Turkmenistan’s micro-managing leader is a stickler for the facts. Only as long as they are facts he like though.
Speaking at the regular end-of-week Cabinet meeting on August 14, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov revealed plans to oblige foreign academics to submit works on Turkmenistan for government review before they get the all-clear.
Berdymukhamedov complained in the meeting that foreign academics were allowing personal views to slip into their works on Turkmen history and society. Those opinions, he said, sometimes do not correspond to “our broadly accepted views and doctrines.”
The measure would ostensibly be aimed at intensifying limitations on academics hoping to work in Turkmenistan.
Carrying out objective, in-country research on politics and other burning topics is essentially impossible, but the proposed restrictions could potentially be applied far more indiscriminately. Even the study of Turkmenistan’s ancient history could fall afoul of government meddling, since the authorities have routinely pursued idiosyncratic interpretations of historical events.
The often-nonsensical miscellany of literature, religion and historical treatise that was cobbled together to make up late President Saparmurat Niyazov’s two-volume Rukhnama was once obligatory reading for all Turkmens, but has increasingly fallen out of favor.
Berdymukhamedov has proven no slouch on the history book-writing front, however. Works under his belt include a historical survey on the Akhal-Tekke horse breed, a slim biography of his own grandfather, a novel about his father titled “The Bird of Happiness,” a lavishly illustrated guide to native Turkmen medicinal herbs and a book about carpets.
The pipeline intended to forge a new export route through Afghanistan for Turkmenistan’s natural gas riches has made a fresh stride with the naming a consortium leader for construction.
Turkmenistan’s state news agency reported on August 6 that state-owned Turkmengaz will be in charge of bringing TAPI — named for the initials of the four countries it crosses — into existence.
The decision was taken during a TAPI management committee meeting in Ashgabat, the Turkmen state news agency reported. Senior officials from the Asian Development Bank, which is acting a transaction adviser on the project, were also in attendance.
“In its capacity as leader of the consortium of the TAPI Limited pipeline company, Turkmengaz will head coordination on construction, financing, management and use of the TAPI pipeline,” said an official statement cited by the state news agency.
Backers of the project, which include the United States and the European Union, appear to be unfazed by occasional and loosely sourced reports of unrest along the Turkmen-Afghan border that would stand to disrupt any major construction work. Security issues do not typically feature in official statements on TAPI, which suggests either that anxieties are overblown or that the parties to the project are simply hoping for the best.
The statement notes that Turkmengaz has more than 50 years experience in the development and transportation of gas resources, as well as in the construction of pipelines. But it also notes hopefully that other large companies will join the consortium as the project moves forward.
Turkmenistan’s leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has flown to Kyrgyzstan with promises of enduring friendship and, on a more practical note, supplies of cheap electricity.
As ever though, natural gas was being discussed as Turkmenistan presses forward in its program to create as many export routes for its fuel as possible.
Speaking after talks in Bishkek on August 5, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev was fulsome in his gratitude for commitments that are still only notional.
“I want to thank you for your brotherly word about Turkmenistan’s readiness to deliver electricity at very low prices. I think that all the issues to do with its transportation will be settled,” he told his guest.
Easier said than done given the not inconsiderable issue of Uzbekistan, which lies between the two countries. Tashkent has historically proven an unreliable transit nation for power deliveries. In 2009, Uzbekistan interrupted electricity supplies from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan when it pulled out of the Soviet-engineered power grid that links Central Asian nations.
Ashgabat committed in 2013 to investing $5 billion over a seven year period into increasing its export capacity fivefold, so it should on paper have enough to go around. It is unclear, other than sheer brotherliness, why Turkmenistan would commit to subsidizing Kyrgyzstan’s notoriously inefficient electricity system.
Any Kyrgyz government unwilling to countenance political unrest will consider raising electricity tariffs at their own peril.
NATO could get involved in protecting a potential trans-Caspian gas pipeline, which Russia strongly opposes, an alliance official has said.
The idea of building a pipeline across the Caspian Sea to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan's massive reserves to Azerbaijan and then further on to Europe has been on the drawing board for a long time, but has been held back for a number of reasons, not least Russia's strong opposition.
