Turkmenistan has called up military reservists to train on its border with Afghanistan following reports of recent skirmishes with Afghanistan-based militants.
On March 18 the Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) service reported that Turkmen reservists were being summoned to military enlistment offices to "undergo retraining" near Afghanistan. "In particular, several tens of people have been sent to Serhetabad (formerly Kushka) in the country's south in the past few weeks," ATN said, citing "reliable sources.” The soldiers are being housed in separate barracks without leave and are subject to strict military discipline, ATN said: "There is no more information but there is no talk of full mobilization. Our sources in Ashgabat haven't yet received summons to military enlistment offices."
The news service, run by exiled Turkmen opposition members, linked the move to recent violence on Turkmenistan's border with Afghanistan. Afghan media reported on February 26 that a group of Taliban fighters had killed three Turkmen border guards. A Taliban source later denied involvement. ATN cited Turkmen sources saying the number of border guards killed may have been five.
Underscoring how instability has spread to the bordering provinces, on March 18 AFP reported that a suicide bomber on a motorbike killed at least 15 people at a crowded market in Afghanistan's Faryab Province, which borders Turkmenistan. There was no immediate claim for the attack.
While foreign military aid to the countries of Central Asia is unlikely to have a large impact on security in the region, it's unclear whether the positive effects will outweigh the negative ones. That's according to a comprehensive new report (pdf), "External Support for Central Asian Military and Security Forces," written by Dmitry Gorenburg for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (and supported by the Open Society Foundations, which also funds EurasiaNet).
The 90-page paper is the most exhaustive accounting of military aid given to the Central Asian countries. While "Russia remains the main source of military and security assistance for most Central Asian states" the report also looks at American and other countries' military aid, Both the U.S. and Russian aid is based primarily on quid pro quos, Gorenburg argues: for Russia it is for the sake of "basing rights and a certain level of acquiescence on Russian foreign policy priorities" while for the U.S. it's been "assuring continued access for transferring supplies and personnel to Afghanistan."'
Gorenburg notes that the possibility of Central Asian militaries receiving excess U.S. military equipment from Afghanistan is insignificant relative to the amount of attention it gets:
A global survey of 223 cities ranks some of the capitals in Central Asia and the South Caucasus the world’s worst places for foreigners to live. Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, for example – where officials build themselves multi-million-dollar palaces and ignore basic property rights, education, and a failing healthcare system – now ranks the worst city in Asia for expatriates to make a home.
The annual ranking, released February 19 by Mercer, a New York-based human resources consultancy, measures cities based on quality of living for foreigners, not locals. The company takes into consideration 39 factors including political stability, the effectiveness of law enforcement, censorship, pollution and healthcare, electricity supplies, the quality of schools and public services, availability of consumer goods and climate. The scores are “weighted to reflect their importance to expatriates.” The ranking has been published since 1994.
A decade ago, Asia would probably have offered more competition at the lower end of the rankings. But with stunning economic growth across much of the continent, today it is post-Soviet Central Asia that sweeps the bottom of the table. Dushanbe (ranked 209 globally) was one-upped in Asia by the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka (208), and fell two places in two years. Ashgabat came third from the bottom in Asia at 206, falling seven places since 2012. Fourth- and fifth-worst, respectively, Bishkek ranked 204 and Tashkent 202. (Almaty ranked 169 in 2012; Astana wasn’t surveyed. If you want to know where they rank this year, you’ll have to shell out $499 for the report.)
The General Atomics "Avenger" UAV, which may soon be based in Central Asia. (photo: General Atomics)
The U.S. is making plans to set up drone bases in Central Asia in the case that the government of Afghanistan doesn't allow U.S. troops to remain in that country past this year, the Los Angeles Times has reported. The military wants to maintain the ability to carry out attacks against militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan even if it has no military presence in those countries, and the next best options are the Central Asian states. The officials interviewed didn't specify which countries were being considered: "There are contingency plans for alternatives in the north," said one official quoted by the paper.
So which would it be? The story's publication prompted much speculation among Central Asia watchers as to where the putative base might be located. Each of the three Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan would have serious downsides from the U.S.'s perspective. Tajikistan is highly susceptible to Russian pressure, and the Kremlin is surely not inclined to let the U.S. reestablish its military presence in Central Asia. Uzbekistan might be willing to host a base and is relatively immune to Russian pressure, but is a bit of a bete noire in Washington and setting up a drone base there would surely face resistance from human rights-inclined members of Congress. And Turkmenistan would have some of the same problems as Uzbekistan, but also has a proudly held neutrality that would seem to preclude hosting U.S. drones.
One wrinkle that could affect the decision is whether the bases are run by the military or the CIA. As the Times notes, the current drone program in Afghanistan and Pakistan is operated by the CIA, which can remain covert. President Barack Obama has said he wants to shift U.S. drone programs to the military, but in this case that would require the bases to be relatively public:
Turkmenistan appears poised to build the one white elephant it's overlooked during a 15-year building spree—a subway system under the streets of its deserted capital city.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov mooted the idea during a meeting with Ukrainian construction magnate Vladimir Petruk in Ashgabat this week. During the meeting, Berdymukhamedov reportedly asked Petruk to study the issue. "Due to the rapid growth of the capital city and increase in its population, the esteemed president drew attention to the need to build a metro," state television announced on February 4.
I can't help but take a bit of credit for the concept, which I used to suggest in jest to anyone who would listen when I lived in Ashgabat. In jest, because Ashgabat's low population, sprawl, earthquakes, and lack of traffic make a subway an imprudent investment.
