Turkmenistan's annual Oil and Gas Conference opened today, with hundreds of energy executives and government officials flocking to Ashgabat to see if the president -- who decides everything -- will do any further "diversifying" of his country's vast hydrocarbons reserves.
In greetings sent to the conference (he typically doesn't attend in person), President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov actually didn't include his usual boilerplate on "diversification" policy, i.e. the drive to create alternative routes to end dependency on Russia, which in any event isn't buying much Turkmen gas these days. He focused more on the importance of acquiring high technology.
And while the Turkmen leader has appeared to specifically endorse the Trans-Caspian pipeline project of late, and even mentioned Nabucco, he didn't mention any concrete projects today, according to the State News Agency of Turkmenistan (TDH):
Turkmenistan's policy is aimed at the leading development of the oil and gas complex, where the main priorities are advanced technology, the latest equipment, in order to ensure the effective exploitation of Turkmenistan's gigantic potential as a world energy power. The head of state expressed confidence that the current exhibit would become yet another good opportunity to determine promising directions for joint work on mutually advantageous terms with everyone who wishes to become a partner of our country.
Rice and Saakashvili at a July 2008 press conference in Tbilisi
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Georgian President Saakashvili alienated potential NATO allies by "letting the Russians provoke him" into starting a war over South Ossetia. That's in her new book where, as with the controversy over Uzbekistan, she portrays herself as the voice of reason, in this case trying to contain the impulsive Saakashvili while also restraining the more bellicose members of her own administration.
She describes a meeting in Tbilisi with Saakashvili before the war broke out:
He's proud and can be impulsive, and we all worried that he might allow Moscow to provoke him to use force. In fact, he himself successfully provoked conflict in another breakaway part of the country, Adjara, and benefited when it had been reintegrated into Georgia through domestic and international pressure. The precedent, we feared, might make him think he could get away with a repeat performance in the territories located closer to Putin's beloved Sochi.
She urged Saakashvili to sign a non-use-of-force agreement, and he refused.
"Mr. President, whatever you do, don't let the Russians provoke you. You remember when President Bush said that Moscow would try to get you to do something stupid. And don't engage Russian military forces. No one will come to your aid, and you will lose," I said sternly.
Here's how she describes the start of the war, the evening of August 7:
Despite Georgia's unilateral ceasefire earlier in the day, South Ossetian rebel forces continued shelling ethnic Georgian villages in and around the capital, Tskhinvali. In response, the Georgian military commenced a heavy military offensive against the rebels..."
The town of Dilovasi, located some 30 kilometers from the eastern boundary of Istanbul, is a major industrial hub, home to some 150 firms, many of them heavy polluters, such as paint petrochemical factories. Recently, local residents woke up to find that a hard-to-remove sticky white substance had fallen on their town. From Bianet:
A new problem has been added to a series of environmental contaminations in the industrial area of Dilovası. The township belongs to the province of Kocaeli at the eastern tip of the Sea of Marmara about 100 km east of Istanbul.
A white sticky substance has been raining down on Dilovası for about one week now. The white precipitation cannot be washed away and has reportedly started to rain down on Hereke, another town in the region, as well on Saturday (12 November)....
....According to an announcement made by the Kocaeli Governor's Office, a sample of the white substance was taken and sent to TÜBİTAK on 9 November for an analysis. The Governor of Kocaeli, Ercan Topaca, said that the factory this substance came from was going to be closed once it would have been determined.
This is not the first time that serious environmental concerns have been raised in Dilovasi. As Eurasianet's Alexander Christie-Miller reported earlier this year, the health dangers posed by the town's industrial activity was the subject of a critical study written by an academic at a nearby university -- who then found himself the subject of a criminal investigation. From Christie-Miller's story:
You’d think that the very least elected representatives owe their constituencies is to press Yea or Nay when bills are put down for a vote. But Georgian lawmakers absent during voting sometimes prefer to let their colleagues’ fingers do the button-pushing for them.
