Satellite dishes are ubiquitous in Ashgabat. The government wants them gone.
According to rights watchdogs and the crumbs of independent reporting coming out of Turkmenistan, the authoritarian government is busy stripping homes of their satellite receivers, plunging the insulated country further into isolation.
At the end of March, 2015, local housing authorities in the capital, Ashgabat, and its suburbs started ordering residents of multi-story apartment buildings to take down their satellite dishes, citing simply an “order from above” that allegedly stated the dishes ruined the view of the city. Authorities told residents they could instead get cable television packages through the government or state satellite antennae.
Girls just want to have fun, Cyndi Lauper once sang. But in totalitarian Turkmenistan, having fun can spell trouble, especially if evidence lands on the Internet.
In the days since a video clip featuring a posse of schoolgirls in national dress rocking out to California-based Far East Movement’s party song “Turn Up the Love” turned up on YouTube, authorities have launched a nationwide crackdown on mobile phones in schools, a dissident-run website claims. The video currently has over 38,000 views.
Western music is officially frowned upon in Turkmenistan, where cultural protectionism – at the cost of near total isolation from the world – is a trademark of the repressive regime.
Perhaps to challenge Turkmen society’s deeply ingrained perceptions of gender roles – or perhaps because there were no better props at hand – the sextet swung about with items associated with domestic chores. The lead singer appeared to be yelling into a mop. Two faux guitarists jammed on brooms while, provocatively, another used a mini Turkmen flag to bow a newspaper as if it were a violin.
According to the Chronicles of Turkmenistan – a news outlet run by exiles that is generally hard to fact-check – the government response has been swift:
Prosecutors in Lebap province (formerly Chardzhou region) have been touring schools in the region for the last week, checking cell phones for students that contain photos and videos.
Turkmenistan has approached the United States asking for military aid to help the country address instability on its border with Afghanistan, and Washington is trying to support the requests, a senior American military official has said.
The head of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, testified before Congress this week and gave CENTCOM's annual "posture statement," which includes rare public pronouncements of the U.S.'s official military policy toward Central Asia. This year probably the most newsworthy statement was about Turkmenistan.
While noting that "Turkmenistan’s declared policy of positive neutrality limits our opportunities for substantive military-to-military collaboration," Austin also reported that "[t]he Turkmens recently expressed a desire to acquire U.S. military equipment and technology to address threats to their security along their southern border with Afghanistan. We will do what we can to support those requests." Austin did not provide details about what sort of equipment was being considered. There have been several recent reports of increased Islamist militant activity in the northern regions of Afghanistan bordering Turkmenistan, and Russia has been pressing Turkmenistan to allow it to provide military assistance.
Austin also pointed to the growing military relationship with Uzbekistan, highlighted by the decision to give more than 300 armored vehicles to the country's armed forces. "The U.S. military relationship with Uzbekistan has strengthened considerably over the past year," Austin testified. "And, expanded U.S. Special Forces training will further improve the Uzbek military’s capacity to meet security challenges."
Troops from Russia and Uzbekistan are helping Turkmenistan guard its border against militant incursions from Afghanistan, a Turkmenistani exile website reports, citing residents of border areas.
According to the report on Chronicles of Turkmenistan, "residents of Afghan border villages have recently noticed the presence on Turkmen territory border units from Uzbekistan." And it added: "About a month ago military instructors from Russia also appeared on the border. Obviously, the Turkmen authorities appealed to the Russian leadership for help guarding the border with Afghanistan, a situation where, with the arrival of warm weather, has begun to heat up."
Turkmenistan has been taking various aggressive steps to address the rise of Taliban and (some claim) ISIS units in the northern provinces of Afghanistan bordering Turkmenistan. Those steps reportedly include mobilizing reserve troops and carrying out incursions into Afghan territory. However, they have seemed to be trying to prosecute the fight on their own, without any other country's help.
The report of Uzbekistani and Russian troops is obviously sketchy information, and there's nothing to corroborate it. But the news comes as Turkmenistan has begun to come under some public (and undoubtedly private) Russian cajoling to let Moscow help. Just last week, a top Russian security official complained about Ashgabat's refusal to cooperate with Moscow on Afghanistan security issues.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev meets with CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha in 2014. (photo: akorda.kz)
Russia is disappointed in the unwillingness of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to cooperate with its collective security bloc, and considers Iran to be a model those countries could follow, a senior Russian security official has said.
Uzbekistan quit the bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, three years ago. Turkmenistan, avowedly neutral, has never been a member. (The other three ex-Soviet Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – all are, as are Armenia and Belarus.) But Russia continues to make overtures, said CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha.
“To my great disappointment, today we have practically no working relationship with either Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, although from our side there have been repeated proposals to cooperate,” Bordyuzha said in an interview with Kazakhstani journalists. “We're not talking about the need to join the CSTO, about giving up their sovereignty. We're only talking about one thing: let's unite the efforts of the special services to jointly fight against common threats, which we're confronting today, let's talk about the possibility of offering aid from the CSTO collective forces in case it's needed. But there has been no response from either Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.”
