A wedding is usually a special day for two people in love. But in the land of The Protector, three’s the charm.
Couples tying the knot in the famously overbearing state are now being forced to pose for their keepsake photo before a portrait of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported this week.
The website, run by Turkmen exiles in Vienna, says couples who want to register their marriage have to pay photographers at registry offices – known as Palaces of Happiness – for a photo album containing at least three photos of the newlyweds taken with a portrait of The Protector, as Berdymukhamedov likes to be known.
It is unknown whether the gimmick was dreamed up by registrars and photographers as a money-making scam or whether orders were received from on high to insert The Protector into every couple’s married life. But the report says the new requirement has appeared not only in the capital, Ashgabat, but also in other major towns.
Berdymukhamedov has slightly less of a reputation for eccentricity than his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, whose antics included building a giant golden statue of himself, which rotated with the sun, and renaming months after himself and his family. Yet Berdymukhamedov is no shrinking violet: Like his predecessor, who went by the title Turkmenbashi (“Head of the Turkmens”), all over the country The Protector has plastered photos of himself staring down upon his subjects. He even appears as a dashboard good-luck charm in taxicabs.
A new U.S. government report says that fuel for Afghanistan's security forces, paid for by the U.S., may include Iranian fuel in contravention of U.S. sanctions -- and implies that Turkmenistan may be to blame.
The report is by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government oversight agency that investigates possible abuse of U.S. funds in Afghanistan. While Afghanistan gets a majority of its fuel supplies from neighboring Iran, for fuel that the U.S. buys -- which includes that for the security forces -- suppliers have to abide by U.S. regulations prohibiting commerce with Iran. The companies that buy the fuel are Afghan-owned, but most of the fuel comes from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, with lesser amounts coming from Russia and Uzbekistan. But, as the report notes, that fuel is often "blended" from different sources by the suppliers, and the oversight mechanisms that ensure that no Iranian oil is included are weak.
That there is no oversight is hardly surprising, but there is little positive evidence that the U.S. is actually buying Iranian oil. Still, the report does say that there is some suspicion, and it is directed at Turkmenistan:
According to SIGAR investigators, a fuel vendor in Afghanistan stated that Afghanistan’s neighboring countries to its west may be exporting blended fuel from various sources, including Iran....
In response to a draft of this report, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul stated that it is possible that if blending is taking place in Turkmenistan it could contain some Iranian fuel; however, it would be very unlikely that fuel imported from refiners in Russia and transitioned through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan would be blended with Iranian fuel prior to its import into Afghanistan.
Investors operating in three post-Soviet Central Asian republics face an “extreme risk” of having their businesses expropriated, according to a survey released last week in the UK.
Maplecroft, a Bath-based political risk consultancy, said on January 9 that it had found plenty of reasons to be wary of the business climate in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan after “evaluating the risk to business from discriminatory acts by the government that reduces ownership, control or rights of private investments either gradually or as a result of a single action.” Recent fits of resource nationalism in Kyrgyzstan -- where the Kumtor gold mine, operated by Toronto-based Centerra Gold, accounted for 12 percent of GDP in 2011 and more than half the country’s industrial output – and rampant authoritarianism in places like Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have led Maplecroft to rank these countries among the most risky in the world. Not far behind, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both fall in the “high risk” category.
If there is one country in Central Asia that might expect to be spared electricity woes, it should be Turkmenistan.
But a failure at a power plant in the eastern town of Mary over the New Year holiday has highlighted another area where reforms are urgently needed. The late-December failure knocked out half the plant’s capacity, leaving many in Turkmenistan’s eastern provinces without electricity. In Mary, the country’s fourth-largest city, power was provided only intermittently over a three-day period.
In the village of Farab, which lies just across the border from Bukhara, in Uzbekistan, local people prepared for the New Year without electricity, household gas or heating.
“Since a lot of kindergartens and schools weren’t heated, the children had to stay home, which people warmed with diesel-powered heaters,” said Farab resident Nasiba. “People were cooking in the street, some with firewood, some with small kerosene stoves, and the gas supply was so weak it took hours even to boil a kettle.”
