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Turkmenistan country profile
Despite its gas wealth, much of Turkmenistan's population is still impoverished. After independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 the country entered a period of isolation that has only recently begun to end.
Turkmenistan produces roughly 70 billion cubic metres of natural gas each year and about two-thirds of its exports go to Russia's Gazprom gas monopoly.
The government has sought out gas deals with several other countries, including China and neighbouring Iran, however, to reduce its dependency on Russia.
What Happened When The Taliban Visited Turkmenistan?
Neither Taliban nor Turkmen officials are giving any details about their talks after a delegation from the Muslim extremist group arrived in Turkmenistan on February 6.
With only scant information available about the meetings in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, here is what is known.
The delegation to Ashgabat was led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and, according to an unusually prompt statement the same day from the Turkmen Foreign Ministry, the Taliban came to talk about construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural-gas pipeline, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) power line, and further connecting Afghanistan to Turkmenistan by railway.
Baradar also led the Taliban delegation to Iran on January 26 and to Pakistan on December 16, 2o20.
Those visits were to discuss the stalled Afghan peace talks that began last year in the Qatari capital, Doha.
The Turkmen Foreign Ministry statement included a brief statement from Taliban delegation member Mohammad Suhail Shahin, who said, “Without a doubt, the early start on the construction of projects such as TAPI, TAP, and a railroad from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan will contribute to the achievement of peace and economic development in Afghanistan.”
Shahin said the Taliban would ensure the “protection of all national projects implemented in our country” that are done to benefit the Afghan people.
He added that “we declare our full support for the realization and security of the TAPI project and other infrastructure projects in our country.”
The Value Of A Taliban Promise
The Taliban have made such promises before, including in November 2016 when spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that the Taliban "not only support all national projects that are in the interest of the people and result in the development and prosperity of the nation, but are committed to protecting them."
In January and February of that same year, the Taliban cut power lines in northern Afghanistan that carried electricity from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The destruction left areas in northern Afghanistan without power and greatly reduced electricity supplies to Kabul.
After the Taliban pledge in 2016, Deputy presidential spokesman Shah Hussain Murtazawi said that in the months before making that promise, the Taliban had destroyed 302 schools, 41 health clinics, 50 mosque minarets, 5,305 houses, 1,818 shops, a government building, six bridges, 293 overpasses, and 123 kilometers of roads in 11 provinces.
In May 2020, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Arian said the Taliban had destroyed 110 public projects in 14 provinces during the previous six months, including "three pylons for electricity imported from Tajikistan in the Baghlan-e Markazi district [and] two pylons for electricity coming from Uzbekistan in the Dand-e Shahabuddin and Khwaja Alwan neighborhoods of Pul-e Khumri, Baghlan Province."
Insecurity Scaring Investment
As for TAPI, it has been Turkmenistan's desire to build the pipeline for more than 25 years, but security problems in Afghanistan have always made its realization impossible.
Journalist Ahmed Rashid is the author of the bestselling book Taliban and is one of the leading authorities on Afghanistan.
He told RFE/RL's Gandhara website that “In 1990s when Ashgabat pushed for building the TAPI pipeline it became impossible because the Taliban began executing women in the football stadiums.”
Rashid added that now “It is very unlikely that there ever will be any foreign investment in Afghanistan if the Taliban are in control of the government and they do not compromise with the Kabul regime and they do not work out their modus operandi.”
There is not only a question of foreign investment, but also of who exactly would be tasked with construction.
It is presumed that foreign workers with experience building pipelines along with the necessary machinery would be brought to construction sites.
But which companies would send their employees and equipment to areas where fighting rages or areas under Taliban control, knowing these workers could be caught up in the fighting or used as human shields?
Turkmenistan’s need for TAPI has never been greater. The country is mired in economic problems that stem mainly from its inability to find markets for natural gas, its main export.
Currently, the only significant exports of Turkmen gas go to China and last year Beijing significantly reduced the amount of Turkmen gas it imports via the three pipelines that connect the two countries.
The TAPI project proposes to carry 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas more than 1,800 kilometers through western Afghanistan, then across the south through Kandahar to Pakistan, and on to Fazilka in India.
Afghanistan would receive 5 bcm of that gas, Pakistan and India would both receive 14 bcm with Afghanistan and Pakistan also collecting transit fees.
Turkmenistan is desperate for revenue and late last fall started making a new push to get the TAPI project moving again after Ashgabat finally agreed to cut the price it planned to charge Pakistan and India for that gas.
Both India and Pakistan had been demanding that Turkmenistan slash its price for natural gas, with Pakistan saying it would not start construction of its section of TAPI until that dispute was resolved.
