Uzbekistan is relishing its best ever performance in an Olympic Games after some last-minute sporting victories handed the team an extra two gold medals.
The country’s haul of medals — four golds, two silver and seven bronze — put it ahead of Central Asian rival Kazakhstan and was helped in large part by its contingent of boxers. A stunning seven out of the 13 medals won by Uzbekistan came from boxing.
The first boxer to claim gold was light flyweight Hasanboy Dusmatov, who beat Colombia's Yuberjen Herney Martinez Rivas in the final of their category.
Uzbek state television broadcast a report from Dusmatov’s hometown in the Andijan region, where family and friends were watching the match. The boxer’s father said that although he family was confident Dusmatov would get the gold, they were affected by the nerves of the big Olympic occasion. Dusmatov’s could not bear to watch the broadcast and instead waited out the fight in another room.
But the best was left for last.
On the final day of competitions, Shakhobidin Zoirov won the men's Olympic flyweight boxing gold with a points victory over Russian Misha Aloyan. Later in the afternoon, Fazliddin Gaibnazarov edged out Azerbaijan's Cuban-born Lorenzo Sotomayor with a split 2-1 decision.
This last victory caught many by surprise. Sotomayor struck easily the more impressive figure with his height, long arms and confident strut.
Gaibnazarov’s win was all the more sweet for his underdog status and social media in Uzbekistan was accordingly set alight by the result.
Uzbekistan’s last Olympic gold for boxing came in the Sydney Games of 2000, courtesy of Mahammatkodir Abdullaev in the light welterweight category.
Abdullaev was one of the first to comment on Gaibnazarov’s achievement, saying that the whole country had cried with joy at the win.
A series of alleged tapped telephone conversations among senior Tajikistan diplomats discussing plans to cover up a purported rape in Turkmenistan is threatening to sour relations between the otherwise friendly nations.
The recordings appeared earlier this month on a 20-minute YouTube video edited clumsily to appear to like a news report on Turkmen state television. A link to the video — the origin of which is uncertain — is now being widely shared by exiled Tajik opposition groups, which are pointing to the claimed incident as evidence of moral corruption among officials.
None of the recordings could be independently verified and none of the governments involved have commented officially on the alleged events described.
The narrator of the YouTube video, whose voice has been distorted, possibly to disguise his identity, opens the account with praise for Turkmenistan and its leader, only to note “there are some who are prepared to do almost anything to spoil relations with our country” — a reference to Tajik diplomats.
The speaker claims in the narration that the third secretary of Tajikistan’s Embassy in Turkmenistan, Golibshoh Kayumov, was earlier this year detained by police in the city of Chardjou on suspecting to rape a minor earlier this year.
As supporting evidence, there is a lengthy recorded telephone conversation between people identified as Tajik Embassy second secretary, H. Rahimov, and then-ambassador Mahmudjon Sobirov. After some initial pleasantries, Rahimov explains to this superior that Kayumov was caught in flagrante delicto with the young girl and was later forced to sign a statement admitting to having sexual relations with her.
The president of Turkmenistan’s efforts to broaden his public appeal consisted in the past of demonstrating his skills in all fields of human accomplishment, from sport to medicine and music to literature.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s latest tack appears, quite counterintuitively, to be a full-on embrace of the thug life.
Consider his sudden appearance at the Awaza holiday resort on the Caspian coast, where he was photographed by state posing on his yacht — named after the giant Galkynysh gas field — and dressed like a character out of an Elmore Leonard novel. Still in that worrying Aloha shirt, he took a spin around the resort trailed by his regular mini-army of bodyguards.
The stunt was apparently a fresh attempt to generate some enthusiasm for the doomed tourist resort, which is frequented almost exclusively by government workers on state-paid holidays. Anybody not in a government job would not be able to afford the cost and foreigners are few and far between, not least because Turkmen authorities unaccountably continue to throw up often insurmountable visa barriers.
Berdymukhamedov is clearly aware that his pet project is proving to be a failure, hence his unconvincing popularity-raising antics, but his proposed solutions smack of half-hearted despair.
As Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported, Berdymukhamedov said that it was necessary to develop the “economy” segment of the tourist industry as provide hotel services at low cost. The complex of dachas that existed on the site where Awaza now stands did in fact already fill that niche before being obliterated to make way for the garish and useless current structure.
