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.
Two panels this month, one in Washington and the other in Istanbul, illustrate the broad gap in thinking on Central Asia between foreign policy leaders in Washington and mid-level practitioners more closely linked to the region.
"The US must take initiative to create a long-term strategy for the region. It should bring the New Silk Road to the region, because if we do not, others [Russia, China] will fill the void," Adib Farhadi, a visiting Afghan scholar at the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute (CACI) at Johns Hopkins University, said, summarizing the sentiments of his fellow panelists in Washington.
Just a few days earlier in Istanbul, however, one panelist derided Washington's New Silk Road concept – unveiled by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in mid-2011 – to widespread agreement: "The New Silk Road was a strategy, then an initiative, now I guess it is a vision. It should be called an illusion and ignored. It was created by outsiders without reference to what is going on in the region."
The Atlantic Council and CACI jointly hosted the Washington panel, entitled "The New Silk Road Project: A New Strategy for Afghanistan and Central-South Asia," on October 9. The previous week, the US Congress-chartered Hollings Center for International Dialogue gathered 30 policy experts and development practitioners from Central Asia, Afghanistan, Turkey and the West for a dialogue on "Central Asia's Regional Challenges." The Hollings Center event on October 3-5 was held under the Chatham House Rule, thus participants’ names have been withheld.
The American Senate’s contentious confirmation hearings for Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel have raised the prickly issue of foreign financing at US think tanks, with Republicans opposing his candidacy suggesting nefarious links between Hagel and Kazakhstan, among other foreign nations and companies. Republicans have asked Hagel – a former Senate Republican who is now the nominee of a Democrat president – to reveal the sources of foreign funding at several organizations for which he has served as a board member, most notably the Atlantic Council, where he is currently chairman.
Foreign money flowing to US-based think tanks is often opaque, which means countries like Kazakhstan – where opaque is the gold standard – fit right in. The extent to which foreign funding influences the policies or positions taken by these organizations, or their associates, sometimes concerns the government officials they seek to advise and influence.
Such seemed to be the motive for an unnamed aide to a Senate Republican, who asserted to the conservative Washington Free Beacon blog on February 11, “The nexus between Chuck Hagel, the government of Kazakhstan, the Atlantic Council, and Chevron is apparent. He’s clearly delivered political cover from a prominent think tank and used his board position at Chevron to encourage investments in Kazakhstan.” (Chevron was deeply invested in Kazakhstan long before Hagel joined the Atlantic Council in 2009.)
Uzbekistan is planning a rail link over a mountain pass that would link Tashkent directly to its territories in the Fergana Valley, bypassing the current line through Tajikistan, according to media reports.
Uzbekistan controls all of Tajikistan’s railway border crossings and often uses them as leverage over its poorer southeastern neighbor. It’s not unusual for Uzbekistan, trying to stymie Tajikistan’s plans to build a massive hydropower plant upstream, to cite “technical problems”, “terrorist sabotage”, or “weather delays” as reasons for extended closures at the border crossings.
Tajikistan maintains some leverage in these disputes thanks to the 70-mile stretch of the Fergana main line that crosses its territory. Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley population of some 10 million relies on this line for its fuel supplies. Tajikistan also needs the line because factories and farms in Sughd Province and Khujand produce much of the country’s modest exportable goods base, including consumer items, processed foods, and clothing.
Thus, rail access for both countries is predicated on cooperation to keep the line open. An official from the Sughd Free Economic Zone once insisted to me that complications were overblown, and that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan “need each other.”
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is the latest demi-celebrity to find himself embroiled in a Kazakhstan-related controversy. The widely celebrated creator of the non-profit, freely editable website closed a Wikipedia discussion on December 21, 18 hours after a user asked Wales to explain his upcoming visit to Kazakhstan in connection with Wikibilim, a local NGO working to develop the Kazakh-language Wikipedia.
“As far as I know, the Wikibilim organization is not politicized,” replied Wales. He maintained his belief that there are “no particularly difficult issues” with neutrality in the Kazakh-language Wikipedia, and promised to stress press freedom and openness during a visit to Kazakhstan in 2013.
The exchange is raising questions, again, about the Kazakh government’s efforts to control Wikipedia content. But it also points to a fundamental problem in the Wikipedia movement – source material.
One user, PhnomPencil, noted that Wikibilim received, according to another Wikipedia entry, 30 million tenge ($200,000) from the state investment fund Samruk-Kazyna in 2011 “for editing, digitalization, and author rights transfer.” PhnomPencil questions Wales’ connection to a group that appears close to the authoritarian government, and asks whether the Kazakh-language Wikipedia has been hijacked by Astana's paid propagandists.
Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi announced November 14 that Turkmenistan had halted gas exports to its southern neighbor over a price dispute. Shortly thereafter, a Turkmen official told Reuters there is no price dispute, but that pipeline repairs are to blame for the gas cut.
For now, the gas is back on, Reuters reports, citing a Turkmen official who said Iran requested repairs to the pipeline. But the episode – complete with contradicting reports from the two sides – looked familiar, and suggested a few possible scenarios.
