Proponents of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline say the much-discussed, long-delayed project will be completed by the end of the decade. But some regional experts are contending that TAPI’s time may have already passed.
The pipeline, which would convey Turkmen natural gas via Afghanistan to Pakistani and Indian markets via a 1,800km-long route, has been beset by myriad issues for the better part of two decades. But the plan seemed to move off the back burner last December, when, out of the blue, officials in Turkmenistan announced that construction had gotten underway.
The problem, according to Luca Anceschi, a lecturer in Central Asian Studies with the University of Glasgow who has extensively studied TAPI, is that Ashgabat provided no tangible evidence, such as video of backhoes doing some digging, to support the claim that work had started. And since Turkmenistan is home to one of the most ruthless dictatorships on the planet, where words and images are twisted to meet the needs of the country’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, it is hard to take officials at their word.
“We only know what the Turkmen government wants us to know,” said Anceschi, speaking at a forum hosted by Columbia University’s Harriman Institute on April 11. “There is not a picture, there is not a TV frame, of the works being done. It’s like the Middle Ages.”
As Kazakhstan’s economic muddle continues apace, the production and sale of new automobiles has collapsed, while more drivers are choosing to buy or keep old clangers.
Figures released last week by the National Economy Ministry show that in the first quarter of 2016, the production of cars fell by 92.2 percent compared with the same period last year, Trend news agency reported. During the same period, factories in Kazakhstan produced 14.2 percent fewer trucks.
Kazakhstan’s main auto assembly companies — Azia Avto, Saryarka AvtoProm and Agromash Holding — turn out some of the world’s largest brands, including Chevrolet, Kia, Skoda, Lada, Toyota, Hyundai, SsangYong and Peugeot.
Most cars sold in Kazakhstan are imported, and demand has been steadily falling.
In 2015, official dealerships reported the sale of 97,446 automobiles, a 40 percent drop on the year before.
The rate of the drop-off in sales is intensifying. Figures from the Kazakhstan Automobile Business Association (KABA) show that 6,991 cars were bought from official dealerships in the first two months of this year, a 59 percent decrease on the same period in 2015.
A glance around the roads in Kazakhstan’s wealthiest cities, Astana and Almaty, is an easy reminder that many Kazakhs prefer when they can to buy larger cars able to handle some of the country’s worst roads.
But as KABA president Andrey Lavrentyev has noted, the greatest demand registered last year was for compact models costing under 4.5 million tenge ($13,300).
The biggest seller among smaller models last year was the Hyundai Elantra (2,203 units), followed by the Skoda Rapid with 1,351 sales. In a far third place was the KIA Cerato with 883 units sold.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, never shy about thrusting his once-obscure country on to the global stage, has unveiled perhaps his most ambitious initiative ever: to rid the world of war.
The new program, announced during Nazarbayev's recent trip to Washington, is called "21st Century: A World Without Wars" and is laid out in a document, "Manifesto: The World. The 21st century."
Nazarbayev's rule has featured several globally ambitious initiatives, like integrating all of Eurasia, bringing the world's religions together and eliminating nuclear weapons. The new anti-war manifesto is an outgrowth of the last, and Nazarvbayev unveiled it at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.
And as with Kazakhstan's other global projects, it's difficult to separate Nazarbayev's desire to do good from his desire for glory. “The government is not insincere about this issue, but it is certainly also used for public diplomacy issues,” said Togzhan Kassenova, an associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment, in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine.
A member of parliament in Kazakhstan has struck a populist note by thundering about the reportedly massive wages being paid to a Russian soccer star recently signed by Almaty’s FC Kairat.
In an intemperate address before parliament on April 18, Muhtar Tinkeyev spoke of the need to develop a sporting culture in Kazakhstan and not to waste money bringing foreign stars to the country. By way of an example, he pointed to FC Kairat’s recent, high-profile signing of Andrei Arshavin.
“Look at Arshavin, they have given him a $1 million contract. Just think, more than $1 million a year. There are foreign players making $30,000 a month. Is this the kind of football we need?” Tinkeyev said in remarks carried in detail by Tengri News. “Why isn’t this money spent on children’s sport? On building courtyard playgrounds?”
Tinkeyev was no more sparing of what he described as the wasteful expense on basketball and hockey.
“Look at the situation with the Barys Atsana hockey team. You have this one Kazakh there, Damir Ryspayev, who only goes onto the ice to get into fights,” he said.
Tinkeyev instead lavished praise on recent sporting events like the Nomad Mixed Martial Arts competition, which wrapped up last week in the city of Karaganda at what Tinkeyev said was of no cost to the state budget.
And the deputy was no less critical of the slovenly behavior he claimed to have seen among overpaid sports stars.
In March, officials from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were at one another’s throats over a border dispute. But a month is a long time in frontier politics.
With moods now significantly calmed, representatives from both countries’ border services met on April 18 to discuss the recent discovery of an illegal cross-frontier smugglers’ tunnel.
Russian state-run news service Sputnik reported that the meeting took place at the “Uzbekistan” border crossing and organized at Tashkent’s instigation.