The Mary power plant also creates export electricity for neighbors Afghanistan and Iran.
Afghanistan’s official Bakhtar news agency reported on a disruption in supplies to Herat Province in western Afghanistan, which, it said on January 2, had lasted two weeks already.
The crisis has caused heads to roll. Before the New Year, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov severely reprimanded the energy minister and fired the deputy head of the emergency situations committee.
On January 2, Berdymukhamedov fired Mary power plant chief Altymyrat Gurbangeldiyev. At the same government meeting, he instructed Energy Minister Myrat Artykov to travel to Mary to take all necessary measures to solve the issues. Artykov promised prompt action.
Throughout the former Soviet world, New Year’s is the time when Santa Claus – or Father Frost as he’s known in the Russian-speaking tradition – hands out presents. This year, Turkmenistan’s president played the role himself and gave his people the gift of cheap meat.
Freebies subsidized by the country’s natural-gas-generated revenues have long been a fixture of life in the country. For more than 10 years, Turkmens have received free water, household gas and rations of salt.
And now, in anticipation of 2013, butchers in Ashgabat have been selling 1 kilogram of meat for about $3.50 – that’s $2.50 lower than the normal price – triggering much excitement among buyers.
The government is in a constant battle with vendors over meat prices. Official prices shown in displays stand at $4.20 per kilo, although the real cost to buyers is actually $6. In food markets, as with the exchange rate for the Turkmen manat, there are often major discrepancies between official and real-life figures.
The meat discount follows an edict last week issued by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. In a Cabinet meeting on December 28, he instructed officials, including the trade minister and Ashgabat mayor, to “provide the capital and the regions with all required foodstuffs” to ensure the people of Turkmenistan spend their holidays in an upbeat mood.
For all the war-economy flavor of the injunction, the news was greeted with a surge of enthusiasm in Ashgabat.
On the morning of Saturday, December 29, the entrance was barred to the meat section at the city’s Tekinsky Bazaar, which led to the formation of a long line. That in turn drew unwanted attention from passersby.
There was a time when he was almost a god, but the memory is fading fast.
On December 21, 2006, the unexpected death of Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov was announced to the world. It is said he died on that day, although some suspect he may have fallen earlier, possibly the result of a nebulous palace coup.
The date is still officially recognized as the “First President Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenbashi the Great Memorial Day.”
On the eve of the anniversary this year, current President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov spoke highly of his predecessor’s legacy. “The service of the first president of Turkmenistan was enormous and will always remain in the people’s memory,” Berdymukhamedov told a Cabinet meeting.
“Everybody that wishes to revere the memory of this extraordinary person can visit Kipchak [Niyazov’s home village] and perform a pilgrimage to the grave of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi,” the president added.
The state news agency tried to give the impression of a rousing turnout of clergy, village elders and crowds of citizenry.
Footage shown on television news offered quite a different picture, however. Not one person was shown laying flowers at the Niyazov mausoleum. Indeed, footage of the mausoleum showed no people inside or outside at all.
That’s hardly surprising, since Niyazov’s imagery has become an ever-decreasing commodity. Photos of the first president no longer appear in newspapers, magazines and textbooks. The only visible reminders in the capital or regional centers are the many statues that were erected under his rule.
Students do still study the Rukhnama, the tomes of Niyazov’s writings described in state propaganda as “holy works,” in one weekly class.
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a news website operated by members of Turkmenistan’s opposition-in-exile, has been taken down by its managers in Austria after a particularly nasty hacking attack they blame on the Turkmen security services. This is the third time the website has been compromised this year, they say.
According to CA-News.org, hackers posted pornographic pictures on the site’s homepage on December 5. The hackers reportedly also changed the name of the site to “The Chronicles of the Bald Clan” and uploaded several articles insulting the Turkmen opposition.
In an emailed statement, the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), which operates the site, blamed the Turkmen security services:
TIHR believes that such an action is a clear statement of the Turkmen secret services and the Turkmen authorities that they do not tolerate freedom of expression and freedom of information, although these rights are anchored in the Turkmen constitution. The website “Chronicles of Turkmenistan“ is the only Turkmen source that publishes independent information about developments in Turkmenistan. The two previous attacks in 2012 took place ahead of the presidential election in February and ahead of the Independence Day celebrations in October. In both cases the work of the website was quickly restored.
