When China opened a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan in 2009, Ashgabat got what it had long wanted: independence from Russia with an alternative market for its abundant natural gas reserves. What wasn’t obvious was just how hooked energy-hungry China would become on Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan is now, by a great margin, China’s largest foreign supplier of natural gas: over 21.3 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2012, or 51.4 percent of imports, according to data published by the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. That’s about three times more than Qatar supplies China (see chart). And the number is set to skyrocket with the opening of the giant Galkynysh field this autumn, which will also feed the 1,833-kilometer Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China pipeline.
China still produces the majority of its own gas domestically. Of the 146.6 bcm it consumed last year, it produced 107.2 bcm, up from 80.3 bcm in 2008 (an increase of 33.5 percent), according to the BP Statistical Review. But its imports are growing fast: In 2008, China imported 4.2 bcm; last year, it imported 39.4 bcm (an increase of 838 percent).
After a decade of grilling students on the former president’s “book of the soul,” this fall Turkmenistan will remove the Ruhnama from its school curriculum.
A news website run by Turkmen exiles in Vienna reported this week that a new academic program drafted by Turkmenistan’s Education Ministry for the country’s secondary schools did not include Saparmurat Niyazov’s 2001 Ruhnama, which was once required reading not only for students, but for government employees, too.
According to the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, subjects like economics will replace classes dedicated to the book, which became part of the curriculum in 2002.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency confirmed the report and, citing an unnamed ministry official, said on August 1 that “prospective university students will still have to study the Ruhnama for their entry exams.”
Niyazov – who called himself Turkmenbashi, or “Father of the Turkmen” – once instructed youth to read the spiritual guide three times a day in order to secure a place in heaven.
Two years after Niyazov’s 2006 death, the Ruhnama was removed from the university curricula and was taught only one hour per week in secondary schools, RIA Novosti said.
Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most isolated countries, intends to cut its prisoners off the mobile phone network, their “only means of communication with the outside world.”
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan website, run by Turkmen exiles in Vienna, reported this week that authorities started installing equipment on July 1 to jam mobile signals in the country’s notorious prisons.
“Not every prisoner enjoys the opportunity of regular communication with relatives and until now mobile phones, which often entered prisons despite bans, were the only means of communication with the outside world,” the website explained.
The measure will further stanch the tiny trickle of information about Turkmenistan’s opaque penal system. Last year, the US State Department described prison conditions in Turkmenistan as “unsanitary, overcrowded, harsh, and life-threatening.” Family members are often denied access to their imprisoned relatives, the State Department report said.
In January, Human Rights Watch said “[u]nknown numbers of individuals continue to languish in Turkmen prisons on what appear to be politically motivated charges. The justice system lacks transparency, trials are closed in political cases, and the overall level of repression precludes independent human rights monitoring.” The Turkmen government uses imprisonment as “a tool for political retaliation,” the watchdog said.
Reports about Jennifer Lopez’s weekend birthday tribute to Turkmenistan’s president have mostly focused on her apparent lack of concern for the country’s staggering human rights abuses and systemic repression – her pleas of ignorance notwithstanding.
But The Wall Street Journal probes why it was China’s state-run gas company that paid for J.Lo to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” at 56-year-old Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s glittery birthday bash on June 29.
Good question. And the answer, in part, lies in the multiplier effect of an opaque, cronyistic, energy-hungry economic powerhouse doing business in an opaque, cronyistic, energy-rich dictatorship.
Turkmenistan, home to the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves, is integral to China’s energy plans. As analyst Alexandros Petersen wrote recently, Beijing has made Turkmenistan “the spoke at the center of its regional wheel of energy infrastructure” by building the 6,000-mile Central Asia-China gas pipeline, which opened in 2009. The pipeline is expected to carry 60 billion cubic meters a year, and connects to one of the world’s largest gas fields, Galkynysh, which is slated to come online this fall during a visit to Turkmenistan by the Chinese president.
Importantly for Berdymukhamedov, the pipeline helps him diversify: Previously most of Turkmenistan’s gas infrastructure pointed toward Russia, where it was bought at discount rates.
UPDATE: The publicist for J.Lo (or J-Low, as she's being called on Twitter) has effectively admitted not knowing how to use Google: "Had there been knowledge of human rights issues [of] any kind, Jennifer would not have attended," the Associated Press quoted her representative as saying.
Pop star Jennifer Lopez performed at a glitzy birthday bash for the dictator of totalitarian, gas-rich Turkmenistan on Saturday, AFP reported, prompting fury from human rights activists.
Held at President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s multi-billion-dollar Avaza resort on the Caspian Sea, the party was a gift from the China National Petroleum Corporation, a company representative told AFP. In 2009 CNPC opened a pipeline carrying Turkmen natural gas to China.
Dressed in a clingy outfit, the singer danced with half-naked backing dancers and shook her famous behind in a rare performance for the Muslim country, watched by ministers, ambassadors and chief executives of state-owned companies, all of whom applauded enthusiastically.
She later appeared in a traditional Turkmen dress to sing "Happy birthday, Mr President" along with stars from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and China.
Berdymukhamedov's 56th birthday bash at the glitzy resort in Avaza, which means "land of singing waves", is officially tied to Turkmen cultural week, which culminated on Saturday with the opening of a yacht club at the resort and a firework display which lasted 20 minutes.
Turkmenistan says it has dropped one of the most contentious issues in its relationship with Russia, promising, after leaving them in limbo for 10 years, to grant passports to Turkmen citizens who also hold Russian citizenship.