Granted this happens elsewhere, including the US, but rarely can one see a ghost-voting frenzy like what was recently caught on camera in the Georgian parliament by PalitraTV.
The footage, which is now making the rounds online, shows Georgian lawmakers busy pressing buttons to the left and right on behalf of their absent colleagues, in an apparent violation of parliamentary procedure.
Nor do the legislators even need to be absent. The video shows parliamentary majority leader Petre Tsiskarishvili reading a magazine, yawning and scratching his head, while his Personal Button-Pushing Assistant (fellow United National Movement MP Giorgi Imnadze) leans over and presses buttons on his behalf.
When confronted by a PalitraTV reporter, Tsiskarishvili laughed off the question about why he can't be bothered to vote himself.
It is not clear yet if courtesy-voting is a cross-party trend in Georgia, but, arguably, it would not be all surprising for a parliament member in Georgia, famous for its elaborate networks of kith and kin, to ask a friend from the opposition camp to press the button while he or she slips out: "Chemi dzma (meaning "dude," approximately), just push 'No' on my desk every time you press 'Yes' on yours," the request might go from one guy MP to another. "And see you at Tako's birthday party tonight."
As the Old Spice man might say, some people who look at the Arab Spring demonstrations, then look at Central Asia, then look at the Arab spring demonstrations, then back at Central Asia, say sadly, Central Asia is not like the Middle East, but it could be if only...people were less timid...or the West stopped supporting the regime ...or if more people joined Facebook groups.
Of course, even with similarities, like a dictator in power for a long time (President Islam Karimov has ruled for 22 years in Uzbekistan), even with the US seemingly interested in downplaying human rights problems over the greater need for a supply route to the Afghanistan war, there are major differences between Uzbekistan and say, Egypt or Tunisia.
The virtual absence of independent local or foreign media in Uzbekistan is one of those differences. There are almost no independent media outlets outside of a few brave web sites or newsletters emailed by dissidents -- and very few civic groups able to function independently. So when people *do* protest, we don't always hear about it -- or at least not right away. The problem is exacerbated when Uzbekistan becomes a foreign policy story and drives the other local stories off the top of the Google news results.
Top: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Town Hall, Dushanbe, October 22, 2011; Bottom: USAID seminar on e-government, Ashgabat, November 2, 2011
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Central Asia October 20-23, visiting Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to discuss issues of regional stability and the State Department's new Silk Road initiative.
Given how important Ashgabat's role has been in assisting the US on the Northern Distribution Network to deliver non-lethal goods to troops in Afghanistan, why didn't Clinton visit Turkmenistan?
That question has been batted around among some Central Asia-watchers, and there was even a rumor that the Turkmen leadership didn't want Clinton to visit last month, even though she was right next door.
An audience member posed the question yesterday at a conference on Central Asia organized by the Jamestown Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Washington, DC.
Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert O. Blake, Jr., the keynote speaker at the conference, supplied an answer: because the Turkmens were celebrating their 20th anniversary of independence on October 27, and were busy.
Although Clinton was in the area a full week before Turkmenistan's independence day, that seemed a plausible answer. Ashgabat became increasingly conscious of its stated "neutrality" and need for autonomy from the great powers of the world the closer it came to the independence jubilee. So Clinton landing alone without equivalent visits from other world leaders was obviously something the Turkmen leadership wanted to avoid.
Blake stressed that Turkmenistan "plays an important role" with assistance to Afghanistan and is planning to "quadruple the electricity" delivered to its neighbor.
It would seem the Turkmen authorities already had enough control over citizens' communications, given how they shut off Russia's MTS service last December, depriving 2.4 million people of cell phone access. While many rushed to try to sign up with the national government provider, they faced long lines and poor service.
News Briefing Central Asia now reports that Turkmenistan's Ministry of National Security is stepping up its already intense surveillance of its citizens' use of mobile phones.
