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.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has threatened to dismiss Turkmenistan’s border police chiefs following the deaths of three more border guards at the Afghan frontier late last month.
Berdymukhamedov called the June 2 meeting of the State Security Council to hear an update from the country’s military and law-enforcement agencies, the state-run TDH news agency reports. The president then singled out border chief Myrad Yslamov and his deputy, Batyr Zeberenov, for a dressing down, noting their “improper” work and “shortcomings.”
“The state provides constant support to the modernization of the infrastructure of the Border Service, but despite this level [of support], the work of the State Border Service does not correspond to modern tasks,” TDH quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying.
At least twice this year, Afghanistan-based militants have killed Turkmen border guards along Turkmenistan’s previously calm southern frontier. RFE/RL reported last month that an attack on May 24 left three Turkmen border guards dead. The acting head of Afghanistan's Ghormach District, Asyl Khan, told RFE/RL that the Afghan intruders had seized weapons – two Kalashnikovs and a heavy-caliber machine gun – from the slain soldiers.
In February, an attack on a Turkmen border post also left three dead.
On May 29, Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov paid an unscheduled visit to Kabul, to discuss the situation on the border with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
An imprisoned human rights activist in Turkmenistan “has hours to live” following a 14-day hunger strike, Amnesty International said yesterday.
Mansur Mingelov, 39, was arrested in 2012 after documenting police torture, including instances where police subjected detainees to electric shocks and yanked on their genitals with pliers, Amnesty said.
“The Turkmenistani authorities can avert his death by abiding by their obligations and granting Mansur Mingelov a fair trial,” said Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Program.
Mingelov has refused food since May 19 “in protest at the 22-year sentence for alleged drug and child pornography offences passed down after an unfair trial. Prison doctors say he is in a critical condition,” Amnesty said in a June 2 statement:
His conviction was largely based on the testimony of four alleged victims who did not understand the Turkmen language and signed untranslated statements – reportedly under intimidation and threat. […]
[O]n 10 September 2012, he was convicted and sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment on what he alleges to be spurious charges of “involving minors in socially inappropriate actions” and the production and distribution of pornography and drugs.
Screen shot of a Chinese state television report on the visit of Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to Beijing.
China and Turkmenistan have agreed to establish a "strategic partnership" during a visit by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to Beijing. With Turkmenistan, China now has strategic partnerships with all five Central Asian states; it established them last year with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
While talk of strategic partnerships may be cheap, there's no doubt that China takes its relationship with Turkmenistan seriously. Berdymukhammedov got a pretty impressive welcome in Beijing, and the People's Liberation Army even took the occasion to debut its first ever female honor guards who, as the South China Morning Post put it, "apparently left an impression" on Berdymukhammedov:
Clad in skirts, riding boots and hair pulled back into the classic chignon, 13 women soldiers from China’s military debuted as honour guards on Monday to welcome the visiting Turkmenistan president.
They are the first female People’s Liberation Army honour guards since the squad was established in 1952. Their attire of knee-high skirts and five-centimetre heels singled them out from the rows and rows of sober, hunter-green uniforms of their male comrades.
Their presence apparently left an impression on President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who is in China at the invitation of President Xi Jinping.
“It’s very nice, very good,” Berdimuhamedov said of the female soldiers.
China-Turkmenistan ties are, of course, focused on energy. Just last week Berdymukhammedov inaugurated two new Chinese-built gas processing facilities, and gas exports are scheduled to increase from about 25 billion cubic meters this year to 65 billion in 2020.
Turkmenistan, China’s largest foreign supplier of natural gas, has further expanded production destined for the Asian giant with the launch of a processing plant in Turkmenistan’s eastern desert on May 7.
Seated on a gilded throne, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov – who has built an adoring personality cult around himself – launched the Chinese-built, $600-million facility at the Bagtyyarlyk gas field with a scan of his palm print, Reuters reported.
Turkmenistan already accounts for over half of China's gas imports, exporting 21.3 billion cubic meters (bcm) to China in 2012. Alone the new plant’s capacity is 8.7 bcm annually, which is also slated for China, the state-run TDH news agency reported.
Turkmenistan and China opened the first plant at Bagtyyarlyk in December 2009, when they also launched the first pipeline carrying Turkmen gas to the east, helping the Central Asian nation break its dependence on Russian export routes. Gas at the new plant will also feed the 1,833-kilometer Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China pipeline, TDH said. Chinese investment at Bagtyyarlyk has totaled $4 billion to date, Berdymukhamedov said.
TDH also reported that Berdymukhamedov would launch the construction of a second processing plant at Galkynysh, the world’s second-largest gas field, on May 8. That will add another 30 bcm annually to Turkmenistan’s production capacity.
Altogether, Turkmenistan is expected to export 65 bcm to China annually by 2020.
Turkmenistan marked Horse Day this weekend with another horse race and another win by the country’s horse-mad president.
It was the first time President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has raced publicly since he fell headfirst over his steed last year. That dramatic fall, just after the finish line, was expunged from official video of the event, but leaked out nonetheless. So did video of Berdymukhamedov’s guards carelessly handling his limp body and neck after the fall.
This year, riding lucky number seven, a stallion known as Garahan (“Black Khan”), Berdymukhamedov won, “with an impressive margin over the other riders," the official Turkmenistan.ru online newspaper said.
"The crowd stood up and with a wild, lasting ovation greeted the winner of the race, the president of Turkmenistan, who yet again showed the great mastery of an experienced and brave rider, [with] purpose and the will to win!" the state-run TDH news agency reported on April 26.
The president won a “magnificent rider named Beghan,” Turkmenistan.ru reported, which he gifted to the Galkynysh ("Revival") equestrian club. Second- and third-place winners received SUVs.
After the race, Berdymukhamedov attended the finals of a horse beauty contest. In the “Mr Turkmen Horse” category, Gorkmaz ("Fearless"), a four-year-old stallion, won his owner a Mercedes SUV and trophy, personally delivered by Berdymukhamedov himself.