A photo released by the de facto authorities of Nagorno Karabakh of an Azerbaijani Israeli-produced ThunderB drone that Armenian forces shot down during last April's fighting.
Turkmenistan was Turkey's single largest weapons buyer over the past five years, while the arms industries of Belarus and Israel are increasingly dependent on Azerbaijan's business, a new report has shown.
The report, by the arms trade research group Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, also shows that Azerbaijan is one of the world's leading arms importers. And while a large majority of Baku's purchases still come from Russia, its dependence on Moscow is declining.
Azerbaijan was the 21st leading arms importer in the world over the period 2012-2016, according to new data published by SIPRI. Only two countries ahead of Azerbaijan on that list had smaller populations -- Israel and Singapore.
According to SIPRI's data, 69 percent of Azerbaijan's weapons imports come from Russia, with 22 percent from Israel and under four percent from Belarus. That makes Azerbaijan Israel's second-largest arms customer (accounting for 13 percent of its exports) and Belarus's third-most important customer (11 percent of Belarus's exports).
That 69 percent from Russia is a lot, but when SIPRI made similar calculations two years ago, Azerbaijan had bought fully 85 percent of its weapons over the previous five years from Russia.
Most of Russia's sales to Azerbaijan have been for land forces, including armored vehicles, artillery, and anti-tank missiles. From Israel, Azerbaijan has bought a large variety of drones, as well as anti-tank missiles and some naval equipment.
Speaking at his presidential inauguration after winning a galactic 97.7 percent of the vote in an election over the weekend, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov announced that Turkmenistan will embark on further exploration of space.
The state news agency cited the president as saying on February 17 that Turkmenistan will build a world-class observatory from which to study the skies. But there is also a more explicitly commercial intent behind this sudden interest in space.
“Huge attention will be devoted to developing the communications sector,” he said. “We will continue to exploit outer space by launching new satellites that will enable us to optimize telecommunications networks and the national economy and raise the Great Silk Road linking the continents to a whole new level.”
Turkmenistan has already secured a perch in the space. In 2015, a Turkmen satellite was blasted into orbit onboard a SpaceX craft. The 4.5 ton satellite was built on order by France’s Thales Alenia Space and is operated by the Communications Ministry to provide telecommunications services across Europe, Central Asia and Africa.
Berdymukhamedov said at a government meeting in mid-January that one priority for 2017 was to continue developing mobile, broadcasting and internet communications, and that satellites would be key to that goal.
As had been widely anticipated, Turkmenistan’s president has not only won the presidential election, but has done so with a stratospheric majority, despite his nation’s sinking economy.
In light of the intensely authoritarian nature of the country, it is no surprise that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov should have got 97.69 percent of the vote. And the turnout was high too.
“The 97.27 percent turnout indicates a high degree of civic involvement by the population and demonstrates its conscious desire to participate directly in democratic reforms in Turkmenistan,” an election official was quoted as saying by the state news agency.
The figures are grimly comical and news websites run by exiled Turkmens have argued convincingly that they are deeply fraudulent. It is perhaps worth dwelling upon them in passing for the intended symbolism, however.
Berdymukhamedov has, going by the official election figures, become only more popular with every passing election.
In February 2007, in the wake of the sudden death of President Sapamurat Niyazov, a still-diffident Berdymukhamedov was declared the election winner with a relatively modest 89.2 percent of the vote, and a 95 percent turnout. He bettered that performance by getting 97.14 percent of the vote, with a 96.7 percent turnout, in February 2012.
And since the size of the electorate has, according to official figures, risen from around 2.6 million in 2007 to 3.22 million people registered for this weekend’s vote, so that represents not just a proportional increase in would-be favorability, but also a hefty jump in outright support.
The head of Turkmenistan’s state gas company Turkmengaz has been fired as the government remains mired in an debt dispute with Iran over historic gas deliveries.
At a government meeting on January 13, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov announced that Ashirguly Begliyev was being moved to another unspecified post to be replaced by his deputy, Maksat Babayev,
Addressing deputy prime minister Yashigeldy Kakayev, who oversees the country’s energy sector, Berdymukhamedov complained that his “managers do not meet current requirement, and that is why I have taken this decision.”
In an organisational rearrangement whose significance it is still too early to fully divine, Berdymukhamedov said the head of Turkmengaz will have a ministerial rank. Accordingly, Babayev will now be designated a state minister and chairman of Turkmengaz state concern.
Begliyev had occupied his post since January 2015 — a relatively short tenure, but not one whose brevity is out of the norm for Turkmenistan.
As so many other Turkmen officials, the new Turkmengaz chief, Babayev, has almost nothing by way of a public profile. He was named deputy head of the company in April 2012. Within a year he had already earned a reprimand from Berdymukhamedov, officially for “allowing shortcomings during construction of a gas compressor station at the Malai field.” But after that, he seems to have managed to evade complete attention, other than from his intermittent appearances at the regular energy conferences in Turkmenistan.
Picture of the recently inaugurated Ashgabat international airport. (Picture of the recently inaugurated Ashgabat international airport.
With characteristic pomp, Turkmenistan unveiled an idiosyncratic new airport terminal in the capital shaped like a falcon thrusting through desert air, to acclaim last year.
And now, if a report in RFE/RL’s Turkmen service Radio Azatlyk is to believed, the $2.3 billion building in Ashgabat is slowly sinking into the sand.
Azatlyk reported on January 13 that representatives from Turkish construction company Polimeks, which built the terminal, have been summoned to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to answer for themselves. And, perhaps more importantly, to explain how this news got into the media in the first place.
