Tbilisi had an unusual visitor on July 2. But one whose presence could have far-reaching consequences for the energy map of both the South Caucasus and Europe.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s two-day state visit to Georgia, his first, involves the usual meetings with the usual assortment of senior Georgian officials and the usual signing of various, vaguely described agreements.
The two countries have not divulged the details.
The Turkmen government is excited about how the use of “transportation-transit infrastructure between the Caspian and Black Sea regions will provide for the supply of broad inter-regional integration with the states of Europe, and the Near and Far East.”
Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili, for her part, expressed a hope that the visit would bring “interesting results” for “deepening” the two countries’ relations as well as for “the execution of regional projects.”
Of course, bottom line, that means one thing – energy.
A few months ago, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic told Reuters that Turkmen gas would reach European markets by 2019.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on June 29 got a public park named after him to mark his 58th birthday.
What birthday present do you get for the man who has everything?
In Turkmenistan, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on June 29 got a public park named after him to mark his 58th.
It was a fun day, for the president. As by tradition, Berdymukhamedov was congratulated by his deputy prime ministers and foreign business community representatives, who always seize any opportunity to curry favor.
The opening ceremony came in the evening. The park in the capital, Ashgabat, has been called Arkadag, the Turkmen word for “protector,” which is how the president is known in state media.
Officials have said the park was built at the urging of the general public. This formulation has become the norm used as an apparent justification for the cult of adulation accumulating around Berdymukhamedov.
Last month, a gold-leafed statue of the president atop a horse was unveiled to much marshaled revelry.
Thousands of people carrying flags and banners stood for several hours under punishing 40 degree Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) heat ahead of the park opening. Some resourceful female teachers sheltered from the sun under umbrellas, although that did little to mitigate the intense discomfort.
The inauguration was prefaced by a solemn procession along a downtown avenue by the venerable grey-bearded village elders that typically attend such events. They were accompanied by employees of art and culture institutions and many local residents and young people.
Notwithstanding the heat, government workers did the long walk in exhausting heat in their black suits and long national dresses, energetically waving flags and balloons all the while. Smart formal appearance and scenes of jubilation are a must for the sake of the television pictures.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has finished a weeklong tour of the five Central Asian states by appealing for them to improve their dismal human rights records. He called on the region’s autocrats to respect civil liberties, at the very least as a means to preserve stability.
“There is no peace without development. No development without peace. And neither is possible without a respect for human rights,” Ban told a meeting of students and officials in Turkmenistan, which campaigners describe as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
Speaking in Ashgabat on June 13, the last day of his tour, Ban pointed to concerns about a “deterioration of some aspects of human rights – a shrinking democratic space” across Central Asia.
Restrictions on freedoms might foster “an illusion of stability in the short-run,” he added, but ultimately threatened to create “a breeding ground for extremist ideologies.”
“Around the world, the way to confront threats is not more repression, it is more openness. More human rights,” he added.
A day earlier, in Uzbekistan, Ban had heeded calls by human rights campaigners to press Tashkent over the issues of forced labor and torture.
He acknowledged progress in eliminating the use of child labor, but urged the government to address “the mobilization of teachers, doctors and others in cotton harvesting,” and also “prevent the maltreatment of prisoners.”
Ban hailed “good laws” adopted in Uzbekistan to uphold the rule of law, but added that “laws on the books should be made real in the lives of people.”
Not that it was ever in doubt, but now it is official: Turkmenistan’s president plans to grow old in power.
As speaker of parliament Akja Nurberdieva explained in remarks televised May 29, the constitutional commission is studying two proposals that will likely end with Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov serving indefinitely.
One provision would scrap the 70-year age limit at which a president can be elected. The other would extend the presidential term from five to seven years.
Under the current constitution, Berdymukhamedov, 57, would have been allowed to run for only three more five-year terms. The next presidential election had been slated for 2017, but that date could be pushed back to 2019.
Who chairs the constitutional commission that will decide on the changes? Why, the president of course.
Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, dispensed with such fiddly legalities in December 1999, when parliament declared him president for life. As it turned out, that was only seven years anyway, as Niyazov dropped dead in 2006.
As has become usual, the impetus for the proposed constitutional reforms is being attributed to public demand.
Another constitutional fix for which people are clamoring, according to Berdymukhamedov, involves provisions for who will take over as caretaker should the serving president be unable to fulfill his duties.
That task should fall to the speaker of parliament, said Berdymukhamedov in the same state television report.
The irony here is that this was already the law before Niyazov’s death. Rules were quickly changed at the behest of the State Security Council to ensure that then-deputy Prime Minister Berdymukhamedov be quickly jostled into power.
Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov solidified his role as the isolated country’s “protector” and leading equestrian on May 25, unveiling the first gold-plated statue of himself.
Officials say the 21-meter statue, cast in bronze and covered in 24-carat gold leaf, was built to satisfy public demand. It is named “The Protector,” for Berdymukhamedov’s adopted title, and features the strongman with his right hand outstretched and a dove perched upon it. Some have ridiculed it for bearing an uncanny resemblance to a statue of Peter the Great in Russia’s second city, St Petersburg.
Berdymukhamedov is not famous for originality. He has persistently built his own cult of personality while dismantling that of Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkmenbashi, who died in 2006 after scattering golden busts and statues of himself across the gas-rich nation.
Notably, Berdymukhamedov has relegated to the suburbs a statue of Niyazov that rotated to face the sun. He has also gradually phased out Niyazov’s Ruhnama, or “Book of the Soul,” which was required reading in schools and government offices.
In hindsight it is clear that these moves were less about dismantling an old cult and more about making space for a new one.
In recent years Turkmenistan’s pliant and obsequious parliament has bestowed horse-mad Berdymukhamedov with titles such as “Master Jockey-Mentor of Turkmenistan” and “People’s Horse Breeder.” He has also authored a range of books, on horses among other things, and elevated his father, Myalikguli Berdymukhamedov, to the status of a living demigod. (In a nod to Central Asian patriarchy, Myalikguli got a monument before his son – though it is not covered in gold.)
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rounded off an energy-themed jaunt across Central Asia on May 22 in Bishkek, where he spoke about electricity exports to his energy-starved nation two days after visiting Turkmenistan to discuss a troubled gas-pipeline project.
The trip demonstrated Pakistan’s limited leverage in its dealings with Central Asia and, publicly at least, did not produce much of substance.
In Ashgabat, Sharif called on partners to “intensify work” on the long-stalled Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. In his meeting with Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on May 20, Sharif called TAPI a “project that would bring benefits to the entire region.”
But the pipeline, which would traverse Afghanistan and has been on the drawing board since the mid-1990s, may cost over $10 billion. With no commercial investor so far, initiative rests with both Turkmenistan, the would-be-supplier, and the main export market, India. Delhi must decide if its own energy deficit warrants pushing a link that many see as risky and expensive.
Neither president mentioned either the hoped-for 2017 TAPI completion date, or the more pessimistic projection of 2020 mentioned in late April by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Many say both timelines are still pipedreams.)
Central Asia faces a gloomy economic outlook for the rest of this year and into next, battered by the tanking Russian economy and low commodity prices, according to a regional outlook released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on May 19. Several countries face double-digit inflation.
“The region has been hit by two major external shocks: the oil price and the slowdown in the Russian economy,” Juha Kahkonen, deputy director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, told a briefing in Almaty as the forecast was released.
Growth slowed last year and is set to decrease “much more significantly” this year, he said, before recovering “only slightly” next year.
All the Central Asian states are feeling the pinch of the slump in Russia, “which has close linkages with the region through remittances, trade, and foreign direct investment,” the IMF pointed out.
Energy exporters (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and importers (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) alike are suffering: exporters are battling falling revenues from the drop in global oil and gas prices, while importers are feeling what Kahkonen described as “only a very small beneficial impact” from lower prices because of the long-term nature of their energy import contracts in which prices are set.
