Turkmenistan’s contacts with Russia have picked up in recent months, heightening speculation that Ashgabat is positioning itself to renew gas supplies to its erstwhile top customer.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, spoke by phone this week, ostensibly to discuss regional issues and cultural exchanges. (Neither the Russian nor Turkmen news agencies provided details, as usual, though Turkmenistan.ru boasted that the Russians initiated the call.)
Earlier in the week, Svetlana Medvedeva, wife of Russia’s prime minister and former placeholder president, Dmitry Medvedev, received a prestigious memento during her trip to Ashgabat. Berdymukhamedov awarded her the Ruhubelent Order, one of the Turkmenistan’s highest state honors, for her work on improving ties between the two countries. Medvedeva is not known for previously showing any interest in the gas-rich desert nation.
Berdymukhamedov and Putin also spoke by phone the previous week. And they spoke in July when Putin called to congratulate Berdymukhamedov on his birthday. At the time, Putin and Medvedev also sent congratulatory letters. Perhaps Medvedev’s specific reference to the grand time the two shared in Rio de Janeiro – at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June – helped land his wife the Turkmen trophy.
There are many things the Central Asia countries can’t agree on – but water often tops the list. Now Turkmenistan, which generally allies with inflexible Uzbekistan on water issues, is risking Tashkent’s wrath as it seeks to attract foreign investment to expand and modernize its thirsty cotton industry.
Reuters reports that Textile Industry Minister Saparmyrat Batyrov told an investment conference on October 17 that Ashgabat is seeking more than $1 billion to develop new textile plants by 2016.
Cotton already plays an important role in Turkmenistan’s economy. The country ranks as the world's ninth-largest producer of cotton according to a recent US government estimate.
Turkmenistan's prized “white gold” is used to produce jeans and other cotton products that are exported internationally. The Ashgabat-based Turkmenbashi Textile Complex claims Wal-Mart, Calvin Klein and JC Penney among its clients.
Two issues which blight the cotton industry in Central Asia remain obstacles to these ambitious plans, however -- the abuse of child labor and the region’s scarce water supplies.
Turkmenistan held its first ever naval exercise on Wednesday, and it was a rare attempt for the foreign press to get a glimpse of what's going on there. All the big wire services carried reports on the exercise, and AFP's was the most detailed:
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov observed the exercises through binoculars from atop a two-story structure built on the deserted Caspian Sea coast about 60 kilometres (40 miles) from the nearest city of Turkmenbashi.
In the war games, the aggressor was given the name of the “blue” state while Turkmenistan was the “green” nation.
“A ship from the ‘blue’ country penetrated Turkmenistan waters to seize a Turkmen tanker...and the coastal city with its oil refinery,” a pamphlet with the exercise scenario said.
Observers — who included various diplomats from Western states — witnessed a staged hijacking, the burning of a refinery and moves by Turkmen airforce and navy on a screen.
By pushing back the enemy, “the ‘green’ state (Turkmenistan) made the ‘blue’ state abandon their aggressive intentions, reinstalling control of the state border,” the military commentator declaimed to the audience.
Berdymukhamedov, who arrived at the exercises in a helicopter and was welcomed with a chorus and orchestra, told diplomats that “Turkmenistan’s military doctrine is defensive but we must protect our border as we are a maritime state.”
It’s the end of an era. The Peace Corps will close all its Turkmenistan programs by December.
The US Embassy in Ashgabat has announced that the remaining 18 volunteers in Turkmenistan will be sent home this month, and the Peace Corps offices will close by the end of the year. The program has been operating since 1993, and has sent more than 740 volunteers to regions all over the country to work as English language teachers and help with health projects, said an August 31 statement on the Embassy’s website.
Though, according to the statement, “Peace Corps considers its program to have been extraordinarily successful in terms of achieving its development and cultural exchange goals,” it seems the Turkmen government has been wary of the program for some time. In March six Peace Corps volunteers were refused visa extensions and had to leave the country before completing their service. An Embassy official told EurasiaNet.org at the time that, “Peace Corps leadership and the US Embassy leadership are in an on-going dialogue with the Turkmen government about the future of the program, including its size and scope.”
Apparently “the size and scope” has now been decided.
How many people live in Turkmenistan? For years it’s been anyone’s guess.
But this December Ashgabat is planning to conduct a census -- the first since 1995. Authorities seem serious about systematically counting every person in the country. The government website dedicated to the census announces, “Right now in most cases we operate based on the 1995 census, but it seems that the situation has changed.”
According to the last survey, there were 4.481 million people living in Turkmenistan in 1995. Since then, from time to time, the government has doled out official “estimations.” Under former President Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s population was announced bi-annually. The opposition-run website Gundogar notes that under Niyazov, “on March 1, 2006, new official information was printed that [the population was] 6,786,400 [...] on July 1, 2006 it was 6,836,500.” That’s a sharp increase in just a few months.
Outside observers generally estimate a markedly lower population of around 4.67 million people in 2005. The United States and the United Nations note that Turkmenistan had a high infant mortality rate – around 70 out of 1,000 births – until 2006. Now, the US and UN predict Turkmenistan’s population to be somewhere around 5.1 million.
Back when many Turkmenistan-watchers nurtured hopes of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov becoming a reformist president, modifications to the country’s education system were heralded as evidence of change.
Even before being elected to his first term in early 2007, Berdymukhamedov revealed plans to extend primary schooling to 10 years, from nine years previously.
All these years later, he seems unimpressed by the progress made. In an August 16 cabinet meeting, the president issued one of his trademark warnings to Education Minister Gulshat Mammedov and spoke disparagingly of teaching standards.
For that reason, Berdymukhamedov is now suggesting that primary education could be extended to 11 or 12 years and has insisted on an improvement in teacher skills.
