A cargo train carrying a test shipment along the recently completed China-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway is bearing in on its final destination in a landmark event for Eurasian trade.
State media in Turkmenistan reported that the train, which departed from the Chinese city of Yiwu, just south of Shanghai, at the end of January covered 7,908 kilometers over nine days, and crossed the border into Iran on February 10.
The entire railroad extends around 10,000 kilometers and requires two weeks to cover, which is estimated to be around twice as fast as the sea route.
“The cargo, loaded with all kinds of consumer goods, traversed the Turkmen section in 28 hours, instead of two days, as had been expected. This significant reduction in travel time translates into substantial savings on transportation costs and makes the route more cost-effective,” state news agency TDH reported.
The overall route could, as its proponents argue, radically increase the efficiency in the transportation of goods from China’s eastern seaboard to markets in the Persian Gulf.
A final link in the mammoth railroad was put into place in December 2014 when the presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran officially inaugurated a 930-kilometer line running from Ozen in western Kazakhstan through Turkmenistan to Gorgan in northwestern Iran. That sped up cargo transit between the countries by cutting 600 kilometers off the journey on the previously existing route from Beyneu in western Kazakhstan to Mashhad in northern Iran.
Days after being removed from his senior Cabinet post and his role as a key aide to Turkmenistan’s president, Palvan Taganov is reported to have been arrested.
Announcing the dismissal during the January 5 Cabinet meeting, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov listed multiple shortcomings by Taganov, including failure to contain corruption.
CA-News website went further on January 7, reporting that Taganov has been detained on unspecified charges.
Corruption has becoming a recurring public theme in Turkmenistan as authorities seek to explain away the increasingly apparent economic malaise gripping the country.
Taganov’s brief was evidently vast and he had access to the highest echelons of power paralleled by few others in Turkmenistan.
He was simultaneously appointed deputy prime minister and administrator of the presidential apparatus and Cabinet in September 2013. The following January, his role was slightly amended to put him in charge of trade and the state commodity and raw materials exchange.
Taganov was again named chief of the presidential administration in August 2015, replacing Shamuhammed Durdyliyev, who was moved over to deal energy, construction and utilities sectors. Durdyliyev’s primary brief has been to get the capital, Ashgabat, ready for the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in 2017, which are being touted as a international showcase for the country.
Taganov's control extended over the foreign economic relations, the chamber of industry and trade, and the union of industrialists and entrepreneurs.
So Berdymukhamedov’s criticisms suggests maladministration across a wide array of offices.
The people of Uzbekistan are apparently satisfied corruption is on the wane, while the president of Turkmenistan is indignant it is still rampant.
The “good news” first.
Podrobno.uz website reported on February 1 that a survey in Uzbekistan carried out by polling company Izhtimoy Fikr (Public Opinion) has found that experiences of corruption declined markedly from 2013 to 2014.
Izhtimoy Fikr is notorious for its almost comically unrealistic surveys, so the vat of salt should probably be taken with only a pinch of seriousness and perhaps only to understand the extent to which the government intends to embark on a serious fight against corruption.
Perceptions of corruption in the health care sector dropped from 37.7 percent to 25.5 percent, in education it went from 37.8 percent to 24.2 percent, and in the justice system from 24.3 percent to 14.6 percent, according to the poll.
The question “Is there corruption in Uzbekistan” yielded a 34 percent positive response in the latest query, compared to 36 percent in 2012 and 53 percent in 2011.
As many 74.5 percent of respondents believe the fight against corruption is being waged effectively. Leaving the best for last, Podrobno.uz reveals that Izhtimoiy Fikr’s survey found that 80 percent claimed that they have never been exposed to extortion or bribery.
Strong anecdotal evidence suggests the real number may well literally be zero.
Transparency International’s recently issued Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 shows Uzbekistan in 153rd place out of 165 countries listed, coming in just behind Zimbabwe.
Restrictions on the circulation of cash out of Turkmenistan have reportedly been extended to a service popularly used to make transfers to relatives abroad.
