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.
Turkmenistan likes to boast of its highly subsidized economy, but that has changed for some motorists as of this month.
On July 1, the owners of trucks, buses and tractors lost the right to free gasoline they have enjoyed since February 2008. From now on, only drivers of regular cars under 3.5 tons and motorcyclists will be eligible for the free fuel -- 720 liters of petrol and 240 liters of natural gas every six months.
Everyone else in the oil-rich state must pay market prices, which are, in fairness, still pretty affordable. The lowest-grade A-80 blend costs $0.19 per liter, while A-92 costs $0.20 and A-95 currently stands at $0.22. (Yes, in Americanese, that’s less than a dollar per gallon for premium gasoline.)
According to the presidential resolution that led to this change, some truck drivers were using their 1,200-liter concessions for personal purposes, instead of hauling goods.
Back in the days of the late President Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December 2006, gas cost only $0.02 a liter, making it easily among the cheapest in the world. Once Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov came to power he began rationing gas with coupons, as electricity, household gas, water and salt were already dispersed.
Authorities say that since the fuel-coupon system was introduced in 2009, the number of car owners has risen by 12 percent, although there is no exact total available.
By regional standards, that figure isn’t particularly impressive and the sight of Soviet-era Lada Zhiguli cars, increasingly rare elsewhere, remains common even in the capital, Ashgabat.
With average salaries believed to hover around $200 a month, the prospect of buying a brand new car is pretty unthinkable for many people.
As the European Union prepares to review its Central Asia strategy, a leading international human rights watchdog has urged Brussels to demand the five republics improve their human rights records, or face consequences.
In a June 21 statement ahead of an EU meeting on Central Asia policy, Human Rights Watch urged the 27-member organization not to allow geopolitical interests to serve as “an excuse for downplaying the EU’s focus on human rights abuses in the region.”
“Affecting positive change in Central Asia isn’t easy, but being clear about expectations and linking closer engagement to progress is a good place to start,” Veronika Szente Goldston, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia advocacy director, said in a statement. “The EU has resisted doing this so far, but it’s not too late to set things right.”
EU foreign ministers will meet on June 25 to assess its 2007 program, “The EU and Central Asia: Strategy for a New Partnership.”
HRW said the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan “all have distinctly poor human rights records and to various degrees resist meaningful reform.”
The watchdog documented concerns in a report issued on June 20, which singled out all five states for failing to prevent torture in places of confinement, restricting media freedoms and pressuring civil society activists.
Chevron Vice President Jay Pryor crept in and out of Turkmenistan like a thief in the night last week. Or he tried to anyway.
During talks with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, members of a visiting US delegation spoke glowingly about future cooperation in sectors including the fuel and energy industry, according to a state television news report on June 14.
All the reports in Turkmen state media were impenetrable and vague, as is customary, but Pryor’s presence among other things offered a clue about their intentions.
Chevron, along with ExxonMobil, has had offices in Turkmenistan for years with the meager hope of finally persuading Ashgabat to give them some access to the country’s onshore gas fields, but no cigar to date.
With almost mocking insouciance, Turkmenistan continues trying to tempt its foreign suitors to bid for the licensed Caspian Sea hydrocarbon blocks up for tender.
Chevron has resisted that temptation, but it is now being linked to the pipeline project to transport gas through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India, known as TAPI.
People with historical knowledge of the Afghan pipeline will know that Chevron has some indirect experience with this project’s previous incarnation.
Unocal, which merged with Chevron in 2005, was the majority partner in a multinational consortium including Delta Oil Company of Saudi Arabia, Russia's Gazprom and Turkmenistan to build the pipeline in the 1990s. That idea was scuppered by the harsh realities of Afghan instability.
In a case of history repeating itself, the frontrunners in the proposed consortium to build TAPI reportedly include Chevron and Gazprom, as well as ExxonMobil. Other candidates cited in regional media include Indian state-owned gas processing and distribution company GAIL -- a detail just guaranteed to irk Pakistan.
As reported by RFE/RL this week, Turkmenistan is for the first time broadcasting the European football championships to local viewers.
Now, state broadcasters are hoping to build on that precedent by securing the rights to European Champions League -- the continent’s premier club-level contest -- which is also hugely popular among local sports fans.
Viewers have in the past relied on their trusty satellite dishes to view that competition, usually picking up games beamed from Tajikistan, whose television stations are typically less precious about the legal niceties of broadcasting rights.
