, said he wasn’t aware of a UCI Order.

Indeed, there is no mention of it in the UCI’s Constitution, although Article 82 states: The Management Committee may create and attribute other distinctions for meritorious contribution to the sport of cycling.

"I guess that’s what’s happened here," Cookson said. "I guess in the depths of my mind I was aware that giving a special award from time to time, if we wanted to, was something we could do, but it isn’t something we did during my tenure as UCI president."

According to Cyclingtips, the UCI Order hasn't been awarded for 13 years. Contacted by Cyclingnews, Pat McQuaid, UCI president from 2005 to 2013, said he was aware of a distinction for dignitaries, and vaguely aware of it being called the UCI Order, but did not recall ever giving one out himself.

Dealing with Turkmenistan

The awarding of a World Championships and UCI Order to Turkmenistan has attracted criticism, due to the country’s human rights record.

Human Rights Watch describes Berdimukhamedov’s rule as "authoritarian", noting the government "brutally punishes all unauthorised forms of religious and political expression". Same-sex conduct between men is criminalized and so homosexuals can wind up in a prison system to which "torture and ill-treatment remain integral". Turkmenistan sits second from bottom on Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index, behind only North Korea.

The country's hosting of the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games attracted accusations of sportswashing, the practice whereby nations 'launder' their image by hosting international sporting events or sponsoring teams. In 2008, work began on the building of facilities for 28 Olympic sports, effectively amounting to an Olympic park in the capital and suggesting a future Olympic bid. Many of these facilities, including the state-of-the-art velodrome, are now said to be gathering dust.

President Berdimukhamedov during a ceremony on World Bicycle Day earlier this month

President Berdimukhamedov during a ceremony on World Bicycle Day earlier this month (Image credit: Getty Images)

In a statement sent to Cyclingnews, the UCI explained that the awarding of the 2021 Track Worlds to Turkmenistan is "part of the long tradition of the Worlds organised outside Europe" and part of an effort "to ensure our events reflect the geographic diversity of our 196 national federations."

The UCI will support Turkmen cyclists via its World Cycling Centre and will use its Solidarity Proogramme to develop the use of bicycles in the country.

It will also receive a handsome fee that is vital to its financial viability, with hosting fees for its various World Championships representing its single biggest revenue source, nearing CHF11million (£9.1million) in 2017 and 2018.

The decision to award Berdimukhamedov the UCI Order has only intensified scrutiny over the UCI's dealings with Turkmenistan.

The UCI told Cyclingnews the award was "in recognition of his country's commitment to our sport through world-class competitions, mass participation events and the promotion of cycling for all". The UCI noted that the president, who is a bicycle enthusiast, was "behind the United Nations' creation of the annual World Bicycle Day".

However, the award has led to renewed allegations that the UCI is enabling Turkmenistan to legitimise itself on a global platform.

"It is complicated when you're dealing with international regimes of different types, but all I would say is when these regimes are out and doing business in the world, then it’s very difficult for a sports body to make judgements about them," said Cookson.

"In a phrase that’s well used by bike riders everywhere, it is what it is. These are difficult decisions that one has to take and I have an understanding and a degree of sympathy with David and his colleagues on that."

Igor Makarov's role

While Lappartient was the one who handed the award to Berdimukhamedov, the key figure appears to be Igor Makarov, a member of the UCI's management committee. He was the owner of the Katusha team that folded last year, and is an honorary president at the Russian Cycling Federation.

Makarov is a Russian citizen but was born in Turkmenistan and maintains strong connections in the country. He is a billionaire businessman who runs the Areti energy company that was rebranded from Itera and previously sponsored Katusha and its development squads.

Areti has an office in Turkmenistan and has major contracts to exploit the vast resources of natural gas and oil in the Caspian Sea, which lies in the west of the country. Last year, Makarov was appointed by Berdimukhamedov as a 'specialist-expert' attached to the president's advisor on oil and gas issues.

Makarov was behind the old Katusha team

Makarov was behind the old Katusha team (Image credit: Getty Images)

In February, Turkmenistan's state news agency issued a report on a meeting between Makarov and Berdimukhamedov, outlining how both parties were pleased with their collaboration.

