On September 30, Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry issued a testy press release to complain about “certain people (at the conference) indulging in a range of subjective, provocative attacks and biased comments about Turkmenistan with the clear aim of putting psychological pressure on members of the Turkmen delegation.”
Radio Azattyk cited Turkmen deputy foreign minister Vepa Hajiyev at the meeting as insisting that freedom of speech is respected in Turkmenistan and that Internet access was on the increase. Hajiyev also denied reports that authorities have forced people to dismantle their satellite dishes, which remain for many a sole inlet to news from the outside world.
“We continue to provide various social benefits, like free gas, water and electricity,” Hajiyev was quoted as saying by Radio Azattyk. “A dictator doesn’t do these things. This is all done for the people.”
The U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE, Daniel Baer, was unimpressed by Turkmen commitments to bring ever more people online. In a speech, also delivered on September 22, he criticized an Internet law recently adopted by Turkmenistan.
Exiled Turkmen activists have noted a strange detour during President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s return from New York this week, prompting speculation that he might be unwell.
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan website said a keen-eyed reader scouring planespotter resource FlightRadar24 noted that Berdymukhamedov’s plane had stopped off in Munich, Germany, on September 26 instead of heading straight to Ashgabat.
That was enough to prompt opposition site Gundogar.org to speculate that the president had stopped off for medical consultations precipitated by a health scare.
According to his official schedule, Berdymukhamedov was due to travel on September 24-27 to take part in the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
As it happens, Berdymukhamedov’s speech before the General Assembly included a passage on health and on the need to promote healthy lifestyles.
The plot thickened further when BBC Monitoring, a service that closely watches media output across Central Asia, noted that state television station Altyn Asyr failed to report on the president’s regular Monday government meeting this week.
“Instead, its flagship evening news bulletin carried a report recapping the main events of last week,” BBC Monitoring said in a report summing up news from September 28.
That Berdymukhamedov is in poor health is always possible, although state media tirelessly rams home the message that the president is a superior sporting specimen.
The Munich connection is an intriguing one, however.
In a signal of a major downgrade in Turkmenistan’s generous welfare system, the Council of Elders advisory body proposed on September 10 to abolish the free supply of electricity, cooking gas and water to the country’s households, state media reported.
The plan marks the strongest indicator to date of the extent of damage being caused by falling global energy prices to an economy so heavily reliant on natural gas exports.
Supporters of the idea, which will beyond all certainty enter into force, argued that it was time for Turkmenistan to embrace market rules. The Council of Elders ostensibly serves as a would-be bridge between representatives of local communities and the central government, but it is evident that it takes its cues from the authorities.
“For many years already, we have been using free gas, power and water. There is nothing like this welfare system anywhere else in the world. What is more, these benefits cost large amounts to the state budget, and so I think that the time has come for a charge to be imposed on these services,” said Gozel Saparmuradova, a Council of Elders deputy and teacher from the Dashoguz province.
Businessman Hudainazar Atageldiev weighed in to remind the audience of how much life had improved in recent years.
“That is why I am proposing introducing payment for the use of gas, water and electricity, which will allow private enterprises to operate more profitably in market conditions, bringing positive results to our economy,” Atageldiev said.
Those speeches followed an address from President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who also touched on the subject.
"How long are we going to be throwing away our wealth? We should leave our descendants a legacy of natural riches, a clean environment and a strong state,” he said in remarks broadcast on state television.
Kazakh soldiers drill in preparation for the September 3 military parade in Beijing commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Central Asian soldiers and presidents took part in a massive Chinese military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia, the guest list of which provided some grist for speculation on China-Central Asia relations.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan were among the 11 countries sending relatively large contingents (of about 75 soldiers each) to take part in the September 3 parade. The Central Asian soldiers started arriving in China more than two weeks ahead of the parade, and rehearsed six hours a day. Soldiers from those three Central Asian states also participated in a similar event May 9 in Moscow.
