U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Rosenblum gives a press conference in Ashgabat on November 18. (photo: U.S. embassy, Ashgabat)
Turkmenistan's government has told the United States that it doesn't need help in protecting its border with Afghanistan, a senior American diplomat has said.
If true, this means Turkmenistan has changed its mind. Earlier this year U.S. military officials said that Ashgabat had asked for aid to help guard its southern border, which over the past couple of years has been the site of repeated clashes between Taliban militants in Afghanistan and Afghan and Turkmen security forces.
"The Turkmens recently expressed a desire to acquire U.S. military equipment and technology to address threats to their security along their southern border with Afghanistan," said General Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. Central Command, in testimony to Congress in March. "We will do what we can to support those requests."
This week, Deputy Assistant Secretary State Daniel Rosenblum visited Ashgabat, and gave a press conference on November 18 where he was asked about U.S. cooperation with Turkmenistan vis-a-vis border security.
"We have seen reports, some in the press and elsewhere, about incidents happening on the border not just recently but going back to last year on the Afghan-Turkmen border," Rosenblum said. "There was one incident that we have heard about in which some Turkmen border guards were killed. We have discussed this with our partners here in Turkmenistan, representatives of the government as well as other international organizations. And the Turkmenistan government has said that it feels they can guarantee the Turkmen border and doesn't require any additional assistance from outside."
About 4,500 Islamist militants are operating in northern Afghanistan near the borders of Central Asia, and are planning to create an "emirate" consisting of much of the territory of the region, Russian officials have said.
"According to the information we have, in that area groups of militants are moving toward the border of the [former Soviet Union], in particular to the borders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan," said Alexander Manilov, coordinator of the Commonwealth of Independent States border guard services, at a meeting on Thursday of the group in Astana. (The CIS is an organization of post-Soviet states.)
"Therefore one of our tasks today is to discuss how to liquidate these threats on the border and that they don't cross into the CIS countries," he said. "According to estimates about the Afghan border, around 4,500 militants, terrorists, are located in the Afghan territories bordering immediately on the CIS countries."
"I believe this is significantly more than it used to be before," Manilov added. "I think there are real threats - from penetrations across the border to attempts to destabilize the states on the [Afghan] border."
Turkmenistan is set to experience a notable slowdown in economic growth in the coming two years because of falling revenues from oil and gas sales, the International Monetary Fund said in a statement on November 10.
Ashgabat’s rosy self-assessments have long been echoed by reputable international bodies like the IMF, so the warning of an imminent change in fortunes could ring alarm bells.
The judgement followed a weeklong visit to Turkmenistan by the IMF, which was in the country for its regular assessment of economic developments and challenges ahead.
As is typical for the IMF, the statement began with the good news.
“Turkmenistan has experienced strong output growth over the past decade. The authorities used a period of high prices for oil and natural gas to more than double per capita income through well-planned development of the hydro-carbon sector,” the IMF mission chief Björn Rother said in the statement.
Turkmenistan has capitalized on its energy wealth to build up healthy reserves, which the IMF said allowed for 30 months of import cover.
Unsurprisingly, however, the economy lacks diversity and has a weak private sector, which is needed to create high-value jobs.
Those internal problems have been compounded by international developments.
“Since 2014, three shocks have led to a worsened external environment for Central Asian countries and will likely have long-lasting effects. Oil and natural gas prices have plummeted and are expected to stay at low levels over the longer term, economic activity in major trading partners including Russia and China has been slowing, and pressures on currencies have intensified,” Rother said.
Turkmenistan has fired the starting pistol on the ambitious TAPI natural gas pipeline, a 1,735-kilometer route intended to supply markets in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
To the applause of ministers, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov announced he had ordered the beginning to construction on November 6 during the weekly Cabinet meeting.
The work on the Turkmen section will be done by state-run gas company Turkmengaz, which was named project consortium leader for TAPI Pipeline Company Limited in August, and energy infrastructure construction division Turkmenneftegazstroi.
The pipeline is designed to transport 33 billion cubic meters of gas annually for a period of three decades. Work is formally due to start in December, according to the government decree signed by Berdymukhamedov, but substantial construction is not expected to get underway until next year. The completion date has been set for December 2018.
