Moscow’s sanctions-struck energy giant Gazprom has announced it is no longer interested in buying Central Asian gas, leaving Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan dependent on exports to China.
Contractually, Gazprom officials have noted they are locked into obligations to buy from Ashgabat and Tashkent for the short term. But Gazprom is “working to annul these contracts,” Vsevolod Cherepanov, head of Gazprom’s Department for Gas Production, said at the St Petersburg International Gas Forum on October 7. Cherepanov did not explain the reasons for cutting back on purchases in Central Asia, but noted that Gazprom’s domestic production is expected to increase in the coming years.
According to Gazprom’s website, the official line remains that the production and import of “natural gas from Central Asia and the Transcaucasian region is an important element in the formation of [Gazprom’s] resource base, meeting the demands of Russia’s internal market, CIS countries and beyond. The business strategy of Gazprom in Central Asia rests on a strengthening of its position in this region. This will maintain and increase the share of Russian gas provided to its traditional markets in Europe.”
Gazprom’s exit will leave purchases of Central Asian gas an increasingly Chinese pursuit. In the two years prior to the opening of the China-Turkmenistan pipeline, which went into operation in late 2009, Gazprom imported an average of 63.4 billion cubic meters of gas (bcm) from Central Asia annually, over two-thirds of which came from Turkmenistan. In the years since, the company says, the volume going to Russia has shrunk to an average 34.1 bcm annually, less than a third of which is sourced in Turkmenistan.
The biggest headline to come out of the weekend's Caspian Sea summit in Astrakhan, Russia, was that the five countries along the sea agreed to prevent any outside military presence from the sea. This has been a longstanding goal of the sea's two biggest powers, Russia and Iran, the result of worries that the U.S. and/or NATO would somehow gain a military foothold on the sea via security cooperation programs with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, or Turkmenistan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, summing up the summit's results and formal declaration, said:
The declaration sets out a fundamental principle for guaranteeing stability and security, namely, that only the Caspian littoral states have the right to have their armed forces present on the Caspian. This was the way the situation developed over history, and we do not seek to change it now. In general, only the five Caspian countries that have sovereign rights over the Caspian Sea and its resources will resolve all matters pertaining to the region.
A German national’s successful lawsuit against Turkmenistan’s government after Ashgabat expropriated his poultry farm offers insight into some of the unusual tricks the isolated Central Asian country can hatch on investors.
The Washington D.C.-based International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes found in favor of Turkish-born German businessman Adem Dogan on August 12, Investment Arbitration Reporter (IAReporter) wrote last month. The amount of the award was not disclosed.
Dogan entered the Turkmen market in 1999 during the reign of the capricious Saparmurat Niyazov—who fancied himself Turkmenbashi, the “Father of the Turkmen.” Working with a local partner, Dogan’s egg farm soon became the largest of its kind in Turkmenistan, a country that sources most of its eggs from neighboring Iran.
According to a 2008 report by Bloomberg, not everyone was thrilled with Dogan’s project. Rather than seeing the farm as a way to ensure food security, Niyazov saw its success as a national humiliation. Citing transcripts of cabinet meetings in the totalitarian country, Bloomberg noted that “Niyazov harangued ministers, asking them why it took a foreigner to run a successful chicken farm.”
The project fell apart after control over the farm’s lease was transferred from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Ministry of Defense. Turkmenistan’s army chiefs “began to pressure the operators for a share of profits, and later, for ownership of the entire firm” with “godfather-style offers,” according to IAReporter’s brief on the court hearings.
Turkmenistan's armed forces have entered the territory of Afghanistan in an apparent effort to drive back Taliban forces that had settled on the border between the two countries, Afghan residents have told the Turkmen service of RFE/RL.
The report is in Turkmen but has been translated into Russian by Alternative Turkmenistan News. It quotes residents of the Qaisar region of Afghanistan's Faryab province saying that Turkmenistan soldiers crossed the border about three months ago and have dug trenches and built fences.
This would seem to be the latest escalation in an increasingly tense situation on the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan border. Earlier, there had been reports of Turkmenistan border guards making incursions in Afghanistan, and the Turkmenistan armed forces carrying out exercises close to the border. But now they seem to be going even farther.
"The Turkmenistanis came here, dug trenches, set up wire fences," one resident told RFE/RL. "No one asked them what they were doing here. The trenches they dug are four meters wide and five meters deep. Besides that, in the same place they are paving a road."
And the Turkmenistan soldiers have apparently blocked access to the area where the villagers had previously grazed their animals. "Now we can't use our pastures like before. We don't have anywhere to graze our livestock, the animals are starving. Turkmenistan has taken what really belongs to us."
Another resident echoed that complaint: "We had grazed our sheep on this land, we had grazed all our livestock there. Let them open a road for us and let us graze our livestock there again."
Turkmenistan may have become a byword for slow-moving regional rail projects, but a long-planned link connecting the country and neighboring Uzbekistan to the Persian Gulf via Iran appears to have found momentum again.