While Turkmenistan did agree to reduce the price, talks on the exact reduction continue and, as recently as September 2020, Pakistan was saying “it would like to do the TAPI groundbreaking in Pakistan at the earliest after the finalization of the issues under discussion,” one of those issues being the price of the gas, which Pakistan insists must be significantly lower than the price of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
But even if all parties are convinced of the security guarantees, there are still several obstacles facing the construction of TAPI.
What Was Discussed In Ashgabat?
One of the intriguing elements of the Taliban delegation's visit to Ashgabat was that they were received in the capital.
Turkmenistan is an isolated country that grants very few foreigners entry and, since the coronavirus pandemic started last year, Turkmen authorities have done their best to seal the country, especially Ashgabat.
For nearly a year now, foreign flights have been directed through the eastern city of Turkmenabat.
The only visit to Ashgabat by a foreign delegation since then -- excluding German doctors who flew to Turkmenistan twice to check on the president -- has been a mission from the World Health Organization in July 2020 that Turkmen authorities hoped would validate their bizarre claim that the country is completely free of the coronavirus.
So whatever Turkmen officials wanted to discuss with the Taliban, it was important enough to bring them to Ashgabat.
TAPI is certainly important to Turkmenistan, but as noted, the obstacles in building the pipeline through Afghanistan remain formidable and the current situation makes construction impossible.
Electricity Instead Of Gas?
Since April 2018, Turkmenistan has offered at least three times to host Afghan peace talks, though there is no mention of such an offer being made in reports from the February 6 meeting, which is interesting when remembering that Afghan peace talks were at the top of the agenda when the Taliban recently visited Pakistan and Iran.
The Turkmen Foreign Ministry’s statement mentioned nothing about the peace talks beyond a vague allusion to the “importance of establishing and maintaining peace and stability in Afghanistan.”
But perhaps one of the main topics of discussion between the Taliban delegation and the Turkmen government was not gas, but electricity.
Turkmenistan is looking to export electricity through Afghanistan to Pakistan after the construction of a proposed 500 kilovolt TAP, a power-transmission line.
On January 14, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani watched the inauguration via video link of the first part of TAP -- the Karki-Andkhoy-Pul-e Khomri power-transmission project.
Turkmenistan already exports electricity to areas in northern Afghanistan, some of which are under Taliban control.
The Taliban have been charging residents in these areas for the electricity, though the fees are low. It is, however, unknown how much -- if any -- of that money goes to paying cash-strapped Turkmenistan.
The Afghan government usually is responsible for paying these power bills to Turkmenistan, though it is unclear how much Kabul pays for the electricity exports used in the Taliban-controlled areas of northern Afghanistan.
But it is clear that the Taliban uses the Turkmen electricity to further their cause in northern Afghanistan.
In late July 2018, Turkmenistan launched its third power line to Afghanistan, a 110-kilovolt transmission line that runs to Qala-e Nau, the capital of Badghis Province.
In April 2019, the Taliban cut that power by blowing up pylons in Badghis and preventing crews from reaching the sites to make repairs.
Then-Badghis Governor Abdul Ghafur Malikzai said, "[The] Taliban want electricity for 21 villages [under Taliban control in Badghis’s Moqo district] and their demand has been accepted. But it is not possible in one day."
After the February 6 Turkmen-Taliban meeting, current Badghis Governor Hesamuddin Shams told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, known locally as Azadi, that he welcomes the Taliban promise not to destroy infrastructure and said they now “need to act and deliver on it.”
But Shams said insurgent behavior in his province has not changed and power lines bringing electricity from Turkmenistan continue to be targeted by extremists.
Shams also noted that the Taliban are not the only militant group operating in Badghis Province.
“The Bala Murghab [district] is a major center of the armed opposition,” Shams said. “In addition to the Afghan fighters it is home to militants from Uzbekistan affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. There are Pakistanis too.”
Also interesting is the Turkmen authorities’ reluctance to divulge almost any information about the meeting.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, reports that state media said an “Afghan delegation” visited and was careful not to name any Turkmen officials who met with them, though there is at least one photo that clearly shows Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov sitting at the negotiation table.
The Afghan government did not comment specifically on the visit, but did tell Azadi that all groups in Afghanistan should protect the country's infrastructure to avoid any further suffering by the Afghan people, while also calling on the Taliban to agree to an immediate cease-fire.
So whatever the Taliban’s business was in Ashgabat, some or most of it seems to be something that is only between them and the Turkmen government.
Turkmenistan has UN-recognized status as a neutral country and that has been especially useful when dealing with Afghanistan. Turkmenistan tries not to take anyone’s side in the long-running conflict in that war-ravaged country.
But for that reason it is unlikely anyone involved in the Afghan conflict views Turkmenistan as a reliable ally when it comes to achieving stability.
Is Turkmenistan Being Pulled Into Russia's Orbit?
April will mark 10 years since a mysterious explosion at a gas pipeline leading from Turkmenistan to Russia.
