Internet connections have been down in large parts of Turkmenistan following a reported fatal explosion at an oil refinery in the western city of Turkmenbashi.
Alternative News of Turkmenistan cited unnamed sources in a report on June 25 as saying that the blast occurred at fuel reservoir and may have killed seven people.
ANT linked the reported explosion with possible poor maintenance work on the fuel tank ventilation system.
On the day of the claimed explosion, ANT reported the internet being cut off in several places in the Balkan region, where Turkmenbashi is situated. Mobile users elsewhere in the country could not be reached on June 27, suggesting that the government has put an information blackout in place.
Chronicles of Turkmenistan, another foreign-based news and advocacy website, reported that some online messaging services have become unavailable. The Line messaging app has been performing poorly since June 26, but issues with Skype seems to have predated the reported blast by a couple of weeks.
“It is not clear if the connection problems are related to technical faults or if the block on messaging services has been implemented purposely to control the flow of information in the country,” the website said.
Information blackouts are standard procedure in Turkmenistan and state media has made no references to any incident in Turkmenbashi.
Turkmenistan looks set to deepen military ties with Russia in a rare development for a nation that has since independence pursued a rigidly isolationist foreign policy.
ITAR-Tass news agency cited a spokesman for Russia’s defense ministry as saying on June 9 that Moscow would provide Turkmenistan’s armed forces with weaponry and training.
"During talks, the sides discussed relevant issues of bilateral military and military-technical cooperation, as well as problems of regional and global security," ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said, speaking at the close of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Turkmenistan.
Ashgabat’s sudden change of course appears likely motivated by concern over the worsening security situation on the border with Afghanistan.
Foreign-based website Alternative News of Turkmenistan, or ANT, on June 8 carried a sensational item claiming that 27 conscripts stationed on the border were killed in clashes in early May.
The website cited unnamed sources as saying that the body of one soldier was returned to his family in a sealed coffin with the explanation that he had committed suicide. When relatives opened the coffin, they found the body riddled with 17 bullet wounds, the website said.
“An ANT source in the Mary velayat said that the bodies of 20 soldiers were brought to their region, but not in zinc coffins, as it should be, but in sleeping bags,” the website said.
ANT has carried multiple reports of claimed casualties among Turkmen troops on the border, but such stories are virtually impossible to verify independently.
Competitors spar in the 2016 Asian Sambo Championship in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
By rights, juking the stats in sports should not be possible or, at the very least, easy. In Turkmenistan, however, statistics and facts all too often occupy different worlds.
State media has been in raptures about the outcome of the 2016 Asian Sambo Championship, a martial arts contest that concluded in Ashgabat this week with Turkmenistan coming top of the medals table. As the government’s Golden Era website reported, Turkmen fighters won 21 gold, 26 silver and 19 bronze medals.
Sambo is a form self-defense combat that draws on techniques from judo and wrestling and was developed in the 1930s in the Soviet Union and has since spread internationally.
With the the 2nd edition of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games set to be held in Turkmenistan in 2017, this event has been seen as a good test of the country’s ability to both host and compete effectively in an international sporting contest.
“[The tournament] allowed us to determine our country’s readiness for the upcoming continental games that will involve sportsmen from 62 countries in Asia and Oceania,” the Golden Era noted.
According to Golden Era, more than 400 competitors from over 20 countries took part in the Sambo tournament.
“Today we can say with certainty that the ‘test’ has been passed with flying colors,” Golden Era remarked.
But foreign-based Turkmenistan news website Gundogar begged to differ and described the competition as a typical instance of playing around with facts.
The president of Turkmenistan has effected a major revamp among officials running the country’s economy in a desperate bid to emerge from a crisis provoked by low global energy commodity prices.
State media reported on April 10 that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov fired the Economy and Development Minister Eldash Sheripov, who had been in his post since July 2015.
Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper reported that other officials dismissed included Trade and Foreign Economic Relations Minister Bayar Abayev and the head of the tax service, Shatlyk Hummedov. They had been in their jobs for five years and two years, respectively.