Turkmenistan currently exports gas to China, Russia and Iran. But relations between Turkmenistan and Russia, which this year reduced the volume of its gas purchases to 4 billion cubic meters, took a turn for the worse after Ashgabat in July accused Russia's Gazprom of failing to pay for fuel supplied this year.
It was not all good news on the energy front at the Cabinet meeting though.
The long-serving minister for oil and gas, Baymurad Khodjamukhamedov, asked Berdymukhamedov if he could step down for reasons of ill-health, in effect a resignation, which was promptly accepted by the president.
Khodjamukhamedov, who had occupied his post since 2009, will be replaced by Yagshigeldy Kakayev, who is now the head of the presidential State Agency for the Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources. Kakayev will continue to perform his current job on top of taking on ministerial duties.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is interviewed by Kazakhstan's Mir TV in Astana. (photo: State Department)
As United States Secretary of State John Kerry heads home after an unpecedented five-country tour of Central Asia, the U.S. role in the region remains more uncertain than it's been since the 1990s.
The mere fact that the trip happened was the biggest news to come out of it. It was the first time a high-ranking U.S. official had done this five-country tour that has of late become the standard for world leaders (though Japan, India, and China have all sent their presidents, rather than their top diplomat as the U.S. did).
The tour came at a time when U.S. interest in the region seems to be waning as a result of the (albeit now delayed) drawdown from Afghanistan, and so appeared to be an attempt to demonstrate that no, the U.S. isn't gone just quite yet. Also noteworthy -- throughout the entire trip Kerry barely mentioned the much-derided New Silk Road Initiative, which had been the supposed centerpiece of the State Department's post-Afghanistan Central Asia policy.
Kerry's trip also inagurated the "C5+1" format of talks, with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian states plus the U.S. In an area with remarkably little interregional cooperation, that is actually a genuinely novel and potentially important new platform. But what might it be used for?
Turkmenistan is wrapping up construction on a mega-yurt designed for major public events to mark the eastern city of Mary being named the 2015 Culture and Arts Capital of the Turkic World.
State media reported on November 3 that the yurt is of gigantic proportions — at least compared to the modest tent affairs used by nomads. The yurt, which is in fact no tent at all, is 70 meters in diameter, 35 meters high and can hold up to 3,000 people.
The official government portal said that 250 laborers were required to erect the edifice. Work started in April and inauguration is expected in November.
Although the building is being dubbed a yurt, there is little about it that rings especially faithful to the spirit of the dwellings prized for their portability.
“The domed room was made from prefabricated panels, the walls out of glass and aluminum windows reminiscent of the latticed exterior of traditional Turkmen yurts. The base was lined with granite,” the government website explained.
Like any self-respecting yurt, the Mary number will have three stories. The top floor will house a restaurant, a dressing room, office space, while the first floor will be turned into exclusive apartment for VIPs.
Architecture in Turkmenistan in the post-Soviet period has often taken on very literal qualities reflecting the purpose for which it is built.
The state publishing company and government newspaper are housed in a building shaped like a book. The Foreign Ministry is topped by a giant globe of the earth.
German company DEA Deutsche Erdoel AG is set to relinquish its natural gas concession on Turkmenistan’s Caspian Sea shelf over frustration at excess bureaucracy and corruption, according to foreign-based website Alternative News of Turkmenistan (ANT).
The website reported, citing what it claimed were sources inside Turkmenistan’s presidential administration, that the Hamburg-based oil and gas company plans to end its exploration commitments at what is known as Block 23.
DEA AG — formerly RWE Dea AG — was granted exploration rights for Block 23 under a production sharing agreement in 2009 in an agreement that suggested Turkmenistan was readying to open its energy resources up to outsider investors.
The ultimate prize has been access to onshore reserves, but Western courtiers have been kept waiting ever since.
ANT cites it sources as saying that DEA AG has grown tired at “bureaucratic complications” in the Central Asian nation.
“For more than two years, the company has not managed to get the exploration drilling permits, even though all the four-year preparatory work envisioned in 2009 had been completed,” the website reported.