It was arguably the low point in already uneasy relations between Ashgabat and Moscow. In the years that followed the blast, Turkmen-Russian ties were maintained at a bare minimum.
There has been a shift since 2016, possibly driven by the Kremlin's concerns about the security situation in northern Afghanistan and the ability of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to contain any such threat from spreading to countries from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
The Turkmen-Russian rapprochement is not necessarily the result of any mutual desire to improve relations it is being initiated almost entirely by a carrot-and-stick approach emanating from Moscow. Turkmenistan is simply in no position to resist at this point. Ashgabat's official policy of neutrality is no longer a shield.
The weak position Turkmenistan finds itself in today is arguably of the government's own making. On December 12, 1995, the UN General Assembly recognized Turkmenistan's status of permanent neutrality, something of an amorphous distinction. In Ashgabat's view, permanent neutrality legitimized policies that sealed off the country from the outside world.
Revenues from Turkmenistan's sales of natural gas (the country has the world's fourth-largest gas reserves) enabled the government to isolate the country and still provide for domestic needs. Turkmen foreign policy was dominated by trade, specifically its gas exports.
In 2007, with world gas prices on the rise, Russia had promised to pay "European prices" to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan for their gas.
In 2008, Turkmenistan sold gas to two countries: Russia, via Soviet-era pipelines and Iran, via a pipeline completed in 1997. That year, Turkmenistan sold some 40 billion cubic meters (bcm) to Russia -- and there were negotiations to boost that by another 5-8 bcm -- and 5-6 bcm to Iran. Iran paid by barter, but Russia paid in currency. Russia was paying about $140 per 1,000 cubic meters -- up more than fourfold from $32 per 1,000 cubic meters less than a decade earlier -- for Turkmen gas.
Additionally, construction was well under way on new gas pipelines leading from Turkmenistan to China and Turkmenistan to Iran, respectively.
Gas prices dropped during 2008. The Russian daily Vremya Novostei reported in April 2009 that Gazprom had lost more than $1 billion purchasing Central Asian gas in the first quarter. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan agreed to lower their prices Turkmenistan did not. And when the explosion hit the gas pipeline on April 9, 2009, Turkmenistan's government complained loudly that it was Russia's fault.
Pipeline Explosion Raises Turkmen-Russian Tensions
The result was a halt in Turkmen gas exports to Russia. When, in 2011, the two sides finally agreed on a resumption of supplies, and the pipeline was repaired, Russia said it would take no more than 11 bcm per year. By 2015, that had dropped to some 4 bcm and at the end of that year, Gazprom announced it would not purchase any gas from Turkmenistan. Russia has not bought any Turkmen gas since then.
Gas exports were really Turkmenistan's main link to Russia.
Ashgabat had attempted for years to keep Moscow at arm's length, and that extended to Russian-dominated organizations.
Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, was not an ardent supporter of the CIS. He was already skipping CIS summits in 1992, just one year after its establishment. In August 2005, Niyazov sent a former bodyguard who'd recently been appointed Turkmenistan's deputy prime minister in charge of CIS affairs, Aganiyaz Akyev, to an informal CIS summit in Kazan, Russia, to announce that Turkmenistan was officially reducing its status in the CIS to "associate member."
And part of the Turkmen government's interpretation of permanent neutrality is the avoidance of membership in any military blocs, such as the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that Central Asian neighbors Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are all members of and which Uzbekistan has twice been a member of in the past.
At the start of 2017, Turkmenistan suspended supplies of natural gas to Iran, claiming Tehran owed some $1.8 billion for supplies delivered nearly 10 years before. With Russia having canceled its gas deal with Turkmenistan one year earlier, this left Turkmenistan with one gas customer -- China, a country that had loaned Turkmenistan billions of dollars to develop gas fields that would supply China and build the pipelines to carry that gas to China. An unspecified portion of that gas goes toward paying off Turkmen loans from China.
At the start of 2016, China was reportedly paying $185 per 1,000 cubic meters, but the China National Petroleum Corp sent a delegation to Turkmenistan in February 2017 to negotiate a lower price. The results of those talks were never made public, but it seems unlikely Turkmenistan could reject the Chinese request for lower gas prices.
The result of lower gas prices and fewer customers has been an economic freefall in Turkmenistan. Never since the country became independent in late 1991 has the economic situation in Turkmenistan been as bad as it is right now. People wait in line for flour, bread, and other basic goods, all of which are rationed and often require personal-identification documents to purchase.
Turkmenistan has security problems, too.
In the late 1990s, when the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan, including areas bordering Central Asia, Turkmenistan was the sole CIS state to engage the Taliban diplomatically. Under President Niyazov, Turkmenistan, referring to its neutral status, managed to establish amiable ties with the Taliban, much to the displeasure of Turkmenistan's Central Asian neighbors and Russia, who all viewed the Taliban as a threat.
