Dushanbe and Beijing have launched construction of a key gas pipeline that will turn Tajikistan into a transit country for Central Asian gas supplies to neighboring China, the world’s largest energy consumer.
The pipeline will lock Tajikistan into an energy partnership with its powerful neighbor from which the former Soviet Union’s poorest country will reap millions of dollars every year in transit fees.
The project has “immense political, economic, and historical significance,” Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon said at the groundbreaking ceremony on September 13. His visiting Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, described the pipeline as a “symbol of China-Tajikistan friendship.”
The link will supplement the existing Central Asia pipeline running from Turkmenistan to China via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The new section bypassing Kazakhstan and passing through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, known as Line D, will increase the pipeline’s overall annual capacity by 30 billion cubic meters, to around 85 billion. Like the other lines, it will also pass through Uzbekistan.
Tajikistan will host the longest section of the new 1,000-kilometer spur, with 400 kilometers passing through its territory. China will pick up the $3.2 billion price tag for that leg.
Beijing is already ramping up gas supplies through the existing Central Asia pipelines. A third line known as Line C started pumping from Turkmenistan in May, almost doubling the pipeline’s overall annual capacity to 55 billion cubic meters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to score any major diplomatic victories at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Tajikistan on September 12. The Kremlin appears eager to boost the six-state security bloc as its confrontation with the West over Ukraine drags on.
Putin used the Dushanbe summit – also attended by China’s Xi Jinping and the presidents of the four Central Asian members (Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kyrgyzstan’s Almazbek Atambayev, Tajikistan’s Emomali Rakhmon, and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov) – to court international support for his policies in Ukraine.
Speaking after the summit, Putin said that the approaches of the SCO members on Ukraine were “identical and close.”
That looked like wishful thinking, however, given the evident concerns of his Chinese and Central Asian partners over Russia’s apparent military interventions and support for separatism in Ukraine.
Contending with separatist movements at home in Tibet and Xinjiang, China has always opposed what it terms “splittism,” while the Central Asian states – which, like Ukraine, have ethnic Russian minorities – are nervous of Russia’s regional saber-rattling.
The summit ended with the signing of a joint declaration containing a pro-forma call for “restoration of peace in Ukraine” (and a declaration of opposition to “unilateral and unrestricted” deployment of anti-missile systems, in a side swipe at the United States).
Gas-guzzling Kazakhstan – where the jeep has long since overtaken the horse as the favored means of transport – has been urged to save fuel, as a months-long gasoline shortage continues to distress drivers across Central Asia.
On September 2 Energy Minister Vladimir Shkolnik urged the people of his oil-rich country to cut back on consumption, suggesting carpooling and downsizing to small cars from the road-hogging jeeps his compatriots favor.
Kazakhstan is entering its third month of gasoline shortages, with long queues forming in many cities at filling stations, some of which have unilaterally imposed rationing.
The minister’s remarks caused a storm of protest on social media, as Radio Azattyq reported, prompting users to question if Shkolnik would be driving his neighbors to work and wonder where all the oil their country pumps is going, if not into their tanks.
As with so many of Kazakhstan’s economic woes these days, the answers to Kazakhstan’s fuel conundrum lies over the border in Russia, where rising prices mean Kazakhstani importers can no longer afford to buy fuel to sell at home.
This is due to the devaluation of the tenge in February, which has priced importers out of the Russian wholesale market, Aset Magauov, head of the Kazenergy industry association told Bnews on August 29. With prices at the pump controlled by the state in Kazakhstan, retail prices fell lower than wholesale prices in Russia, making imports uncompetitive.
Alexander Sodiqov, the Tajikistan-born academic arrested on espionage charges in June, still does not know if or when he will be free to leave his native country and resume his studies abroad.
After holding him for over a month, the secret police (GKNB) released Sodiqov on his own recognizance on July 22 and forbid him from traveling. The initial criminal investigation then expired August 19, but because Sodiqov and his lawyer were not informed that the case was formally closed, sources close to Sodiqov believe that by default it has been extended. Under Tajik law, prosecutors can extend a criminal investigation for up to a year without a court hearing.
Sodiqov is eager to return to his PhD program in Canada.
“I am hoping that the investigation will end soon because classes at the University of Toronto start on September 8 and I need to be there to teach,” Sodiqov told EurasiaNet.org, explaining that the terms of his release precluded him from providing detailed comment to journalists.
Tajik authorities have not provided any indication when the investigation may conclude. Currently the GKNB and other security agencies are believed to be operating overtime as Dushanbe prepares to host a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit this month.
Kyrgyz and Tajik soldiers have again exchanged fire on their disputed border, injuring and possibly killing civilians. This is their third shootout this year. But ominously, this time the fighting has spread to a new location, suggesting that the authorities’ halting efforts to end the long-festering dispute risk being overtaken by events on the ground.
As usual, both sides offer conflicting accounts of the August 25 violence. According to Kyrgyz officials, Tajik border guards attempted to establish a border post in a disputed area. Tajik civilians then tried to destroy a bridge used by Kyrgyz citizens. The Tajiks opened fire first and used mortars, say the Kyrgyz officials.
According to Tajik media citing an unnamed local official, five Tajik civilians received gunshot wounds in the skirmish, which began when the Kyrgyz started repair work on a bridge in disputed territory. Avesta reports two dead, a soldier and a civilian, in addition to the five injured. Kyrgyz troops fired first, according to this version, and the Tajiks did not return fire.
