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.)
Kyrgyzstan took another halting step toward joining the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union on May 21 when President Almazbek Atambayev signed an accession treaty into law.
The other four members must still approve the impoverished Central Asian state’s membership (a process that is largely seen as a formality), and Bishkek must finish upgrading its border checkpoints to EEU standards before Kyrgyzstan becomes a formal member. But Atambayev was in a jubilant mood.
“Today is a wonderful day for us. Today [I am] signing the law ratifying international agreements on Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union. In this way, we complete all the internal governmental procedures for entering one of the biggest economic unions in the world,” Atambayev said on May 21 in comments carried by his website.
Kyrgyzstan first formally applied for membership two years ago and has been speaking about joining for four. Accession has dragged for so long that confusion over whether Kyrgyzstan is yet a member has reigned in recent weeks. It is still unclear how long it will take for Kyrgyzstan to upgrade its checkpoints.
In his remarks, Atambayev celebrated a “a new phase of development” for his country, while warning that the “journey will not be easy.” For years, thousands of Kyrgyzstanis have survived by re-exporting Chinese goods to other former Soviet republics. Those goods now face higher import tariffs. Kyrgyzstan’s economy must “restructure in a very short space of time,” Atambayev acknowledged.
Entrepreneurs from Turkey have enjoyed success in Turkmenistan, a market known mostly for natural gas rents and megalomaniacal vanity projects. But for all of their past business achievements, a growing number of Turkish investors are experiencing trouble in Ashgabat’s notoriously fickle business climate.
Kyrgyzstan has finally found a developer for its Jerooy deposit, one of the largest untapped gold fields known in Eurasia. But an outstanding $549 million claim and a hostile local population mean Kyrgyzstan is still years away from seeing any gold emerge from the ground.
The State Geology and Mineral Resources Agency declared Vostok-geoldobycha had won the tender for the 97-ton Jerooy deposit on May 4. Vostok-geoldobycha – owned by Russian oligarch Musa Bazhaev, Russia’s 160th richest man according to Forbes – offered the minimum bid of $100 million.
As part of the deal, Vostok-geoldobycha takes responsibility for a $549 million arbitration claim lodged against Kyrgyzstan’s government by Kazakhstan-based Visor Holding, which is scheduled to be heard in Washington in November. A Visor subsidiary lost its license to the deposit in late 2010 when officials said the company had failed to begin production on schedule.
Vostok-geoldobycha, a daughter company of Russia’s Amur Zoloto, beat off interest from the state mining concern Kyrgyzaltyn, which had partnered on its bid with London-based Unity Gold. (Unity had set tongues wagging when it listed Jerooy as one of its projects before the bidding had even concluded.)
According to Reuters, the tender commission preferred Vostok-geoldobycha’s bid despite the fact that Kyrgyzaltyn came in with a slightly higher offer:
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.
How long can Kyrgyzstan postpone its entry into the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union?
The plucky Central Asian state’s delays acceding to the protectionist bloc have become a curious subplot to the generally unsuccessful story of Eurasian integration thus far.
Acting Economics Minister Temir Sariev said on April 29 that Kyrgyzstan would likely not make the May 8 deadline President Almazbek Atambayev had promised to Moscow last December. May was already an extension on the January 1 deadline officials talked about throughout 2014. Instead, Kyrgyzstan will join by the end of May, said Sariev – who was named by parliament’s ruling coalition on April 29 as its candidate for premier.
Earlier, Sariev reported to Atambayev on “differences of opinion” with other EEU members – Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia – suggesting the parties are still haggling over Kyrgyzstan’s entry terms even though it signed accession papers long ago.
There are two sticking points, according to Sariev. First, Kyrgyzstan insists it continue to receive concessions on imports of Chinese construction materials. Second, it rejects EEU members’ demands it undertake additional sanitary inspections, above and beyond current EEU regulations, on its meat and produce.
A leading newspaper in Kyrgyzstan claims President Almazbek Atambayev’s administration has launched a frontal assault on critical media in the run-up to parliamentary elections this fall.
The embattled, opposition-minded Vechernii Bishkek, whose ownership is the subject of a protracted legal dispute, is under investigation by the secret police for accusing, in an April 17 statement, the president’s aids of attempting to seize the paper.
The State Committee on National Security, the GKNB – which answers to Atambayev – is evaluating if the paper’s statement contains “public calls for a violent overthrow of the constitutional order in the country,” Fergana.ru reported April 25, citing a GKNB press release. Rights lawyers complain the GKNB finds whatever it wants when it conducts such linguistic investigations of allegedly offensive documents.
In Vechernii Bishkek’s statement, the paper appealed to citizens not to remain indifferent to an expropriation bid they say is backed by Atambayev’s team, and which may eventually lead to owner Alexander Kim losing full control of the paper and its lucrative printing press.
Officials in Atambayev’s administration, the paper argues, are trying to silence independent media ahead of parliamentary elections this fall; presidential elections are due in 2017.
The offending statement alleges the current elite around Atambayev is adopting the rapacious habits of previous authoritarian regimes. It may be slightly hyperbolic at times, but one would be hard-pressed to find anything in the statement that threatens the government’s existence.
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.
Satellite dishes are ubiquitous in Ashgabat. The government wants them gone.
According to rights watchdogs and the crumbs of independent reporting coming out of Turkmenistan, the authoritarian government is busy stripping homes of their satellite receivers, plunging the insulated country further into isolation.
At the end of March, 2015, local housing authorities in the capital, Ashgabat, and its suburbs started ordering residents of multi-story apartment buildings to take down their satellite dishes, citing simply an “order from above” that allegedly stated the dishes ruined the view of the city. Authorities told residents they could instead get cable television packages through the government or state satellite antennae.