This time it remains unclear if there was a specific reason the site was targeted.
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan has been publishing news from Turkmenistan since 2005. It is often the leading and sometimes sole source of news from the secretive and closed country.
Seven citizens of Kazakhstan who strayed into Turkmenistan accidentally have been jailed for seven years, reports western Kazakhstan’s Lada newspaper, quoting an unnamed relative of one of the detainees.
The group includes four law-enforcement officers who were working in the border area, and three hunters who were in their company for reasons yet to be established. The four officers had been sent to a border district with Turkmenistan on the hunt for illegal migrants and wanted criminals, Mangystau Region police chief Kayrat Otebay said following their October 19 arrest.
Otebay said the law-enforcement officers were headed to Kazakhstan’s Boget border unit but lost their way in the desert. Officials have yet to establish why they had teamed up with the three hunters, but there has been speculation the officers were giving them a lift.
Confirming the arrest a week after it happened, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry said the seven had been arrested for “illegally crossing the state border and penetrating three kilometers into the territory of Turkmenistan.” It also said they were carrying firearms.
The group received prison terms of seven years after a trial in the Caspian city of Turkmenbashi, Lada quoted the sister of one of the detained Kazakhs as saying. The newspaper, which is based in Kazakhstan’s Caspian city of Aktau, did not identify the source by name.
Turkmenistan’s authorities go to extremes for pageantry. Last week, in one of the regular displays of patriotism Turkmen citizens are forced to attend and prepare for ad nauseam, two students waiting outside in unseasonably cold Ashgabat caught pneumonia and died, according to an opposition website.
The staged ceremony was in preparation for the upcoming Neutrality Day on December 12, and university students were practicing how to stand alongside the road to wave at the motorcade of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. They were told to wear light clothing, despite the cold weather.
Both [the students] were diagnosed with acute pneumonia but the call for medical assistance had been too late.
According to some students, many of them complained to the teaching staff that they felt unwell. Yet, the teachers kept repeating: “Even if you die, you will die here, at the stadium!”
Public displays of patriotism are a mandated tradition in Turkmenistan, and almost everyone – children, teachers, government employees and soldiers – is required to attend. In July, approximately 500 doctors and nurses were taken off their rounds and forced to attend the opening ceremonies of a hospital in another region. And the roll call of holidays never stops. In September, a government newspaper published a list of 49 “official” festivals and public events.
The U.S. spent about $1.3 billion in Central Asia on supplies for its troops in Afghanistan over the most recent fiscal year, including $820 million in Turkmenistan alone. The $1.3 billion represents a sevenfold increase from the previous year, according to figures provided to The Bug Pit by the Defense Logistics Agency, the Pentagon agency in charge of supplying forces. The totals for fiscal year 2012, broken down by country, were:
Kazakhstan: $137.3 million
Kyrgyzstan: $218.1 million
Tajikistan: $11.7 million
Turkmenistan: $820.5 million
Uzbekistan: $105.9 million
DLA was unable to provide any detailed numbers about what was bought in each country, but that eye-popping $820 million in Turkmenistan was certainly almost entirely fuel. In general, the money went to "bottled water, sodas, juices, pasta, bakery items, lumber, plywood, cement, concertina wire, generators, rebar, fuel drums, corrugated steel, galvanized steel coils, and feeder cable. We also support the region by purchasing fuel and paying associated transportation costs," the DLA said in a statement.
The agency has made efforts to boost its Central Asia buying:
"DLA has conducted market research extensively in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan for a wide range of products... DLA has consistently increased procurement in the region since FY08. DLA increased local procurement in the five Central Asian States by over 700% when compared to FY11 figures. In January 2012, DLA placed a liaison officer in the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan and one in the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan to help foster increased local procurement efforts."
The goal for the upcoming fiscal year is slightly more than this year, $1.31 billion.