Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov meets with Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Doha on March 15, 2017. (Photo: Turkmenistan State News Agency)
The president of Turkmenistan embarked on a two-day trip to Qatar this week in the hope of drumming up vital investment, although he does not seem to have come back any with any visible results.
Aside from meeting with Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and attending a banquet of honor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov spent the day in Doha on March 15 holding talks with purse-string holders, like the chief executive of the Qatar Investment Authority. But the only firm outcome of the visit came with the signing of a spate of memoranda of understanding on cooperation in areas like energy, aviation, education and wildlife conservation.
Hopeful talk on energy was naturally at the forefront of Berdymukhamedov’s thoughts.
“Qatari companies have been invited to participate in the building of gas processing plants, and petrochemical and gas chemical plants in Turkmenistan, and to develop [energy] projects on the Turkmen shelf of the Caspian Sea,” the state news agency report on the visit stated.
Another would-be opportunity touted by Berdymukhamedov was for Qatar to sink money into the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline (TAPI), which will be indispensable if Turkmenistan is ever to loosen China’s near-monopoly grip on its energy exports.
Turkmenistan has looked at fellow gas-rich nation Qatar’s recent extravagant forays into foreign investments — which include Qatar Investment Authority’s recent joint purchase of a big chunk of Russian oil giant Rosneft — and must be hoping to get in on the act.
This plan has flaws that will be obvious to seasoned Turkmenistan watchers.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov posing for a photograph at a horse-breeding center outside Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat. (Photo: Turkmenistan government website)
The president of Uzbekistan’s maiden foreign trip, to Turkmenistan, may prove a valuable exercise in building bridges — well, inaugurating them at least.
For his first visit since becoming leader of his country, Shavkat Mirziyoyev decided on March 6 to pay a visit on his neighbors to the south — a fresh indication that Uzbekistan may seek to revive its often shaky regional relationships at the expense of broader geopolitical alliances.
In line with custom, the trip was marked by a flurry of document-signing.
Mirziyoyev and his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, inked an agreement on economic cooperation in 2018-2020 and a memorandum of understanding on the need to develop railway infrastructure, among other documents.
Turning from word to deed, the two leaders traveled to the northeastern Lebap province on March 7 to attend the ceremonial inauguration of the 1.75 kilometer Turkmenabat-Farap railway and road bridge, which straddles the Amu-Dary River and could conceivably enable greater cross-border traffic. Until now, trains crossing the river coursing along Turkmenistan’s side of the border did so using a bridge built in 1901.
According to a Turkmen state media account, the leaders stood at the banks of the river and watched as traffic traversed the newly opened bridges — trains arrived from Uzbekistan, and in the other direction, trucks carried textiles, fertilizers and other goods.
Ambitious visions on transportation appear to have dominated the visit.
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.