After 2001, when the U.S.-led coalition began operations in Afghanistan, the northwestern provinces remained relatively calm. Turkmenistan seemingly had little to worry about from its southern neighbor.
Current President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has not fared as well. By the start of 2014, the situation in northern Afghanistan changed. Three Turkmen border guards were reportedly killed along the Afghan border in late February 2014 and three Turkmen soldiers in May.
Since then, there have been reports of further clashes between Turkmen troops and militants from Afghanistan, but Turkmen authorities have denied, or more usually said nothing, about such incidents, insisting the border with Afghanistan is calm.
As recently as November 28, Naqibullah Faiq, the governor of Afghanistan's Faryab Province, one of the four Afghan provinces bordering Turkmenistan, said 80 percent of his province was under Taliban control. And even if the Taliban might not threaten Turkmenistan, there are hundreds, certainly, of foreign militants in northern Afghanistan, stateless people who pay no heed to state borders.
The Turkmen government has ordered snap military drills and increased defense spending since 2014 without explaining the sudden need for either.
Other interested parties see the situation along the Turkmen-Afghan border differently. Russian officials have expressed concerns about developments there. On January 3, 2016, Aleksandr Sternik, the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Third CIS Department, said Moscow was prepared to help Turkmenistan strengthen its border with Afghanistan.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated the offer during a visit to Turkmenistan at the end of that month. Just a few months previously, in October 2015, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev expressed concern about the Turkmen-Afghan border at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry repeatedly claimed there was no problem along its border with Afghanistan, even with Afghan media showing footage of fighting in areas along the Turkmen border.
The Kremlin didn't seem to believe Turkmen authorities' tales of tranquility along the Afghan frontier, which Russian officials with increasing frequency referred to as the "CIS border" with Afghanistan.
On June 9, 2016, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made an unannounced visit to Turkmenistan. Turkmen media was general in its reporting of Shoigu's visit, but Russian media was more to the point: Shoigu was in Ashgabat to "offer" Russia's help in strengthening Turkmenistan's military capabilities, including weapons sales and training.
On November 14, 2018, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported on a CIS border-guard meeting in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan, where officials discussed a "significant deterioration in the situation on the border of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan."
Two days later, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the RIA Novosti report "did not correspond to reality" and calling the report "unfriendly."
On November 22, the acting general secretary of the CSTO, Valery Semerikov, said in a statement posted on the CSTO website that there was a "real danger" from IS groups forming in Afghanistan along the borders with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
And on December 25, the acting head of Russia's Central Military District, Yevgeny Ustinov, said Russia's military had renewed joint training with military forces from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Ustinov did not elaborate on this new cooperation with Turkmenistan's armed forces, but it seems evident Russia has forced its military assistance on Turkmenistan whether Ashgabat wants it or not.
Another example of Russian pressure on Turkmenistan happened on December 7. Lavrov raised the issue of people in Turkmenistan who had dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship, saying Russia was waiting for information about them. In 2003, Turkmenistan unilaterally withdrew from a 1993 dual-citizenship agreement it had made with Russia. It took this action following a purported assassination attempt on President Niyazov in November 2002. Several of the suspects subsequently arrested had dual citizenship and had reportedly been traveling between Russia and Turkmenistan prior to the purported attack. Those who had dual citizenship prior to 2003 maintained that status.
"We expect concrete information about this soon," Lavrov said on December 7, adding a mention of Boris Shikhmuradov, Turkmenistan's former foreign minister who was imprisoned after being found guilty of planning the alleged 2002 assassination attempt. International rights groups have been calling on Turkmenistan for years to release information about Shikhmuradov and show him publicly to prove he is still alive. Lavrov's mention of Shikhmuradov therefore raised a sensitive issue for Turkmen authorities.
There has been no public Russian follow-up of Lavrov's December remarks, leading one to wonder if this was a Kremlin reminder of another lever it had at its disposal.
Russia seems to have drawn Turkmenistan closer to the CIS, too. Berdymukhammedov has been no more enthusiastic publicly about the CIS than his predecessor, Niyazov but as an agreement on the legal status of the Caspian Sea drew closer, something vitally connected to Turkmenistan's gas export future, Berdymukhammedov started showing up at CIS summits. Berdymukhammedov made a memorable appearance at a summit in Sochi in October 2017, when Vladimir Putin received a puppy that the Turkmen leader was literally dangling in front of the Russian president as a gift.
Putin Hosts CIS And Eurasian Economic Union Summits In Sochi
At a September 2018 CIS summit in Dushanbe that Berdymukhammedov did not attend (the Caspian Convention was signed in August 2018), Turkmenistan was given the rotating CIS chairmanship for 2019. Turkmenistan is now preparing to host the 2019 meetings of CIS prime ministers, CIS foreign ministers, and the CIS summit in October.