According to ANT, Turkmenistan State Agency for Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources, which answers to the president, insisted on dragging out the process for issuing drilling rights.
One reason offered for the reluctance to issue the license was that the block is adjacent to the Hazar nature reserve, the website reported.
DEA AG did not respond to EurasiaNet.org’s emailed request for comment on the claims that it is pulling out of Turkmenistan.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe embarked on his historic days-long tour of the five countries of Central Asia with a small army of businessmen, banking officials and academics in tow.
This is the first time a Japanese leader has taken all the region’s countries, as well as Mongolia, in a single visit — a clear signal of intent to expand Tokyo’s presence in an area increasingly dominated by the rival economy of China.
Energy was at the top of Abe’s agenda, as suggested by the sealing of $18 billion in deals in Turkmenistan on October 23.
“We have signed documents on a range of projects in the chemical industry and for the construction of electrical generation plants for a total value of $18 billion,” Abe told reporters in Ashgabat.
Those projects include development on the huge Galkynysh natural gas field, building of power stations in the east of the country and polyethylene and propylene production plants, according to Turkmen officials.
The agreements will see Japanese companies like JGC Corporation, Mitsubishi, Chiyoda Corporation and Sojitz Corporation collective investing around $10 billion in Galkynysh, which is estimated to possibly hold 21.2 trillion cubic meters of gas.
Meanwhile, Sumimoto Corporation has received a $300 million order to complete gas-fired power plants with a 400 Megawatt capacity.
Large dollars figures were also flung about with abandon on October 25 in Uzbekistan, where the two countries signed off on $8.5 billion worth of deal.
According to Uzbekistan’s presidential website, Japanese investment will be primarily targeted at modernization of energy and transportation infrastructure, developing mineral resources, automobile construction, the oil, gas and chemical industries, and telecommunications.
Afghanistan's Uzbek leader and vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum has kicked off an offensive in the northern part of the country, just two weeks after traveling to Russia to arrange an increase in military aid.
On Wednesday, Afghanistan's security forces started an operation in the province of Jawzjan, which borders Turkmenistan, led personally by Dostum. The offensive is meant to beat back recent Taliban gains in the north, both in Jawzjan and in neighboring Faryab, which also borders Turkmenistan. Dostum led another offensive in Faryab in August, but his advances were quickly reversed.
Dostum's increasing involvement in the fighting in northern Afghanistan comes as he has also apparently sought to strengthen his ties to the former Soviet states to the north. He visited Grozny and Moscow earlier this month, meeting with officials including Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, to arrange increased Russian military aid.
After arriving in the north, Dostum appeared on Afghan television and publicly thanked his northern neighbors. "The countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, from Russia to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, all of these states are ready to stand with us against [the Islamic State], against extremism, against the bloody Taliban," he said.
The crisp air of autumn has brought out a poetic strain in Turkmenistan’s president, who last week regaled his citizens with some verses.
A poem of four quatrains appeared on October 17 in a front page splash on the Russian language edition of government daily Neutral Turkmenistan.
The lines are accompanied of a photograph of Gurbanguly Berdymukhameov in a blue suit-and-tie combination, stiffly holding his right hand up in a half-wave.
A title in large green letters bears the name of the poem: “Onward! And Only Onward, Land of my Kin — Turkmenistan!”:
Oh beloved Motherland,
You are amity and spring!
Peace — a universal banner,
And a symbol for all!
Upward, forward, onward!
Land of my kin — Turkmenistan!
Onward! And only onward
Land of my kin — Turkmenistan!
Our lives infused with joy,
Oh what times we live in!
And always onward,
Oh nation heroic.
Upward, forward, onward!
Land of my kin — Turkmenistan!
Onward! And only onward
Land of my kin — Turkmenistan!
The composition is not especially ambitious, although it does rhyme in the Russian version at least. That said, Berdymukhamedov rhymes Turkmenistan with Turkmenistan on two separate occasions, so hardly ground-breaking stuff.
Berdymukhamedov has a growing list of written works to his name.
In 2013, he published a novel about his father’s youth called “The Bird of Happiness.” He earlier wrote books on medicinal plants, carpet weaving, horses, history and ethnography.