The presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran have opened a long-anticipated railroad link connecting landlocked Central Asia to the Persian Gulf.
On the Turkmen-Iranian border, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan, Hassan Rouhani of Iran, and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan donned white gloves to bolt together a final section of track that was symbolically colored gold, the Associated Press reported, inaugurating the last stage of the freight link that they hope will herald a boom in trade between the three Caspian littoral states.
Highlighting those expectations, the first cargo to cross the border between Turkmenistan and Iran on December 3 was a wagonload of wheat from Kazakhstan.
The line – which carries only freight but may carry passengers later – has an initial capacity of 5 million tons per year, projected to rise to 12 million tons. Forecasts suggest the new line could triple trilateral trade in the short term from 3 million to 10 million tons, and double it again by 2020 to 20 million.
Russia's Grad Slavyansk corvette, to be used for the first time in joint exercises on the Caspian Sea next year. (photo: mil.ru)
The Caspian Sea will see its first -- and probably the world's first -- naval biathlon next summer, with all five littoral states taking part, the Russian Defense Ministry has announced.
The naval biathlon appears to be a spin-off of the tank biathlon that Russia inaugurated in 2013 and expanded into a blockbuster event this year. And the principle will be the same, with ships racing and shooting at targets. Missing a target will result in a penalty lap.
"Such a naval competition is unparalleled in the world," said Russian Caspian Flotilla Commander, Captain 1st Class Ildar Akhmerov, according to TASS.
Each country will compete with one ship and one reserve vessel. Armored personnel carriers will also be part of the competition (it's not clear how) and there will be an athletic portion of the contest, as well, with sailors competing in rowing, weightlifting, swimming, and tug-of-war. The competition will take place over several months, starting in March and ending in August.
Also not yet clear: which ships will be used and what they will shoot with. The naval capabilities of the five countries on the Caspian -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- vary widely. In the tank biathlon almost all participating countries used Russian-provided tanks, but that wouldn't seem to be a workable solution here; it's unlikely the Russian navy would just hand over the keys of one of its ships to Turkmenistan, for example.
The notion that authoritarian governments and their enablers abroad cynically exaggerate the threat of radical Islamism in Central Asia has become widely accepted. But even well-meaning analysts of Central Asia tend to perpetuate similar myths about politics and Islam, two scholars argue in a new report.
The report, The Myth of Post-Soviet Muslim Radicalization in the Central Asian Republics, was published by British think tank Chatham House and written by John Heathershaw and David Montgomery. As it notes, rhetoric of Islamic radicalism is not just words, but "may provide the basis for common threat perceptions, collaboration in counter-radicalization initiatives and international security assistance in the region."
What distinguishes this report from the many other treatments of this issue (on this blog, for example) is that it addresses not just the clearly self-serving exaggerated threats of regional governments, but also more respectable discourse on Central Asian Islam. It takes as its exemplary single case study the reports of the International Crisis Group. "ICG, as a well-resourced, long-standing and respected organization is far less likely to offer misrepresentative analysis than a weaker and less recognized institution. If the myth is found in ICG writing, it follows that it is even more likely to be found elsewhere," the authors write.
For 12 years, Tatyana Shikmuradova has wondered if her husband is alive or dead. Authorities in her country, Turkmenistan, have answered none of her queries.
Her husband, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikmuradov, was one of dozens arrested, charged, sentenced and jailed within days of a purported assassination attempt on former Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov on November 25, 2002. The New York Times characterized the show trials aired on Turkmenistan’s state-run television at the time as “the most chilling public witch hunt since Stalin.”
At his trial, Shikmuradov – whom the police claimed to have “picked up with drugs in his pockets” – admitted to being an “addict” and a “thug.” Sentenced to 25 years, Shikmuradov’s prison term was increased to life the day after his trial. His sentincing was clearly political, activists say.
“I need to know where my husband is,” Tatyana Shikmuradova pleads in a new video released by Human Rights Watch to mark the anniversary. “For the past 12 years now I haven’t been able to get any information.”
The video is part of the Prove They Are Alive campaign, which demands Turkmenistan provide proof of life of the missing, or admit they are dead. From Human Rights Watch’s statement:
A meeting of CIS government heads over the weekend came and went with little media attention, an indicator both of the lack of importance prime ministers are accorded in the former Soviet Union and of the organization’s general redundancy.
Conceived to keep the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union together in a loose confederation, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) had lost much of its mojo even before one-time member Georgia departed in 2008 and fresher affiliations – such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union – began gathering geopolitical prominence.
The CIS now includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as full members, with Turkmenistan and Ukraine as participants. As Russian President Vladimir Putin said in 2005, the organization is best conceived as “a civilized divorce” between former partners, in spite of periodic and half-hearted attempts to turn it into something more.