Russia is also using its economic leverage. Gazprom head Aleksei Miller visited Turkmenistan on October 9 and November 28 to discuss a possible resumption of purchases of Turkmen gas.
Turkmen gas exports have always been the ultimate tie that binds the two countries, but the situation now is very different than it was more than 10 years ago when Russia was buying 30-40 bcm of gas from Ashgabat.
Russia has developed several large fields since then and added thousands of kilometers of gas pipelines. Russia and Gazprom did need Turkmen gas in the first decade of this century, but that is arguably no longer true.
So why buy any? To prop up Turkmenistan's cash-strapped government? To dissuade Turkmenistan from moving forward with the Trans-Caspian Pipeline project to ship gas to Europe where Russia already sells its gas and wants to sell more?
Whether the answer is either, both, or something else, Turkmenistan desperately needs to sell more of its gas -- and the sooner, the better.
What Gazprom has to offer Turkmenistan is immediate exports. The pipeline is there only an agreement is lacking.
Turkmen officials were optimistic a deal would be reached by the end of 2018 but halfway into January there is still no word, so sticking points could still remain.
If or when the two parties reach a deal, volumes are unlikely to exceed 4-5 bcm and the price is unlikely to be as much as Turkmenistan might wish.
But then, Turkmen authorities and President Berdymukhammedov probably wish many things were different about the reality they now face. Turkmenistan has few if any real friends, an abundance of problems, and has left itself open to the intervention of a big power. Ashgabat might not be able to say "no" to Russia at this point.
President for life
1999 - Parliament votes Saparmurat Niyazov president for life. Death penalty abolished.
2000 - President Niyazov announces that he will step down by 2010, after reaching the age of 70.
2000 - President Niyazov announces plans for a 2,000 sq km artificial lake, to be built in the Karakum desert. The lake would aim to guarantee water supplies, but scientists warn the plan could wreck the local environment.
2002 August - President Niyazov renames the months of the year after himself, his mother and a book he wrote, the Ruhnama.
2002 November - President Niyazov unhurt as his motorcade comes under fire in capital. Authorities blame "mercenaries" acting for exiled opposition leaders who in turn accuse Niyazov of staging incident as excuse to crack down.
Opposition activist and former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov is soon arrested, accused of being mastermind and sentenced to life imprisonment. More than 40 others convicted and jailed.
2003 April - Agreement signed with Russian Gazprom monopoly under which Russia will buy 60bn cubic metres of Turkmen gas annually.
President Niyazov decree cancels 1993 dual citizenship agreement with Russia, sparking diplomatic row with Moscow.
2004 August - President Niyazov orders the construction of a giant ice palace in the desert.
2004 November - Turkmen and Uzbek presidents sign friendship declaration, agreement on water resources.
2005 February - President Niyazov undergoes eye operation. Suggests closing hospitals other than those in capital.
2005 May - Deputy Prime Minister Elly Kurbanmuradov, a senior figure in charge of the energy sector, is sacked. He is subsequently jailed for 25 years on charges which include corruption.
2005 July - Rejep Saparov sacked as head of presidential administration and sentenced to 20 years in jail for corruption.
Turkmenistan: Hot under the collar
#Nofilter (Tatarstan presidential administration)
Turkmenistan’s president has granted his second-ever interview to a foreign media outlet – and it was as dull and unrevealing as one could expect, but for one odd detail.
The recipient of this dubious honor was Mir 24, an insipid Euronews clone based out of Moscow whose chairman himself put the questions to Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. The questions were read off a script and designed to allow the Turkmen leader to drone on about his government’s triumphs.
Berdymukhamedov has only once before exposed himself to an interview. That was in April 2018, when a correspondent for Russian state television did a 20-minute walk-and-talk with him as a crowd surrounding them incessantly chanted “Arkadag shukhrat!” (Glory to the protector). Arkadag is the state-promoted honorific moniker for Berdymukhamedov. On that occasion, the first question – about how it was that the president happened to be such an accomplished horseman – set the tone for the entire exchange.
That Mir 24 landed the interview, which was aired on May 31, is fruit of the channel’s careful cultivation of Turkmenistan. The station began broadcasting inside the country in December 2020, following a cooperation deal signed with the Turkmen state broadcaster a month earlier. It has since then produced a regular torrent of milquetoast content from the country.
Staying onside, however, means making accommodations. And Mir 24 appears to have agreed to a very strange one for its Berdymukhamedov exclusive, as Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan spotted . For the entire duration of the interview, a faint blur could be detected around the Turkmen leader’s chin and neck, possibly suggesting that the editors (unclear whose) were trying to disguise awkward evidence of aging.
The interview, inasmuch as it had any specific purpose, was intended to cast Berdymukhamedov in the mold of the history-making country-builder. This theme will be relentlessly reprised as and when the president looks to formally end his time in the saddle.
