With little advance warning, the presidents of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan held a summit in Ashgabat on August 4.
No explicit explanation has been provided by any of the governments on why these three partners would be forming a united front in this format. The highlights of the joint declaration offered some clues, though.
First, there was the matter of water. All three countries border Afghanistan and stand to suffer immediate repercussions from ongoing work there on construction of the Qosh Tepa Canal. Though not yet complete, the canal is already being filled with water drawn from the Amu Darya River, whose tributaries rise in the Pamir Mountains on the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and later runs into Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The thinking in Kabul is that the 285-kilometer canal could one day be used to provide irrigation to 550,000 hectares of now-arid farmland.
Without explicitly mentioning Afghanistan, the joint declaration reflects strong shared anxieties about Qosh Tepa.
“Further improvement of multilateral interaction mechanisms [is needed] in order to ensure an effective response to new challenges, including those related to climate change and a potential increase in pressure on the water resources of the Amu Darya River,” the declaration read.
Researcher Kunduz Adylbekova has written a detailed examination of ongoing work on Qosh Tepa and the potential scale of its impact on Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that is worth reading in full. One point of particular concern raised in Adylbekova’s article, which was published on the CABAR.asia analytical portal, is that construction methods at the Qosh Tepa project appear rudimentary, which is significantly raising the likelihood of water losses.
The trilateral declaration is vague to the point of uselessness on what specific actions any of them intend to pursue to address this, though.
Another strand of the Ashgabat summit focused on the prospect of cooperation in the natural gas and electricity sectors. The plan is to hold three-way talks between the managers of those industries – presumably at a ministerial level – later this year to consider opportunities for collective action.
On the gas front, attention may turn to the long-delayed project to build a fourth strand of the Central Asia-China pipeline. When and if it is finished, Line D would carry 30 billion cubic meters of the Turkmen fuel to Chinese buyers. Chinese President Xi Jinping namechecked this route during his keynote speech at the China-Central Asia Summit in Xi’an in May, and urged that implementation be sped up in a way that sounded like Beijing’s patience is perhaps being tested by the wrangling over fees and project parameters.
If this China-centered project is indeed top of the agenda, though, it is a problem that the president of Kyrgyzstan, which would also lie along the route of Line D, was not present at the summit. Relations between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are currently in the gutter because of a border dispute that has repeatedly turned deadly.
A press release issued by the Turkmen Foreign Ministry opted to make its gas export focus somewhat tighter, stating only that Ashgabat’s “unconditional priority would be the supply of Turkmen natural gas to the nearest neighbors: Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.”
Not that Turkmenistan needs to be so modest in its ambitions.
In a post-summit briefing, Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov said that his country intends to increase annual gas production by 60 billion cubic meters “in the near future.” That would represent a startling increase on the almost 84 billion cubic meters produced in 2021, which was a record-setting year.
With trademark chutzpah, Turkmenistan seamlessly moves from understandably boasting of its gas riches to ludicrously insisting on trying to burnish its credentials as a conscientious contributor to the global environmental agenda. On August 7, the Foreign Ministry announced that it will seize on the opportunity of next month’s United Nations General Assembly, or UNGA, to propose holding an international forum under the title of "Sustainable Energy for All.” Ashgabat claims to attach special importance to the use of renewable energy sources, an assertion wholly unsupported by facts.
Indeed, recent figures produced by Inter RAO, a Moscow-based energy holding company, showed how Turkmenistan is a firm member of the club of the worst performing countries for CO2 emissions in the former Soviet space. The company found that Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan averagely produce around 551 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour. By way of comparison, G7 nations averagely emit around 338 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, Inter RAO stated.
This sort of shameless doublespeak is par for the course. In the same August 7 statement, the Foreign Ministry said it would also petition the UNGA to adopt a document recognizing Central Asia and Mongolia as a region free from the death penalty. While Turkmenistan may fairly boast it was the first state in Central Asia to formally abolish the death penalty, this is a purely legalistic distinction in a country where large numbers of political prisoners have been arbitrarily disappeared into black-hole facilities never to be seen again. Dozens are known to have died in prison.
In the latest apparent example of draconian cruelty exercised by the Turkmen courts, the Bulgaria-based Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights reported on August 3 that a government-critical YouTuber, Farhad Meymankuliev, better known by his assumed name Farhat Durdyev, who was detained in Turkey in May and then quickly spirited to his home country, may have been sentenced to 22 years in prison. In truth, though, certainty about any of this is scant. The rights group cited Meymankuliev’s relatives as saying they have no precise information about where, when and how he was tried, or even what charges were levied. Another source suggested the sentence was 18 years in prison.
Although Turkmenistan as a rule avoids alluding to the war in Ukraine, it cannot escape having to sometimes react to it. On August 3, national carrier Turkmenistan Airlines announced it was postponing flights on the Ashgabat-Moscow route until October 28. Flights to Russia will now instead do the Ashgabat-Kazan route.
The decision appears to have been precipitated by concerns over the safety of Moscow’s airspace amid a spate of drone attacks against the city that are presumed to have been carried out by Ukraine. Turkmenistan Airlines initially made an oblique reference to this fact, but that detail was later scrubbed from its website, Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan noted.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.