The foreign-based Alternative News of Turkmenistan reported earlier this month that Western Union branches in the country had limited transfers out of the country to just $300 per transaction. The payment could be made only in manat at the state-approved exchange rate, which is lower than the black market rate. Operations carried out with a credit card incurred an additional surcharge equivalent to 8 percent of the sum being sent.
The monthly limit on how much can be transferred was set at $1,000 per person.
Operations also required presenting various documentation, including the Soviet-vintage propiska and employment record book, which evidently reflects the authorities desire to monitor who is sending what, where and when.
Although strict, the apparently informal rules appear to have not done enough to stem the outflow of dollars.
Alternative News of Turkmenistan cited sources inside the country as saying Western Union has now introduced a new cap. Customers can no longer transfer amounts larger than their monthly salary.
If correct, the fact that people are believed to have been funneling more money out than they officially earn — presumably offloading their cash savings in the process — is a stark testament to mounting loss of trust in the domestic currency.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat. (photo: MFA Russia)
Russia has offered Turkmenistan help in guarding that country's restive border with Afghanistan, but Turkmenistan has turned them down, Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said on a visit this week to Ashgabat.
The top agenda item for Lavrov's two-day visit was gas. Russia's state company Gazprom announced earlier this month that it was stopping gas purchases from Turkmenistan, which used to be one of Moscow's top suppliers until China built a huge pipeline to Turkmenistan and now buys the lion's share of Turkmen gas. It's not clear what progress was made on that front, but Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing anonymous sources, reported that "in the coming days the two sides will start negotiations about the possible parameters of further cooperation in the gas sphere."
But the two sides couldn't not discuss the situation on the border with Afghanistan, which over the past two years has unexpectedly become the site of several skirmishes and incursions back and forth between the Taliban and Turkmenistan's security forces.
The official Turkmen statement about Lavrov's visit said the two sides discussed "a united position regarding the necessity of a political-diplomatic resolution of the problems in the Central Asian region, in particular those connected with the situation in Afghanistan."
Lavrov himself was a little more specific, telling reporters that Ashgabat had described some "additional measures" that they were taking on the border, and that they didn't need Moscow's help.
Several international media have pounced with fascination on news that Turkmenistan has seemingly slapped a ban on the sale of cigarettes, but the facts are a little less straightforward.
The offensive against tobacco began earlier this month, when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov demanded “an intensification in the measures being taken to root out smoking.”
To drive his point home, he publicly chastised the head of the state service for the protection of public health, Atadurdy Osmanov and demoted him by one military rank. (The name of Osamov’s agency is a little misleading — although it sounds like a branch of the health service, it is actually the renamed anti-narcotics agency, another strand of the law enforcement structures in effect).
After Osmanov’s dressing down, cigarettes began disappearing from the shops, even though no law had been passed or any official order issued to make their sale illegal. Hardened smokers could still get their fix under the table from shopkeepers, although prices per pack have reportedly shot up from $6 previously to around $12-14.
Dogmatic opposition to smoking among the authorities goes back a long way.
The late President Saparmurat Niyazov, who died of heart failure in late 2006, banned smoking in all public places in 2000. In doing so, he acted with the typical zeal of a former smoker. After being operated on for heart problems, he was told by doctors to give up cigarettes, which is when he decided to try and extend the prohibition to all his subjects.
Similarly, when Berdymukhamedov came to power, he was notably on the chunky side. Since then, he has embarked on an exercise drive that has visibly slimmed him down. Accordingly, he has become an energetic proponent for healthy living.
Except that there may be a little more to the fight against cigarettes than meets the eye.
In a measure of Turkmenistan’s despair, authorities on January 12 halted the sale of all foreign currencies as demand for dollars and euros continued to pile pressure on the manat.
Workers at banks in Ashgabat informed customers that the restriction would remain in place indefinitely.
And while there have been reports on black market soaring, the signs are that illegal trading in foreign currency is being much more strictly policed than in earlier years. Bans on the sale of dollars occurred in the days of the late President Saparmurat Niyazov, when the manat experienced periods of high volatility, but access to the black was in those days far easier.