The country’s only sporting newspaper, “Turkmen Sport,” recently ran an article headlined “A Gift of the Hero President,” explaining that Turkmenistan has become a full-fledged member of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU). The article explained that this has given Turkmenistan the option to relay the Euro 2012 championship -- an achievement the article predictably attributes to a presidential order.
Full ABU membership, according sources at the state broadcaster, guaranteed Turkmenistan rights to Euro 2012 for the nugatory sum of $20,000. No information is available about the cost of ABU membership fees.
The broadcasting of the competition on local television has been perhaps most keenly welcomed in the provinces, where people are less likely to have satellite dishes and where such equipment is either not readily available or too expensive.
While there is obvious appeal to hearing sports commentary in one’s own language, RFE/RL does fairly note that the quality of local commentators may leave something to be desired:
The Russian and Turkish channels -- ORT, Rossiya, and TRT 1 -- have professional TV hosts adept at giving compelling play-by-play commentary.
Newspaper owners around the world worry obsessively about circulation figures, but Turkmenistan’s state media is getting around that problem by forcing government workers to buy subscriptions.
Mandatory attendance by state employees at horse races and concerts to celebrate national holidays has been standard for some time now, so this practice is only part of the bigger picture.
Turkmenistan has no independent media, and the state newspapers and magazines that are published are to a great extent exercises in praising the policies of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. Perhaps for that reason above all others, they are not overly popular in their own right.
In what appears to be an exercise to compensate at least partially for the outlays involved in producing print publications, government workers are, as of the second half of 2012, being obliged to take out subscriptions.
So, for example, people working in schools and universities will now have to commit to buying at least four newspapers and one magazine, which should include the capital city government’s newspaper, “Ashgabat,” and education workers’ newspaper, “Mugalymlar Gazety” (Teacher’s Newspaper).
Perversely, postal service workers, who have access to all the newspapers in the country -- at the workplace anyway -- are being made to spend at least $17.50 twice a year on publications they could have already read.
The forced subscriptions drive has yielded most returns for weekly newspaper “Turkmen Dili,” (Turkmen Language) which costs around $1 for six months and has 117,500 subscribers. It popularity may have more to do with its cheapness than anything.
By way of comparison, the only available Russian-language newspaper, “Neutralny Turkmenistan,” has a circulation just over 49,100.
Gunboats from Azerbaijan's coast guard threatened international oil company ships working on behalf of Turkmenistan on at least two occasions in 2008, U.S. diplomatic cables from Wikileaks show. The incidents, which don't seem to have been previously reported, caused Turkmenistan's president, Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov, to accuse his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev of "personally insulting" him and "running like a little boy."
One incident was in April 2008, and involved a vessel from the Malaysian company Petronas in a part of the Caspian that both sides agree is Turkmenistan's:
[U]pon closing in on the Petronas ships/rig, the Azeri gunboats instructed the Petronas captain to move away. He reportedly refused to move, stating that he was nowhere close to Azerbaijan's claimed border. The standoff reportedly lasted for more than a day. In the end, the Petronas captain agreed to move slightly to the east (although not as far as the Azeri border guards at first had demanded), which apparently satisfied the Azeris.
The second was in May 2008 and involved a ship from Canadian company Buried Hill and was in a spot that was (and remains) in dispute between the two countries, around the Serdar/Kyapaz and Omar-Osman/Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli fields:
In the second episode, the Azeri gunboats again intercepted a vessel that Buried Hill had hired to do some research in block III related to its plans to begin drilling in the first quarter of 2009. Buried Hill told him this time calls were made from Ashgabat to Baku, and that the Azeri vessels subsequently backed off. According to
Buried Hill, there were also Iranian vessels in the area at the time of the interception.
Stricken almost a year ago by a massive arms explosion that reportedly killed scores, residents of Abadan are now preparing to move, en masse, under a new government plan. But why, when Turkmenistan’s authorities still will not admit the town suffered more than a little cosmetic damage?
Little is known of the new plans, except that the location will be a few kilometers closer to Ashgabat, in the Ruhabat District. The company that eventually wins the construction tender will be responsible for everything from sewer pipes to apartment blocks, roads and electricity infrastructure. Authorities are accepting proposals until June 6.
Initially, when the explosion occurred on July 7, 2011, authorities denied both that there had been an explosion and that anyone had died. But with residents’ videos airing on Russian-language newscasts and reappearing on international news sites, after three days authorities admitted that a fireworks factory had caught fire in the summer heat and that 15 people had died. A month later, authorities declared “life was back to normal in Abadan.”