The underground passage discovered in March led from the village of Burbolik in Uzbekistan’s Altyaryk District to the village of Kyrgyz-Kyshtak in the Kadamzhai district in the Batken region. Sputnik cited Uzbek officials as saying they are still trying to establish who was running the smuggling operation.
Uzbek news website Podrobno.uz reported in March, that the 120-meter long tunnel was built six meters below ground and was around 70 centimeters wide and more than a meter high.
For all those relatively modest dimensions, Kyrgyz and Uzbek officials believe there is almost no limit to the evil that might have been coursing through the tunnel.
“Both sides are studying the possibility that this structure was being used to transport weapons, ammunition, explosives, unconstitutional literature, narcotics and militants,” Podrobno.uz reported.
The likelihood of “unconstitutional literature” — typically a codeword for religious pamphlets — is perhaps the most risible item on the list, since the Internet would be a far more secure way of conveying such material.
With Tajikistan now in the midst of its spring conscription drive, the country’s top defense official has given to worrying out loud about the state of discipline and morale among the armed forces.
Asia-Plus last week reported that Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo addressed senior defense personnel to discuss a series of problem areas, including the rampant and often deadly scourge of hazing. There is no reason to believe this problem will be tackled with any vigor, however.
Authorities say they have already enlisted 50 percent of the required number of conscripts this season. The techniques used to hit targets strike terror into the hearts of young Tajik men and for many they amount to little more than legalized mass kidnapping.
Pictures have appeared on social media showing young men being rounded up directly from the streets of the capital, Dushanbe. Social media has also served as a platform in the past for anonymously spreading alleged photographic evidence of hazing among conscripts. Media reported last year on four deaths in Tajikistan as a result of hazing: Firdavs Rahmatov, Abduvahhob Kayumov, Parviz Dustmatov and Azam Ubaidulloev.
In an unhappy piece of timing, a court in Dushanbe has just heard the trial of 22-year old man Umedjon Amrohon, who is accused of involvement in the fatal attack in November on a group of military mobilization personnel. Two of the officers were killed in the assault.
Prosecutors have asked that Amrohon be thrown behind bars for life.
The United States has for the first time formally designated Tajikistan as a "country of particular concern" with respect to religious freedom, while at the same time waiving any potential sanctions that could entail because the country is of "important national interest" to the U.S.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which annually reviews countries' religious freedom practices, has determined that Tajikistan violated the rights of Muslims, Protestants, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Since 2012 the commission has recommended Tajikistan be placed on the list of the worst violators of religious freedom around the globe. For the first time this year the State Department agreed, adding Tajikistan to a list that also includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It's unclear what pushed the State Department to finally lose patience this year, but no doubt the dramatic crackdown on the country's only significant opposition political party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, contributed.
By law, this designation could require the U.S. to curtail various forms of aid to Tajikistan, including military aid. But the law in question gives the president significant latitude as to exactly what sorts of sanctions to apply -- they could be limited, for example, to a "private demarche" or the "delay or cancellation of one or more cultural exchanges."
In an unprecedented move, Mihran Poghosian, a senior Armenian official named in the Panama Papers’ corruption exposé, resigned from office on April 18. His stated reason, though, was not the accusations against him, but, apparently, a more patriotic one – the dishonor of sharing press space alongside Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
In an explanation sent to Armenian media outlets, Poghosian described himself as “saddened that my name is being raised alongside the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev, who has actually privatized millions of dollars,” according to an English-language translation of his comments published by RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “I find it unacceptable that I might be the reason for any possible civilized parallel to be drawn between my country and dictatorial Azerbaijan.”
“Is this a sign that something is changing in this country?” asked Yerevan resident Naira Soghomonian, 31. “Or is this another way of distracting people from the truth? Anyway, who would have thought . . .?”
Civil activist Syuzan Simonian, founder of the Front of Armenian Women, suspects the resignation is intended to quiet potential frustration with the government.
Uzbekistan is trying to give farmers a helping hand as the country seeks to lessen its dependence on cotton-growing and find much-needed sources of revenue.
Local media reported last week that as of July 1, companies and private entrepreneurs holding the proper permits could once again begin to export fruits and vegetables by road. The government in September slapped a ban on trucks taking produce out of the country, leaving all but a select few only the costly alternative of getting their wares out by air or railway freight.
Those measures were taken to avoid Uzbek wares being re-exported onward to lucrative markets like Russia by companies in Kazakhstan. In November 2014, deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov told a government meeting that the amount of Uzbek produce being exported to Russia had fallen by 10 percent because of unfavorable tariffs barriers created by the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
That state of affairs in turn led to the creation of various opaque and illegal schemes, Azimov said. Fruit and vegetables were first exported to Kazakhstan, where companies would label the goods as Kazakh and then sell them on to Russia and benefit from favorable tariffs for produce cultivated with the EEU, a bloc that Uzbekistan has resisted joining. That set Uzbekistan the challenge of trying to thwart middlemen in Kazakhstan and dealing directly with Russia.
Russia’s plans to keep selling guns to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, no matter if the Caucasus’ two irascible neighbors use them against each other, is feeding growing Armenian frustration with their only strategic ally.