The latest desperate measures by Turkmenistan’s government to alleviate pressure on the national currency have reportedly sparked panic among the population and prompted many to begin stockpiling food.
Alternative News of Turkmenistan (ANT) website reported last week that the Central Bank had suspended currency convertibility for private enterprises, including those trading in food and similar basic items.
The website on July 26 cited its sources as saying that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov would be personally granting permission to individual companies to buy and sell foreign currencies.
With companies in Turkmenistan unable to secure foreign cash, they are unable to pay suppliers, causing a shortage of imported goods on the local market. As ANT notes, similar restrictions were introduced in October but were not extended to companies dealing in food goods and industrial materials.
Some entrepreneurs should theoretically be able to draw on bank accounts in foreign denomination to continue their transactions, but ANT cited an unnamed government official as saying that only a handful of companies had positive balances on the dollar accounts.
“We have returned back to the days [of former president Saparmurat Niyazov],” the source told ANT.
Without referring to the ANT reports, the Central Bank this week tried to inject a note of reassurance by noting in a statement that it was creating all conditions necessary for currency convertibility.
“The private sector, as well as citizens, can without interference convert foreign currencies as established under the law,” the statement said.
A high-level meeting reportedly set to take place later this year in Turkmenistan could put talk of building a natural gas pipeline across the Caspian Sea back on the agenda.
The Associated Press on July 23 cited Turkey’s ambassador to Turkmenistan, Mustafa Kapucu, as saying that the presidents of his country, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan will meet to discuss the issue. The talks pick up from the EU-brokered Ashgabat Declaration of May 2015, which was signed by the energy ministries of the three countries and set down objectives like creating a legal framework for gas sales by Turkmenistan to Europe and “[developing] constructive dialogue” on the required infrastructure.
The fact that heads of state are set to sit around the table presumably suggests all the governments involved envision a transition from preliminary paper-shuffling to some concrete breakthrough, although experience teaches that this may not be the case.
The resurgence of interest in trans-Caspian would come at a timely juncture for Turkmenistan, which is now reduced to selling almost all of its gas to China. A small if growing amount if being sent to neighboring Iran.
Diversification of export routes has long been an article of dogma for Turkmenistan, and yet it has exasperatingly seen only a reduction of its international markets in recent years. Its erstwhile main customer Russia bought 45 billion cubic meters of gas in 2008, but that has through a series of commercial and diplomatic vicissitudes dwindled to nothing.
Since gas is so important to Turkmenistan, many have surmised that the country’s economy is performing far worse than the government officially allows for.
Foreign ministers of the Caspian littoral states meet in Astana on July 13, 2016. (photo: MFA Russia)
Are the five states around the Caspian Sea finally going to resolve their dispute about how to divide the body of water between themselves?
A number of unusually positive statements from diplomats from the littoral states have suggested that the seemingly intractible dispute is on the verge of being resolved. But if any of the Caspian countries have softened their negotiating positions -- the intransigence of which has resulted in this long dispute -- they aren't telling.
The foreign ministers of the five states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- met last week in Astana, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the sides could reach an agreement in a year.
"I believe it is absolutely realistic to aim for signing the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in 2017. I think this can be done even in the first half of the year," he said. That enthusiasm was shared by Kazakhstan, whose prime minister, Karim Massimov, tweeted: "Met with foreign ministers of Caspian littoral states. There's hope for prompt completion of talks over Caspian Sea Legal Status Convention."
In a custom fitting to the region, Turkmenistan’s ruler has picked a plum job in government for his only known son, Serdar.
Foreign-based website Alternative News of Turkmenistan, or ANT, reported on July 19 that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov appointed his son to a post in the Foreign Ministry.
Before taking up the job in the Foreign Minstry, Serdar Berdymukhamedov had a management position in the State Agency for Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources. That agency, as well as the Oil and Gas Minstry have now been dismantled, however, as part of efforts intended to optimize the country’s energy sector.
Streamlining in one area of government though has been accompanied by expansions elsewhere. Berdymukhamedov senior has created three new departments at the Foreign Ministry to deal with international organizations, legal contracts and “international information,” respectively. ANT reported that Serdar Berdymukhamedov got the nod to head up one of those departments and will now occupy the rank of deputy minister.
Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry is headed by Rashid Meredov, one of the long-term survivors in the Cabinet, a fact likely made possible by his experience and the esteem in which he is held by foreign diplomats.
ANT reported that Meredov was tasked with taking Serdar Berdymukhamedov under his wing as long ago as spring last year.
The theory the website offers on this job is that Berdymukhamedov is priming the young man for eventual succession.
Evidence is mounting that the economic situation is getting grimmer in Turkmenistan, although the government is giving nothing away.
Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a foreign-based news website, reported on a meeting of local businessmen in which attendants were asked to gather money to support the government.
These events took place last month, but details are emerging only now.
The CoT account begins on June 8, when President Gurbanguly Berdmukhamedov met with representatives of the country’s business community. Two days later, the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs summoned a meeting of the same businessmen to make their unusual request. The list of attendees was drawn up by union chairman Alexander Dadayev, who issued the appeal, CoT reported.
“Our deeply esteemed president, speaking before you all, spoke about the global economic crisis, which has led to a sharp drop in prices for energy resources,” Dadayev is quoted as having said by CoT’s unnamed source. “In this difficult time, we members of the national business community should help our country and our dear president.”
Getting down to brass tacks, Dadayev suggested every person present in the room pony up $100,000.
Asked whether the money would be returned, either directly or through future tax breaks, Dadayev apparently said no guarantees could be given. Threats were more forthcoming, however.
“Those that do not pay the sum will have their oxygen cut off. You know that the [Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs] has the means to do this,” he reportedly said.
As for regular members of the public, they are now having more trouble getting their hands on money sent to them from abroad.
Russian state-run energy giant Gazprom is seeking $5 billion in reimbursements from Turkmenistan for gas supplied from 2010 to 2015, news agency Interfax reported on July 5.
Interfax reported that Gazprom is demanding a retroactive revision to the prices it paid for Turkmen gas as part of a legal suit going through the motions at the Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce.
The aggressive move represents a remarkable disruption to the apparent recent outbreak of bonhomie between Moscow and Ashgabat. A delegation of high-ranking Russian military officials traveled to Turkmenistan last month with pledges to offer assistance in bolstering the Central Asian nation’s defense capabilities. And in May, Gazprom surprised many by hinting that it could resume buying Turkmen gas, which it formally stopped doing earlier in the year.
Deliveries of Turkmen gas to Russia reached a post-Soviet peak of 45 billion cubic meters in 2008, but that was when the trouble began. With a global economic crisis then gripping western economies, European demand for Russia’s gas began to flag and prices to fall. Since Moscow’s rationale for buying gas from Turkmenistan was to allow for additional export capacity, the arrangement stopped making sense.
Turkmenistan is getting more directly involved in affairs in northern Afghanistan, an area inhabited by ethnic Turkmens, as instability festers on the border between the two countries.
The Turkmenistan government recently invited several local northern Afghanistan officials to Turkmenistan in late June, and gave free medical care to a commander in an ethnic Turkmen paramilitary unit fighting the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, the commander told the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Also visiting Turkmenistan were the head of the border police in a district of Afghanistan bordering Turkmenistan, other paramilitary commanders, and the head of the highway police in one northern Afghanistan region. It wasn't clear what the other officials were doing in Turkmenistan, but RFE/RL notes that it is rare for Turkmenistan to give visas to ethnic Turkmens from Afghanistan. The paramilitary commander, Emir Allaberen Karya, told RFE/RL that he hoped Ashgabat would "continue to help the Afghan Turkmens." It's not clear what that help has consisted of, but one assumes it is more than the occasional health care junket to Ashgabat.
Karya said it was his first visit to Turkmenistan and that he had been hoping to meet there other commanders of his group, Arbaky, from neighboring regions but that a Taliban attack on his unit had forced him to return to Afghanistan ahead of schedule.
Also in late June, Turkmenistan's foreign minister Rashid Meredov visited northern Afghanistan unannounced, RFE/RL reported. Meredov visited Jowzjan, Faryab, and Balkh provinces where he visited Turkmenistan-financed development projects and met with local leaders. In one part of the visit his convoy hit a mine, though Meredov was apparently unharmed.