An unexpectedly large and sudden dump of thousands of WikiLeaks documents alleged to be cables from world capitals contains at least 150 previously unpublished dispatches from US diplomats in Ashgabat.
The cables range from dates in 2006, during the era of past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, and from 2007 through 2010, the period of the rule of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. The reports illustrate intense US interest in improving relations and trade with this secretive Central Asian nation, where no US ambassador was appointed for nearly five years. Strategically located next to Iran and Afghanistan, Turkmenistan has served for the US as both a listening post on to Iran, and a staging area to supply US troops in Afghanistan.
The dispatches reveal how US diplomats struggled to get better press coverage in the state-controlled Turkmen media of their numerous political and business overtures to Ashgabat. They complained about negative and "distorted" Russian press coverage, even once criticizing the Russian media for portraying the US as determined to revive the Trans Caspian gas pipeline to bypass Russia -- in fact an explicit goal of the US today.
American officials and business leaders are shown as trying to gain access to Turkmenistan's considerable oil and gas resources, but not making as much progress as Asian and even European energy companies. Chief among American priorities has been enlisting Turkmenistan to help supply NATO troops. A cable from 2007 describes how the American chargé visited the Turkmenbashy Refinery, whose equipment was modernized with the help of a US company, to discuss supply contracts for jet fuel for the US military. But the general director said he preferred to sell his products at auction on the Ashgabat commodity exchange to fetch a better price.
The US has repeatedly praised Turkmenistan for supplying subsidized electricity to war-torn Afghanistan, but it turns out this has been more of a struggle than indicated, and apparently was a gift made in the hope that some day market prices could be obtained.
There is much more to be mined from this material on everything from frank American reports on the scale of bribes for services in Ashgabat and establishing businesses in Turkmenistan to the payments for refueling rights.
On August 29, a farewell ceremony was held at the International Turkmen-Turkish University in Ashgabat for a large group of Turkmen youth headed for study to countries of the near and far abroad, turkmenistan.ru reported. More than 2,000 Turkmen students were admitted to universities and specialized colleges in Russia, Belarus, Turkey, China, Malaysia, Romania and elsewhere. The impression was created that Turkmenistan has returned to permitting its young people to study abroad after a period of retraction. In 2009, thousands of students who had already matriculated at foreign universities were suddenly blocked from departure at the airport as they headed to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and other countries to study, some on American-sponsored programs. No formal reasons were ever given, but there was speculation that Turkmen officials had become nervous both about "color revolutions" as had occurred in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia in the past, and about Islamic extremism that has also cropped up in some places in Central Asia.
Only after 18 months of both press coverage of the inexplicable Turkmen government move, as well as quiet US diplomatic intervention were some of the students allowed to travel, but only to Bulgaria and St. Petersburg to equivalent programs.
Interestingly, although last month Turkmen authorities closed down a number of Turkish-funded schools throughout Turkmenistan, apparently out of fear of the spread of religious extremism, the Turkmen-Turkish University has been allowed to thrive and served even as the venue for the send-off celebration.
Yet a report from Chronicles of Turkmenistan indicates that official fears of the spread of Islamic extremism remain, as this year, thousands of students expecting to study in Tajikistan were also stopped at the Turkmen-Uzbek border crossing in Farap en route to Dushanbe. A Tajik university rector said that 1,600 Turkmen students had been expected at his institution alone. Many who had already completed some years of study, had returned home for summer vacations and had expected to come back to finish their degrees and were now stalled. While the rector was anticipating a diplomatic protest to Turkmenistan and possible alleviation of the crisis, parents feared a repeat of the Kyrgyzstan experience for their children as they waited in limbo.
Students who took part in the farewell ceremony had to start rehearsing for the event weeks in advance, and were ordered to appear at the Turkmen-Turkish University at 5:00 am for their performance, as President Berdymukhamedov was scheduled to appear. In the end, only the prime minister came. The arduous drills are increasingly typical of the university student’s experience, as they are pressed into service to dance and sing and line the streets for presidential visits, state holidays, and numerous pompous ribbon-cutting ceremonies. This sort of coercion not only breeds resentment, it cuts into class time, and is all part of a growing presidential cult of personality.
Turkmenistan has a new instrument for state propaganda – a laptop branded with Turkmenistan’s state symbol put into the hands of every child starting school, stuffed with educational programs prepared by state pedagogues to steer the student into the proper patriotic channels. The state media lauded a program to supply 100,000 laptops to first-graders, a gift from China’s Lenovo company, in schools throughout the country. No mention of connection of the notebooks to the Internet was made, although an electronic library is included. China is notorious for monitoring computer users and filtering the web. And now as Turkmenistan’s largest gas customer, it is also helping “modernize” its communication systems and providing its engineers to help with computers and control of the Internet.
Fear of influence from fundamentalist Islam and Iranian theocracy evidently isn't limited just to students studying abroad. In mid-August the Turkmen government reportedly issued a secret directive to hunt down and expose officials who traveled for medical treatment to Iran, or sent their relatives there. Turkmens became accustomed in the last decade to travelling to Iran for health care because it has been much better quality than what they can find at home, and it has been relatively easy to get a visa. Those who live in the southern border regions in particular got into the habit of crossing over to visit Iranian doctors.
President Berdymukhamedov, a dentist by training and a former minister of health, evidently decided that this custom reflected poorly on his reforms and has now ordered that any official who travels to Iran for medical treatment will be denied career advancement. Yet one city doctor said she would risk the blocking of any promotions because her health was more important to her. The Turkmen leader has spent millions of dollars on building gleaming new state-of-the-art clinics, but doesn't have doctors qualified to staff them and operate the new equipment.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Turkmenistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Sifting the Karakum blog. To subscribe to the weekly email with a digest of international and regional press, write firstname.lastname@example.org