Turkmenistan: Canal fixation
Elections that don’t matter, Russia sows paranoia, and trouble upstream for Turkmen farmers: Our weekly Turkmenistan briefing.
It may be telling that Turkmenistan’s elections commission stopped updating its website on the day that the country went to the polls.
All that is important is that the parliamentary elections took place on March 26 – the results are of negligible interest. That is as it should be, since the Mejlis, as the 125-seat single-chamber legislature is known, plays absolutely no role at all in setting policy and running the country.
The country’s three political parties – the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, which is ostensibly the ruling party and will reconfirm its majority in the Mejlis, the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and the Agrarian Party – along with a record number of 83 independent candidates nominated by ersatz initiative groups were in the running. Even local news outlets barely bothered to remind readers of that fact, however.
One voter who spoke to an Associated Press reporter in Ashgabat conveyed the mood well.
“Aside from the biographies of the candidates in the Turkmen language, I didn’t see any other information about their platforms. I don’t even know who I voted for,” the man, who was named only as Begenc, told the AP.
It was left to hapless election officials to gin up some enthusiasm with their bragging about the huge turnout. At the closing of polling stations, at least 91.1 percent of eligible electors had cast their ballot, the officials stated.
Lest anybody suspect these figures were concocted from thin air, election monitors from the Russia-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States were on hand to provide their endorsement. Vyacheslav Timchenko, the head of a Russian parliament upper house committee on elections, said the vote in Turkmenistan would be studied as an example.
“Russia will also have a big election next year, we will elect the president, and the level of participation in the election in Turkmenistan is a kind of rehearsal, a lesson on how to organize democratic elections in a free and democratic country," Timchenko said.
Moscow’s policy in Central Asia is often predicated on attempts to sow paranoia about external threats, be it terrorism or, even worse, the prospect of an allegedly Western-engineered color revolution. And so, one observer duly trotted out something along those lines.
“We do not rule out a potential attempt to exert external pressure and undermine the legitimacy of the declared result of the will of the Turkmen people,” wheezed CIS mission member and Russian lawmaker Igor Borisov. “We also do not rule out that there will be attempts to stir up the situation and to sow chaos in the development of this stable Central Asian country.”
Borisov may have meant the U.S. State Department, which unhelpfully chose this moment to publish its annual country report on human rights practices in Turkmenistan.
“The law characterizes any opposition to the government as treason. Persons convicted of treason may face punishment of up to 25 years in prison,” the report points out, adding later that “the precise number of political prisoners remained unknown. Observers estimated a number between 100 and 200, including the NGO Prove They Are Alive!’s list of 162 political prisoners.”
The seriousness with which one should take official Turkmen data was well illustrated by news on a quite different matter.
Farmers on March 24 began the annual cotton seed sowing season. The event was marked with the usual fanfare and ceremony: A row of bearded community elders paraded through the field casting seeds onto the soil, after which tractors proceeded in wedge formation for the benefit of the state television drones filming from above. There was much traditional capering on the side-lines, such as dancing, wrestling, bread-baking, sheep-wrangling, jumping games, and vegetable-displaying, also for the pictures. A reporter for Uzbek media outlet Daryo got an Agriculture Ministry official to say that the plan is to harvest 1.25 million tons from across 580,000 hectares of land. That figure may be familiar to Turkmenistan watchers since it is the exact same size as the cotton quota for 2021 and 2022 – and in official chronicles, farmers always meet their targets.
This is not to say there is no change. The amount of land allocated to cotton was reduced by 40,000 hectares in 2022 to make way for potato and melon crops, but output nevertheless remained the same. One is invited to conclude this fact is the result of enhanced productivity.
An ongoing development looming on the horizon is threatening to put paid to all this, though. Regional anxiety is evidently mounting over a project in Afghanistan to build a giant canal that will be filled with water diverted from the Amu Darya River, which is mainly what Turkmenistan happens to use for all its cotton. Uzbekistan, another heavily agriculture-dependent downstream nation, dispatched a delegation to Kabul this month for talks with Taliban officials. The outcome of that conversation is not entirely clear, but it does not look like the Afghans are ready to slow down work on a canal that will, according to its backers, be used to irrigate 550,000 hectares of land. That is to say, almost exactly the same as all the land the Turkmens use for cotton.
Before the Taliban came to power in 2021, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan regularly held meetings under the auspices of a bilateral Coordinating Commission on Water Management Issues. A fourth meeting in that format was held in November 2020, but that appears to have been the last of its kind.
This is not happening in a vacuum. Turkmenistan is at the same time pushing for development of the trans-Afghan TAPI gas pipeline, whose threadbare prospects are deemed important by the Taliban regime. This detail may add another level of understanding to the visit that President Serdar Berdymukhamedov paid to Qatar earlier this month, since Doha has acted for so many years as host and de facto patron to the political wing of the Taliban, when the movement was still only an armed militant organization. Turkmenistan does not only want money from Qatar; it also needs its diplomatic steering abilities.
A new urban conglomeration in the desert willed into existence by the former president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, AKA Arkadag, the patron and protector (and father of the incumbent), was on March 23 elevated to the status of “city of national importance.” What this bespoke status implies for the future of the city, which has been named Arkadag and is still under construction, is difficult to divine. No hyperbole, usually issued by Berdymukhamedov the elder himself, has been spared for Arkadag. Addressing a hall of minions on March 25, he waxed lyrical about how the city had risen in one of the most beautiful spots conceived by nature and that its development around ideas of modern, smart and youth-centered living would serve as “evidence of the achievements of the Fatherland.”
In news from another city named after a former Turkmen president, management at the international port of Turkmenbashi is reportedly in talks with accounting major KPMG to place the port under trust management. This prospect represents an unusual outbreak of seriousness among Turkmen officials since the arrangement would necessarily imply some minimal degree of transparency, probity and professionalism. Such characteristics are signally absent in other major industrial projects in Turkmenistan.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.
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