At a conference of Turkic countries hosted by Turkey in Istanbul, President Berdymukhamedov joined other Central Asian leaders in drawing attention to their role in bringing increased cooperation to the region. While praising the already considerable investment of Turkish companies in Turkmenistan, and expressing great interest in the "new version of the ancient Silk Road" for interregional and intercontinental trade, Turkmenistan, along with Uzbekistan (whose president didn’t show up), stopped short of joining the Turkic-Speaking Countries Coordinating Council sponsored by Turkey,
While in Istanbul, President Berdymukhamedov made his most forthright statements to date regarding the prospects for Turkmenistan to join the Nabucco pipeline. Answering a reporter's query, the Turkmen leader said "Turkmenistan does not doubt the real prospect of implementing various projects to export gas in any direction, including to Europe through Nabucco." In the past, while speaking more vaguely about "diversifying export routes," President Berdymukhamedov had refrained from explicitly tying his plans to the $7.9 million euro Western-backed pipeline designed to avoid dependence on Russia, and reiterated that Turkmenistan would "sell its gas at the border."
In a report of the Turkmen president's remarks in Istanbul, trend.az portrayed him as deliberately linking Turkmenistan’s resources and internal pipelines to the West: "We are currently constructing the East-West pipeline,” he said. “The pipeline will be laid along the coast of the Caspian Sea. There is also Nabucco, which is associated with the project," he added. The statements were picked up enthusiastically by Western and international gas industry publications, but scorned by Russian analysts, who dismissed them as merely a bargaining ploy to get a better deal on the price of gas from Russia,.
Yet in the official account of his speech in articles in both English and Russian on the government's website, produced by the State News Agency of Turkmenistan (TDH), President Berdymukhamedov does not appear to mention the $2 billion East-West pipeline at all, nor does he explicitly link Nabucco to any internal Turkmenistan project. Instead, he is shown giving a nod to Nabucco, then answering the reporter's question more generally by indicating that Turkmenistan has enough supplies for all potential customers, based on the 2008 audit by Gaffney, Cline & Associations of the South Yolotan and Yashlar fields, where reserves were estimated at 18 trillion cubic meters.
International press also portrayed President Berdymukhamedov as making some progress on a long-standing dispute with Azerbaijan over the demarcation of their borders in the Caspian Sea bed. President Ilham Aliyev appeared together with the Turkmen leader in Istanbul, sounding upbeat on progress. But in fact, President Berdymukhamedov did not say anything he hasn't repeated many times, advocating a solution that is "consistent with international norms" and "mutually beneficial.”
President Berdymukhamedov headed to New York September 19 to take part in the UN General Assembly with other heads of states. The president made a five-point proposal to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan that included promotion of the Turkmen-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline as a generator of jobs and potential stability, an offer to host peace talks for Afghans and stakeholders, a pledge to continue subsidized electricity and provide other humanitarian assistance, a proposal to build a railroad with Afghanistan with the help of international financial institutions and willingness to provide training for Afghans in governance.
Some of the proposals seem unrealistic and economically determinist, since they involve expecting people to turn away from guns and religion to embrace prosperity -- through hard but temporary jobs constructing pipelines and railroads. While economic opportunity can’t hurt, analysts have pointed out that the international stakeholders hoping to put railroads and pipelines through Afghanistan and Pakistan are going to have to be willing to pay off warlords and local officials and face the threat of sabotage. Historically, neither the British nor the Russians have succeeded in building railroads in Afghanistan, which today are still non-existent, except for a few short lines near Uzbekistan. The Afghan government, while showing interest in TAPI, has not yet reacted to the offer of convening peace talks in Ashgabat. Given all the wasted USAID and other foreign funds for capacity-building spent on the Afghan government, the prospect of learning statecraft in Ashgabat might seem like a bargain, but it opens up questions of how transparent and democratic such institutions could become using the Turkmen model..
On the symbolic date of September 11, marking the terrorist attacks on the U.S., the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat held a joint ceremony with the Turkmen government to open the Shir-Kebir (Mashad Ata) Mosque, built in the 9th century, and the oldest standing mosque in Turkmenistan. The good-will project in Turkmenistan is part of a global effort by the Obama Administration to mend relations with the Islamic world, strained by the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For the Turkmen government, such restoration projects fit into an ambitious program to reconstruct the glorious past of the Turkmen people and link it to the president's current "Era of Great Renewal." While no doubt a welcome form of cultural detente, such projects run the risk of being co-opted as a propaganda coup by the Turkmen government, which also masks the very real religious persecution that still goes on there. Turkmenistan is a secular state, but most Turkmens are Sunni Muslims. They are not free to practice outside of strictly state-controlled mosques, and reports of harassment and jailing of believers have increased. Last year, President Berdymukhamedov barred the faithful from travel to make the hajj, citing concerns about H1N1 virus, and substituted the foreign travel with a domestic pilgrimage around sacred archeological sites.
All religious activity in Turkmenistan is under strict control with harsh repercussions against those who step out of line. A Protestant pastor in Mary who failed to get permission to register his church or to travel outside the country has now been arrested and charged with embezzlement in a case his family says has been fabricated in retaliation for his leadership of an unauthorized religious community.
A tragic case of apparent hazing in the Turkmen army at the Officers’ Club in Ashgabat that reportedly led to the suicide of a young soldier is now being investigated by the prosecutor, and army brass have expressed concern about the repercussions.
Much attention has been accorded Turkmenistan in the world media last week for announcing the publication of the first private newspaper in Turkmenistan, Rysgal (Welfare). While a commercial publication about business affairs, the paper is not truly independent, as the president ordered the state-controlled Union of Entrepreneurs to establish it, and the head of the Union is a businessmen who was granted a large state loan by the president in the past.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Turkmenistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Sifting the Karakum blog. To subscribe to the weekly email, write [email protected]