"In some schools, teacher training does not meet the requirements of today," he said during the televised meeting.
For an example, he talked about the ineffectual use of laptops in first grade classes, which he put down to the lack of computer skills among teachers.
As befits an Orwellian state, recent entrance exams for higher education institutes were monitored by security cameras, and the president was unhappy with what that revealed.
“A number of irregularities were detected during exams, and it was clear which invigilators were assisting exam-takers and helped them unreasonably inflate their results," Berdymukhamedov said.
As well as making such stringent demands, Berdymukhamedov has proven something of a priggish Puritan toward students. College students are not allowed to go to class in their own cars or in taxis; frequenting nightclubs, bars and restaurants is definitely out. Dormitories are no-fun islands of discipline.
It’s not every day that a new movie is made in Turkmenistan. So official plans to release five new features before Independence Day on October 27 is reason to celebrate. Right?
This being tightly controlled Turkmenistan, mind you, the plots are predictable. A discriminating cinophile might even call them PR. State-run Turkmenistan.ru describes three:
The first, “The Song of Avaza,” is a musical comedy about two students at the seaside resort of Avaza, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s pet tourist trap on the Caspian. The second, “The Horse - My Wings,” tells the tale of an old breeder of Akhal-Teke horses (Berdymukhamedov’s favorite) who is teaching his grandson the trade.
Turkmenistan.ru’s descriptions leave no platitude ignored. A third film, “Student Life,” is about the joys of being a student in independent Turkmenistan: “Along with the protagonists of the movie, the viewer is taken up by real student life, where the responsibilities of studying and the thirst for knowledge come together with inseparable friendships, first love, and the first independent steps toward adulthood.”
On its Facebook page, Salam Turkmen, group that aggregates and comments on news about Turkmenistan, interprets the film as a demonstration of Berdymukhamedov’s love for the youth of Turkmenistan, to which one commenter bemoans, "Again the same thing, along the same path. Unfortunately."
True, it is thanks to Berdymukhamedov that even these attempts at filmmaking happen.
The US State Department’s annual terrorism report, released this week, provides a brief overview of how Foggy Bottom views terrorist threats abroad. On Central Asia, unfortunately, the cautious survey adds little to our understanding of the problem.
In its introduction to the region, the report notes that Central Asian governments “faced the challenge” of balancing human rights with security concerns. Further down, the report lists myriad examples where authorities heavily favored security, often at the expense of basic human rights.
State hedges on Central Asian governments’ tendency to hype threats. For the most part, the report simply lists what authorities describe as terrorist attacks and as anti-terrorist operations, but uses qualifying terms – “reportedly”; “potentially” – that make it clear State is as in the dark on the nature of the events as the rest of us.
The report does cautiously point out that Central Asian governments’ widespread human rights abuses may end up creating terrorists.
For example, Kazakhstan’s 2010 amendments to the law on “religious activities” had “severely restricted the peaceful practice of religion,” the report says, adding that some commentators linked subsequent violent incidents to the new law.
In the Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan sections, the report states the widely held belief that the three countries misuse counterterrorism statutes to persecute legitimate political and religious actors. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, despite their well-documented use of the same playbook, are not censured directly on this point.
A bit bruised and on vastly inferior financial terms, Russian cell operator MTS is returning to Turkmenistan.
In a July 26 statement, MTS said authorities in Ashgabat had granted the company a five-year contract for mobile operations, with the possibility of another five-year extension if all goes well. Both sides, the statement said, have agreed to drop legal action against one another.
The hitch? The new agreement with state-run Altyn Asyr requires MTS to pay the company 30 percent of its net profits every month.
MTS was kicked out of Turkmenistan in late 2010 after Ashgabat abruptly suspended the company’s operating license. Since then, MTS has tried to get the government to pay the $137.8 million it claims to have lost when it was booted out of the country, and rumors have circled regularly that MTS would return. As EurasiaNet.org has reported, the dithering and overloaded Altyn Asyr is not loved by most Turkmen, and some have even saved their MTS SIM cards hoping that one day the operator would return.
According to Reuters, MTS claims its cell towers and equipment in Turkmenistan are still in good shape, so its 2.4 million former customers should be able to reconnect soon.
Visitors to a popular local news site posted comments celebrating MTS’ return. But after years of speculation, some were skeptical. “It’s really not sure whether this will happen or not,” said a user identified as Kerki.
First it was the bread-eaters who faced price hikes, now it’s the travelers.
Over the weekend, state-owned Turkmenistan Airlines increased fares for international flights two- to threefold. The news comes at the height of the summer holiday season and not long before young people studying abroad prepare to return to their universities.
Prices for the famously cheap internal flights have also gone up, by $8.
The hot and airless Turkmenistan Airlines ticket offices in Ashgabat have been mobbed by prospective travelers distressed at the news of how much more they will have to spend on flights.
Under the new tariff system, an economy return flight to Moscow, commonly used by those studying or working in Russia, will go up from $280 to $670. The biggest spike is on the Beijing flight, where a return ticket has risen from $355 to $890. An Ashgabat-London return ticket now costs $485, up from $240, while the already relatively expensive Kiev round trip has edged up slightly to $660, from $545.
The last airfare hike in Turkmenistan was in 2008 and was linked to the introduction of a uniform exchange rate between the official and black markets and the redenomination of the national currency. (The old banknotes emblazoned with the face of the late President Saparmurat Niyazov were denominated in the 1000s and required the laborious counting routine still familiar to visitors to neighboring Uzbekistan, who often carry their cash in rolls.)
At that time, it was internal airfares that went up -- and not by as much. The cost of a flight from the capital to a provincial center rose from $7 to $10. With this week’s price hikes, a return flight spanning the country from east to west now costs approximately $60.