The official manat rate has stubbornly stayed fast at 3.50 to the dollar since January 1, 2015, when it fell from 2.85 in a sudden one-off devaluation.
Lines have been forming outside banks for several weeks now as people holding manat desperately seek to offload them for any currency they can obtain.
Banking authorities in the nearby countries, like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have meanwhile been compelled to relent to varying degrees and allow their national currencies to slide.
Opposition websites have reported that black markets in Mary and Balkanabat are selling dollars at 4.20 manat. That figure could not be independently confirmed.
Customers trying to exchange their manat have been told by officials at money exchange that if they plan to travel abroad, they should use Visa and Mastercard to draw foreign currencies from their Turkmen bank account. Those account-holders are eligible to convert $1,000 from manat into dollars onto their account, although they cannot not draw this in cash in-country.
In a move to be expected, Russian gas behemoth Gazprom has formally suspended purchases of natural gas from Turkmenistan, according to a statement by state gas company Turkmengaz.
Turkmengaz has been philosophical about a development that now leaves it with only two international customers — China and Iran.
“The basis for this decision is the changing situation on the international gas market, and also certain economic and financial issues that has arisen for Gazprom Export,” Turkmengaz said in a stament
Turkmenistan said it remains open to further negotiations with Gazprom’s export branch on “wide array of issues.”
The language emerging from Ashgabat is substantially more measured than that heard last year, when Turkmenistan reacted to Gazprom’s announcement it was to slash the amount of gas it buys from the Central Asian nation by dubbing Russia an “unreliable partner.”
Russia has been a regular, if not always reliable, buyer of Turkmenistan gas since 1991. In April 2003, Russia signed a 25-year gas contract with Turkmenistan that envisioned exports increasing to 80 billion cubic meters per year.
Deliveries to Russia through the traditional routes hit a peak of 45 billion cubic meters in 2008.
Leaders from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India gathered in Ashgabat on December 13 to jointly inaugurate the start to work building a natural gas pipeline linking the four countries.
The $10 billion project, if it is ever completed, could some way to quenching energy thirst in South Asia.
The presidents of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, the vice president of India and the prime minister of Pakistan traveled out to a spot in the Karakum desert near the city of Mary to attend the ceremonial welding of the first section of pipeline, which they all signed.
“What we see today is not just TAPI, but a super-highway between Central Asia and South Asia,” Afghan president Ashraf Ghani said.
Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was no less fulsome.
“TAPI is intended to become a new effective step towards the formation of a modern architecture of global energy security — a powerful factor for economic and social stability in the Asian region,” he said at the ceremony.
Berdymukhamedov signed a government decree in November mandating that the pipeline be completed in three years, despite all of the security concerns that have surrounded the project, which has also been marred by uncertainties over funding.
The main investor in construction is Turkmenistan state-owned Turkmengaz, which was picked in August to head up the TAPI Limited consortium.
The pipeline is designed to carry 33 billion cubic meters annually and will stretch more than 1,800 kilometers through the Afghan cities of Herat and Kandahar and end up in Fazilka, on the border of India and Pakistan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov meet in Iran on November 23. (photo: kremlin.ru)
The disruption of air traffic over the Caspian Sea is a sacrifice necessary for the sake of fighting terrorism, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said.
Russia's launch of cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian against targets in Syria prompted several airlines, including Kazakhstan's flag carrier Air Astana, to suspend flights over the sea in mid-October. Last week, Russia launched another salvo of missiles from the Caspian to Syria.
Putin's recent comments came during a meeting with Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at a gas conference in Iran. It was raised in a curious fashion: Berdymukhammedov brought it up and said it was something that worried Kazakhstan, without mentioning what his own opinion might be.
"Our Kazakh colleagues are very worried about what is happening above the Caspian Sea," Berdymukhammedov said, according to a Kremlin transcript. This is connected with military issues. So the issue has arisen connected with international civilian air traffic, should traffic be altered, the flight level. I don't know if you are aware of this issue, but our Kazakh colleauges are very concernd about this."
Putin's answer was basically: we're the ones fighting terrorism on everyone's behalf, so don't complain about these kinds of inconveniences.