Though you wouldn’t know it looking at how Russia treats activists who protest oil drilling in the fragile Arctic, Moscow has a soft spot for the environment – when it’s politically expedient.
Days after a European Union representative said Brussels is moving forward with plans to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan across the bottom of the Caspian Sea, a senior Russian official said Moscow is concerned about the effect on the Caspian’s “extremely sensitive ecosystem.”
Igor Bratchikov, the Russian president's special envoy for the delimitation and demarcation of borders with CIS states, also told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency on November 22 that the EU plans are an "interference in Caspian affairs.”
Bratchikov said that while constructing a trans-Caspian pipeline "it would be thoughtless and ruinous not to take environmental factors into account."
"The consequences of any incident would be catastrophic for the extremely sensitive ecosystem of the Caspian Sea," Bratchikov said. "Moreover, it is not Europeans or Americans, but the littoral states that would have to solve [problems] in case of a disaster."
The EU official, Denis Daniilidis, said the draft agreement, which he expects Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to sign later this year, ensures that any pipeline adheres to the "highest environmental standards."
A long-stalled project to deliver Turkmen gas to Europe is again in the spotlight after a European Union official said the idea remains on the table.
Denis Daniilidis, the head of the EU mission in Ashgabat, told an oil and gas conference in the Turkmen capital on November 19 that negotiators are finalizing a deal to construct a pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea, bypassing Russia, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency reported.
According to the diplomat, negotiators are working on "some outstanding issues,” RIA said. The EU, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan will sign an agreement on related environmental issues this year, he added.
The trans-Caspian pipeline project is part of the EU-sponsored Southern Corridor that would deliver natural gas from Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East to Europe while easing Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. Russia and Iran oppose the construction of any pipeline across the Caspian Sea, citing the unresolved status of the sea and maritime borders. But both have done little in 22 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union to remedy the issue, and both have been accused of creating obstacles to alternative energy corridors.
Turkmenistan has chosen a privately made US rocket to launch its first satellite, an American official has said.
US ambassador to Turkmenistan Robert Patterson told a Turkmen-US business forum on November 12 that the telecoms satellite would travel aboard a Falcon 9 rocket made by California-based SpaceX in late 2014, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency reported.
French firm Thales Alenia Space is designing the satellite and training specialists from Turkmenistan’s National Space Agency, which was set up up in 2011, RIA Novosti said.
The satellite is expected to provide broadcasting, Internet and telephone communication and video conferencing services. Internet and mobile communications are tightly controlled in the gas-rich authoritarian country.
If the project is successful, Turkmenistan will be the second nation in Central Asia to build and launch its own satellite. Neighboring Kazakhstan launched a Russian-made KazSat satellite in 2006 but lost communications with it in 2008. In 2011, it launched the KazSat-2 satellite, designed by Russia and equipped by France.
As RIA Novosti points out, though this is Turkmenistan’s first satellite, in 2005 it launched a copy of the former president’s soporific spiritual guide, the Rukhnama, into space aboard a Russian rocket.
Presidents Alexander Lukashenko and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat. (photo: press service of the president of Belarus)
Belarus will help build a factory for drone aircraft in Turkmenistan, the two countries announced during a visit by President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko to the Central Asian country:
The unmanned aerial vehicles are needed for Turkmenistan “to monitor its territory, its borders and drug-trafficking,” Lukashenko said after a meeting with his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
From Belarus's perspective, this would appear to be part of a recent effort to take advantage of its substantial defense insustry to set up joint ventures in other countries, including Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.
This is not Turkmenistan's first acquisition of drones: in 2009, it bought a number of small tactical UAVs from Russian company Zala Aero to be "operated by special units of Ministry of Internal Affairs of Turkmenistan to provide support in surveillance missions and on counterterrorist operations." But this new venture would appear to be the first time that Turkmenistan itself is building drones -- and indeed, almost any defense equipment at all. Turkmenistan has no defense industry to speak of, and the fact that it is trying to start out with something so flashy as drones is suggestive of a tendency that some have noticed in Turkmenistan's military buildup, that it is motivated as much by a drive for prestige as by genuine operational needs.
Turkmenistan’s chief health fanatic led by example on this year’s state-wide Day of Health, state television footage shows, dispelling opposition reports the omnipotent president is suffering health problems.
State-run television showed Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov riding a horse, cycling, playing volleyball and pumping iron on the November 2 holiday, Russia’s Mir TV reported.
Not content building only his own personality cult, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is ensuring his father becomes a subject of adoration in Turkmenistan as well.
The state-run TDH news agency reported on October 21 that Berdymukhamedov has released a novel about his 81-year-old father’s boyhood entitled, "The Bird of Happiness."
The speaker of the Turkmen parliament, members of government, and MPs attended the launch, which was held in Dashoguz.
Berdymukhamedov, a trained dentist, has already published books on medicinal plants, carpet weaving, horses, history and ethnography.
The novel narrates 18 months of Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov's childhood during the lean years of World War Two. During the war, nine-year-old Myalikguly assumed responsibility for his family when his father Berdymukhamed Annayev was drafted.
