NATO and Georgian flags fly together as a four-ship NATO naval contingent visits Batumi, Georgia. (photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs, Georgia)
Russia is conducting snap exercises around the Black Sea and southern Russia as tensions continue to rise between Russia and Turkey. Meanwhile, a contingent of four NATO naval vessels -- including two from Turkey -- is visiting Georgia for joint exercises.
Russia began the exercises on Monday which reportedly involve 8,500 troops and 50 combat ships from the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian Flotilla. These sorts of large, unnanounced exercises have become common in Russia over the last several years, but analysts saw these particular drills as sending a message to Turkey.
"We've had many of these snap exercises over the past three years, it's a very correct element of training the armed forces. It's not at all necessary to see them as a signal to someone, but in this case it's of course also a signal to the Turks, because we are quickly and surely heading to war with them," said Alexander Khramichkin, a Russian military analyst, in an interview with newspaper Gazeta.ru.
Tension between Moscow and Ankara has remained high months after Turkey shot down a Russian military jet on the Syrian border. Most recently Russia accused Turkey of planning a land invasion of Syria, further heightening the risk of direct confrontation between the two powers.
Turkmenistan marked Independence Day this week. While parts of the gas-rich country were experiencing gas shortages, there was no shortage of pomp and prosperity on display in Ashgabat on October 27. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was in attendance and some of the choreography – like an Akhal-Teke horse, his favorite breed, drawn out of Kalashnikovs – must have been especially pleasing to the horse-mad leader.
A photographer in Ashgabat sent EurasiaNet.org these images, which are used with permission.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has threatened to dismiss Turkmenistan’s border police chiefs following the deaths of three more border guards at the Afghan frontier late last month.
Berdymukhamedov called the June 2 meeting of the State Security Council to hear an update from the country’s military and law-enforcement agencies, the state-run TDH news agency reports. The president then singled out border chief Myrad Yslamov and his deputy, Batyr Zeberenov, for a dressing down, noting their “improper” work and “shortcomings.”
“The state provides constant support to the modernization of the infrastructure of the Border Service, but despite this level [of support], the work of the State Border Service does not correspond to modern tasks,” TDH quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying.
At least twice this year, Afghanistan-based militants have killed Turkmen border guards along Turkmenistan’s previously calm southern frontier. RFE/RL reported last month that an attack on May 24 left three Turkmen border guards dead. The acting head of Afghanistan's Ghormach District, Asyl Khan, told RFE/RL that the Afghan intruders had seized weapons – two Kalashnikovs and a heavy-caliber machine gun – from the slain soldiers.
In February, an attack on a Turkmen border post also left three dead.
On May 29, Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov paid an unscheduled visit to Kabul, to discuss the situation on the border with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
An imprisoned human rights activist in Turkmenistan “has hours to live” following a 14-day hunger strike, Amnesty International said yesterday.
Mansur Mingelov, 39, was arrested in 2012 after documenting police torture, including instances where police subjected detainees to electric shocks and yanked on their genitals with pliers, Amnesty said.
“The Turkmenistani authorities can avert his death by abiding by their obligations and granting Mansur Mingelov a fair trial,” said Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Program.
Mingelov has refused food since May 19 “in protest at the 22-year sentence for alleged drug and child pornography offences passed down after an unfair trial. Prison doctors say he is in a critical condition,” Amnesty said in a June 2 statement:
His conviction was largely based on the testimony of four alleged victims who did not understand the Turkmen language and signed untranslated statements – reportedly under intimidation and threat. […]
[O]n 10 September 2012, he was convicted and sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment on what he alleges to be spurious charges of “involving minors in socially inappropriate actions” and the production and distribution of pornography and drugs.
Ever since Turkmenistan’s eccentric despot Saparmurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov died in late 2006, his eccentric, despotic successor has been busy refocusing Niyazov’s pagan-like personality cult on himself.
But Niyazov lives on in one distinct brand that the current strongman dares not touch: Turkmenbashi Vodka.
Bottles of vodka bearing Turkmenbashi’s likeness are in high demand in Ashgabat, the Chronicles of Turkmenistan website reported on April 23.
Not only is the drink still available, but the “types … are becoming more diverse,” the Chronicles, run by exiled Turkmen opposition members, said. “A few days ago souvenir boxes [of vodka] called 'Gift from Turkmenbashi the Great' appeared on the shelves." The new release sells for 152 manats ($53) a bottle (about a sixth of the official monthly salary) and is, according to salespeople in Ashgabat, in high demand: "Perhaps many people in the country believe life was better under Turkmenbashi," the website said.
It is also probably foreign visitors’ favorite gag gift.
Turkmenbashi Vodka won the grand prix at a vodka tasting in Yalta, then in Ukraine, back in 2001, state media boasted at the time. (Turkmenistan.ru also said the bottle won a certificate for best design: “By the way, with a portrait of Saparmurat Niyazov.”)
