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.
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.