Falls in prices for other commodities (gold in the case of Kyrgyzstan and aluminum for Tajikistan, for example) are also biting.
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are also suffering from a drop in labor remittances from Russia, as migrants lose their jobs and the dollar value of remittances falls because of the depreciation of the ruble. This is causing weaker domestic demand in remittance-dependent economies.
With the world’s fourth largest gas reserves, Turkmenistan has enough to keep everybody happy. But for the remote Central Asia country and its suitors, taking the potential and turning it into a prize has proven persistently difficult.
Last week, the European Union’s energy boss, Maros Sefcovic, was in Ashgabat speaking positively – some might even say delusionally – about a $5-billion-plus trans-Caspian pipeline that would pump up to 30 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas underneath the world’s largest inland sea and onto markets in Europe. The link, Sefcovic said, in comments reported by AFP and Reuters, could be ready to pump by 2019.
But it was another proposal he made – about a pipeline across Iran – that has intrigued analysts.
Other than China, which imports upwards of 35 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas per year, Turkmenistan sells to Russia (4 bcm) and Iran (around 10 bcm). Both are net exporters and perennially threaten to cut their imports. Russia made good on its threat earlier this year by reducing imports from around 10 bcm.
While Sefcovic was talking up the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was playing down another connection viewed as vital to Turkmenistan’s ambitions: The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI) which has been on drawing boards since the 1990s and could cost as much as $10 billion.
The United States and the European Union have taken renewed interest in constructing a pipeline to take natural gas from Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and westward to Europe. The move is motivated by a desire to further decrease Europe's dependence on Russian gas in the wake of Moscow's newly assertive foreign policy posture, but regional analysts say the pipeline could also increase tensions around the Caspian.
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic visited Ashgabat this week for talks with energy ministers of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan. He told Reuters that the EU expects to start receiving gas from Turkmenistan by 2019.
"[W]e discussed all aspects referring to the trans-Caspian pipeline," Sefcovic said. "We made a big step in the strategic direction... Now there is a political decision that Turkmenistan will become part of this project and will feed the European direction."
The possibility of a trans-Caspian pipeline has been long discussed but has been hindered by a number of obstacles, not least of which is the opposition of Russia, which stands to lose market share in Europe were the pipeline to be built. Russia is the single-largest supplier of gas to Europe, holding about 30 percent of the market share (and far more in some Eastern European countries). And the volatility in Moscow has renewed efforts in Brussels and Washington to reduce that dependency.
Before the horse races, there was the horse beauty contest, and the show was stolen by a stallion named Neutrality. The horse’s lucky owner netted a Toyota Land Cruiser on behalf of his prized steed.
Turkmenistan’s Day of the Horse has been an important fixture in the Turkmenistan-watchers’ calendar ever since equestrian-in-chief Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov flew over the reins face first immediately after winning a fixed race during the celebration in 2013.
This year festivities were less notable, although the president did manage to net himself another title, and shine a spotlight on an up-and-coming political jockey.
Berdymukhamedov was named the “People’s Horse Breeder” on April 26 to an outpouring of adulation from his cowed public.
“Glory to the protector!” the crowd at Ashgabat’s International Equestrian Sport Complex reportedly chanted, according to AFP.
Unlike “Arkadag” – the “Protector,” which Berdymukhamedov adopted as his official epithet in 2011 – this title is probably one he deserves. Berdymukhamedov has done more than anyone to elevate the cult of the horse in his hermit kingdom. In addition to building an impressive complex outside the capital to house the revered Akhal-Teke breed, he supposedly penned a book on the creatures.
But apart from Berdymukhamedov’s headline-grabbing new title, the standout take away from 2015's Day of the Horse was another racing victory for his teenage grandson, Kerimguly Berdymukhamedov. The younger Berdymukhamedov was also first past the post in a dash to mark the beginning of the autumn horse-riding season last year.