Turkmenistan appears poised to build the one white elephant it's overlooked during a 15-year building spree—a subway system under the streets of its deserted capital city.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov mooted the idea during a meeting with Ukrainian construction magnate Vladimir Petruk in Ashgabat this week. During the meeting, Berdymukhamedov reportedly asked Petruk to study the issue. "Due to the rapid growth of the capital city and increase in its population, the esteemed president drew attention to the need to build a metro," state television announced on February 4.
I can't help but take a bit of credit for the concept, which I used to suggest in jest to anyone who would listen when I lived in Ashgabat. In jest, because Ashgabat's low population, sprawl, earthquakes, and lack of traffic make a subway an imprudent investment.
Petruk apparently raised the idea back in 2005 with Berdymukhamedov's predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov. The plans went nowhere that time, perhaps for good reason.
Estimates of Ashgabat's population generally hover between 700,000 and one million. During the Soviet era, one million was the minimum number required for Moscow’s planners to consider building a metro in a city.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s personality cult has so saturated Turkmenistan that people seem to be fed up with purchasing dictator memorabilia. Sluggish demand for calendars featuring portraits of the president (month after month) is reportedly forcing traders to raise their prices in a bid to minimize losses.
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan reports that this year’s version of the calendar featuring Berdymukhamedov striking a pose on each page have not been selling well. The Chronicles suggests the rising price is further damping demand: For one version of the calendars, the price has risen by 25 percent year-on-year, from 45 manats (approximately $16) to 56 manats ($20).
"They are bought only by bureaucrats and businessmen who keep them in their offices to show their loyalty to the president," the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a website run by exiles in Vienna, explained.
Despite losses, the state-run publisher is still printing desk and wall calendars – along with other mementos including giant posters and icon-like charms for car dashboards – because "propaganda is more important than profit in Turkmenistan.”
When you think of cotton and forced labor in Central Asia, you probably think of Uzbekistan. But a new report offers a reminder that Turkmenistan continues to force thousands of citizens into the cotton fields each autumn against their will.
On January 21, Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) released its assessment of the 2013 cotton harvest (by email): “Tens of thousands” of Turkmen, many of them public sector employees, were forced into the fields during the harvest. "Forced labor is still widely practiced throughout the country," the report – authored in collaboration with the Cotton Campaign, an international advocacy group – said.
The findings support reporting last autumn from Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen Service, which said that teachers were shepherding their students to the cotton fields on an "unprecedented" scale, with girls as young as 10 spotted picking cotton.
ATN describes a feudal system wherein government officials lease cotton plots from the state and then force their underlings to perform the manual labor. Like in neighboring Uzbekistan, the farmers (in this case the officials) then sell their harvest to the government at low prices. The government then sells the raw cotton abroad at market prices, says ATN:
We have information that shows that in the majority of cases, when the regional employees of the social sector are used as cheap laborers, the land is owned not by local farmers, but by high-ranking state or regional officials. These officials rent out land under the names of their wives, children, other family members, etc., however they do absolutely nothing by way of harvesting cotton on their land; many of these officials do not even live on this land or even in the region where the land is leased. [...]
Turkmenistan’s copious reserves of natural gas have long afforded residents an unusual luxury: free gas for cooking and heating their homes. But the subsidy encourages waste, which is encapsulated in an anecdote wherein a Turkmen family never bothers turning the gas stove off because it has to pay for matches.
Unsurprisingly, the waste is expensive, perhaps costing the nation of 5 million up to $5 billion a year. So Turkmenistan’s strongman president says homes should be fit with gas meters and consumers will have to start paying.
Speaking at a government meeting on January 17, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov called on local journalists to run a series of television programs and publications on conserving gas, Turkmen state television reported.
"The installation of the meters will allow people to economically consume natural gas, while the maximum payment for using the gas will not create difficulties for the population, for each family," the Associated Press quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying. From AP:
The move comes in the wake of signs that Berdymukhamedov's authoritarian government sees the subsidized domestic energy market as too heavy an economic burden, and is making profitable energy exports a bigger priority. […]
The government has made it clear in recent months the domestic subsidies are too costly. At a conference in October attended by Berdymukhamedov, one delegate publicly announced that free gas to the country's citizens cost Turkmenistan $5 billion each year.
Neither Berdymukhamedov nor his government offered any clarification about when the changes would take effect or how much consumers would be charged.
Words are unlikely to do this dizzying video justice. Turkmenistan’s dictator Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who has previously sung for state television, and performed a guitar solo to the delight of his subjects, has added a synthesizer to his musical repertoire.
The video appeared on the state-run Turkmen Owazy television channel’s YouTube page on January 1, but appears to be from last New Year’s.
This being neo-totalitarian Turkmenistan, of course the audience was packed with adoring fans and the stage was adorned with a portrait of Berdymukhamedov.