Akhal-Teke is a Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.
It was all smiles during Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's visit to Uzbekistan last week. The two-day trip, which began on April 23, was another effort by the Turkmen leader to drum up interest in the critical Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project his government is supposed to be implementing.
Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev said somewhat vaguely that “representatives of Uzbekistan will soon travel to Turkmenistan to specify within what parameters they will take part in the [TAPI] project,” but announced nothing concrete. The chance of Tashkent throwing much cash at the undertaking looks remote though.
The trip was not a total loss. Media reported deals worth a total of $250 million, although it was not clear whether these were firm contracts or mere memoranda of understanding. The latter is more likely given the dearth of existing bilateral economic activity. Only two Uzbek enterprises are active in Turkmenistan and there are 11 Turkmen-capitalized enterprises in Uzbekistan.
For all the pledges of fraternal amity, Turkmen citizens face increasing difficulties if they wish to follow their president in traveling across their northern border. Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported, for example, that Ashgabat has moved to further limit its citizens’ right to travel. The foreign-based, exile-run website claimed that those under 30 are being hindered from boarding international flights. This unofficial policy sits awkwardly alongside Berdymukhamedov’s claim in an interview with Russian TV that Turkmenistan is “pursuing an open-door policy both among the Central Asian countries and with the whole world."
Turkmenistan’s reluctance to have people flitting in and out seems to stem from a desire to keep news of the ongoing economic meltdown from filtering out. But the basic facts, even as reported by loyal state media, are hard to disguise. The government bragged on April 27 that World War II veterans would receive a handout of 200 manat – $57 at the official exchange rate – to mark the anniversary of the war's end. That honorarium is significantly diluted in real terms by the fact that the official exchange rate is not available to them. Instead, the black market rate is all they can hope to receive, and that puts the gift at around $12.50. That could still fall further. The latest black market low was reported on April 25 by Chronicles of Turkmenistan at 16 manat to the dollar, nearly five times the official rate of 3.51 manat. Turkmens can only look on wistfully at neighboring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where veterans are due to receive the equivalent of more than $1,000 and $600, respectively.
If there is little bread to go around, there is no shortage of circus. Over the weekend, Berdymukhamedov received the president of the Olympic Council of Asia, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, welcoming him to celebrations for Turkmen Horse Day, which the president has just elevated to a national holiday. History does not relate whether Berdymukhamedov had a chance to impress his guest with news of his recent reelection as his country's National Olympic Committee. He might have been better advised to pour honey into the Kuwaiti prince’s ear about the benefits of investing oil money into the TAPI project, but that does not seem to have been on the agenda.
Lest Al-Sabah’s visit be ruined by the sight of drying clothes, Ashgabat residents were reportedly banned from hanging their laundry anywhere in public view through April 29. As one of the few international attendees of the Turkmenistan-hosted 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, Al-Sabah will likely have been well aware of his host’s idiosyncrasies.
Efforts by Turkmenistan to seal itself off from the world fail miserably to stem tales of weirdness and arbitrary rules. On the contrary, it makes it hard to fact-check them. So is there any truth to the report that the government is tightening rules on what clothes women can wear to ensure they confirm to conservative norms? Who knows?
Events occurring outside Turkmenistan are more easily verified. RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Azathabar, has reported that Turkmen students at Russia's Kazan Federal University are facing expulsion as Turkmen state banks are apparently failing to transfer their tuition funds. Turkmen students elsewhere in Russia and in Belarus faced similar challenges earlier last month.
It looks like there is an unspoken war being waged against the diaspora. Azathabar has cited a source in Turkmenistan’s Labor Ministry claiming that Ashgabat plans a crackdown on labor migrants in May that would target their children by restricting their rights to citizenship and social services.
There was a smidgen of good news when the director of the National Iranian Gas Company said he hoped an agreement ending a 16-month feud could be reached in the coming weeks. Putting a slight damper on that positive signal, there are allegations of Iranian perfidy afoot. Afghanistan's Pajhwok News carried a report stating that a group of Taliban fighters who surrendered on April 22 to join the peace process asserted that Iran was seeking to disrupt construction of TAPI, whose completion could undermine Tehran’s own long-term gas export strategy.
Iran has dismissed such allegations of plotting. Its notion to derail TAPI took firmer shape as deputy Oil Minister Hamidreza Aqaqi proposed Turkmenistan consider instead engaging in swaps of gas in order to get its exports to Pakistan. Aqaqi was cited by Mehr news agency on April 29 as mischievously but fairly stating that “assuming that the TAPI pipeline project is to be constructed in the next 10 years, it is unclear from where financial resources [for] this project will be provided.”
China is really the only remaining country that can pull Turkmenistan out of its current mire, but as Bruce Pannier at RFE/RL has noted, even that normally dependable energy client is looking a little diffident these days. As Pannier observed, when Turkmen President Berdymukhamedov was in Uzbekistan, no mention was made of a planned fourth gas pipeline (Line D) that is supposedly being built from Turkmenistan to China, through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Interest in the route is evidently wanting.
At their meeting, Berdymukhamedov invited Mirziyoyev to a reciprocal visit, on May 2, to attend the opening of a modern new port in the Caspian Sea city of Turkmenbashi. Involvement of double-landlocked Uzbekistan in that kind of transportation infrastructure should be tempting, but there must be slight concern this could become yet another addition to Turkmenistan’s teetering pile of white elephants. The highway linking Ashgabat to Turkmenbashi, which would surely be a basic requirement for the port to flourish, still remains uncompleted. Restarting construction was highlighted as a priority at the April 27 Cabinet meeting, but when that will happen and with what funding remains to be seen.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.