Berdymukhamedov offered typically vague and ominous motivations for the dismissals.
“There are violations related to unauthorized and non-earmarked spending of budget funds, as well as an unjustifiable expansion in the ranks of management that is slowly evolving in the financial and economic system,” he said.
Without any firm details, it can only be assumed that this is an oblique reference to a problematic cocktail of corruption, nepotism and mismanagement in the departments in question.
In another sign of the grievous state of government’s finances, the long-promised scrapping of generous social benefits is also looming ever closer.
Berdymukhamedov said that the provision of free gas, water and electricity approved in the early post-independence period as a measure to “improve the social condition of the population” had lost its relevance.
“From an economic point of view this is no longer justifiable and it is preventing the transition to a market economy and imposing an additional burden on the budget,” the president said.
Screenshot of Turkmenistan state television showing what appears to be a Chinese HQ-9 air defense system during military exercises.
Turkmenistan showed off its newly acquired Chinese air defense systems during military exercises, confirming for the first time that the country has gotten some significant weaponry from Beijing.
Last year, sketchy media reports suggested that Turkmenistan (and Uzbekistan) had acquired Chinese HQ-9 air defense systems, potentially marking the entrance of China into the Central Asia military market hitherto dominated by Russia.
Now Turkmnenistan has aired footage of what appears to be an HQ-9 in action during its large-scale, ongoing military exercises. The HQ-9 was spotted by the Russian military blog BPMD amid the state TV coverage, visible at about 4:10 in the video below (which is also worth watching for its footage of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at the controls of a number of military vehicles, including a helicopter).
"The Russian government may not be entirely happy, but probably cannot do anything about it," Russian military expert Vasiliy Kashin told The Bug Pit after last year's reports of China's HQ-9 exports to Central Asia. "Central Asian countries started to diversify their military-technical cooperation long ago, and China is one of natural choices."
Turkmenistan's armed forces are conducting unprecedented large-scale, unannounced exercises, an indication of the growing importance the country's government is placing on its defense.
The exercises began "in the dead of night" between Friday and Saturday, on a personal command of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to his senior military and defense officials, according to an account in the official state news agency. They continued through Monday, with no indication when they might end.
Turkmenistan's government tends to be secretive about its military (as it is with most everything else) but there has been an unmistakeable emphasis in the past several years placed on acquiring new weaponry and modernizing its armed forces. Meanwhile, all the navies on the Caspian Sea (including Turkmenistan) have been steadily building up their navies, and Turkmenistan's border with Afghanistan has become increasingly unstable, with repeated skirmishes, incursions, and other bouts of instability on that border over the last three or so years.
All branches of Turkmenistan's military, including land, air, and naval forces, special operations and air defense, are involved in the exercise. The drills carried out included practicing air strikes against "enemy armed groups," anti-tank warfare, surveillance by drones, and naval surface-to-surface and surface-to-air fire "against various targets."
The president of Turkmenistan has in candid remarks admitted to the pervasive corruption hobbling the country’s energy sector, but his solutions appear so far limited mainly to the usual threats and targeted dismissals.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said during a Cabinet meeting broadcast on television on March 5 that state auditors and prosecutors have recently been running checks on energy enterprises and uncovered irregularities “causing the government serious losses.”
Corruption has become a recurring theme in Turkmenistan as authorities seek to explain away the economic malaise gripping the country.
Berdymukhamedov said that former deputy prime minister Baymyrat Hojamuhammedov, who was dismissed from his role overseeing the energy sector for health reasons in November 2015, was directly involved in the corruption.
“After the investigations, he returned $1.5 million that he received in bribes from various people,” Berdymukhamedov said.
Also on March 5, the president fired the head of the State Statistics Committee, Akmyrat Mamedov, who stands accused of fiddling the figures to enable graft.
Anybody who has ever in good conscience scrutinised the sparse statistical information made available online by Turkmenistan’s authorities will have questioned their reliability years ago. And yet those are the same figures that international financial organisation invariably rely upon when formulating their rosy economic forecasts, which should probably raise some questions about their practices.