The shootout occurred in the extreme western district of Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province, in Leilek District, an area corresponding to the Bobojon Gafur District of Tajikistan’s Sughd Province. That is several hours’ drive from the site of recent violence.
The joint military exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will involve about 7,000 troops, the largest number in an SCO exercise in many years, as the organization seems to be taking on a new prominence in the wake of collapsing Russia-West relations.
The bulk of the troops exercising, as in past years, appear to be from China. Russia announced that it is sending about 900 troops, as well as hardware including four Su-25 jets and eight Mi-8MT helicopters. Kazakhstan said it is participating with about 300 troops from an air-mobile unit. From Tajikistan, more than 200 soldiers are participating, including members of an unnamed "rapid reaction unit." (An aside: one wonders if it is one of the special forces units that the U.S. has trained.) Uzbekistan, as usual, does not seem to be participating at all. Kyrgyzstan is sending about 500 soldiers. So if it's 7,000 total, that's about 5,000 from China.
The exercises, Peace Mission 2014, will be held August 24 to 29 in China's Inner Mongolia region. But participating countries have already started moving their troops toward China. "Loading up -- that's already a stage of the exercise. We're trying to improve, getting used to loading up our equipment," said Ruslan Muzdybayev, the deputy commander of Kazakhstan's air mobile forces for military readiness.
Vladimir Putin is riding a wave of popularity in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that mirrors his approval rating at home in Russia, a new poll has found. Most residents of these impoverished post-Soviet states wish to join his Eurasian Union. America and Barack Obama, on the other hand, fare poorly in the region.
In Kyrgyzstan, 90 percent of respondents express either a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the Russian president. Fewer than 60 percent say the same about their own president, Almazbek Atambayev; 26 percent voice confidence in Barack Obama, according to the poll, released last week by Toronto-based M-Vector Consulting, and 35.3 percent in Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
In Tajikistan, 85 percent proclaim confidence in Putin, 26.5 percent in Obama, and 31.1 in Xi. (By comparison, in July 85 percent of Russians said they approve of Putin, according to the Levada Center in Moscow.) M-Vector did not undertake the politically sensitive task of measuring support for Tajikistan’s authoritarian strongman, Emomali Rakhmon.
M-Vector interviewed 1,021 adults in Kyrgyzstan and 1,077 in Tajikistan by telephone in late June and early July for the poll, part of its Central Asia Barometer series. The poll has a margin of error of 3.2 points and a confidence level of 95 percent. (The pollster shared the results with EurasiaNet.org by email.)
Putin’s Eurasian Union is almost as popular as he is, the poll found. In Kyrgyzstan, 71.2 percent say their country should join; 8 percent say they are not sure. In Tajikistan, 80.3 percent favor joining; 13.5 percent cannot say.
As Moscow’s ties with the West continue to deteriorate, Central Asian farmers may be saying prayers for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin slapped restrictions on imports of meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables from the US, EU, Norway, Canada and Australia on August 7, in response to progressively heavier Western sanctions designed to punish Moscow for supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine.
While that is bad news for Russians who like Camembert and thousands of American and European producers supplying Russia, there is an obvious beneficiary from the fallout: Central Asia, which already supplies Russia with much of its produce.
On August 7 the New York Times detailed the size of the gap in the Russian market that must now be filled:
According to figures compiled by the [World Bank] and other agencies, Russia imports about 25 percent of its food, worth some $43 billion annually. Of that, about 75 percent, or $30 billion, comes mainly from Europe and the United States. The other 25 percent is mainly from former Soviet republics.
The idea of linking Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan by rail appears to have wheels once more, following reports earlier this year that the project was running short of steam.
Back in January, Turkmenistan went cold on the estimated $2 billion link, slated to be part financed by the Asian Development Bank. Ashgabat faulted Afghanistan and Tajikistan for not keeping the Turkmen leadership in the loop with regard to the route the railroad would follow. As EurasiaNet.org reported:
On January 29, the head of state-owned Tajik Railways, Amonullo Khukumatullo, announced that Dushanbe and Kabul had themselves decided on the route for the Afghan section of the rail. The announcement apparently caught Ashgabat by surprise because on January 31, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry protested that Khukumatullo’s declaration was "tendentious and absolutely unacceptable" and "counterproductive."
As news trickled out of Taijkistan on July 22 that the government was releasing, albeit with some restrictions, international scholar Alexander Sodiqov after five weeks in jail, a group of scholars and activists gathered at New York University to discuss the long-term effects of his detention. The case, panelists cautioned, could signal on-going trouble for academic freedom for scholars focusing on Tajikistan.
Sodiqov, a political science doctoral student at the University of Toronto and a Tajik national, first traveled to his home country in June as part of a University of Exeter (UK) research project on conflict management strategies. He was detained in Khorog on June 16, before being brought to the intelligence agency headquarters in Dushanbe, where he remained until July 22, accused of espionage.
“Tajikistan was never a no-go area for academic research,” commented John Heathershaw, a lecturer at the University of Exeter who was working with Sodiqov at the time of his arrest. “Alex’s detention is unprecedented… and it sent a message that research is under threat in Tajikistan.”
Sodiqov and others have vehemently denied any connection to espionage, which Heathershaw called “simply untrue.” Disseminating his story and his denials, however, has proved a challenge in Tajikistan, where pro-government media dominate.
“The region thrives on conspiracy theories. Having knowledge – having data – is extremely threatening to these governments,” Alexander Cooley, a political science professor focusing on Central Asia at New York’s Barnard College, affirmed. “Alexander’s detention has had an effect: it’s going to deter research. It’s making this muddled environment even worse.”