Rights activists are calling on Turkmenistan’s government to disclose information about a group of approximately 30 prisoners who have not been heard from for over 10 years.
As part of an OSCE human rights meeting in Warsaw on October 2, activists from the Civic Solidarity Platform, a coalition, and Virginia-based Crude Accountability launched the campaign, “Prove They Are Alive: The Disappeared in the Turkmen Prisons,” Fergana News reported.
On November 25, 2002, a lorry blocked President Saparmurat Niyazov's cortege in Ashgabat and unidentified people opened fire. Niyazov survived the attack and promptly rounded up opposition leaders and alleged critics, including former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who was reportedly planning to run for president. Members of the group were accused of conspiracy, forced to confess during a show trial, and handed long prison sentences. The New York Times characterized the episode as “the most chilling public witch hunt since Stalin.”
The families of the jailed have been unable to obtain information about the fate of their loved ones for over a decade.
The editor-in-chief of the opposition-minded Gundogar website, Bayram Shikhmuradov, son of Boris Shikhmuradov, helped organize the initiative. He criticized Turkmen authorities and the OSCE Center in Ashgabat for failing to attend the hearings, Gundogar reported on October 3.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov in New York on September 29, the Times of Israel reported, in an apparent bid to strengthen relations with arch-foe Iran's northeastern neighbor.
The Jerusalem Post said the meeting comes just three months after Ashgabat finally accredited a new Israeli ambassador. Ashgabat had rejected two candidates for "allegedly being spies interested not in furthering bilateral relations, but in collecting intelligence information on Iran." The ambassador saga dragged on for years.
Turkmenistan is strategically important to Israel because "[f]rom a hotel in Turkmenistan’s capital of Ashgabat, according to a saying in Jerusalem, one can see into Iran," the Jerusalem Post asserted. "This explains the geostrategic importance of these ties for Israel. Other reasons are that Turkmenistan is a predominantly Muslim country and it is extremely rich in gas and natural resources."
Fearing Israel's influence on its neighbors, “Iran has been determined to limit Israeli involvement in the Caspian region," according to a report by the London-based Caspian Research Institute, which is cited by the Jerusalem Post. Israel also buys oil and sells weapons to another of Iran's post-Soviet neighbors, Azerbaijan.
China’s President Xi Jinping has started his first visit to Central Asia in Turkmenistan, where he has sealed a major new deal, securing Beijing’s status as the chief client of the country’s lucrative and expanding gas sector.
Xi and his host, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, agreed to roughly triple Turkmen gas exports to China by 2020. "Energy cooperation is a highlight in China-Turkmenistan relations, which fully testifies to the high level of political mutual trust between the two sides," Xi said in comments published by Chinese state media. In return, Turkmen state media quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying that China is a priority for Turkmenistan.
On September 4 the two leaders launched processing facilities at the world’s second-largest field, Galkynysh, in eastern Turkmenistan. "The combined capacity of the new facilities is designed to ensure reliable and long-term supplies of Turkmen natural gas to China," Turkmenistan’s TDH state news agency reported.
Turkmenistan is already China's largest foreign gas supplier: It delivered over half of Chinese imports, or 21.4 bcm in 2012, and has been ramping up gas deliveries since China completed a 1,833-kilometer pipeline connecting the two countries in 2009. Before Galkynysh came online, Ashgabat was already contracted to increase exports to 40 bcm by 2020, according to Reuters. A new deal signed during Xi’s visit will see Turkmenistan deliver 65 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually by 2020.
A lover of all things fast, Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is now heavily involved in promoting bicycles ahead of a national cycling race scheduled for September 1.
Earlier this month, Berdymukhamedov kicked off a summertime cycling drive in the hot desert nation by appearing on national television and winning a cycling race.
Berdymukhamedov tends to win when he competes. Last year he won his country’s first car race after entering at the last minute. The BBC reported that “the apparently choreographed display seemed designed to enhance the president's image as a man of action.” In April, the president won an $11-million purse in a horse race just seconds before taking a nasty spill.
But today Turkmen live in what Berdymukhamedov has dubbed “The Era of Supreme Happiness of the Stable State.” So nothing can thwart a bit of sporting fun.
On August 24, Berdymukhamedov inspected thoroughfares in his capital, Ashgabat, and took part in a ride with a group of professional cyclists, Turkmenistan's state-run TDH news agency reported.
“In the era of might and happiness, state policy priorities include developing a movement for physical training and healthy living, as well as high-achievement sports, creating all the necessary conditions for improving the nation's health, and shaping a generation that is physically healthy and spiritually perfect,” TDH quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying.
Turkmenistan’s president has dismantled some of his predecessor’s personality cult – only to replace it with a new one, in the spirit of two for the price of one: Aside from filling television screens and billboards with images of himself, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is intent on immortalizing his father.
Citing Turkmen state television, AFP reported on August 13 that Berdymukhamedov had unveiled a 5-meter bronze bust of his father, Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov, to mark the patriarch’s 81st birthday. The bust is housed at a compound newly built for the Interior Ministry’s military unit No. 1001, where the elder Berdymukhamedov served and retired as a lieutenant colonel back in 1982. Under the terms of a parliamentary resolution last year, the unit now bears Berdymukhamedov Senior’s name.
“Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov enjoys a great reputation as a man who managed to bring up a highly humane son who is infinitely loyal to the Turkmen people and sincerely loves his people, showing a brilliant example of selfless service to his people. The courageous image of Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov, the father of the distinguished president, and his highest humanity serve as [an] enormous example for imitation for all of us,” the resolution says, according to the official Turkmenistan.ru.