There was more evidence of this narrative on May 25, when Berdymukhamedov laid the foundation for a major new residential complex to be built over 7.5 square kilometers and known as Ashgabat-City. The complex is designed to accommodate up to 100,000 residents, according to state media. This project has been slow in coming online by Turkmen standards. The president was reviewing designs for it back in 2019 . It has not been stated when the project is slated for completion.
After the cornerstone-laying event, which is one of a whole raft of events to mark the 140th anniversary of the foundation of Ashgabat, Berdymukhamedov boarded a bus with his inner circle of ministers, who fiercely took notes even as the vehicle was in motion, and headed to Choganly, an Ashgabat residential complex ready for inauguration.
Around 10,000 freestanding homes used to stand in this district until Berdymukhamedov ordered their demolition in 2015. State news talked about only 140 new, two-story homes being built there.
Choganly was once a so-called dacha neighborhood – a settlement of weekend homes that evolved in time to become a full-time residential area particularly prized for the fact that the households had room where to grow their own food. The look of the new Choganly carries more than a shade of the anonymous suburbs depicted in the 2019 psychological horror movie Vivarium .
In the fields, away from these jubilant scenes, the mood is darker. Chronicles reported on May 31 that the wheat harvest in the Akhal province, within which the capital is located, is showing disappointing results. Plant stems stand barely more than 20 centimeters tall and fields are overgrown with weeds, the website cited its sources as saying. Similar complaints are being heard in other parts of the country.
A former agricultural worker contacted by the website has attributed the poor yield to soil degradation and lack of irrigation.
The knock-on effect is bread shortages, which Turkmenistan seems to experience every year. Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news reported on May 28 that deficits for the basic food staple have worsened in the Ashgabat, Balkan and Dashoguz provinces. Privately owned stores are, meanwhile, sticking up their prices for bread. Most Turkmens are reliant on the wares sold by state-subsidized state stores, however.
Even prices for drinking water are ticking upward, Turkmen.news notes. Tap water is not safe for consumption, so buying treated water is the only safe option. This reality must have felt particularly uncomfortable in late May, when Ashgabat saw what weather-focused Russian website Meteozhurnal described as the hottest temperatures recorded for that month in 130 years. On May 30, the thermometer rose to 45.6 degrees Celsius (114 degrees Fahrenheit) – a full 1.1 degrees more than the previous record set in May 1951.
Households in Turkmenabat, the country’s second-largest city, did not even have tap water on May 29, Turkmen.news reported . The utility company did not respond to calls from frustrated ratepayers. In some part of Turkmenabat, even the power was down.
State daily Neutral Turkmenistan advised its readers to ensure, while the weather is this intense, to refrain from eating sweet, fried and fatty foods, and to opt instead for vegetables, fruit, boiled fish, chicken and cold soups.
It might be a slight consolation that the Awaza tourist resort on the Caspian Sea has reopened for business as of June 1. There are rules, though. Holidaymakers must be equipped with documentary evidence that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Swimming in the Caspian had been off-limits since mid-May 2020.
Little is known about how the vaccination program is going. The Health and Medical Industry Ministry has said that there are 18 dedicated vaccination points distributed around the health centers in the capital and in the regions. That makes roughly one vaccination-distribution facility for every 300,000 citizens. There is no information about how many people have got a jab so far. A pair of Chinese vaccines and Russia’s Sputnik are the only options known to be available.
Caspian-bound vacationers also need to submit to a COVID-19 test within 72 hours before heading for the summer holidays.
This double layer of precautions is remarkable considering the country insists it has not since the pandemic began recorded a single case of the coronavirus. But this, of course, is a flagrant lie, as is much else that the government claims.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.
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Historians Protest imprisonment of a historical novelist by Turkmenistan
On 23 February 2004, Russian citizen Rakhim Esenov (?1926-), writer, historian and freelance correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in bad health, was detained by Security Service officers in the capital Ashgabat. He was believed to be at risk of torture.
Esenov was accused of "smuggling" into Turkmenistan 800 copies of his historical novel Ventsenosny Skitalets (The Crowned Wanderer written around 1994, banned from publication in Turkmenistan for about ten years, eventually published in Moscow in 2003). The novel was set in the sixteenth-century Mogul (Mughal) Empire (1526-1803 CE) and centered on Bayram Khan, a Turkmen poet, philosopher and army general who saved the empire from falling apart in 1556-60. In February 1997, President Saparmurad Niyazov publicly criticized Esenov's "historical errors" for the latter's (correct) portrayal of Bayram Khan as a Shia rather than a Sunni Muslim. Esenov refused to make the "corrections" the president demanded. He was charged with "inciting social, national and religious hatred". On 9 March 2004, he was released after submitting a written undertaking to remain in Turkmenistan. The charges against him were not dropped. If convicted, he faces up to four years' imprisonment.