But there were some intriguing inconsistencies in the turnout of Central Asian presidents who showed up. Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, who skipped the Moscow parade, did appear in Beijing. And Turkmenistan's Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who appeared at Moscow's parade, skipped Beijing's. (The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan took part in both.) As the parade was about to begin, Chinese state television showed Karimov standing on the reviewing stand just to the right of his regional rival, Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev. (The cameras did not catch any conversation between the two men.)
As an air of economic despondency descends over Central Asia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have decided to eat their way out crisis.
A government meeting in Turkmenistan on August 28 examined areas in which the country might be able to pursue an import substitution policy, which would mean banning imported goods in favor of locally produced equivalents.
Deputy prime minister Palvan Taganov said the bulk of imported goods was accounted for by technical industrial goods, but the state news agency report on the Cabinet discussion gave no details about what those mostly comprise.
Instead, more talk was seemingly devoted to the purportedly more promising area of food imports.
Import substitution was initially touted as Turkmenistan’s ticket out of economic doldrums in a government meeting in April, when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov instructed officials to develop a program on the policy. He also used that meeting to complain of excess spending and the bloated state of the government.
But figures produced by Taganov indicate that if the import substitution agenda is to be applied mainly to food, its benefit will be virtually negligible, if not detrimental in the long term. The policy favors local producers in the immediate term, but typically ends up yielding poor returns to the consumer.
As Taganov explained in his presentation, food accounts for 6.1 percent of imports. The state news agency cited state on four goods and the proportion that the consumption of locally produced goods takes up in the domestic market: fruit juices - 96.9 percent; non-alcoholic drinks - 91.8 percent; tinned foods goods - 87.2 percent; and sausage goods - 61.8 percent.
A car race in Turkmenistan is hardly worth the while unless the president is competing. And winning, naturally.
The government’s Golden Age website reported that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov turned up early in the morning on August 22 to take part in the Alfa Romeo 2015 Cup.
A little counterintuitively, the auto-rally track started from the bottom of the Path of Health, a steep, concrete stairway set into the mountains south of Ashgabat that Berdymukhamedov’s predecessor instituted to get Turkmens walking their way to a long life.
Golden Age’s blow-by-blow account of the race brimmed with excitement. Berdymukhamedov took his place in car No. 7, alongside with six other identical green Alfa Romeos.
“The route of the race, which is 57 kilometers long, was designed with a rather complex configuration, which allows competitors to show off their best qualities and to confirm their top class driving skills,” the report explained.
There was some competition, but the outcome was of course a given: “The cars fly, engines roar, the distance between them gets shorter and lengthens again on the bend, but then the Alfa Romeo No. 7 breaks away from its nearest pursuers and rushes forward, to victory!”
Berdymukhamedov clocked a finishing time of 26 minutes and 10 seconds, which equals an average speed of 130 kilometers per hour (81 miles per hour).
Not hugely impressive, some might argue, since that is equivalent to the highway speed limit in France, but perhaps only a closer study of the track would allow a fairer assessment. Foreign sports journalists have been welcomed to Turkmenistan, but then constrained from doing any actual reporting, so any such independent evaluation is unlikely to come soon.
This is not Berdymukhamedov’s first brush with motoring glory.
Turkmenistan’s micro-managing leader is a stickler for the facts. Only as long as they are facts he like though.
Speaking at the regular end-of-week Cabinet meeting on August 14, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov revealed plans to oblige foreign academics to submit works on Turkmenistan for government review before they get the all-clear.
Berdymukhamedov complained in the meeting that foreign academics were allowing personal views to slip into their works on Turkmen history and society. Those opinions, he said, sometimes do not correspond to “our broadly accepted views and doctrines.”
The measure would ostensibly be aimed at intensifying limitations on academics hoping to work in Turkmenistan.
Carrying out objective, in-country research on politics and other burning topics is essentially impossible, but the proposed restrictions could potentially be applied far more indiscriminately. Even the study of Turkmenistan’s ancient history could fall afoul of government meddling, since the authorities have routinely pursued idiosyncratic interpretations of historical events.
The often-nonsensical miscellany of literature, religion and historical treatise that was cobbled together to make up late President Saparmurat Niyazov’s two-volume Rukhnama was once obligatory reading for all Turkmens, but has increasingly fallen out of favor.