Turkmen, rather than Turks, will be building more of this.
For the first time since independence over two decades ago, Turkmenistan’s government has entrusted a local construction firm with a major infrastructure-development project. The shift follows widespread complaints about arrears from Turkish companies that had previously performed most of the country's construction.
The official Turkmenistan.ru website reported on August 8 that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov had blessed a 1.41 billion-manat (almost $500 million) project: the capital Ashgabat’s 13th neighborhood. The project’s “chief peculiarity,” says the site: It has been “entrusted to private construction firms which are members of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkmenistan.”
Russia’s Rosbalt news agency reported that this is the first time Turkmen construction companies had been contracted to carry out such a large-scale construction project: Previously, Turkish companies built all the important landmarks and neighborhoods in Ashgabat, while Turkmen firms fulfilled “minor projects in the country’s remote areas,” Rosbalt said. French firm Bouygues has also received contracts for large public works in Turkmenistan.
The project, which is scheduled to break ground this month and be completed by February 2016, includes more of Ashgabat’s signature white marble-clad housing and administrative buildings. (The city recently received a Guinness citation for having more marble-clad buildings than any other on the planet. At that auspicious occasion, the polymath Berdymukhamedov was named “distinguished architect.”)
When China opened a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan in 2009, Ashgabat got what it had long wanted: independence from Russia with an alternative market for its abundant natural gas reserves. What wasn’t obvious was just how hooked energy-hungry China would become on Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan is now, by a great margin, China’s largest foreign supplier of natural gas: over 21.3 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2012, or 51.4 percent of imports, according to data published by the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. That’s about three times more than Qatar supplies China (see chart). And the number is set to skyrocket with the opening of the giant Galkynysh field this autumn, which will also feed the 1,833-kilometer Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China pipeline.
China still produces the majority of its own gas domestically. Of the 146.6 bcm it consumed last year, it produced 107.2 bcm, up from 80.3 bcm in 2008 (an increase of 33.5 percent), according to the BP Statistical Review. But its imports are growing fast: In 2008, China imported 4.2 bcm; last year, it imported 39.4 bcm (an increase of 838 percent).
After a decade of grilling students on the former president’s “book of the soul,” this fall Turkmenistan will remove the Ruhnama from its school curriculum.
A news website run by Turkmen exiles in Vienna reported this week that a new academic program drafted by Turkmenistan’s Education Ministry for the country’s secondary schools did not include Saparmurat Niyazov’s 2001 Ruhnama, which was once required reading not only for students, but for government employees, too.
According to the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, subjects like economics will replace classes dedicated to the book, which became part of the curriculum in 2002.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency confirmed the report and, citing an unnamed ministry official, said on August 1 that “prospective university students will still have to study the Ruhnama for their entry exams.”
Niyazov – who called himself Turkmenbashi, or “Father of the Turkmen” – once instructed youth to read the spiritual guide three times a day in order to secure a place in heaven.
Two years after Niyazov’s 2006 death, the Ruhnama was removed from the university curricula and was taught only one hour per week in secondary schools, RIA Novosti said.
Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most isolated countries, intends to cut its prisoners off the mobile phone network, their “only means of communication with the outside world.”
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan website, run by Turkmen exiles in Vienna, reported this week that authorities started installing equipment on July 1 to jam mobile signals in the country’s notorious prisons.
“Not every prisoner enjoys the opportunity of regular communication with relatives and until now mobile phones, which often entered prisons despite bans, were the only means of communication with the outside world,” the website explained.
The measure will further stanch the tiny trickle of information about Turkmenistan’s opaque penal system. Last year, the US State Department described prison conditions in Turkmenistan as “unsanitary, overcrowded, harsh, and life-threatening.” Family members are often denied access to their imprisoned relatives, the State Department report said.
In January, Human Rights Watch said “[u]nknown numbers of individuals continue to languish in Turkmen prisons on what appear to be politically motivated charges. The justice system lacks transparency, trials are closed in political cases, and the overall level of repression precludes independent human rights monitoring.” The Turkmen government uses imprisonment as “a tool for political retaliation,” the watchdog said.
Reports about Jennifer Lopez’s weekend birthday tribute to Turkmenistan’s president have mostly focused on her apparent lack of concern for the country’s staggering human rights abuses and systemic repression – her pleas of ignorance notwithstanding.
But The Wall Street Journal probes why it was China’s state-run gas company that paid for J.Lo to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” at 56-year-old Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s glittery birthday bash on June 29.
Good question. And the answer, in part, lies in the multiplier effect of an opaque, cronyistic, energy-hungry economic powerhouse doing business in an opaque, cronyistic, energy-rich dictatorship.
Turkmenistan, home to the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves, is integral to China’s energy plans. As analyst Alexandros Petersen wrote recently, Beijing has made Turkmenistan “the spoke at the center of its regional wheel of energy infrastructure” by building the 6,000-mile Central Asia-China gas pipeline, which opened in 2009. The pipeline is expected to carry 60 billion cubic meters a year, and connects to one of the world’s largest gas fields, Galkynysh, which is slated to come online this fall during a visit to Turkmenistan by the Chinese president.
Importantly for Berdymukhamedov, the pipeline helps him diversify: Previously most of Turkmenistan’s gas infrastructure pointed toward Russia, where it was bought at discount rates.