Petruk apparently raised the idea back in 2005 with Berdymukhamedov's predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov. The plans went nowhere that time, perhaps for good reason.
Estimates of Ashgabat's population generally hover between 700,000 and one million. During the Soviet era, one million was the minimum number required for Moscow’s planners to consider building a metro in a city.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s personality cult has so saturated Turkmenistan that people seem to be fed up with purchasing dictator memorabilia. Sluggish demand for calendars featuring portraits of the president (month after month) is reportedly forcing traders to raise their prices in a bid to minimize losses.
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan reports that this year’s version of the calendar featuring Berdymukhamedov striking a pose on each page have not been selling well. The Chronicles suggests the rising price is further damping demand: For one version of the calendars, the price has risen by 25 percent year-on-year, from 45 manats (approximately $16) to 56 manats ($20).
"They are bought only by bureaucrats and businessmen who keep them in their offices to show their loyalty to the president," the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a website run by exiles in Vienna, explained.
Despite losses, the state-run publisher is still printing desk and wall calendars – along with other mementos including giant posters and icon-like charms for car dashboards – because "propaganda is more important than profit in Turkmenistan.”
When you think of cotton and forced labor in Central Asia, you probably think of Uzbekistan. But a new report offers a reminder that Turkmenistan continues to force thousands of citizens into the cotton fields each autumn against their will.
On January 21, Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) released its assessment of the 2013 cotton harvest (by email): “Tens of thousands” of Turkmen, many of them public sector employees, were forced into the fields during the harvest. "Forced labor is still widely practiced throughout the country," the report – authored in collaboration with the Cotton Campaign, an international advocacy group – said.
The findings support reporting last autumn from Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen Service, which said that teachers were shepherding their students to the cotton fields on an "unprecedented" scale, with girls as young as 10 spotted picking cotton.
ATN describes a feudal system wherein government officials lease cotton plots from the state and then force their underlings to perform the manual labor. Like in neighboring Uzbekistan, the farmers (in this case the officials) then sell their harvest to the government at low prices. The government then sells the raw cotton abroad at market prices, says ATN:
We have information that shows that in the majority of cases, when the regional employees of the social sector are used as cheap laborers, the land is owned not by local farmers, but by high-ranking state or regional officials. These officials rent out land under the names of their wives, children, other family members, etc., however they do absolutely nothing by way of harvesting cotton on their land; many of these officials do not even live on this land or even in the region where the land is leased. [...]
Turkmenistan’s copious reserves of natural gas have long afforded residents an unusual luxury: free gas for cooking and heating their homes. But the subsidy encourages waste, which is encapsulated in an anecdote wherein a Turkmen family never bothers turning the gas stove off because it has to pay for matches.
Unsurprisingly, the waste is expensive, perhaps costing the nation of 5 million up to $5 billion a year. So Turkmenistan’s strongman president says homes should be fit with gas meters and consumers will have to start paying.
Speaking at a government meeting on January 17, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov called on local journalists to run a series of television programs and publications on conserving gas, Turkmen state television reported.
"The installation of the meters will allow people to economically consume natural gas, while the maximum payment for using the gas will not create difficulties for the population, for each family," the Associated Press quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying. From AP:
The move comes in the wake of signs that Berdymukhamedov's authoritarian government sees the subsidized domestic energy market as too heavy an economic burden, and is making profitable energy exports a bigger priority. […]
The government has made it clear in recent months the domestic subsidies are too costly. At a conference in October attended by Berdymukhamedov, one delegate publicly announced that free gas to the country's citizens cost Turkmenistan $5 million each year.
Neither Berdymukhamedov nor his government offered any clarification about when the changes would take effect or how much consumers would be charged.
Authoritarian Turkmenistan has announced results of the country's December 15 parliamentary elections, which offered a total lack of opposition to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s stronghold on power.
According to results released late December 18 by Turkmenistan's Central Electoral Commission, the pro-presidential Democratic Party won 47 of 125 seats up for grabs in the rubber-stamp parliament. The new Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which was founded on the president’s orders last year, won 14. Trade unions won 33 and women's groups 16, the state-run TDH news agency reported.
This was billed as Turkmenistan's first “multi-party” election, since Ashgabat allowed a second political party to field candidates. But the vote did not offer a genuine choice because all contenders were carefully vetted to ensure loyalty to Berdymukhamedov, who tolerates no dissent and rules with absolute authority over the gas-rich nation of 5 million.
Some may wonder why bother holding an election under such restrictions, but the carefully stage-managed performance offers a veneer of legitimacy to what is arguably one of the world’s few remaining totalitarian states.
With a population just more than five million people, Turkmenistan is an oil and natural-gas rich Central Asian country wedged against the Caspian Sea between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. On the surface, the country appears wealthy with Turkmenistanis provided free gas, water, and electricity. The subsidized price of oil is around $0.20 per liter.
Former President Saparmurat Niyazov, who branded himself the father of all Turkmen, described the 21st century as the Golden Age (Altyn Asyr) for Turkmen people. After its independence from the Soviet Union, the country’s capital Ashgabat was considered a showcase of the amazing progress and richness of Turkmenistan.
Yet behind this apparent abundance another face shows very different conditions for a bulk of the Turkmen population, who live in poverty and poor conditions. This other side of the country – almost 190,000 square miles with 80 percent covered by the Karakum Desert – lives submerged in emptiness, a feeling that fills the landscape of rural Turkmenistan.
Ricard Altés Molina is a freelance photojournalist based in Barcelona.