Azatlyk cited its source as saying that a special commission has been set up to study the subsidence and come up with ways of resolving the issue. French construction giant Bouygues, which was also involved in building the terminal, has been drafted to effect repairs.
Problems apparently began to appear in December, when sheets of glass fell out of place and communication cables began to fail.
The airport was built in preparation for the 2nd edition of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games — a 10-day event due to take place in September. A website dedicated to the games is up and going and counting down the seconds to the event kicking off.
These multiple transgressions might ordinarily lead to firing galore, but with the presidential elections due on February 12, it is more likely that Berdymukhamedov will keep his powder dry until then and then reshuffle the Cabinet. Either way, somebody will have to pay.
As Turkmenistan and Iran continue to trade accusations in their unfolding dispute over natural gas debts, Turkmenistan has suffered a dismal defeat in the information war.
In the middle of December, some media outlets began reporting that Turkmenistan was officially demanding $2 billion for unpaid gas bills accruing since Iran was slapped with sanctions in 2012. Outlets predominantly cited Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen service, which in turn, in a report on December 20, quoted what appeared to be official sources. That same $2 billion figure also cropped up in an English-language analytical piece on Baku-based Trend news agency on December 19 prophetically titled “Odd gas debt dispute between Iran, Turkmenistan.”
The problem with all this is that the Turkmen government never has made any public statement about the size of the alleged debt and has, until recently, avoided mentioning the disagreement at all.
Indeed, all public pronouncements in Turkmenistan about the state of ties with Iran has been cast in highly effusive and optimistic terms. When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Ashgabat in March 2015, Turkmen state media declared an imminent surge of economic activity among the two nations.
“If last year , trade turnover between our countries was $3.7 billion, then today we have declared our goal of taking this figure to $60 billion within the next 10 years,” the government website stated at the time.
Considering Iran had by this stage failed to make payments to Turkmenistan for best part of three years, this was a generous prediction to say the least.
Turkmenistan has managed to avert the loss of one of its only two buyers of natural gas with some desperate, last-gasp negotiations.
Iran’s Mehr news agency reported on December 30 that Turkmenistan has signed a new gas deal despite demands from Ashgabat for Tehran to pay $1.8 billion in alleged unpaid arrears for historic gas deliveries.
Negotiations went right down to the wire, as Mehr news agency revealed.
“Due to Turkmens’ persistence on [threatening] to cut gas exports to Iran over claims of a $2 billion debt, the Iranian delegation left the negotiating table to return home. At the airport, Turkmenistan’s officials persuaded the Iranian delegation to come back to the negotiating table in hopes for reaching an agreement on gas delivery to Iran,” the news agency reported.
In the run-up to the agreement, a senior official with the National Iranian Gas Company (NIGC) signaled that Tehran was willing to adopt an intransigent position over the matter, leaving Turkmenistan with few options ahead of a Saturday deadline.
ILNA news agency cited senior NIGC representative Saeed Momeni as saying that Turkmenistan only provides three percent of Iran’s gas needs and that the shortfall could be addressed by drawing in internal resources if necessary. Iran has substantial gas reserves of its own, but has relied on Turkmenistan to supply areas in the north not connected to the national pipeline grid.
Turkmenistan’s education ministry has revived a practice from the days of the late President Saparmurat Niyazov to make the current leader’s written work a mandatory text in schools.
Passages and quotations from “The Fount of Wisdom” by Gurbanguly Berdymukhmedov are now to be included in the school curriculum, according to a report by the foreign-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan.
Niyazov’s own two-volume Rukhnama, which was described in state media as a holy text, has been gradually phased out of the classroom. But "The Fount of Wisdom" is not a wholly dissimilar work. The book is a compendium of proverbs and sayings that, as state media puts in, “reflect the people’s spiritual universe, world view, philosophy, moral principles and beliefs.”
This is far from Berdymukhamedov’s only contribution to school curriculum, as the Chronicles of Turkmenistan points out. Pupils in the seventh grade also have to study a novel by the president.
And the president has countless other works under his belt too.
There is his work extolling the virtues of tea, which was published earlier this year.
“Every Turkmen knows there is nothing tastier than tea brewed in water from a mountain stream and boiled on an open fire in a traditional teapot,” reads one passage cited by AFP news agency.
A team of International Monetary Fund specialists have concluded their latest visit to Turkmenistan and returned with some sobering observations on the state of the energy-dependent nation’s economy.
One key takeaway from a statement issued on December 6 is that the government will have to adopt greater measures to compensate for the expected persistence of low prices for oil and gas.
“Hydrocarbon prices remain low and trading partner growth is muted. As a result of these external factors, Turkmenistan’s overall economic growth has slowed down,” the IMF mission said in a post-visit statement.
These confluence of developments means that Turkmenistan is spending beyond its means, and that this trend is worsening.
“The current account deficit is expected to widen significantly in 2016 as a result of lower energy revenues, and in spite of an active policy effort to substitute imports with domestic production, promote exports, and reduce public investment expenditures,” the IMF mission said.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has advanced import substitution as a cure-all panacea to his country’s troubles. Not that any officials have admitted there is anything wrong with the economy, which may be part of the problem, as the IMF mission implies.
“Amid multiple external policy challenges and a number of domestic reforms, stepped-up communication efforts to explain policy plans, their benefits as well as the possible side effects, would be helpful,” the fund delegation said.
Areas for improvement highlighted by the IMF mission included “increasing the efficiency of public spending,” improvement to banking regulations and taking more steps toward creating a more market-based economy and financial sector.