Mamedov has been in his job since March 2010.
Dismissals among senior economic officials have been coming fast and furious of late.
In February, Berdymukhamedov removed one of his key aides, Palvan Taganov, from his post, again for suspected wrongdoings in the oil and gas sector.
Turkmenistan’s recent rushed decision to declare war on delinquent landlords has backfired with embarrassing results and reportedly ended up with the ambassador of a friendly nation being cast out onto the street.
The story began on February 5, when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov grumbled at a Cabinet meeting about the lack of regulation in the buy-to-let business.
On one hand, it was good that Turkmens have grown so affluent that they are able to buy multiple apartments, the president appeared to argue, but the government should be getting its cut too.
Berdymukhamedov criticized chiefs of police and local governments for failing to tackle the problem and demanded that a formal system be imposed for apartment rental, so as to bring the business into line with the law.
The hearts of apartment-owners will doubtless have sunk when he went on to insist that anybody renting apartment would, even for short stays, be obliged to obtain the dreaded propiska — the residency permit devised back in the days of the Russian Empire. Short-term propiskas have not until now been mandatory, not least since non-residents of the capital have found it impossible to get them.
Landlords will now have to register properly with the tax office. Presumably, most have until now been paid in cash and avoided mentioning their income to the authorities, although no data on the matter is readily available.
Top officials have been ordered to draw up an inventory of residential properties in the capital, Ashgabat, so the authorities can properly systematize the rental sector.
The president of Turkmenistan is braced to join the Central Asian club of potential leaders-for-life with proposed changes to the Constitution that will inevitably be approved in October.
Proposed amendments published in Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper on February 15 envision presidential terms being increased to seven years, from the current five, and the 70-year upper age limit for presidential candidates being scrapped.
Such revision to the Constitution are transparently intended to ensure former dentist President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, now 58 years old, can remain in situ as long as he is alive.
The next presidential election had been slated for 2017, but that date will now likely be pushed back to 2019.
Before the amendments can come into force, they will have to be subjected to a public discussion at the Council of Elders in the capital, Ashgabat, later this year. Those events are typically reserved for extolling the president and wild clapping in support of his policies, so the procedure is only a formality.
Berdymukhamedov’s successor was famously, of course, himself named leader-for-life in 1999. That life, as it turned out, wasn’t very long, since Saparmurat Niyazov died of a sudden heart attack in late 2006 at the age of 66.
There are other changes being proposed to the Constitution.
If the president cannot, for one reason or another, acquit his duties, then the role will pass to the speaker of parliament. Elections for a new leader will have to be held no later than 60 days, and the acting president is barred from standing. No changes to the Constitution will be permitted in that period.
A cargo train carrying a test shipment along the recently completed China-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway is bearing in on its final destination in a landmark event for Eurasian trade.
State media in Turkmenistan reported that the train, which departed from the Chinese city of Yiwu, just south of Shanghai, at the end of January covered 7,908 kilometers over nine days, and crossed the border into Iran on February 10.
The entire railroad extends around 10,000 kilometers and requires two weeks to cover, which is estimated to be around twice as fast as the sea route.
“The cargo, loaded with all kinds of consumer goods, traversed the Turkmen section in 28 hours, instead of two days, as had been expected. This significant reduction in travel time translates into substantial savings on transportation costs and makes the route more cost-effective,” state news agency TDH reported.
The overall route could, as its proponents argue, radically increase the efficiency in the transportation of goods from China’s eastern seaboard to markets in the Persian Gulf.
A final link in the mammoth railroad was put into place in December 2014 when the presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran officially inaugurated a 930-kilometer line running from Ozen in western Kazakhstan through Turkmenistan to Gorgan in northwestern Iran. That sped up cargo transit between the countries by cutting 600 kilometers off the journey on the previously existing route from Beyneu in western Kazakhstan to Mashhad in northern Iran.