[Sources: Amnesty International, Urgent Action 90/04 (2 March 2004) idem, Report 2005 (London 2005) 260 Human Rights Watch, World Report
2005 (Washington) (2005) 436 Index on Censorship, 2/04: 146 International PEN, Rapid Action Network 06/04 (5 & 17 March 2004) idem, Half-Yearly Caselist to 31 December 2004 (London 2005): 66 PEN Writers in Prison, Historian's Investigation for Banned History Book Continues (London 2 November 2005) S. Seidelin, & S. Hamilton, eds., IFLA/FAIFE World Report 2005: Libraries, National Security, Freedom of Information Laws and Social Responsibilities (Copenhagen 2005) 323.]
HISTORIAN'S INVESTIGATION FOR BANNED HISTORY BOOK CONTINUES
Turkmenistan - 2 November 2005
Source: English Section of International PEN Writers in Prison
Person(s) affected: Rakhim Esenov
The English Section of International PEN wishes to draw attention to the case of Rakhim Esenov, a novelist, historian and freelance correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Esenov remains under investigation in Turkmenistan on the charge of "inciting social, national and religious hatred using the mass media"
with his novel Ventsenosny Skitalets (The Crowned Wanderer). If convicted, he faces up to four years' imprisonment.
The Crowned Wanderer is set in the 16th century Moghul Empire and centres on Bayram Khan, a poet, philosopher and army general who is said to have saved Turkmenistan from fragmentation. It had been banned from publication in Turkmenistan for 10 years by President Saparmurad Niyazov. Niyazov had publicly denounced it as "historically inaccurate" in 1997 and demanded that corrections be made - a demand that Esenov refused to meet. This is believed to be related to Esenov's portrayal of Khan as a Shia rather than a Sunni Muslim. This offence carries a four-year prison sentence under Article 177 parts 1 and 2 of the Turkmen Criminal Code.
Rakhim Esenov was summoned to the Ministry of National Security (MNB) on 23 February 2004. He was reportedly accused of "smuggling" 800 copies of his novel into Turkmenistan. The book has been banned for 10 years from the publishing houses in Turkmenistan and Rakhim Esenov was only able to get it published in Moscow, in 2003. The books were delivered to his apartment in the capital, Ashgabat, in January, but customs officers removed them after a few days, alleging that they had been imported illegally.
Esenov, 78, already in poor health following a heart attack only two days prior to his arrest, suffered a stroke during interrogation and was taken to hospital. Two days later he was interrogated again and was then transferred to the hospital's intensive care unit, under the strict control of the MNB. On 26 February 2004 Esenov was formally arrested and moved to an MNB prison.
Esenov was also accused of failing to report details of a telephone conversation with former Turkmen Minister of Foreign Affairs Avdy Kuliev to the authorities. Kuliev, a key opposition figure and a staunch critic of the Niyazov regime, is currently living in exile in Moscow following a crackdown on the opposition in November 2002 which began after gunmen fired on Niyazov's car in the capital, Ashgabat.
Esenov was finally released on 9 March 2004 after submitting a written undertaking to remain in Turkmenistan. However, the charges against him were not dropped, and the results of an investigation are still pending. He remains unable to leave the capital Ashgabat, has been ordered to cease working for RFE/RL and remains under surveillance. He is in dire need of medical attention that is not available in Turkmenistan, and is unable to travel to Moscow to receive the treatment he needs.
**Emphasising Turkmenistan's international legal obligations to ensure freedom of expression
**Expressing concern that Esenov has been targeted for the peaceful exercise of this right - both in the context of The Crowned Wanderer and for his work with RFE/RL
**Calling for all charges against him to be dropped and for the banning order against his book to be withdrawn
**Requesting that he be allowed to return to his profession as a journalist, and for the harassment of RFE/RL journalists in particular to come to an end
**Calling for the return of his right to freedom of movement, thus enabling him to receive essential medical treatment abroad.
President Saparmurad Niyazov
**744000 g. Ashgabat
**Prezidentu Turkmenistana Niyazovu S.A.
**Fax: +993 12 35 51 12
**[Salutation: Dear President]
To ensure that appeals are current and credible, please do not continue to write appeals on this case after 60 days from the date of the posting unless an update has been issued.
President: Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov
Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has ruled Turkmenistan since 2007 when he succeeded life-long president Saparmyrat Niyazov.
Following in his predecessor's footsteps, Mr Berdymukhamedov is an autocratic ruler who has built a personality cult. Officially titled the "Arkadag" (The Patron), he is also prime minister and commander-in-chief of the country's armed forces.
Constitutional changes passed in 2016 extended presidential term limits from five to seven years and scrapped the 70-year age limit which was the only legal barrier to Mr Berdymukhamedov remaining in power indefinitely.
In February 2017, Mr Berdymukhamedov was sworn in as president for a third consecutive term.
