For more than six years, the Pentagon paid fees to the Turkmen government for the use of the Central Asian nation’s airports. However, officials in Washington either won’t or can’t say just how much was paid to Ashgabat from 2002-2008. All that they will say is that such payments made to Turkmenistan were inadvertent.
An Air Force Notice to Airmen (NOTAM), issued in 2009, showed that payments sent to Turkmenistan should be made to the State Civil Aviation Department via a Deutsche Bank corresponding account. The same Deutsche Bank account came under scrutiny in 2006 in a lengthy analysis published by the German magazine Der Spiegel, which said that former Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov used the account to “park” state revenue “in foreign banks undeclared on the government’s books.”
A report issued in 2009 by the international transparency watchdog organization Global Witness went further, alleging that Niyazov hid up to $3 billion in state assets in a Deutsche Bank account “under his personal control and off the national budget.” [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive]. Even though the bank did not violate any international financial laws, the Global Witness report assailed Deutsche Bank for tacitly helping to prop up Niyazov’s cult-of-personality.
Tom Mayne, a researcher at Global Witness, said any financial dealings with Niyazov-led Turkmenistan would have been considered high risk, in danger of being siphoned off for private purposes. “Any money paid to the Turkmen government during the Niyazov era was paid with a high degree of risk. Once the money is off budget, it’s very difficult to know what it is being spent on,” Mayne told EurasiaNet.org.
“The United States had to have some business with Turkmenistan if they [US officials] have this military arrangement,” Mayne continued. “Unfortunately for them, under Niyazov, some or all of that money would go to offshore places because of what we know about how Niyazov managed the [Deutsche Bank] account.”
Niyazov died suddenly in late 2006. He was replaced by Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who, since then, has steadily consolidated his hold over Turkmenistan’s authoritarian political system.
US military aircraft have been using Turkmen airspace and facilities since at a least 2002 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Ashgabat airport has served as a major refueling site where during the first four months of 2003, for example, about 12 million gallons of TS-1 jet fuel were pumped into US planes, according to the 2003 spring edition of Fuel Line, the Defense Energy Support Center’s in-house magazine.
In addition to using Ashgabat as a refueling point, the United States also secured permission to use the airport at Mary and at least one other unidentified airfield, EurasiaNet.org has learned. It is unclear, however, to what extent Mary has been utilized.
Ashgabat airport remains a key hub for C-5 and C-17 transport planes. A C-5’s fuel tank has a capacity of just over 51,000 gallons – if nothing but C-5’s were flying in and out of Ashgabat during January-April 2003, the amount of fuel used would have accounted for approximately 58 flights per month.
Aircraft using Ashgabat have also been implicated in the US government’s secret rendition program, according to a 2006 report by the European Parliament Temporary Committee on the alleged use of European countries by the CIA for the transport and detention of prisoners. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
The report detailed 98 landings in Ashgabat airport by a Boeing 737-300 between June 9-November 30, 2005, and also one flight between Merv (Mary) and Frankfurt by the same plane on October 16, 2005.
Payments made to Turkmenistan for the use of air facilities apparently went against US government policy. In a joint response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by EurasiaNet.org, the Defense Energy Support Center (DESC) and the US Air Force said US government’s policy of not paying terminal and navigation fees was finally implemented in February 2009.
Letters between the DESC and contractors hired to manage services and payments indicate that Turkmenistan ignored attempts to enforce the policy in May 2008, and its implementation was subject to a series of delays at “all Turkmenistan locations.”
“After broader negotiations with the Government of Turkmenistan regarding access to their airspace and airports, the [US Government (USG)] policy was fully implemented for Turkmenistan in February 2009,” the DESC and the Air Force’s FOIA response said.
“Based on current USG policy, we are not currently paying air navigation, over-flight or terminal navigation fees to Turkmenistan,” the response continued. “However, it appears that the fees which were paid inadvertently were made through the Air Card system from DESC through Multi Service Corporation, the Air Card vendor to AvCard the DESC-contracted service agent in Turkmenistan. Our records indicate that no payments were made for air navigation charges after September 2008.”
“The Foreign Clearance Program does not have any independent information regarding the amount paid in fees to Turkmenistan. From June 1, 2006 through September 30, 2008, DESC paid $381,339 in what appear to be navigation fees for landings in Turkmenistan. Payment of any navigation fees stopped on September 30, 2008. All navigation fees were paid to AvCard during this time. We do not have the requested information prior to June 1, 2006,” the response added.
A 2005 report by the RAND Corporation suggested that payments to Turkmenistan were “problematic” from the outset. “Turkmenistan has only accepted payments directly associated with the refueling (though it has sometimes asked for payments that were not agreed upon, as well),” the report stated in reference to interviews conducted with US officials in Turkmenistan in the spring and summer of 2003.
“Negotiations with civil aviation authorities were problematical from the start, and, as noted above, Turkmenistan’s billing of the United States has not always reflected the arrangements agreed to,” the report added.
These arrangements between the US military and Turkmen authorities were not determined by a “Status of Forces Agreement” between the states as is the norm, but rather by a series of diplomatic notes, the report added.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.