For most Muslims the pilgrimage to Mecca is a sacred duty to be completed at least once in a lifetime. But Turkmenistan’s Muslim-majority population should surely receive divine dispensation. Under restrictions imposed by the authoritarian government, an eager pilgrim can wait over 10 years to receive permission to perform the haj.
Every country has a quota, a limit to how many Muslims it can send on haj each year. Turkmenistan is facilitating travel for only one-seventh of its quota this year, despite the long waiting lists, Oslo-based religious-freedom watchdog Forum 18 reported on August 25:
Muslims in Balkan Region of western Turkmenistan have to wait on average between eight and eleven years to reach the top of the waiting list to join the state-organized haj pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, an official of the regional Religious Affairs office told Forum 18 News Service from Balkanabad on 21 August. Turkmenistan's government is allowing just under a seventh of the haj quota allocated by the Saudi authorities to travel this October to Mecca. "Turkmenistan is one of the governments not doing all it can to help pilgrims," a Saudi consular official told Forum 18 from Ashgabat.
Driving south from Dushanbe, it seems there’s a Chinese investment story at every turn. But as cash pours in from Tajikistan’s powerful neighbor to the East, local concerns are building over Beijing’s opaque plans.
Kyrgyzstan’s local government councils are infested with gangsters, according to the Interior Ministry.
Speaking at a meeting of parliament’s Ata-Meken faction on August 20, Interior Minister Abdulla Suranchiev named over 20 figures in local governments across Kyrgyzstan that he alleges have ties to organized crime.
Not all of the councilors Suranchiev named have criminal records. Details on the accused, later relayed by 24.kg, were limited to names, dates of birth and presumed association with alleged criminal leaders such as Kamchybek Kolbayev, Maksat Abakirov and Almas Bokushev.
Cynics believe Ata-Meken party leader Omurbek Tekebayev engineered the expose as a PR stunt ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections. Ata-Meken has suffered serious brand damage since scraping into the legislature in 2010. Political rivals have accused three of its members, including Tekebayev, of looting during the 2010 revolution. Another scandal struck the party in 2012 when it emerged that one of its candidates for a municipal seat in Jalal-Abad Province was a seasoned criminal with the record to prove it.
Ninety percent of Turkmenistan’s exports are hydrocarbons. And 70 percent of all Turkmenistan’s exports went to China last year. So news that Iran, one of the country’s top three gas buyers, will soon stop importing Turkmen gas cannot be welcome in Ashgabat. It is almost like Turkmenistan threw off the Russian yoke only to shoulder China’s.
On August 11, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh said Iran would no longer need Turkmen gas as of next year, news agency Trend.az quoted him as saying. Zanganeh explained that Iran is ramping up domestic production.
It is quite a turn of events for Turkmenistan. In early 2010 a new, second pipeline bringing Turkmen gas to Iran was launched. At that time leaders in the two countries spoke about gas imports to Iran reaching up to 20 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually. A new gas-compressor station started operation in western Turkmenistan in December 2013, built specifically to export more gas to Iran.
Russia has promised Kyrgyzstan $500 million in assistance to help the reluctant country’s preparations to join the Moscow-led Customs Union, an economic bloc that currently includes Belarus and Kazakhstan. As usual when numbers fly between Russian and Kyrgyz officials, details are scarce.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on August 11 that the funds (“details to be agreed upon”) will ensure “maximum comfort” for Bishkek during its journey into the common economic space. Few believe that Kyrgyzstan, which has long served as a conduit for cheap Chinese goods through Central Asia into Russia, has much to offer the protectionist trade bloc. But always eager to please Moscow, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev has been talking about membership since his inauguration in December 2011.
Lavrov’s announcement came while Atambayev was visiting Russia for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin.
Atambayev told Putin that Kyrgyzstan would enter the Customs Union by the end of the year (and the Eurasian Economic Union, when it is born in January), but noted the “difficulties” the country will face integrating with the more industrialized economies already in the bloc.
For almost a year now, Kyrgyz policymakers, notably Economics Minister Temir Sariev, have been putting figures on those “difficulties”—expected inflation and a rise in unemployment stemming from the decline in lucrative re-export trade from China. Last November, Sariev said Kyrgyzstan would require $200 million a year over six or seven years in the form of a “fund” to help readjust its re-export-dependent economy to the demands of the Customs Union.
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.
A groundswell of public support for Kyrgyzstan's first president to return home to bury a close relative proves the old adage that absence makes the heart grows fonder.
Askar Akayev was far from a national favorite when opposition-led crowds forced the former physicist and his family to flee Kyrgyzstan in a helicopter more than nine years ago, the culmination of what came to be known fondly as the Tulip Revolution. By most accounts, the 14-year Akayev regime had degenerated into a hotbed of corruption and authoritarianism after the president’s reformist beginnings had seen Kyrgyzstan branded an “island of democracy” in authoritarian Central Asia.
But after five years under his successor, the venal and occasionally brutal Kurmanbek Bakiyev, followed by four years of economic and political uncertainty, some Kyrgyzstanis see Akayev with rose-tinted spectacles.
Since his ouster, Akayev, now 69, has lived in Moscow, where he teaches at Moscow State University. He has never returned to Kyrgyzstan.
The trigger for a public discussion of Akayev’s merits and shortfalls was the August 4 rumor that he would be returning to attend the funeral of his brother, who died August 3.
Citing “sources close to the arriving party," newspaper Vechernii Bishkek wrote: “Tomorrow on August 5, early in the morning, the arrival of ex-president Askar Akayev is expected. Relatives and close allies of Akayev expect him in connection with the death of the ousted president’s older brother, Bolot.”
The United States Department of State has added Turkmenistan to its shortlist of especially worrying religious freedom offenders, calling the reclusive Central Asian nation a “Country of Particular Concern” for the first time.
Turkmenistan has never been regarded as shining example of religious tolerance. Some of the country’s heavily monitored mosques are even inscribed with folk wisdom from the “book of the soul,” which was written by the country’s eccentric first president, Saparmurat Niyazov—a pertinent metaphor for the ever-watchful eye the state casts over worshippers.
But according to Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking on July 28 at the rollout of the latest annual International Religious Freedom Report, last year Ashgabat plumbed new depths in its persecution of the faithful:
When countries undermine or attack religious freedom, they not only unjustly threaten the people that they target; they also threaten their country’s own stability. That’s why we, today, add Turkmenistan to the list of Countries of Particular Concern. We have seen reports that people in Turkmenistan are detained, beaten, and tortured because of their religious beliefs. The Government of Turkmenistan has passed religious laws that prohibit people from wearing religious attire in public places or that impose fines for distributing religious literature. And the authorities continue to arrest and imprison Jehovah’s Witnesses who are conscientious objectors to military service.
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."