For that reason, even the CIS Summit of Heads of Government on November 21 and 22 in Ashgabat had a damp squib feel to it. Although Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was there to greet delegates and hold bilateral talks, the Turkmen, Azeri and Uzbek delegations were formally represented by their respective deputy prime ministers. Ukraine and Moldova, meanwhile, sent ambassadors to head up low-key delegations.
Iran, it seems, was calling Turkmenistan’s bluff earlier this summer when Tehran said it no longer needs gas from its northern neighbor. Now a top official says Tehran will keep buying.
That is good news for Turkmenistan, which is so dependent on its main gas customer, China, that it is starting to look like a client state.
Iran is committed to increasing its own domestic gas production to up to a billion cubic meters per day by 2017, a target one industry analyst thinks is possible but unlikely within such a tight timeframe. But supplying Iran’s northern regions with domestic gas is complicated by its lack of infrastructure. So, since 1997, Iran has bought gas from Turkmenistan to service its north, and sold its own gas abroad.
Deputy Oil Minister Hamid Reza Araqi said this week that his boss and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov had met in Ashgabat this month to hammer out a new purchase agreement. According to regional news agency AKIpress, the meeting happened November 7.
“The deal makes it possible to raise the amount imported from Turkmenistan in cold months of the winter; starting in the beginning of the current year, Turkmenistan has exported 24-25 million cubic meters of natural gas to Iran [daily],” said Araqi, in comments carried in English by Iran’s Mehr news agency on November 19.
The agreement contains a provision to increase this to 30 million cubic meters daily, he added.
Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made his first visit to Central Asia since becoming president earlier this year, to Turkmenistan. And while the headline news from the visit was a deal to supply Turkmenistan natural gas to Turkey, boosting military cooperation likely was on the agenda as well, regional analysts say.
During Erdogan's visit, he signed an agreement with his counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, to supply gas to the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) project. That project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2018, would take gas from the Caspian shore of Azerbaijan to Turkey's western border. How Turkmenistan would get its gas to the pipeline was left unsaid, but Russia has expressed strong opposition to the idea of a pipeline being built across the Caspian, and should such a pipeline be constructed it would really ramp up tensions on the sea. From a Reuters story on the visit:
[T]o join the pipeline Turkmenistan will have to lay another pipeline across the Caspian Sea.
Asked how Turkmenistan could join the TANAP project, Atagas head Osman Saim Dinc told Reuters: "We are working on all alternative routes." He did not elaborate.
With the arrival of November, the serfs trickle home from Turkmenistan’s cotton fields. But a culture of state employees being forced to labor in menial jobs continues throughout the year, says an annual monitoring report. As they wait for the fields to bloom again with “white gold,” low-skilled municipal workers such as janitors and security guards are obliged to do free housekeeping for Turkmen bureaucrats, and to travel to faraway cities to participate in cleanups for the state, the report alleges.
Turkmenistan’s Central Asian neighbor Uzbekistan is usually the focus of international flak for mobilizing its citizens – notably students – to harvest cotton each fall. But totalitarian Turkmenistan, which produces more cotton per person than Uzbekistan, is just as keen on exploiting its bloated public sector for field hands, according to the October 14 briefing, published by Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN), a service run by Turkmen exiles who partner with Amnesty International and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.
Drawing on domestic accounts, the second annual report provides an important insight into Turkmenistan’s labor market. It pays particular attention to Turkmenistan’s low-paid state employees who have limited means to defend their rights in a country where de facto unemployment is high and cowed government workers can be replaced easily.
Turkmenistan marked Independence Day this week. While parts of the gas-rich country were experiencing gas shortages, there was no shortage of pomp and prosperity on display in Ashgabat on October 27. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was in attendance and some of the choreography – like an Akhal-Teke horse, his favorite breed, drawn out of Kalashnikovs – must have been especially pleasing to the horse-mad leader.
A photographer in Ashgabat sent EurasiaNet.org these images, which are used with permission.
Turkmenistan has the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves and exports billions of dollars worth of gas every year. But its copious reserves are apparently not enough to ensure a stable supply for residents of this isolated, totalitarian country.
Shortages in northern villages prompted a rare protest on October 28, reports the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a news website run by exiles. Several dozen women blocked a highway to draw officials’ attention to the shortages, which come with the onset of autumn and are affecting residents’ ability to heat their homes and cook. The shortages, says Chronicles, have even hit Dashoguz, a town of about 200,000 people:
Residents have repeatedly called on gas providers [for help], but the latter complain that very little gas is being delivered; moreover, the pipes and equipment are very run-down, while specialists capable of maintaining all this in working order are simply nowhere to be found. The authorities are not providing either the funds or the pipes to repair gas mains.