In preparation for China’s President Xi visit to Turkmenistan this autumn, advance teams from China have been arriving to Ashgabat. Last week, a delegation led by China’s head of the State Office for Energy, Wu Sinsun, and Vice Foreign Minister, Cheng Guoping, came to discuss trade, economic, and energy cooperation. Turkmenistan’s increasing importance to China is due to its role as China’s largest foreign supplier of natural gas, with over 21.3 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas imports in 2012 (51.4 percent of imports), according to data published by the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. These figures will only increase with the opening of the Galkynysh gas field this fall, which will feed the 1,833-kilometer Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China pipeline.
Japan has frequently dispatched delegations to Ashgabat in preparation for an anticipated visit by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to Tokyo this fall. The Head of the Department for Central Asia and the Caucasus of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Mr. Jun Nanazava, arrived last week to Ashgabat to coordinate the trip with Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In January, Berdymukhamedov instructed the Turkmen government to focus on cooperation with Japan and partnerships with Japanese companies. Subsequently, in May, he signed a decree to open an Embassy in Tokyo. Turkmenistan contracts with a number of top Japanese companies (among them, JGC, ITOCHU, Kawasaki Plant Systems, Sojitz, Mitsubishi, Asahi, and Mitsui).
The Turkmen Government is issuing half a billion dollars worth of contracts to Turkmen private construction companies, a first, as such big contracts have traditionally been awarded to foreign, primarily Turkish firms, and smaller ones, usually in remote rural areas, awarded to private Turkmen companies. Murat Sadykov writes in eurasianet.org that since 2011, a group of Turkish businessmen have complained that Ashgabat owes them over $1 billion for work performed. When they sought arrears, they were reportedly told they would be paid after the next project. The Associated Press reported in July 2011 that 20 Turkish companies were threatening to join four that had already sought international arbitration. “It’ll be a lot harder for Turkmen companies to whine when they don’t get paid,” explains Sadykov.
Since the death of past-dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, we have seen the slow dismantling of his bizarre cult of personality, that is slowly being replaced one of Berdymukhamedov, his successor. The once omnipresent statues and portraits of Niyazov have been replaced with those with Berdymukhamedov’s likeness. Rukhnama, the “Book of the Soul” authored by Niyazov which was a mandatory part of the country’s educational curriculum, has now been struck from the country’s revised school curriculum. However, it remains as an exam topic for applicants to Turkmen universities.
Berdymukhamedov has cultivated a public image as a daredevil sportsman, most recently in horseracing and speed car racing. His latest foray has been in biking, recently winning a bike race against an entourage of government officials and ministers. With his newly found interest in biking, the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights reports that the entire capable population of Turkmenistan is now obliged to buy bikes to accompany him during races. The cost of a bike ranges from 150 to 500 USD, while the average salary in the country amounts to about 300 USD.
On August 6, a fire erupted at the central market in Dashoguz and over 50 people were admitted to local hospitals, some with burns over 75% of their bodies. Eight people died and several others are in critical condition. Turkmenistan’s official print media reported that the fire “was extinguished in the shortest possible time thanks to prompt measures which were undertaken. There are no victims.” Despite this cover-up by local media, some officials are paying the price: President Berdymukhamedov severely reprimanded the Minister of Trade and Foreign Economic Relations Bayar Abaev and the Mayor of Dashoguz, Esenmyrad Orazgeldiev for “poor performance of official duties, slackening control over the country’s markets and failure to observe the fire safety rules on the markets.” Berdymukhamedov also fired the Dashoguz regional prosecutor, Begench Allagulyev, and his deputy Handurdy Handurdyev.