Security and energy topped the agenda on the first day of European Union foreign affairs envoy Catherine Ashton’s visit to Central Asia, disappointing campaigners hoping she would make vocal calls for improvements to what they see as the five states’ dismal human rights records.
Following the EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting in Kyrgyzstan on November 27, Ashton cited first security (due to the region’s proximity to Afghanistan) then energy and trade as key to “the growing importance of Central Asia.”
“We face shared security challenges. We have great potential to further develop our energy, trade and economic relations,” she said, only then pointing to the EU’s desire to “support the efforts of the countries of Central Asia as you take that journey of political and economic reforms.”
She listed topics of discussion as education; the rule of law; the environment; and energy and water resources (a particular bone of regional contention). “And we talked about democratization and human rights and the development of civil society,” Ashton then added.
Human rights campaigners had been hoping for stronger language from the EU foreign policy chief, who promised ahead of her visit in an interview with Radio Free Europe to make human rights “a core part of the dialogue.”
Turkmenistan is looking south, not west, to realize its pipe dreams.
Speaking at an annual oil and gas conference in Ashgabat last week, Turkmen officials spent a lot of time praising the proposed TAPI pipeline to south Asia. They reportedly did so at the expense of plans to construct a pipeline to export Turkmenistan’s vast gas reserves to Europe.
TAPI – named for the four countries it would cross: Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – is “regarded with suspicion as a wildly ambitious pipedream by some analysts,” AFP said, especially because it would traverse war-torn Afghanistan. Ashgabat signed onto the project at the urging of the Asian Development Bank and Washington in May. In 2008, it was estimated to cost $7.8 billion.
Turkmen officials “took every opportunity to talk up the pipeline while showing less interest in a similar project that would transport gas across the Caspian” to Europe, AFP reported:
“The realization of the TAPI pipeline project will allow an increase in exports of Turkmen gas,” President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was quoted as saying in a formal statement for the conference.
Sakhatmurad Mamedov, head of the state-owned company Turkmengaz, announced that the project had been ‘successfully pushed forward’ in roadshows held in September with potential investors in Singapore, New York and London. “The realization of the TAPI project will give an impulse to the development of the countries taking part in the project and will also strengthen stability in the region as well as creating new jobs,” he said.
Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi announced November 14 that Turkmenistan had halted gas exports to its southern neighbor over a price dispute. Shortly thereafter, a Turkmen official told Reuters there is no price dispute, but that pipeline repairs are to blame for the gas cut.
For now, the gas is back on, Reuters reports, citing a Turkmen official who said Iran requested repairs to the pipeline. But the episode – complete with contradicting reports from the two sides – looked familiar, and suggested a few possible scenarios.
First, Iran has been struggling with balance of payments problems as international sanctions designed to end its nuclear program have crushed its banking system and stifled foreign trade. It is not unlikely that Tehran is struggling to make hard currency payments for the gas, asked for a discount, and Ashgabat started playing hardball.
Second, Iran relies on imports of Turkmen gas to supply its northern regions, particularly in winter, which helps free up excess capacity for its downstream sales to Armenia and Turkey. If Iran can’t make these margins work, it is likely to want to halt purchases.
Third, Ashgabat may be trying to push up Iran’s purchase prices. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov seems to think each of his gas clients -- Russia, Iran, and China -- should pay as much as anyone else is willing to pay.
Just south of the Ashgabat city gates, a security checkpoint marks the entrance to a tightly controlled, 10-mile-wide no man’s land before Turkmenistan’s border with Iran. The guards turn back many Turkmen headed to the Islamic Republic, including those traveling for religious pilgrimage, aspiring students, and anyone else the authorities feel like blocking.
According to several Turkmen in Ashgabat, a new group is being stopped lately: medical tourists.
Moscow remains a destination for many Turkmen seeking higher-quality medical care, but the cost and complications of flying to Russia have begun to exceed the trouble of making a short trip south. Turkmen traveling to Iran can arrange fixers – often ethnic Turkmen from Iran – to provide translation, transportation, and accommodation during their stay, usually in Meshed, Iran’s second city, a half day’s drive from Ashgabat.
Patients reportedly appreciate the quality and service culture afforded by Iranian private clinics. Turkmenistan has one private medical facility, the Turkish-run Ashgabat Central Hospital, which is not well regarded by Turkmen or expats in the city.
One woman seeking fertility treatment turned to a private clinic in Iran after Turkmen doctors at the best maternity ward in Ashgabat prescribed her a list of drugs, vitamins, and folk cures three pages long. Many doctors in Turkmenistan, like their counterparts across the region, embrace folk practices and outdated Soviet-era theory over evidence-based medical treatments.
The ban on exits for medical tourists has been in place since summer, say Ashgabat residents. Some continue to make the trip, claiming to be on “business,” though sources in Ashgabat report that authorities limit even these trips to once in three months.
While busily building up his own personality cult, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is also investing substantial efforts into turning his father into a figure of adulation.
State newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan reported October 22 that the country’s first monument to the still living Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov has been unveiled in his home village, Yzgant. In an effort at lending legitimacy to the exercise, the besuited bronze bust was approved by the rubber-stamp parliament.
A state television report on the unveiling showed a huge audience including ministers, village elders, local residents and students bursting into lively applause as the awning came off the statue. And as is standard, the foreign diplomatic corps were in attendance to give the event an ambassadorial stamp of approval.
The unveiling was succeeding by traditional dancing and a rendition of a song hailing the Arkadag -- the title of “Protector” now typically bestowed on the president by state media.
Neutral Turkmenistan probably described the mood best: "The unveiling of the monument in Yzgant lent the festivities a spiritual mood that mingled with the triumphant festive music festival to create a sublime symphony of patriotism."
After the ceremony, Berdymukhamedov Jr. himself arrived in a cortege. It is not known if his father attended the jamboree.
Again, Neutral Turkmenistan describes the scene in its trademark style: "Girls in national dress presented bouquets of flowers to the president of Turkmenistan. Representatives of the faith offered up prayers for the good health and longevity of the nation’s leader, and success in all his undertakings in the name of progress and prosperity of the fatherland.”
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.