First, Iran has been struggling with balance of payments problems as international sanctions designed to end its nuclear program have crushed its banking system and stifled foreign trade. It is not unlikely that Tehran is struggling to make hard currency payments for the gas, asked for a discount, and Ashgabat started playing hardball.
Second, Iran relies on imports of Turkmen gas to supply its northern regions, particularly in winter, which helps free up excess capacity for its downstream sales to Armenia and Turkey. If Iran can’t make these margins work, it is likely to want to halt purchases.
Third, Ashgabat may be trying to push up Iran’s purchase prices. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov seems to think each of his gas clients -- Russia, Iran, and China -- should pay as much as anyone else is willing to pay.
Just south of the Ashgabat city gates, a security checkpoint marks the entrance to a tightly controlled, 10-mile-wide no man’s land before Turkmenistan’s border with Iran. The guards turn back many Turkmen headed to the Islamic Republic, including those traveling for religious pilgrimage, aspiring students, and anyone else the authorities feel like blocking.
According to several Turkmen in Ashgabat, a new group is being stopped lately: medical tourists.
Moscow remains a destination for many Turkmen seeking higher-quality medical care, but the cost and complications of flying to Russia have begun to exceed the trouble of making a short trip south. Turkmen traveling to Iran can arrange fixers – often ethnic Turkmen from Iran – to provide translation, transportation, and accommodation during their stay, usually in Meshed, Iran’s second city, a half day’s drive from Ashgabat.
Patients reportedly appreciate the quality and service culture afforded by Iranian private clinics. Turkmenistan has one private medical facility, the Turkish-run Ashgabat Central Hospital, which is not well regarded by Turkmen or expats in the city.
One woman seeking fertility treatment turned to a private clinic in Iran after Turkmen doctors at the best maternity ward in Ashgabat prescribed her a list of drugs, vitamins, and folk cures three pages long. Many doctors in Turkmenistan, like their counterparts across the region, embrace folk practices and outdated Soviet-era theory over evidence-based medical treatments.
The ban on exits for medical tourists has been in place since summer, say Ashgabat residents. Some continue to make the trip, claiming to be on “business,” though sources in Ashgabat report that authorities limit even these trips to once in three months.
Turkmenistan’s contacts with Russia have picked up in recent months, heightening speculation that Ashgabat is positioning itself to renew gas supplies to its erstwhile top customer.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, spoke by phone this week, ostensibly to discuss regional issues and cultural exchanges. (Neither the Russian nor Turkmen news agencies provided details, as usual, though Turkmenistan.ru boasted that the Russians initiated the call.)
Earlier in the week, Svetlana Medvedeva, wife of Russia’s prime minister and former placeholder president, Dmitry Medvedev, received a prestigious memento during her trip to Ashgabat. Berdymukhamedov awarded her the Ruhubelent Order, one of the Turkmenistan’s highest state honors, for her work on improving ties between the two countries. Medvedeva is not known for previously showing any interest in the gas-rich desert nation.
Berdymukhamedov and Putin also spoke by phone the previous week. And they spoke in July when Putin called to congratulate Berdymukhamedov on his birthday. At the time, Putin and Medvedev also sent congratulatory letters. Perhaps Medvedev’s specific reference to the grand time the two shared in Rio de Janeiro – at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June – helped land his wife the Turkmen trophy.
The US State Department’s annual terrorism report, released this week, provides a brief overview of how Foggy Bottom views terrorist threats abroad. On Central Asia, unfortunately, the cautious survey adds little to our understanding of the problem.
In its introduction to the region, the report notes that Central Asian governments “faced the challenge” of balancing human rights with security concerns. Further down, the report lists myriad examples where authorities heavily favored security, often at the expense of basic human rights.
State hedges on Central Asian governments’ tendency to hype threats. For the most part, the report simply lists what authorities describe as terrorist attacks and as anti-terrorist operations, but uses qualifying terms – “reportedly”; “potentially” – that make it clear State is as in the dark on the nature of the events as the rest of us.
The report does cautiously point out that Central Asian governments’ widespread human rights abuses may end up creating terrorists.
For example, Kazakhstan’s 2010 amendments to the law on “religious activities” had “severely restricted the peaceful practice of religion,” the report says, adding that some commentators linked subsequent violent incidents to the new law.
In the Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan sections, the report states the widely held belief that the three countries misuse counterterrorism statutes to persecute legitimate political and religious actors. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, despite their well-documented use of the same playbook, are not censured directly on this point.
Just in case foreign investors needed another reason to be wary of Kyrgyzstan, the country’s swashbuckling parliamentarians are again picking on a promising mining venture.
Stans Energy Corporation, a Toronto-based mining startup aiming to resuscitate Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet-era heavy rare earth metals (HRE) industry, is taking legal action after parliament recommended the annulment of the company’s licensing agreement.
Prospectors and investors have fanned out across the globe to develop new rare earths supplies following a Chinese export ban in 2010. HREs are crucial components in many electronics and high-capacity batteries, and China produces over 95 percent of world supply.
All of this was fortuitous for Stans, and Kyrgyzstan, which sold the company a 20-year lease to redevelop its HRE assets in 2009. At the time, Stans owned rights to one of the world’s only previously proven sets of rare earth metals outside China. Its stock soared on Canadian exchanges when it was first floated in 2011.