After months of silence on the matter, attention in Ashgabat has turned again to the current state of affairs with the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline.
Myratgeldy Meredov, a deputy chairman of the Cabinet, assured the president at a government meeting on May 29 that the project is now fully supplied with the necessary steel pipes. The delivery of these components has been a saga years in the making.
Anybody with the patience to monitor the slow-moving TAPI caravan will recall the periodic updates on new consignments of tubes. The most recent seems to have come from the Chelyabinsk Pipe Plant, which in December said it had sent Turkmenistan 150,000 tons worth of high-strength, corrosion-proofed pipes. Ashgabat has paid the Russian company almost $220 million.
Turkmen state news agency reports are written in such a way as to imply all 1,814 kilometers of pipe are now ready to go, but establishing the accuracy of such claims is all but impossible. Next comes the decidedly complex task of laying all this material down. Turkmengaz, the state gas company leading the project, has enlisted a Hong Kong-based company to supervise operations.
Meredov reprised the oft-made claim that the Turkmen section is all but complete, and that only valves need to be installed. But what of the other countries?
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on May 27 got on the phone with his Afghan opposite party, Ashraf Ghani. Although TAPI was the first issue raised following the exchange of pleasantries, it does not sound like the two leaders dwelled on anything more than trite generalities about how the pipeline would contribute to global energy security.
Another strand of Turkmenistan’s energy export diversification agenda hinges on electricity, for which Afghanistan is in theory also a promising buyer. The projected Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan high-voltage power line should run alongside the gas pipeline. With thoughts of cheap excess output evidently in mind, Berdymukhamedov pressed officials at a June 1 government meeting to optimize and modernize the domestic electricity sector. As with almost everything else these days, he insists this goal will be achieved through the mastery of digital technology, something he speaks about with a relentlessness that would make even the most dogmatic Silicon Valley techno-utopianist swoon from exhaustion.
But it is not all about Afghanistan. The Energy Ministry is drawing up a memorandum of understanding to be signed with Russia on cooperation in the electricity sector. Details on what form this cooperation will take are as yet scant, but the state news agency talks about Turkmenistan being plugged back into the Central Asian Power System and, more intriguingly, getting involved in some form with a future Eurasian Economic Union, or EAEU, common electric power market.
Turkmenistan has for decades been constitutionally resistant to talk of joining regional or even international clubs, but this era is surely if slowly – very slowly – drawing to a close. This accounts for it toying with eventual accession to the World Trade Organization. Overtures from the likes of Russia, with its EAEU, however, portend the prospect of Turkmenistan frozen mid-choice like Buridan's ass.
In the more immediate future, getting trade with neighbors restarted is the priority. The Islamic Republic News Agency cited Tehran’s man in Ashgabat, Gholamabbas Arbab-Khales, as saying that in view of the easing of coronavirus restrictions, the two countries have agreed to restart road and rail traffic as of June 10. This had been due to happen on June 1, but the date was delayed as facilities were being put in place for disinfecting cargo. The Ashgabat-based website Business Turkmenistan helpfully explained how these will work, at least as far as trucks go. Vehicles must pass 26-meter-long tunnels through a 70-centimeter deep pool of disinfectant liquid – in effect, a sheep dip for trucks. Turkmenistan has said it wants to build similar facilities on the Afghan border.
Iran will be heartened by the resumption of traffic, not least as it is busy touting the appeals of its Chabahar port on the Persian Gulf as an outlet for Turkmen goods. Not that this should be informed by zero-sum thinking, but this axis of movement is inevitably in conflict with the east-west, Afghanistan-to-Turkey Lapis Lazuli transport corridor backed by Washington.
Air traffic is also returning. Turkish Airlines will reportedly resume flights to Ashgabat from July 1. Turkmenistan’s own ban on international air traffic is set to elapse on June 20.
This will mostly be for the relief of Turkmen people who rely on petty trade and jobs overseas to make ends meet. The notion of foreign holidays is a distant fantasy for most, so it is just as well that Berdymukhamedov is insisting that suitable leisure facilities be built closer to Ashgabat. The president, in his trademark hands-on manner, took an excursion to Gurtlyn Reservoir in northern Ashgabat, which lies just next to the falcon-shaped airport, to acquaint himself with plans to build a resort in the area. He took a spin on a jet ski, a feat that merited robust rounds of applause from his minions, and even went for a ride on a swan-shaped paddle boat along with a few others, including the deputy prime minister with the portfolio for culture, Bahargul Abdiyeva.
On the Caspian coast, meanwhile, a ban has been slapped on going out to sea at all. Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported last month that Berdymukhamedov had banned summer holidays at the Awaza complex this year as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19 (which the government says has not been detected locally). RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, said hundreds of hotel workers had to be laid off as a result. This past week, Chronicles reported that residents of Turkmenbashi, which lies just north of Awaza, have been banned from swimming or going out for trips on their boats. The speculation is that the authorities are worried people might come into contact with protective masks and gloves cast into the Caspian by litterbugs in neighboring Iran.
In keeping with annual custom, the president ordered the wheat harvest to begin on June 5. The start date in two regions – Balkan and Dashoguz – is slightly later, June 12. The main task, Berdymukhamedov said, was for harvesting to be done quickly and “without loss.” That phrase appears to be an injunction for security bodies to make doubly sure that there is not too much skimming off the top by tenant farmers, as Turkmen.news reported. Azatlyk reported in May that officers from the National Security Ministry have been enlisted in the Lebap province to guard against theft, which is assumed to be partly to blame for the occasional shortages of flour.
The target-hitting agenda is pursued to often perverse lengths, as one episode in the Mary province has shown. Turkmen.news reported on June 1 on how the head of the Karakum district ordered the destruction of vegetables and melons grown on the edge of cotton fields. The land is rented to farmers by the state on the understanding that they will meet cotton production quotas, but the reality is that even if producers meet their targets, they still end up losing money since the cost of inputs often exceeds how much they are paid by the government. For this reason, planting relatively small amounts of other crops – either for sale or just mere sustenance – is common practice, in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan alike.
The Karakum district head’s destruction of the edibles looks like an attempt to avoid being lumped with the blame for disappointing cotton yields. As a result, there is every chance that farmers will be short of food as well as cotton.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.