At the beginning of November, National Security Minister Yaylym Berdiev outlined the steps his agency was taking to "maintain social stability, unity and harmony”. No details of these measures were released, but commentators in the country already see signs of a further clampdown in this already highly controlled society.
When Turkmenistan marked 20 years of independence from the Soviet Union in late October, participants in parades and other public events were banned from using mobile phones.
According to a local rights activist, the measure was not a one-off.
"The ban on using mobile phones, supposedly in the interests of public security, has been in place for the last six months," he said. "It came to the fore after the explosions in Abadan, when people used the mobile internet to report the news."
Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev, a freelance reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was first warned for his independent coverage of the munitions depot explosion in Abadan, then arrested and sentenced.
A human rights leader in Uzbekistan says she is suffering backlash for her work.
Police have come to the home of Elena Urlaeva of the Human Rights Alliance in Tashkent and attempted to remove her 7-year-old foster child, Muhammad, the independent website uznews.net reported.
The aim of the visit was quite simple: he [the policeman] said he had been asked to take Muhammad Mashurov away to a children’s home. But he didn’t show me any proof that he had the right to take a child away from their family. It never occurred to me that a small child could be made a victim of such an unlawful and arbitrary procedure.
The boy is the nephew of Urlayeva's partner, Mansur Mashurov.
In recent months, Urlayeva has been monitoring the use of forced child labor in the cotton fields and has taken on other injustices in this Central Asian dictatorship, such as the persecution of journalists.
Uzbek authorities are finding new ways to curb the birth rate, Radio Ozodlik reports. According to health providers who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, the medical community is being forced to take action to curb fertility, in accordance with President Islam Karimov's Decree No. PP-1096, "On additional measures to protect the health of the mother and child, the formation of a healthy generation."
An official of the Ministry of Health said the presidential decrees were prompted by a mounting birth rate: in 2007, 480,000 infants were born in Uzbekistan; this number increased to 500,000 in 2008, then 650,000 in 2009, and then 650-700,000 in 2010.
Reports have continued to be received that doctors are urging women to be "voluntarily" sterilized after a certain number of births. Now pregnant women who already have multiple children are told that there is no room for them at the clinic, because "the plan for births has already been fulfilled," the human rights group Ezgulik reports.
A 24-year-old woman born in Tashkent named Ziyoda told Radio Ozodlik that two years ago, she married a man from Samarkand. When she went to the clinic where she had originally lived before she was married, she was told that she wasn't registered in the district to access the local clinic. She then managed to get a propiska, or residence permit at her parents' home, and went back to the clinic for prenatal care. But the second time she was told that the district had already fulfilled its norm for births, and that the authorities had ordered the reduction of the birth rate. The clinic declined to answer questions from a reporter.
Now that the Bush administration has been gone a few years, its principals are coming out with memoirs of their time in the White House, and with them come a little more insight into U.S. government policymaking in the oughts. My colleague Giorgi Lomsadze has already reported on the small furor that Condoleezza Rice's new book has made among Armenian-Americans, but she's probably not going to make Donald Rumsfeld, or the government of Uzbekistan, any happier.
Like Rumsfeld, she recounts into the internal debate in the administration about how to respond to the massacre at Andijan, which was particularly delicate given that the U.S. was then maintaining a key air base at Karshi-Khanabad. Rumsfeld, you'll recall, in his own memoir called the U.S. response to Andijan “one of the most unfortunate, if unnoticed, foreign policy mistakes of our administration" because it privileged human rights concerns over strategic interests. In her book, Rice explains her side of the story, and how she won over President George W. Bush:
We'd crossed swords, for instance, on Uzbekistan where, after bloody riots in May 2005, State had issued a tough human rights report against the regime. The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, had responded by threatening to expel us from the military base that he'd allowed us into at the time of the invasion of Afghanistan. Let us recall that we'd paid a small fortune for the privilege, but the dictator felt no obligation to honor that deal and said so.