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.
Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have launched a direct railway linking their oil-and-gas-rich Caspian Sea regions, bypassing Uzbekistan. The new line promises to benefit "tens of countries" in the region, opening the remote areas to major markets, says Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Kazakhstan's state-run Kazinform news agency reports that Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and Nazarbayev opened the 869-kilometer stretch from Ozen in Kazakhstan to Etrek in Turkmenistan at their Bolashak-Serhetyak border crossing on May 11. The segment is designed to link up to the Iranian rail network.
"Not only will the new railway simplify exports of our goods but it will also attract transit shipments," Kazinform quoted Nazarbayev as saying at the opening ceremony. Reduced delays will offer the two sides “a significant competitive advantage."
Berdymukhamedov, who was in Kazakhstan on a state visit May 10 and 11, praised the new line, too. "Our project also means a connection to transport infrastructure in the eastern direction with access to such economic centers of global development as China, India and the Asia-Pacific," Kazinform quoted him as saying.
The two leaders also launched a new fiber-optic data line, which should link Kazakh networks with those of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran, and Turkmen networks (such as they exist) with Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia via Kazakhstan.
Landlocked Central Asian countries are often burdened by broad transport rivalries and suspicions. While closely cooperating in building new export routes for their hydrocarbons, they often shy away from transport teamwork.
The word “wasteland” comes to mind when driving around Turkmenbashi, the oil and gas hub on Turkmenistan’s Caspian Sea coast. Rusting pipelines crisscrosses barren, sandy expanses; an acrid smell hangs in the moist, sea air. Though the nearby beaches were once a destination for holidaying Turkmen, today the health-conscious visitor might think twice before taking a dip.
After reading a new report, that visitor might not need to think twice. Using satellite imagery, researchers at the non-profit American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C. have shown the waters around Turkmenbashi suffer dozens of oil spills annually.
“Sustained and ongoing release of oil into the waters of the Caspian Sea near the city and port of Turkmenbashi represents a legitimate environmental concern,” says the May 6 report by the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project at the AAAS. “Frequent, low-volume spills often spread to cover a wide area and have been occurring semi-continuously for more than a decade.”
In the past, efforts to detect oil spills remotely relied on expensive radar and high-resolution imagery. For this study, AAAS used publicly available NASA satellite imagery in a new way, allowing “for continuous monitoring of environmental phenomena, including oil spills.” Over 11,000 satellite images taken over 12 years corroborated on-the-ground reports of regular spills. “Between 2003 and 2012 … the AAAS team identified between 43 and 64 possible oil slicks every year in Turkmenbashi Bay.”
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, two of the world's most repressive dictatorships, came under harsh criticism from Western democracies during the latest Universal Periodic Review hearings at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva this week. But likeminded authoritarian regimes came to their defense, praising the two for "progress" at improving their records in recent years.
The Human Rights Council, made up of 47 UN member states, is examining the progress the two Central Asian countries have achieved since their first review in December 2008. Ahead of the hearings, Human Rights Watch called on the council "to expose and denounce the ongoing repression" in both countries and to exert pressure on them to "end abuses."
“The extraordinarily high levels of repression in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, coupled with their governments’ refusal to acknowledge problems, let alone to address them, underscores the need for a strong, unified message,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Ashgabat and Tashkent need to hear, loud and clear, just how unacceptable their abusive records are, and what specific changes they need to make.”
Azerbaijan has asked Russia to relocate some of its Caspian Fleet to Baku after Turkmenistan's naval forces fired on some of Azerbaijan's offshore oil drilling facilities. That's according to Russian website OSTKRAFT, and while the chances of this being accurate are probably pretty small, it's too intriguing a rumor to not pass on. According to OSTKRAFT's story:
President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has appealed to the leadership of Russia to move part of its Caspian Fleet from Astrakhan and Makhachkala to Baku.
The goal of such military assistance would be the defense of offshore oil drilling facilities in the Caspian Sea territorial waters of Azerbaijan. The immediate cause for the appeal of the government of Azerbaijan to Moscow, according to an OSTKRAFT source, is the damage to Azerbaijan's offshore oil refining infrastructure in shooting by the naval forces of Turkmenistan on the Caspian. The Russian reply is not known.
Given the vagueness of the sourcing, it's best to treat this report with a high degree of skepticism. And it seems unlikely that Aliyev would make such a dramatic request to Russia -- in the long term he's more worried about Russia than about Turkmenistan. And inviting the Russians to base themselves in Baku would make it very hard later to get them out.
Still, the nascent naval forces of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have clashed in the past and we didn't hear about it until long after the fact (and probably still wouldn't have, if not for WikiLeaks). And Baku has shown that it prefers not to publicize news of its own weakness in the Caspian. So is there at least a kernel of truth to this somewhere, perhaps some sort of naval clash between the two countries? We'll have to wait for more information.
The celebrations started on April 1 with government minders leading exercises. Students went first, at 6:45 a.m., Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency reported. Market workers assembled for 15 minutes of calisthenics in downtown Ashgabat.
This is the second annual Week of Health and Happiness. At the government meeting on March 29 where he announced this year’s program, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov stressed the importance of the nation's health and ordered that events be held all over the country, the state-run TDH news agency reported.
According to TDH, the Week will conclude with a youth cycling race into the hills above Ashgabat on April 7, World Health Day, along the aptly named Health Path – designed by Berdymukhamedov's predecessor, the late Saparmurat Niyazov.
While Niyazov saw exercise as necessary for everyone but himself (he supposedly used to fly in a helicopter to meet his sweaty and exhausted ministers at the top), Berdymukhamedov leads by example: He took part in the country's first car race last year and won. He’s also an avid racehorse enthusiast.
Sports are generally a top-down affair in Turkmenistan. Last year Berdymukhamedov instructed his desert nation to start playing ice hockey.