Q&A: The First-Ever Expedition to Turkmenistan's "Door to Hell"
Explorer George Kourounis describes his descent into a fiery, gas-fueled crater.
More than four decades ago, a gaping, fiery crater opened up in the desert of northern Turkmenistan (map), likely the result of a drilling mishap.
The Darvaza Crater, more commonly known as the Door to Hell, still burns today, a surreal feature in an otherwise barren landscape.
Details on the origin of the sinkhole are sketchy, but the story goes that Soviet scientists set it on fire to burn off noxious gases after the ground under a drilling rig gave way. Perhaps the scientists underestimated the amount of fuel that lay below—Turkmenistan has the sixth largest natural gas reserves in the world.
In November 2013, explorer and storm chaser George Kourounis, on an expedition funded partly by National Geographic and also supported by the travel company Kensington Tours, set out to be the first person to plumb the depths of the crater, which is 225 feet (69 meters) wide and 99 feet (30 meters) deep. (Related: "Diver 'Vanishes' in Portal to Maya Underworld.")
At the bottom he collected soil samples, hoping to learn whether life can survive in such harsh conditions—and perhaps shedding light on whether life could survive similar conditions elsewhere in the universe.
His harrowing plunge is featured on the National Geographic Channel series Die Trying, which airs tonight, July 16, at 10 p.m. EDT. Kourounis, who's based in Toronto, talked with National Geographic about his experience in Turkmenistan.
Tell me how this project got started.
The place has always fascinated me. The story behind how it came into existence has been sort of shrouded in mystery, and there's no other place like it on Earth. It is very unique, in that there's no other place where there is this pit of burning methane that's being ejected from the ground at high pressure. It's fascinating, it's visually stunning, and there's a lot that we can learn about this place.
What did you do to prepare for the expedition? How did you protect yourself?
There was about a year and a half of preparation and planning. Getting permission, getting all the logistics in order, getting the team assembled, getting the [National Geographic] Expeditions Council on board. In order to prepare, there was a lot of practice at first. We set up [a] rope-rigging system over a local river gorge and practiced out there several times, including with the full apparatus I was wearing: a heat-reflective suit, self-contained breathing apparatus, the climbing harness that I'm wearing. We had to get it custom-made out of Kevlar, because a regular climbing harness would just melt under the extreme heat.
I even went as far as to hire a stunt coordinator who does movie stunts for Hollywood films to light me on fire several times, in order to sort of prepare myself for not panicking being up close around flame.
When you first set eyes on the crater, it's like something out of a science fiction film. You've got this vast, sprawling desert with almost nothing there, and then there's this gaping, burning pit . The heat coming off of it is scorching. The shimmer from the distortion of it warping the air around it is just amazing to watch, and when you're downwind, you get this blast of heat that is so intense that you can't even look straight into the wind. You have to shield your face with your hand just standing at the crater's edge. Here I am thinking, Oh-kaaaay, maybe I've bitten off a bit more than I can chew.
Is the place open to visitors in general? Did you have bystanders checking it out?
We had a couple of little tourist outfits come by. Every now and then you get a random person driving past on a motorcycle, or a truck will go past, or some camels. But it is literally wide open. Once you're in the country, very few people go there . But once you're there—if you can find the place—you can drive up, get out of your car, walk over to the edge, and jump right in, if you want. The choice is yours. And I'm so far the only person who has actually done that.
Taliban Expresses Support For TAPI Pipeline During Turkmenistan Visit
A delegation of the Afghan Taliban has visited Turkmenistan for talks with the Turkmen Foreign Ministry focusing in part on security issues surrounding the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural-gas pipeline project.
Ashgabat announced the visit on February 6, saying the Taliban delegation was headed by Mullah Abdul Gani Baradar.
Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov participated in the talks, according to the head of the Taliban representative office in Qatar, Naim Bardak.
According to a statement by the Turkmen government, the talks focused on establishing peace and stability in Afghanistan. The statement said the Taliban representatives expressed complete support for Turkmen infrastructure projects.
"Without a doubt, the immediate construction of such projects as TAPI. and railroads between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan will help achieve peace and economic development in Afghanistan," Taliban spokesman Mohammad Soheil Shahin told journalists in Ashgabat after the talks.
State media in Turkmenistan, however, did not report on the meeting.
The Afghan government has not commented on the Ashgabat talks.
The 1,814-kilometer TAPI pipeline is projected to run from the Galkynysh gas field in Turkmenistan to the Indian city of Fazilka, passing through Herat and Kandahar in Afghanistan and Quetta and Multan in Pakistan.
Its cost is estimated at some $10 billion.
RFE/RL's Turkmen Service
RFE/RL's Turkmen Service is the only international Turkmen-language media reporting independently on political, economic, cultural, and security issues from inside one of the the world&rsquos most reclusive countries.