Energy ministers from the four countries involved in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline decided to invite a "global energy giant" to bid on implementation of the project, the Hindu Times and other India media reported this week. Turkmenistan has been aggressively pursuing its neighbors in recent months to close the deal on the pipeline to run from the Dovletabad gas fields in the southeast of Turkmenistan through volatile territory in Taliban-held regions in Afghanistan and Balochistan in Pakistan to India. Analysts have speculated that Turkmenistan has been driven by a need to find new customers to pay for its gas, to make up for a sharp reduction in purchases by Russia's Gazprom.
Indian officials told India Times that the decision was made to place a bid for TAPI after Afghanistan and Pakistan promised to secure the pipeline through their territories. At a press conference in Kabul, the Afghan minister for mining and mineral industry said his government plans to build the pipe underground and also pay local communities to secure it, RIA Novosti reported. A meeting to finalize TAPI will be convened by Pakistan in December or January 2011.
Jitin Prasada, Indian minister for petroleum and natural gas said that while "significant progress" was made on TAPI there are still "many issues" to resolve such as transit fees and the formation of a consortium to address security issues, India Times reported. He also said that clarity would have to be achieved on the institutional mechanism to secure the pipeline and that pricing issues were still unresolved.
The European Union is set to ratify its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Turkmenistan this fall. Originally signed in May 1998, the agreement stalled over human rights concerns. The European Parliament approved an Interim Trade Agreement in 2009, ultimately with some language that might provide grounds for suspension for massive human rights violations, but the mechanism was weakened in debate when some MPs said a decade of using trade as a lever for change wasn’t working. By its own admission, the EU says trade with Central Asia is negligible, but for Central Asia itself, sales to the EU of mainly oil, gas, and cotton have made up almost a third of its external trade volume.
Debates on the role of human rights in the final trade agreement no doubt accounted for a lengthy four-day seminar on human rights last week in Turkmenistan, arranged by Europe House. The EU expects to implement a three-year program jointly with the United Nations which will include the possibility of a "human rights dialogue" as the EU has had with China and other countries. Turkmenistan has made very few human rights concessions, although notably last month, authorities relented and allowed some students who had been barred from study abroad to proceed with their travel.
To be sure, President Berdymukhamedov had made some institutional changes, such as retiring the worst aspects of his predecessors' cult of personality, restoring the school curriculum, and permitting the opening of Internet cafes, albeit with filtering software. Unlike other regional dictators who occasionally make a symbolic gesture by releasing long-term political prisoners, the Turkmen leader has generally been unwilling to resolve old cases such as that of imprisoned former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, still unaccounted for, and dozens of other people arrested in 2002 in relation to an alleged coup plot against past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov.
News Briefing Central Asia (NBCA) said that human rights activists in Turkmenistan were hoping the EU meeting might strengthen human rights protection. But the EU agreement is likely to be finalized with only a nod to these concerns, and the one-time strict benchmarks for change, which included elements like permission for the International Committee for the Red Cross to visit the prisons, are likely to be substituted with the "dialogue," which a Turkmen government official privately told NBCA was merely a formality to placate the international community. Some activists have proposed opening a local EU mission where citizens could bring complaints, but existing offices such as the UN mission have been inaccessible to citizens. When Amangelen Shapudakov went to the UN mission in Ashgabat in the hopes of filing a complaint to the UN’s Human Rights Committee, guards sent him away after telling him he was “unpatriotic” and threatening to call the police, NBCA reported.
The Turkmen government is now in the midst of another abusive campaign, forcibly relocating away from the Uzbek border Turkmen citizens who had already previously been evicted several years ago. President Islam Karimov is supposed to visit Turkmenistan soon with a delegation of 500 people. Ashgabat has had uneasy relations with Tashkent, strained over a number of issues including suspicions that Uzbekistan was involved in the alleged 2002 coup, but cooperation has been improved under President Berdymukhamedov. A festival of Turkmen-Uzbek friendship was supposed to take place September 17-19, but it was postponed suddenly at the last minute, ferghana.ru reported, possibly due to the need to bring in the cotton harvest.
So evidently in anticipation, soldiers have been ordered to displace anyone within 2000 meters of the border, creating an even wider buffer zone than the 500-meter area already enforced with evictions three years ago. Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights say residents were given only a few days notice to leave before their homes were bulldozed.
President Berdymukhamedov has once again been beating up on his government, trying to force officials to conform to his reform program. Once again Kakageldi Chariyardurdiev, the current holder of the high-risk job of presidential press secretary, was denounced for "shortcomings" in preparing official reports and "failing to highlight these materials in the mass media in time and with high quality." He was threatened with dismissal if he didn't shape up, but it's not clear what he did wrong. Turkmenistan made an ambitious attempt to launch a peace plan for Afghanistan and a pipeline security initiative at the UN General Assembly, but the efforts received no attention in the mainstream world media, and were only briefly reported by Russian and other regional wire services. The reason is likely that Afghan leaders themselves do not seem to be responding to the plan to bring their conflicts to neighboring Turkmenistan to resolve through the UN, although they are eager to begin work on the construction of TAPI and a regional railroad. But except for some general comments of appreciation from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, other world leaders don't seem to have picked up on Ashgabat's offer.
Turkmenistan has built many new gleaming marbled palaces with conference halls and modern equipment, and has trained young people in its new academy for international diplomacy, but somehow, its efforts have been less than convincing due to its control over student travel, filtering of the Internet, harassment and even arrest of journalists, and failure of state media to tell the story of reform convincingly -- perhaps because it is not free to do so.
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, write email@example.com