Turkmenistan: Second-best at being the worst
While the country's authoritarian rulers are utterly indifferent to political freedoms, how the investment regime is perceived is another matter. Our weekly Turkmenistan briefing.
In spite of its best efforts, Turkmenistan has failed to top Freedom House’s Worst of the Worst list in the category of countries with the fewest political rights and civil liberties this year.
It was beaten out by joint leaders Syria and South Sudan, although it did manage somehow to edge out North Korea.
A Freedom House country report on Turkmenistan is expected before too long, although it is likely to reprise points made in 2022. That time around, the only areas in which the country recorded at least a meager score was in the right to property ownership and social freedoms.
While the country’s authoritarian rulers may be utterly indifferent to political freedoms, matters that touch on how the investment regime is perceived are another matter.
At the March 10 Cabinet meeting, Ashirguly Begliyev, a freshly appointed deputy prime minister with the portfolio for oil and gas sector affairs, talked about the preparations being made for an energy industry investment roadshow the government is holding in Dubai on April 26-27. President Serdar Berdymukhamedov agreed that the Turkmen energy industry was in need of fresh foreign investment and new technologies – apparent evidence that the usual partners, China and Russia, are not fully satisfactory. Reading between the lines, Ashgabat wants a partner other than – or as well as, perhaps – China to help with implementation of the second stage of its giant Galkynysh field. Spreading its dependence on more investors may then enable it to negotiate better rates for the copious gas it sells China.
So many foreign companies have got themselves burnt going into Turkmenistan, however, that providing reassurance about legal guarantees is paramount. As far as Galkynysh goes, Middle Eastern investors will want to know they can reliably get return for their money.
There is another issue, though.
Turkmenistan is, alas, entirely out of step with the current global investment climate in one other important respect: the environment. Committing money to the Turkmen energy sector means financing an environmental open sore of calamitous proportions. A report in the Guardian newspaper from earlier this month about the persistent problem of huge methane leaks illustrated this in stark terms.
“The biggest event was a leak of 427 tons an hour in August, near Turkmenistan’s Caspian coast and a major pipeline. That single leak was equivalent to the rate of emissions from 67 [million] cars, or the hourly national emissions of France,” the report found.
Under the section devoted to social freedoms in Turkmenistan – the country scored one of its two lonely points in this area – Freedom House last year noted how “domestic violence is reportedly common, but [that] few victims file complaints with the authorities.”
This is not likely to improve under this president, who shows little sign of believing that women belong anywhere other than tending to home and hearth. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, on March 8, he spoke in a message delivered on state television of how he hoped musical celebrations would “cheer up our dear women, who dutifully uphold national traditions and preserve family values.”
Ahead of the holiday, the government reportedly boasted of its plan to give 60 manat ($3 at the black market rate) to women and girls to mark the occasion. That is a long-established annual tradition.
This year, the guests of honor at a festive concert held at the headquarters of the chamber of commerce received a treat on which no price tag could be put. A band performed a song to verses written by Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the so-called National Leader and father of the incumbent president. The poem on which the song was based was called Congratulations to the Young and was, suggested Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a clear allusion to the recent nuptials of Kerim Berdymukhamedov, who is the son of the president (and Gurbanguly’s grandson).
At the Cabinet meeting, President Berdymukhamedov approved a proposal to build a combined gas and steam 1,574-megawatt power plant. The plant, which is to be built in the western Balkan province, will be the second of its type in Turkmenistan. A similar design installed with General Electric-produced turbines was put into commission in the Mary province in September 2018.
The country’s 12 existing power plants have a collective installed capacity of more than 6,900 megawatts. The president’s 2022-28 social and economic development blueprint envisions increasing electricity production to 37.5 billion kilowatt-hours by 2028, a 22.5 percent increase on 2022.
The main objective behind such efforts is to turn Turkmenistan into a major regional exporter of electricity. According to official projections, the country was expected to export 9 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2022. Data on the actual amount delivered has not yet been made public.
Approval of this project is just more evidence – as if any was needed – that President Berdymukhamedov is to all intents and purposes playing second fiddle to his father and predecessor, Gurbanguly. The whole idea of building a new plant was first raised by Berdymukhamedov the elder when he was touring a park in Ashgabat earlier this month, on March 4. One of the things the former president inspected during his perambulations was a flagpole whose tallness will, he said, “inspire compatriots and increase their patriotic emotions." He later mentioned, inter alia, that work should be done on building a new power plant, and it is this power plant that his son appears to have green-lit.
Turkmenistan is still gradually reverting to post-COVID normality in its relations with the outside world. Regular flights to Russia, the Middle East and Europe have now resumed. On March 10, aviation authorities in Kazakhstan announced that twice-weekly flights are now poised to resume between Ashgabat and Almaty.
In other regional business, it has been announced that President Berdymukhamedov will in early April embark on a state visit to Tajikistan. There is no firm agenda as yet, but it is probable that progress on implementing the fourth strand of the Central Asia-China pipeline – better known as Line D – may be discussed. Tajikistan will be especially eager to see completion of a project that could assure it of much needed gas supplies.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.