Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have launched a direct railway linking their oil-and-gas-rich Caspian Sea regions, bypassing Uzbekistan. The new line promises to benefit "tens of countries" in the region, opening the remote areas to major markets, says Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Kazakhstan's state-run Kazinform news agency reports that Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and Nazarbayev opened the 869-kilometer stretch from Ozen in Kazakhstan to Etrek in Turkmenistan at their Bolashak-Serhetyak border crossing on May 11. The segment is designed to link up to the Iranian rail network.
"Not only will the new railway simplify exports of our goods but it will also attract transit shipments," Kazinform quoted Nazarbayev as saying at the opening ceremony. Reduced delays will offer the two sides “a significant competitive advantage."
Berdymukhamedov, who was in Kazakhstan on a state visit May 10 and 11, praised the new line, too. "Our project also means a connection to transport infrastructure in the eastern direction with access to such economic centers of global development as China, India and the Asia-Pacific," Kazinform quoted him as saying.
The two leaders also launched a new fiber-optic data line, which should link Kazakh networks with those of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran, and Turkmen networks (such as they exist) with Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia via Kazakhstan.
Landlocked Central Asian countries are often burdened by broad transport rivalries and suspicions. While closely cooperating in building new export routes for their hydrocarbons, they often shy away from transport teamwork.
The word “wasteland” comes to mind when driving around Turkmenbashi, the oil and gas hub on Turkmenistan’s Caspian Sea coast. Rusting pipelines crisscrosses barren, sandy expanses; an acrid smell hangs in the moist, sea air. Though the nearby beaches were once a destination for holidaying Turkmen, today the health-conscious visitor might think twice before taking a dip.
After reading a new report, that visitor might not need to think twice. Using satellite imagery, researchers at the non-profit American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C. have shown the waters around Turkmenbashi suffer dozens of oil spills annually.
“Sustained and ongoing release of oil into the waters of the Caspian Sea near the city and port of Turkmenbashi represents a legitimate environmental concern,” says the May 6 report by the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project at the AAAS. “Frequent, low-volume spills often spread to cover a wide area and have been occurring semi-continuously for more than a decade.”
In the past, efforts to detect oil spills remotely relied on expensive radar and high-resolution imagery. For this study, AAAS used publicly available NASA satellite imagery in a new way, allowing “for continuous monitoring of environmental phenomena, including oil spills.” Over 11,000 satellite images taken over 12 years corroborated on-the-ground reports of regular spills. “Between 2003 and 2012 … the AAAS team identified between 43 and 64 possible oil slicks every year in Turkmenbashi Bay.”
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, two of the world's most repressive dictatorships, came under harsh criticism from Western democracies during the latest Universal Periodic Review hearings at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva this week. But likeminded authoritarian regimes came to their defense, praising the two for "progress" at improving their records in recent years.
The Human Rights Council, made up of 47 UN member states, is examining the progress the two Central Asian countries have achieved since their first review in December 2008. Ahead of the hearings, Human Rights Watch called on the council "to expose and denounce the ongoing repression" in both countries and to exert pressure on them to "end abuses."
“The extraordinarily high levels of repression in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, coupled with their governments’ refusal to acknowledge problems, let alone to address them, underscores the need for a strong, unified message,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Ashgabat and Tashkent need to hear, loud and clear, just how unacceptable their abusive records are, and what specific changes they need to make.”
Azerbaijan has asked Russia to relocate some of its Caspian Fleet to Baku after Turkmenistan's naval forces fired on some of Azerbaijan's offshore oil drilling facilities. That's according to Russian website OSTKRAFT, and while the chances of this being accurate are probably pretty small, it's too intriguing a rumor to not pass on. According to OSTKRAFT's story:
President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has appealed to the leadership of Russia to move part of its Caspian Fleet from Astrakhan and Makhachkala to Baku.
The goal of such military assistance would be the defense of offshore oil drilling facilities in the Caspian Sea territorial waters of Azerbaijan. The immediate cause for the appeal of the government of Azerbaijan to Moscow, according to an OSTKRAFT source, is the damage to Azerbaijan's offshore oil refining infrastructure in shooting by the naval forces of Turkmenistan on the Caspian. The Russian reply is not known.
Given the vagueness of the sourcing, it's best to treat this report with a high degree of skepticism. And it seems unlikely that Aliyev would make such a dramatic request to Russia -- in the long term he's more worried about Russia than about Turkmenistan. And inviting the Russians to base themselves in Baku would make it very hard later to get them out.
Still, the nascent naval forces of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have clashed in the past and we didn't hear about it until long after the fact (and probably still wouldn't have, if not for WikiLeaks). And Baku has shown that it prefers not to publicize news of its own weakness in the Caspian. So is there at least a kernel of truth to this somewhere, perhaps some sort of naval clash between the two countries? We'll have to wait for more information.
The celebrations started on April 1 with government minders leading exercises. Students went first, at 6:45 a.m., Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency reported. Market workers assembled for 15 minutes of calisthenics in downtown Ashgabat.
This is the second annual Week of Health and Happiness. At the government meeting on March 29 where he announced this year’s program, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov stressed the importance of the nation's health and ordered that events be held all over the country, the state-run TDH news agency reported.
According to TDH, the Week will conclude with a youth cycling race into the hills above Ashgabat on April 7, World Health Day, along the aptly named Health Path – designed by Berdymukhamedov's predecessor, the late Saparmurat Niyazov.
While Niyazov saw exercise as necessary for everyone but himself (he supposedly used to fly in a helicopter to meet his sweaty and exhausted ministers at the top), Berdymukhamedov leads by example: He took part in the country's first car race last year and won. He’s also an avid racehorse enthusiast.