On June 14, Ashgabat said it will begin issuing passports this week to the 110,000 dual citizens Russia says live in Turkmenistan. Moscow hailed the decision.
The announcement comes seven years after Turkmen authorities started refusing to issue new biometric passports to Turkmen citizens with dual Russian citizenship, saying they had to renounce their Russian citizenship first.
Tens of thousands of Turkmen citizens have dual Russian nationality, in accordance with a December 1993 Turkmen-Russian agreement.
In 2003, Turkmenistan's parliament ratified the document on annulling the dual-citizenship agreement with Russia, which the Russian Duma refused to ratify.
Ashgabat had ratcheted up tentions in late 2012, signaling it would strip Russian citizens of their Turkmen citizenship, thus forcing those who wished to remain Russian citizens to leave Turkmenistan or become stuck without valid travel documents.
It is unclear what prompted the sudden about-face. Several days before the announcement, the Kremlin reiterated that President Vladimir Putin had accepted Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s invitation to visit soon.
A model of the ship Dearsan is building for Turkmenistan. (photo: Cem Devrim Yaylali)
Turkmenistan is buying eight new well armed naval vessels from Turkey, marking a substantial increase in capability for the country's nascent navy.
The ships will be built by Dearsan, the Turkish shipyard which had already been contracted by Turkmenistan for two fast patrol boats. The eight new ships will be of the same size as the two previous ships, but better armed. Each will be equipped with four anti-ship missiles, two remote-controlled MANPADS-sized surface-to-air missile launchers, a 40 mm main gun, a six-barreled anti-submarine mortar, two remote-controlled 12.7 mm guns and two remote-controlled 25 mm guns.
This is according to Cem Devrim Yaylali, who blogs at Bosphorus Naval News. Yaylali spoke to a Dearsan representative at the recent IDEF defense expo in Istanbul, and took a photo of the model that Dearsan was presenting. And he was generous enough to pass along the information and photo to The Bug Pit.
Turkmenistan had already been reported to be acquiring five missile boats from Russia, in addition to the two Dearsan fast patrol boats.
I asked Dearsan for confirmation and more information, but didn't hear back. That is not surprising: they have been very quiet about their previous deals with Turkmenistan, no doubt at Ashgabat's request.
On the day his capital received a Guinness rating as the world capital of white marble-clad buildings, Turkmenistan's attention-craving President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov added yet another title to his collection: “Distinguished Architect of Turkmenistan.”
The official TDH news agency reports that Berdymukhamedov, who likes to be called “The Protector” (Arkadag in Turkmen), was granted the honorary title by the rubber-stamp parliament on May 25. The title recognizes Berdymukhamedov’s "titanic efforts put into the political, economic and cultural development of our beloved Motherland."
Just in case anyone wasn’t convinced, on the same day Berdymukhamedov received another recognition for his efforts. Craig Glenday, the editor-in-chief of the Guinness World Records book, flew in to present the distinguished architect with a certificate recognizing Ashgabat as the city with the most white marble-clad buildings in the world, TDH reported.
"In an impressive architectural re-styling effort led by the government of Turkmenistan, an area measuring 22 km² (8.49 mi²) in the capital Ashgabat boasts 543 new buildings clad with 4,513,584 m² (48,583,619 ft²) of white marble," the Guinness website says. "If the marble was laid out flat, there would be one square meter of marble for every 4.87 m² of land."
Here's looking at the world's worst economy cabin.
When the countries of Central Asia end up on a list, they’re usually at the bottom (or the top, depending on how you look at it, as in “most-corrupt”). A new ranking is no different: Three of the region’s national air carriers, surprise, have placed among the world's worst.
Business Insider, an online magazine, has ranked economy-class cabins and found the flag carriers of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan offer passengers a “most unpleasant in-flight experience,” measured by "seat comfort, in-flight entertainment, cabin cleanliness and condition, quality of meals served, and service efficiency."
The magazine compiled its list from ratings made available by airline reviewer Skytrax. It then "adjusted each measure to be out of 100, and averaged them to produce a final score that reflects the overall in-flight experience."
The magazine and Skytrax offer little quantitative data to back the rankings, which may lead regular Central Asia travellers to quibble or ask why some of the region’s fly-by-night airlines did not make the list.
Perhaps the judges have never been stranded on the runway in Osh waiting for East OK Avia to fetch them. Maybe the judges who sampled UTair simply met violent deaths. One EurasiaNet correspondent likes to tell a story from Ariana Afghan Airlines: As the plane tilted forward for landing, passengers in the front of the cabin got acquainted with the contents of an overflowing toilet in the rear.
A human rights dialogue between Ashgabat and Brussels has failed to clarify why journalist Rovshen Yazmuhamedov was detained two weeks ago.
Yazmuhamedov, 30, a correspondent with Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen Service (Azatlyk Radiosy) was detained May 6 on undisclosed charges. He remains in custody where he faces a "grave risk of torture," according to Amnesty International.
Ahead of the Turkmen-EU talks last week, Human Rights Watch called on Ashgabat to "immediately free or credibly charge" the journalist. “We are deeply concerned that the authorities arrested Rovshen Yazmuhamedov because of his work as a journalist,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Turkmen government doesn’t tolerate public criticism of its policies, no matter how mild.”
Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL) on May 17 that at a meeting with Turkmen officials in Ashgabat on May 15 the EU human rights delegation expressed concern over Yazmuhamedov’s detention.