For the president, the story of his father’s life was “a school of courage and maturity,” TDH said, in what appears to be the first review of the book.
"Events the Turkmen president's father lived through during those years of hardship and his enormous achievements and selflessness are examples of great heroism. Tales of early maturation, unselfish love for the motherland and people, hard work, high spirituality, national traditions and customs, moral and ethical values of the Turkmen people [...] became for the head of the Turkmen state, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a school of courage and maturity," TDH said.
An exiled opposition leader says cuts to basic utilities signal that Turkmenistan’s economy needs drastic reforms.
In a letter to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Vyacheslav Mamedov, chairman of the Netherlands-based Democratic Civic Union of Turkmenistan, says that water shortages in the Caspian port town of Turkmenbashi and other areas of western Turkmenistan have become "critical.”
“The situation is worsening,” Mamedov wrote in the message, which was published by the Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan website on October 9.
"No less acute is the situation with heating in towns and settlements in western Turkmenistan. In Turkmenbashi, 14 of 15 schools have no heating at all," Mamedov wrote. "Not only private houses but also 15 nurseries and hospitals have been cut off from centralized heating."
Mamedov blamed Berdymukhamedov and his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, for the problems, noting that the first president’s draconian control over political and economic life had led many professionals to flee. Niyazov compounded the problem when he closed vocational colleges, creating a pressing shortage of qualified specialists.
Though Berdymukhamedov has expanded education, the quality still leaves much to be desired. And the dictator has continued Niyazov’s policy of relying on foreign laborers.
Rights activists are calling on Turkmenistan’s government to disclose information about a group of approximately 30 prisoners who have not been heard from for over 10 years.
As part of an OSCE human rights meeting in Warsaw on October 2, activists from the Civic Solidarity Platform, a coalition, and Virginia-based Crude Accountability launched the campaign, “Prove They Are Alive: The Disappeared in the Turkmen Prisons,” Fergana News reported.
On November 25, 2002, a lorry blocked President Saparmurat Niyazov's cortege in Ashgabat and unidentified people opened fire. Niyazov survived the attack and promptly rounded up opposition leaders and alleged critics, including former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who was reportedly planning to run for president. Members of the group were accused of conspiracy, forced to confess during a show trial, and handed long prison sentences. The New York Times characterized the episode as “the most chilling public witch hunt since Stalin.”
The families of the jailed have been unable to obtain information about the fate of their loved ones for over a decade.
The editor-in-chief of the opposition-minded Gundogar website, Bayram Shikhmuradov, son of Boris Shikhmuradov, helped organize the initiative. He criticized Turkmen authorities and the OSCE Center in Ashgabat for failing to attend the hearings, Gundogar reported on October 3.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov in New York on September 29, the Times of Israel reported, in an apparent bid to strengthen relations with arch-foe Iran's northeastern neighbor.
The Jerusalem Post said the meeting comes just three months after Ashgabat finally accredited a new Israeli ambassador. Ashgabat had rejected two candidates for "allegedly being spies interested not in furthering bilateral relations, but in collecting intelligence information on Iran." The ambassador saga dragged on for years.
Turkmenistan is strategically important to Israel because "[f]rom a hotel in Turkmenistan’s capital of Ashgabat, according to a saying in Jerusalem, one can see into Iran," the Jerusalem Post asserted. "This explains the geostrategic importance of these ties for Israel. Other reasons are that Turkmenistan is a predominantly Muslim country and it is extremely rich in gas and natural resources."
Fearing Israel's influence on its neighbors, “Iran has been determined to limit Israeli involvement in the Caspian region," according to a report by the London-based Caspian Research Institute, which is cited by the Jerusalem Post. Israel also buys oil and sells weapons to another of Iran's post-Soviet neighbors, Azerbaijan.
China’s President Xi Jinping has started his first visit to Central Asia in Turkmenistan, where he has sealed a major new deal, securing Beijing’s status as the chief client of the country’s lucrative and expanding gas sector.
Xi and his host, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, agreed to roughly triple Turkmen gas exports to China by 2020. "Energy cooperation is a highlight in China-Turkmenistan relations, which fully testifies to the high level of political mutual trust between the two sides," Xi said in comments published by Chinese state media. In return, Turkmen state media quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying that China is a priority for Turkmenistan.
On September 4 the two leaders launched processing facilities at the world’s second-largest field, Galkynysh, in eastern Turkmenistan. "The combined capacity of the new facilities is designed to ensure reliable and long-term supplies of Turkmen natural gas to China," Turkmenistan’s TDH state news agency reported.
Turkmenistan is already China's largest foreign gas supplier: It delivered over half of Chinese imports, or 21.4 bcm in 2012, and has been ramping up gas deliveries since China completed a 1,833-kilometer pipeline connecting the two countries in 2009. Before Galkynysh came online, Ashgabat was already contracted to increase exports to 40 bcm by 2020, according to Reuters. A new deal signed during Xi’s visit will see Turkmenistan deliver 65 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually by 2020.