Sports are generally a top-down affair in Turkmenistan. Last year Berdymukhamedov instructed his desert nation to start playing ice hockey.
Turkmenistan has begun an epic project to turn itself from one of the driest nations on earth into a land of sweeping forests.
The Karakum Desert covers 80 percent of the country’s territory and temperatures often reach 50 degrees Celsius in the summer, lending a decidedly quixotic flavor to the enterprise.
State television showed President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov leading the way March 9 in a mass tree-planting exercise designed to create green belts around cities and villages. "In the current era of power and happiness, Turkmenistan will become a land of lush gardens and fields, green oases, fabulous parks and dense forests, heralding growth and renewal," Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper reported on March 11.
In the first step of his desert-greening plan, Berdymukhamedov signed a decree on February 22 ordering the planting of 3 million deciduous, coniferous, fruit tree and grapevine seedlings.
The “grand greening action” involving 465,000 people – more than one-tenth of the country’s population – went ahead as planned despite the cold weather and a recent snowfall. "Nearly 755,000 seedlings of coniferous trees and other species were planted,” the state-run newspaper reported on March 11. “Steps were also taken to care for the more than 1.6 million saplings planted earlier.”
Footage on state television showed the usual voluble festivities, taking place against the backdrop of the snow-fringed Kopet Dag Mountains on the southern limits of the capital, Ashgabat.
In an awkward contrivance, the official narrative seeks to depict the president as both exceptional and ordinary, so Berdymukhamedov was shown arriving at the wheel of a white foreign-made car, wearing jeans and a casual sports jacket. Girls in national dress greeted him with bunches of flowers.
Turkmenistan's switch to a 12-year educational system is the clearest sign to date of the cataclysmic lack of intellectual capital created by poor and often erratic policy.
The change, which is to take effect on September 1, will see the period of mandatory education increased from the current 10 years.
A presidential decree published in newspapers Saturday talks about wanting to bring up "deeply educated, broad-minded and talented individuals" in the era of "might and happiness."
If those qualities have been wanting, the causes go back to 1991, when the late President Saparmurat Niyazov introduced a nine-year curriculum, flying in the face of pedagogical practice the world round. It was a short step from that to abolishing the Academy of Sciences and reducing the minimum period of theoretical instruction in higher education institutes, a holdover of the Soviet system, from five to two years.
Niyazov was instead fond of more practical, or "hands-on," approaches to education that would, for instance, lead to budding agriculture specialists spending their time laboring in the field instead of studying in the classroom.
In the reading of U.S. diplomats, the sinister intent was to engineer the population into a state of stupefied passivity: "Niyazov's decisions are not surprising, given his determination to keep the Turkmen population ignorant,” reads one Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable from early 2006.
When President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov became president at the end of 2006 he began reversing these often-destructive measures.
Turkmenistan’s schoolchildren could be forgiven for getting dizzy. Their president is again changing the number of years they are expected in the classroom.
Effective this fall, Turkmen children will be required to attend 12 years of school, rather than just 10, starting at age six. The state-run Turkmenistan.ru online newspaper reports that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov approved the change last week.
According to the decree, the switch aims "to further improve" secondary schools and to ensure that "the quality of education in them" meets global standards.
Berdymukhamedov's predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov reduced the number of years Turkmen schoolchildren were required in the classroom from 11 years to nine. Berdymukhamedov increased the curriculum to 10 years shortly after he came to power in 2006.
Niyazov – apparently no fan of school – also cut university education from five years to two. Soon after assuming office, Berdymukhamedov restored university curricula to five years.
Turkmenistan has again found itself scraping the bottom of an international index.
Last week, the Business Insider website released its 2013 Misery Index, ranking 197 countries based on unemployment and inflation rates. Turkmenistan, with its 10 percent inflation and 60 percent unemployment, came fifth from last.
"Agriculture employs half the country's workforce but accounts for only eight percent of Turkmenistan's revenue. The country suffers from rampant corruption and mismanagement by its authoritarian government," Business Insider said. "And it isn't going to get any better."
But not everyone is feeling miserable. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov – who calls his current term the “Era of Supreme Happiness of the Stable State” – has ordered one of his palaces converted into apartments to be awarded to families who bear an eighth child by March 8, International Women’s Day, reports Russia's vesti.ru website.
International Women’s Day is a big deal across the former Soviet Union, though it’s not regularly linked to fertility. Berdymukhamedov’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, treated population growth in Turkmenistan as a priority, eyeing the country’s sparsely populated deserts as a lush breeding ground.
Following the adoption of Turkmenistan's first-ever media law earlier this year, Ashgabat appears to be inching toward the liberalization of its restrictive media market. But are the changes worth more than the paper they’re printed on?
Russia's Regnum news agency reports that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov – who likes to be called “The Protector” – has withdrawn his protection from most of the country's newspapers, which he used to own single-handedly. That’s because the new media law, which the president signed on January 4, bans the “monopolization of the media.”
Turkmenistan has long languished at the bottom of global media freedom rankings, so observers like Reporters Without Borders, the watchdog, feel a legal ban on media censorship means little.
Berdymukhamedov isn’t going too far. The country's Russian-language mouthpieces, “Turkmenistan” and “Neutral Turkmenistan,” may have acquired a new owner – The Cabinet of Ministers – but the president heads the Cabinet. “Nesil” (Young Generation) will now be published by the Magtymguly youth organization, “Watan” (Homeland) by a trade union, and “Mugallymlar Gazeti” (Teacher's Newspaper) by the Ministry of Education. Of course, these bodies are all loyal to the president, who wields absolute authority. And in case any journalist gets too many crazy ideas, all appointments at all media outlets are done by presidential decree, says Regnum.