“Why not cooperate with an organization that contains respected governments: the Russian Federation, with its military potential and military-industrial complex, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan -- all countries which are always ready to provide help?” Bordyuzha continued. "To me, we simply have to cooperate, especially considering the processes going on in the world.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tried to end uncertainty about Iran’s desire for Turkmenistan's gas during his first official visit to the gas-rich Central Asian country on March 11, promising an unspecified increase in imports.
Over the last few years, at least in terms of gas, Turkmenistan’s relationship with Iran has been second only to its relationship with Russia in volatility. Tehran makes occasional noises about boosting domestic production and doing away with a tiresome trade pickled with disputes.
But during his visit Rouhani confirmed that the Islamic Republic would up imports from Turkmenistan.
That must be music to Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s ears. The Turkmen economy has been struggling on the back of the sharp downturn in Russia and the slumping ruble; moreover, Moscow suddenly slashed imports of Turkmen gas last month.
Referring to increased transport links with Turkmenistan, such as the new Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway, Rouhani set an ambitious target for bilateral trade to grow by more than 15 times from its current $3.7 billion to $60 billion by 2020, his official president.ir website cited him as saying.
For his part, Berdymukhamedov was also effusive: “In recent years, given the growing cooperation in different fields, bilateral ties between Tehran and Ashgabat have taken on a new meaning,” said the Turkmen president, who also called Rouhani a “brother” in comments picked up by AFP.
Turkmenistan is undertaking the first large-scale mobilization of its reserve military forces since gaining independence, which government officials say is required to ward off the threat of ISIS forces gathering in neighboring Afghanistan.
That's according to a report in Central Asia Online, a Pentagon-funded news website known mostly for its sunny promotion of the activities of some of the world's most authoritarian governments. This report, even though it falls into that same pattern, is nevertheless pretty extraordinary for the fact that it gets several Turkmenistan officials to talk on the record, and some of them even disagree with one another.
"This is the first large-scale and serious ... mobilisation of reservists in the nearly 24 years of the country's independence," Defence Ministry official Agamyrat Garakhanov told Central Asia Online, calling the number of called-up reservists a "state secret".
A few weeks ago, Russia’s state-run Gazprom announced it would sharply and immediately cut the amount of gas it purchases from Turkmenistan. Now Turkmenistan’s authoritarian government has responded with a rare outburst. Unfortunately for Ashgabat, these days there’s not much it can do but screech.
Russia is an “unreliable partner,” a think-tank inside Turkmenistan’s own state energy company, Turkmengaz, said in a February 16 rant published on its website.
The article – “Will Gas Exports of Turkmen Gas to Russia Recover?” – criticizes Russia and Gazprom for all of the unhappiest moments in an up-and-down relationship that has seen deliveries of Turkmen gas to Russia drop from a peak of around 45 billion cubic meters per year (bcm) in 2008 to the 4 bcm the Russian giant says it will now import in 2015.
The piece expressed outrage at Gazprom’s failure to fulfill a 2008 agreement to build a Trans-Caspian pipeline and fingered Gazprom for an unexplained pipeline explosion in April 2009 that marked the beginning of the decline in its purchases.
Gazprom and its affiliates “periodically violate agreements at interstate, intergovernmental and interdepartmental levels,” the article notes.
As delegates from the four countries hoping to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to South Asia met on February 11 in Islamabad, Pakistani media claimed that a deal is close. Several outlets reported that French energy major Total may lead the long-delayed project, providing much-needed know-how and capital.
Other than rumored ambivalence towards the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline project in Islamabad and Delhi, the lack of a major commercial investor has been a key obstacle for TAPI. Turkmenistan’s refusal to allow any outsider an equity stake in an upstream field has been another stumbling block, with India reportedly pressuring Turkmenistan on February 11 to change its mind.
But The Daily Times, a Pakistani newspaper, claims a deal is imminent. Citing an unnamed official in the Pakistani Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources, the newspaper clarified that Total would not be the owner of the pipeline – which is the privilege of a company created by the four countries called TAPI Ltd. – but would instead assist the Turkmen at the source:
Under a proposed deal, Total will help extract gas from Turkmenistan’s fields, which will be exported to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. In return, the company will be paid a service fee in cash or in kind. Sources in the energy sector said that gas companies of the four countries have already established a company to build, own and operate the 1,800km TAPI natural gas pipeline. The four state-owned companies will hold an equal share in the pipeline operator.
HQ-9 air defense systems on parade in Beijing. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
China has reportedly provided both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan with sophisticated air defense systems, which would represent the largest Chinese military equipment deal thus far in Central Asia.
Reportedly, China has provided one battalion each to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan of the HQ-9 air defense system, as partial payment for natural gas that it imports from Central Asia. (Each battalion consists of eight launchers.)
The information on the deal is spotty: it comes from Chinese-language Canadian defense journal Kanwa Defense Review, and cites an anonymous Chinese defense industry source. "It is possible, even likely, but it is still unclear at which stage the deals are," Vasily Kashin, a Russian military expert at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies told The Bug Pit. "Both countries need long range [surface-to-air missile] systems to replace their S-200s which are becoming physically old and unsustainable. Both countries are well known for their careful balancing between Russia, China and the West, they are both fiercely independent from Russia. Besides, Chinese currently can provide very good financial terms for such a deal."