"Expressing satisfaction with the fact that our country was one of the important partners of ARETI, Igor Makarov expressed gratitude to the President of Turkmenistan for the support provided to strengthening business cooperation,” the report read. “Thanking for the trust placed in the company, the businessman expressed confidence that the implementation of joint projects would ensure the further prosperity of Turkmenistan."
 
The report went on to spell out that elite sport was part of this collaboration, and even suggested that, as well as the 2021 Track Worlds, the 2026 Road World Championships would take place in Turkmenistan. The 2026 Road Worlds have yet to be officially awarded, with Portland, Oregon the only candidate so far to publicise a bid.

"Particular attention was paid to cooperation in the field of sports, including the organization of the 2021 Track Cycling World Championship and 2026 Road Cycling World Championship in our country," read the report.

'Lappartient is in the palm of Makarov'

Speaking anonymously to Cyclingnews, a source with knowledge of the workings of the UCI outlined how Makarov was pulling the strings of the organisation. The source claimed that Makarov threw his weight behind Lappartient in the 2013 European Cycling Union (UEC) presidential elections in order to defeat former Katusha manager Andrei Tchmil, and that Itera’s sponsorship of the UEC subsequently increased five-fold.

"Makarov was pouring money in to get influence in the European federation, so if he ever needed anything he’d just call in some favours," the source said.

Later that year, Makarov openly supported Cookson as he ousted McQuaid from the UCI presidency, his relationship with McQuaid seemingly having soured when Katusha were denied a 2013 WorldTour licence over doping offences. In 2017, Makarov turned on Cookson and backed his old friend Lappartient in what was a landslide victory.

"Lappartient is elected first of all president of the Europe Federation with huge assistance from Makarov, then elected president of the UCI with again huge assistance from Makarov. So Lappartient is in the palm of Makarov," said the source.

"In this case, Makarov is making sure he keeps the Turkmenistan president on side, and he’s using Lappartient to do that. This particular president seemingly does like cycling, does ride a bike, does want people on bikes, and that’s all very well but there’s an ethical situation that the UCI are in, which Lappartient has sort of fallen between the cracks on.

"As a politician, he has allowed himself to be dictated to a little bit by Makarov. Makarov has said to Lappartient 'I want you to do this, this and this'. I know how he operates and that’s exactly to my mind what has happened."

Lappartient has been at the head of the UCI since 2017

Lappartient has been at the head of the UCI since 2017 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Lappartient is the third president Makarov has taken to Turkmenistan, following Cookson in 2014 and McQuaid in 2008. In 2015, McQuaid revealed he'd signed an agreement with Makarov in 2012 over the development of cycling in Turkmenistan, including a bid for the 2017 Road Worlds, but, when he abandoned plans to step aside as UCI president, he pulled out citing a conflict of interest, insisting he did not carry out any of the work or receive any payment.

Reports from Turkmenistan’s state news agency would suggest a Road Worlds in Turkmenistan has now been engineered for 2026. However, the UCI denied this was the case, telling Cyclingnews: "The award of the 2026 UCI Road World Championships shall be made in September 2021. According to the bidding procedure, the UCI received the required letters of intent in September 2019 and Turkmenistan was not part of the applicants."

Asked if Makarov's business activities represented a conflict of interest, the UCI responded: "The UCI understands that Mr Makarov, a native of Ashgabat, and the state of Turkmenistan have a longstanding relationship. Although Mr Makarov regularly facilitates communications between the UCI and the state of Turkmenistan, the award of the 2021 UCI Track World Championships was processed in accordance with the conditions and rate card applicable (and published) at the time. 

"Regarding Mr Makarov’s various undertakings, the UCI is not aware of actions or behaviour that could constitute a conflict of interest in the sense of art. 7.4 of the Code of Ethics and Mr Makarov has always accepted to abstain from participating in any UCI Management Committee decision relating to Turkmenistan."

Cyclingnews also requested to speak to Makarov directly but this was not facilitated.