Turkmenistan: Sins of commission
The government signals it is taking COVID a bit more seriously, without admitting the virus is running rampant. And Ashgabat gets down to business with the Taliban. This and more in our weekly briefing.
More than 18 months into the pandemic, Turkmenistan is resetting its COVID-19 policy. It is sticking fast to the lies, however.
First, key personnel are being reshuffled.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on August 25 fired Mammetmyrat Geldiniyazov from his post as deputy prime minister with the portfolio for health, education, science and sports for “serious shortcomings in his work.” He has been replaced by the country’s top scientist, Sapardurdy Toyliyev, the president of the defunded Academy of Sciences.
The rejigging looks like a belated exercise of putting specialists in charge.
Arslangylych Gylydzhov was removed as deputy minister for health, in which capacity he headed the state epidemiological service, and replaced by Myrat Mammedov, who will consequently leave his job as director-general of the Center for Infectious Diseases.
Even the head of the State Migration Service, Bekmyrat Ovezov, who had been in the job since October, was fired (“for serious shortcomings”) and replaced by Nazar Atagarayev. Berdymukhamedov evidently believes the borders are not being sufficiently well protected against viral incursions.
These announcements took place during a Cabinet meeting devoted to discussions on the operations of a state extraordinary commission for the fight against the spread of infectious diseases.
Although the government refuses to acknowledge that there has been any coronavirus outbreak in Turkmenistan, Berdymukhamedov speaks, in the spirit of advice proffered in December by the World Health Organization, “as if COVID-19 was circulating”: Doctors must talk about preventative measures with the public, disinfection must be done “in all corners of the country,” mass public events should be restricted, more urban public transportation must be made available to avoid crowding, offices and homes should be kept at temperatures not conducive to the spread of respiratory illnesses.
On the preventative front, Turkmenistan last week took receipt of a fresh batch of Sputnik V vaccines from Russia. No details were provided about how many doses were in the consignment, however. There is no understanding, in fact, of how many vaccinations have been administered, meaning that guessing how close the country is to attaining anything like herd immunity is all but impossible.
More detailed anti-COVID plans were revealed by Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news, the outlet that has consistently led the pack in exposing Ashgabat’s coverup of what appears to have been a serious outbreak. Unpublished minutes of an August 29 meeting of the extraordinary commission on infectious diseases obtained by the website revealed that extensive rules are being put in place to prevent transmission of COVID-19. These include restrictions on movement within the country, to take effect until October 1 at the earliest, distance-learning for college and secondary school students, postponement of exams, and staggered work schedules for civil servants.
Sadly, however, 4,000 government workers will nevertheless be marshalled throughout September into rehearsing for Independence Day celebrations to be held at the end of the month. In fact, 11,000 university students were due to be paraded past the government rostrum in central Ashgabat on the big day, but this plan has been scrapped. The space in front of the rostrum will instead be filled by an arrangement of artificial flowers.
The extraordinary commission enters into remarkably minute levels of detail on some points, including on which officials and foreign technical specialists should be allowed to enter and leave the country. For example, Muhammetmyrat Amanov, chief executive of the TAPI Pipeline Limited Corporation, is to be permitted to return from Dubai on a cargo plane on September 2.
The authorities must be certain this will be enough to tamp things down definitively in time for Neutrality Day celebrations on December 12. So much so that Berdymukhamedov invited Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, the executive body of the European Union, to attend. Michel, apparently uncaring of the optics entailed in endorsing the ego-boosting antics of a despot, accepted the invitation.
If Michel was hoping that his overtures might persuade Berdymukhamedov to admit some refugees from Afghanistan, he need not have bothered. The Turkmen leader noted in his telephone call with Michel that for all Turkmenistan’s historic record on harboring citizens of Afghanistan and Tajikistan during their civil strife in the 1990s, the danger posed by COVID-19 has made it impossible to help on this occasion.
Berdymukhamedov is dissembling. His government has been among the most eager in the world to engage with what the people running Kabul have now designated the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Accepting refugees would be sending the wrong message.
On August 30, Turkmen diplomats, as well as health and security officials, met with representatives from Afghan border districts to explore how to get traffic rolling again. As a goodwill gesture, Ashgabat has been providing humanitarian support in the form of medical equipment.
As things stand, around 70 railway wagons and 160 trucks are passing through two border crossings daily. Turkmen officials say the trade is mainly in petroleum products, liquefied gas, grain, and consumer goods. The Afghans have even reduced customs duties to encourage the arrival of goods from Turkmenistan.
To make sure this situation continues, engineering work resumed on August 30 on the Turkmen-funded Aqina-Andkhoy spur of railroad track linking Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, the Foreign Ministry said. The Aqina crossing had been closed in early July after the Andkhoy district fell to the Taliban.
Notwithstanding the still-unclear implications of the Taliban’s ascendancy, Turkmenistan continues to wave the flag for the TAPI trans-Afghan natural gas pipeline, as well as the parallel trans-Afghan high-voltage power lines project. The topic received considerable attention when Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi swung through Ashgabat on August 26. Pakistani media cited Qureshi as dredging up an old line about how Afghanistan would stand to make $1 billion off TAPI in transit and royalty fees (no timeframe was provided).
Nobody ever talks much about who is supposed to pay for the whole thing, however. Those aforementioned cargo plane rides to and from Dubai by the head of the TAPI Pipeline Limited Corporation suggests that much hope is being placed in those quarters.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.