This week, during an official visit to Turkmenistan, Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to resume imports of Turkmenistan’s natural gas to Ukraine for the first time since supplies were suspended in 2006 after former Turkmen President Niyazov publicly accused Ukrainian leadership of not fulfilling their payment obligations. Ukrainian Energy Minister Eduard Stavytskyy told journalists in Ashgabat on February 13 that the deal would be finalized once Kazakhstan and Russia consented to be transit states. However, experts such as Michail Gonchar, head of the energy department of Ukraine’s Nomos Analytical Center, remain skeptical of this deal materializing, saying that such expressions of intent take place with every Ukrainian delegation visiting Turkmenistan, and simply remain on paper.
In an interview with gazeta.ru, Gonchar said that the agreement is only a Memorandum of Understanding and that the deal requires Russia’s support for transit, and Russia has no interest in Ukraine’s and Turkmenistan’s renewed cooperation, which it did its best to terminate 15 years earlier, to maintain its position as the dominant energy supplier in the region. Gonchar suggests, that in signing this memorandum, Turkmenistan is signaling Russia to buy more Turkmen gas, as it currently purchases only 10 billion cubic meters, whereas prior contracts from 2003 envisioned the purchase of 40 billion. Former Naftogaz-Ukraine spokesperson, Valentin Zemlianski says that the most realistic outcome of this deal, given that Turkmen gas transiting through Russia has never made it completely to Ukraine -- and Russia instead has sent its own gas to Ukraine, is that Russia might review the price of its gas for Ukraine.
President Berdymukhamedov met with President of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Ashgabat to sign an agreement stating intent to expand cooperation in the oil and gas sector. Sheikh Khalifa called for tapping the economic and investment opportunities that both countries offer, building public-private sector partnerships and bolstering co-operation in the oil and gas, petrochemical, and extractive industries.
During these official visits, the Ashgabat authorities undertook additional security measures, paralyzing traffic in the Turkmen capital for hours, according to Russia’s Regnum news agency. Road police blocked the main roads and highways and police and agents in civilian clothes restricted pedestrian movement along the city’s main avenues. The practice of blocking traffic is routine not only during the visits of foreign dignitaries, but also when President Berdymukhamedov is driven to and from work. During his commute, residents of the buildings located along the route of his motorcade are prohibited from parking their cars in front of their homes, opening curtains, opening windows, or looking out of windows overlooking the streets where the President travels.
The demographics of traffic will likely change as the Turkmen government introduces a new ban on students from driving cars, or even being a passenger in a car driven by another student, throughout their studies until graduation. The ban may have been inspired by recent incidents when students caused serious car accidents on the road – in one fatal incident, the father of the student involved was dismissed from his Ministry position, and more commonly, heads of universities have lost their jobs over students’ road conduct.
In its annual report of 2012, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said that severe religious freedom violations and official harassment of religious adherents persist in Turkmenistan and recommending that the US government designate Turkmenistan as a "country of particular concern," as it has done since 2000. Recently two conscientious objectors in Turkmenistan, Dovran Matyakubov and Matkarim Aminov, both Jehovah’s witnesses, had their jail sentences extended for two years' for their refusal of military service on the grounds of conscience only six months after having completed 18-month jail terms for the same charges, according to reports from Forum 18 News Service. Two other conscientious objectors received jail sentences in the past two months and a conscientious objector in Ashgabat was sentenced with a USD 2,100 fine. To date, according to Forum 18, there are eight such cases of known conscientious objectors in jail and an additional four men serving suspended sentences. The family and friends of another religious conscientious objector exercised their right to appeal to the UN and subsequently have been subjected to a raid by police, detentions, torture, beatings, interrogations, threats, and fines.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch reported the release of two other prisoners of conscience, Sapardurdy Khajiev and Annakurban Amanklychev, who, together with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Turkmen service correspondent, Ogulsapar Muradova, were detained in June 2006 after having helped a French journalist with a documentary film about the dire state of human rights in Turkmenistan. In August 2006, all three were convicted of illegal weapons possession after a closed trial. Muradova died in prison under suspicious circumstances in September 2006. They were associated with the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation, a Turkmen human rights group in exile.