Berdymukhamedov has proven no slouch on the history book-writing front, however. Works under his belt include a historical survey on the Akhal-Tekke horse breed, a slim biography of his own grandfather, a novel about his father titled “The Bird of Happiness,” a lavishly illustrated guide to native Turkmen medicinal herbs and a book about carpets.
The pipeline intended to forge a new export route through Afghanistan for Turkmenistan’s natural gas riches has made a fresh stride with the naming a consortium leader for construction.
Turkmenistan’s state news agency reported on August 6 that state-owned Turkmengaz will be in charge of bringing TAPI — named for the initials of the four countries it crosses — into existence.
The decision was taken during a TAPI management committee meeting in Ashgabat, the Turkmen state news agency reported. Senior officials from the Asian Development Bank, which is acting a transaction adviser on the project, were also in attendance.
“In its capacity as leader of the consortium of the TAPI Limited pipeline company, Turkmengaz will head coordination on construction, financing, management and use of the TAPI pipeline,” said an official statement cited by the state news agency.
Backers of the project, which include the United States and the European Union, appear to be unfazed by occasional and loosely sourced reports of unrest along the Turkmen-Afghan border that would stand to disrupt any major construction work. Security issues do not typically feature in official statements on TAPI, which suggests either that anxieties are overblown or that the parties to the project are simply hoping for the best.
The statement notes that Turkmengaz has more than 50 years experience in the development and transportation of gas resources, as well as in the construction of pipelines. But it also notes hopefully that other large companies will join the consortium as the project moves forward.
Turkmenistan’s leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has flown to Kyrgyzstan with promises of enduring friendship and, on a more practical note, supplies of cheap electricity.
As ever though, natural gas was being discussed as Turkmenistan presses forward in its program to create as many export routes for its fuel as possible.
Speaking after talks in Bishkek on August 5, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev was fulsome in his gratitude for commitments that are still only notional.
“I want to thank you for your brotherly word about Turkmenistan’s readiness to deliver electricity at very low prices. I think that all the issues to do with its transportation will be settled,” he told his guest.
Easier said than done given the not inconsiderable issue of Uzbekistan, which lies between the two countries. Tashkent has historically proven an unreliable transit nation for power deliveries. In 2009, Uzbekistan interrupted electricity supplies from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan when it pulled out of the Soviet-engineered power grid that links Central Asian nations.
Ashgabat committed in 2013 to investing $5 billion over a seven year period into increasing its export capacity fivefold, so it should on paper have enough to go around. It is unclear, other than sheer brotherliness, why Turkmenistan would commit to subsidizing Kyrgyzstan’s notoriously inefficient electricity system.
Any Kyrgyz government unwilling to countenance political unrest will consider raising electricity tariffs at their own peril.
NATO could get involved in protecting a potential trans-Caspian gas pipeline, which Russia strongly opposes, an alliance official has said.
The idea of building a pipeline across the Caspian Sea to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan's massive reserves to Azerbaijan and then further on to Europe has been on the drawing board for a long time, but has been held back for a number of reasons, not least Russia's strong opposition.
In May, a senior EU official said on a visit to Ashgabat that a "political decision" had been made to build the pipeline and that the EU expects to start receiving gas from it by 2019. It's still not clear who would build the pipeline, however.
But now a NATO official has said that the alliance would play a part in protecting it. In an interview with Azerbaijani news website AzVision, NATO's South Caucasus Liaison Officer William Lahue weighed in on the pipeline and made some surprisingly bold endorsements of it:
“It is important that countries have multiple sources of supply in order to protect themselves from fluctuations in available sources of supply,” he said. “In this process Azerbaijan is going to be important, and its importance is growing.”
“Technically, it is possible to build Trans-Caspian Pipeline as I was told by businessmen from different countries,” said Lahue, adding that the politics is lining up the way that it is eventually going to happen....
“What NATO will be able to do is to pull partners looking for protection of critical energy infrastructure and in that way, we can help facilitate trainings, education for the national organizations working in this sphere for protection of infrastructure,” said Lahue.