At a “high level meeting” in Ashgabat on September 3, delegates from the three countries plus Oman and Qatar began ironing out details of a plan first agreed in April 2011, Trend.az reported. That meeting came just under a month after the Turkmen and Uzbek foreign ministers held talks on the project with their counterparts in Oman.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov first proposed the railroad in 2010. For his double-landlocked country, the project assumes a special significance. Some have noted that it could ease exports of Tashkent’s key cotton crop toward markets in the Middle East and beyond. Tashkent is particularly keen to facilitate trade ties with manufacturers indifferent to widespread evidence it uses forced labor to harvest its lucrative cash crop. Last year according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Uzbekistan produced 904,000 metric tons of cotton. Turkmenistan, which produced 327,000 metric tons over the same period, could also benefit from the line.
For most Muslims the pilgrimage to Mecca is a sacred duty to be completed at least once in a lifetime. But Turkmenistan’s Muslim-majority population should surely receive divine dispensation. Under restrictions imposed by the authoritarian government, an eager pilgrim can wait over 10 years to receive permission to perform the haj.
Every country has a quota, a limit to how many Muslims it can send on haj each year. Turkmenistan is facilitating travel for only one-seventh of its quota this year, despite the long waiting lists, Oslo-based religious-freedom watchdog Forum 18 reported on August 25:
Muslims in Balkan Region of western Turkmenistan have to wait on average between eight and eleven years to reach the top of the waiting list to join the state-organized haj pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, an official of the regional Religious Affairs office told Forum 18 News Service from Balkanabad on 21 August. Turkmenistan's government is allowing just under a seventh of the haj quota allocated by the Saudi authorities to travel this October to Mecca. "Turkmenistan is one of the governments not doing all it can to help pilgrims," a Saudi consular official told Forum 18 from Ashgabat.
Ninety percent of Turkmenistan’s exports are hydrocarbons. And 70 percent of all Turkmenistan’s exports went to China last year. So news that Iran, one of the country’s top three gas buyers, will soon stop importing Turkmen gas cannot be welcome in Ashgabat. It is almost like Turkmenistan threw off the Russian yoke only to shoulder China’s.
On August 11, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh said Iran would no longer need Turkmen gas as of next year, news agency Trend.az quoted him as saying. Zanganeh explained that Iran is ramping up domestic production.
It is quite a turn of events for Turkmenistan. In early 2010 a new, second pipeline bringing Turkmen gas to Iran was launched. At that time leaders in the two countries spoke about gas imports to Iran reaching up to 20 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually. A new gas-compressor station started operation in western Turkmenistan in December 2013, built specifically to export more gas to Iran.
The idea of linking Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan by rail appears to have wheels once more, following reports earlier this year that the project was running short of steam.
Back in January, Turkmenistan went cold on the estimated $2 billion link, slated to be part financed by the Asian Development Bank. Ashgabat faulted Afghanistan and Tajikistan for not keeping the Turkmen leadership in the loop with regard to the route the railroad would follow. As EurasiaNet.org reported:
On January 29, the head of state-owned Tajik Railways, Amonullo Khukumatullo, announced that Dushanbe and Kabul had themselves decided on the route for the Afghan section of the rail. The announcement apparently caught Ashgabat by surprise because on January 31, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry protested that Khukumatullo’s declaration was "tendentious and absolutely unacceptable" and "counterproductive."
The Darvaza Crater, an infernal pit burning in Turkmenistan’s forbidding Karakum Desert, has long piqued the curiosity of the few tourists who make it into the totalitarian country. Now it turns out that the famous furnace – the product of a search for natural gas gone horribly wrong – could be an untapped store of knowledge for mankind.
Being the product of an accident, the “Door to Hell” is perhaps not what the image-conscious dictator of gas-rich Turkmenistan wants his country to be known for, but it has been getting a lot of attention lately.
Recently it attracted one explorer who likes to live on the edge. According to a July 16 story by National Geographic, last November “explorer and storm chaser” George Kourounis became the first person to descend into the bottom of the 99-foot-deep fiery pit, where he collected soil samples.
The history of the hotspot is somewhat contested, but most agree that the hole was the result of a Soviet gas expedition. As a Turkmen geologist told the AFP last month:
Soviet geologists started drilling a borehole to prospect for gas at this spot in 1971. The boring equipment suddenly drilled through into an underground cavern, and a deep sinkhole formed. The equipment tumbled through but fortunately no one was killed. Fearing that the crater would emit poisonous gases, the scientists took the decision to set it alight, thinking that the gas would burn out quickly and this would cause the flames to go out.
Some media outlets in Ukraine have charged that Central Asians are fighting among pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east.
The most recent fodder for the rumor mill is a video interview, posted July 8 on YouTube, where a man describing himself as a native of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, explains why he is fighting with the separatists.
The man in camouflage, whose identity cannot be independently verified, is standing before a military vehicle and appears to be holding a weapon. "I decided that the weak should be defended," he explains. He says he is not paid but is fighting because of what his interlocutor described as his "sense of injustice.” He vows to fight "until the end of the war.”
In recent months, several Uzbeks have also reportedly appeared among the separatists.
On June 22, Reuters published a picture of a man carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle who was identified as "Bakhtiyor” from Uzbekistan. A few days later, RFE/RL said recruiters in Moscow told their undercover correspondent that he and an Uzbek friend could join the separatist fighters in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk "in principle."
One Uzbek citizen with pro-Kiev sympathies told RFE/RL he had been offered $50-$100 a day to fight with separatists in Luhansk.
Authorities in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have not commented on the allegations.