In May, a senior EU official said on a visit to Ashgabat that a "political decision" had been made to build the pipeline and that the EU expects to start receiving gas from it by 2019. It's still not clear who would build the pipeline, however.
But now a NATO official has said that the alliance would play a part in protecting it. In an interview with Azerbaijani news website AzVision, NATO's South Caucasus Liaison Officer William Lahue weighed in on the pipeline and made some surprisingly bold endorsements of it:
“It is important that countries have multiple sources of supply in order to protect themselves from fluctuations in available sources of supply,” he said. “In this process Azerbaijan is going to be important, and its importance is growing.”
“Technically, it is possible to build Trans-Caspian Pipeline as I was told by businessmen from different countries,” said Lahue, adding that the politics is lining up the way that it is eventually going to happen....
“What NATO will be able to do is to pull partners looking for protection of critical energy infrastructure and in that way, we can help facilitate trainings, education for the national organizations working in this sphere for protection of infrastructure,” said Lahue.
One of the few independent outlets covering Turkmenistan from inside the country is raising the alarm about the arrest of a correspondent.
Alternative News of Turkmenistan said Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, who lives in the city of Balkanabad, was detained on July 7 in the port city of Turkmenbashi after a reporting trip to the resort of Awaza. News of his arrest only reached his colleagues on July 28.
Nepeskuliev also worked as a freelance reporter for the Turkmen service of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Alternative News of Turkmenistan said that Nepeskuliev phoned relatives on the day of his disappearance to inform them that he was due to return to Balkanabad at 4 p.m. that same day and that he was going to take a swim before his departure.
Subsequently, there was no further communication and his telephone was turned off.
Nepeskuliev’s relatives contacted the police after several days to issue a missing person report. Police officers suggested Nepeskuliev might have drowned and contacted the morgue in Turkmenbashi, but nobody there could confirm they had processed anybody matching the description.
After investigations by the family, it was discovered that Nepeskuliev was being held in a prison in the village of Akdash, around 20 kilometres east of Turkmenbashi.
Relatives say Nepeskuliev was accused of carrying pills allegedly containing narcotic substances (presumed to be Tramadol) and that court hearings were to take place shortly.
Family members have not been permitted to see Nepeskuliev. Alternative News of Turkmenistan said there are concerns that Nepeskuliev may have been mistreated and that he has been given no legal representation.
Azerbaijan's new naval base in Puta, inaugurated in June 2015. (photo: president.az)
The Caspian sea states will discuss creating a "collective security system" on the sea at a meeting in Russia this fall, a Russian military official announced.
Russia's top naval commander, Admiral Viktor Chirkov, met with naval delegations from Azerbaijan, Iran, and Kazakhstan last week in St. Petersburg, and afterward announced that the states discussed creating a consultative organ of all the Caspian sea navies and a collective security system, and signing an Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on the Caspian.
"During the meetings with [Admiral Chirkov] the delegations confirmed their readiness to work on these issues, and agreed to conduct the first round of corresponding consultations in Russia in October," the statement from the Russian Ministy of Defense said.
The idea of a collective security system was first publicly mooted by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu last year in Baku; Chirkov's comments suggest it is moving forward.
The notion of collective security on the Caspian is a bit odd; it wasn't explicitly mentioned which of the five states would be involved in the organization, but the goal is presumably for all of them to be. And then, on a closed sea with no other potential enemies, the idea of collective security is overkill -- from whom would they be defending themselves?
Tbilisi had an unusual visitor on July 2. But one whose presence could have far-reaching consequences for the energy map of both the South Caucasus and Europe.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s two-day state visit to Georgia, his first, involves the usual meetings with the usual assortment of senior Georgian officials and the usual signing of various, vaguely described agreements.
The two countries have not divulged the details.
The Turkmen government is excited about how the use of “transportation-transit infrastructure between the Caspian and Black Sea regions will provide for the supply of broad inter-regional integration with the states of Europe, and the Near and Far East.”
Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili, for her part, expressed a hope that the visit would bring “interesting results” for “deepening” the two countries’ relations as well as for “the execution of regional projects.”
Of course, bottom line, that means one thing – energy.
A few months ago, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic told Reuters that Turkmen gas would reach European markets by 2019.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on June 29 got a public park named after him to mark his 58th birthday.
What birthday present do you get for the man who has everything?
In Turkmenistan, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on June 29 got a public park named after him to mark his 58th.
It was a fun day, for the president. As by tradition, Berdymukhamedov was congratulated by his deputy prime ministers and foreign business community representatives, who always seize any opportunity to curry favor.
The opening ceremony came in the evening. The park in the capital, Ashgabat, has been called Arkadag, the Turkmen word for “protector,” which is how the president is known in state media.
Officials have said the park was built at the urging of the general public. This formulation has become the norm used as an apparent justification for the cult of adulation accumulating around Berdymukhamedov.
Last month, a gold-leafed statue of the president atop a horse was unveiled to much marshaled revelry.
Thousands of people carrying flags and banners stood for several hours under punishing 40 degree Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) heat ahead of the park opening. Some resourceful female teachers sheltered from the sun under umbrellas, although that did little to mitigate the intense discomfort.
The inauguration was prefaced by a solemn procession along a downtown avenue by the venerable grey-bearded village elders that typically attend such events. They were accompanied by employees of art and culture institutions and many local residents and young people.
Notwithstanding the heat, government workers did the long walk in exhausting heat in their black suits and long national dresses, energetically waving flags and balloons all the while. Smart formal appearance and scenes of jubilation are a must for the sake of the television pictures.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has finished a weeklong tour of the five Central Asian states by appealing for them to improve their dismal human rights records. He called on the region’s autocrats to respect civil liberties, at the very least as a means to preserve stability.
“There is no peace without development. No development without peace. And neither is possible without a respect for human rights,” Ban told a meeting of students and officials in Turkmenistan, which campaigners describe as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
Speaking in Ashgabat on June 13, the last day of his tour, Ban pointed to concerns about a “deterioration of some aspects of human rights – a shrinking democratic space” across Central Asia.
Restrictions on freedoms might foster “an illusion of stability in the short-run,” he added, but ultimately threatened to create “a breeding ground for extremist ideologies.”
“Around the world, the way to confront threats is not more repression, it is more openness. More human rights,” he added.
A day earlier, in Uzbekistan, Ban had heeded calls by human rights campaigners to press Tashkent over the issues of forced labor and torture.
He acknowledged progress in eliminating the use of child labor, but urged the government to address “the mobilization of teachers, doctors and others in cotton harvesting,” and also “prevent the maltreatment of prisoners.”
Ban hailed “good laws” adopted in Uzbekistan to uphold the rule of law, but added that “laws on the books should be made real in the lives of people.”
Not that it was ever in doubt, but now it is official: Turkmenistan’s president plans to grow old in power.
As speaker of parliament Akja Nurberdieva explained in remarks televised May 29, the constitutional commission is studying two proposals that will likely end with Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov serving indefinitely.
One provision would scrap the 70-year age limit at which a president can be elected. The other would extend the presidential term from five to seven years.
Under the current constitution, Berdymukhamedov, 57, would have been allowed to run for only three more five-year terms. The next presidential election had been slated for 2017, but that date could be pushed back to 2019.
Who chairs the constitutional commission that will decide on the changes? Why, the president of course.
Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, dispensed with such fiddly legalities in December 1999, when parliament declared him president for life. As it turned out, that was only seven years anyway, as Niyazov dropped dead in 2006.
As has become usual, the impetus for the proposed constitutional reforms is being attributed to public demand.
Another constitutional fix for which people are clamoring, according to Berdymukhamedov, involves provisions for who will take over as caretaker should the serving president be unable to fulfill his duties.
That task should fall to the speaker of parliament, said Berdymukhamedov in the same state television report.
The irony here is that this was already the law before Niyazov’s death. Rules were quickly changed at the behest of the State Security Council to ensure that then-deputy Prime Minister Berdymukhamedov be quickly jostled into power.