Turkmenistan Weekly Roundup
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asia, Robert O. Blake, Jr. traveled to Turkmenistan February 14-16 for meetings with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and other officials. The purpose of the trip was to hold a mid-term review of the annual bilateral consultations or "ABC" process begun with Ashgabat last year. Blake brought with him a delegation of business people associated with the U.S.-Turkmen Business Council.
On the eve of the trip, Blake had outlined the Obama Administration's goals in the Central Asian region: above all, this consisted of building the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan, and then converting this infrastructure of supply chains and routes into a path to prosperity for the region. As we know from State Department cables alleged to have been obtained by WikiLeaks, American officials have surveyed businesses in Turkmenistan and talked to industry leaders about possibly using some of the products and services of Turkmenistan, i.e. one factory manager boasted that he could make trailers for housing and offices. With Uzbekistan, the relationship between domestic business, very much associated with the government, and NDN supplies have been made clear -- there are plans to move the provision of fresh produce from the United Arab Emirates to Uzbekistan. With Turkmenistan, it is still not clear how much this nominally-neutral state will cooperate, as so far, Ashgabat has only given permission to use its international airport for refueling of NATO airplanes en route with non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan.
With the "mid-term" in fact now occurring eight months after the June 2010 initial ABCs, there has been very little to show on any of the fronts the U.S. has identified as goals. No further progress has been made on the Nabucco pipeline, and while U.S. oil companies have camped out in Ashgabat for months, re-opening offices once closed, they still have not publicly indicated any progress in making deals with the Turkmen government.
No concessions have been made on human rights issues, either; in fact, a an enormous issue that touches both on the issues of free expression and the Internet as well as the business investment climate was the sudden cancellation of cell phone service in December, causing 2.4 million people to suddenly lose telephone and web connections. So desperate was the Russian company MobileTeleSystems to remedy this unexpectedly harsh loss of their investment in infrastructure and customer acquisition that they reportedly sent executives to Washington to plead the U.S. for help, in addition to filing the usual complaints in international arbitration courts.
A new report from the Washington-based global policy organization International Crisis Group brings together both existing research on the deteriorating infrastructure of Central Asia, and finds new assessments of the crisis from a network of sources in the region. It is a troubling picture indeed: basically, all the investment of the Soviet era in roads, plants, hospitals, apartment buildings, etc. -- which was considerable for this vast empire -- is now starting to crumble, some fifty years after much of it was built following World War II.
While not mentioned in the report, it is important to add that Soviet central authorities also helped restore Ashgabat in 1950 when it was leveled by a devastating earthquake with tremendous losses of people's lives and livelihoods and buildings -- Moscow paid for reconstruction and sent armies of workers in who remained as a large Russian-speaking minority. Since the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991 -- 20 years ago -- Moscow Center has not had the wealth to distribute to the former republics and at first, Turkmenistan itself did not invest in refurbishing the physical plant, despite having considerable gas revenue from Russia and other customers.
While the report indicates that two of the poorest former republics -- Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- are being the hardest hit by this collapse, "Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are heading in the same direction," says ICG. Without independent media and research to understand the extent of the losses, it is hard to know the full story. “But Turkmenistan’s marble-faced model hospitals and Uzbekistan’s mendacious claims of prosperity are no answer to their countries’ problems," says ICG. Much of the report is devoted to exposing the terrible toll on the education system induced by ideological control, and on health care through the manipulation of public health data and refusal to publicize the real findings about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the region. EurasiaNet has reported that Turkmenistan is "courting a public health calamity because officials are systematically denying an HIV infection problem,” citing experts. Officially, Turkmenistan says it has 30,000 injecting drug users, mainly of heroin from Afghanistan, but experts say the number is several times higher. Throughout Central Asia, HIV infections have followed the routes used to traffic Afghan heroin to Russia. Doctors hide the statistics, and sometimes don't even tell those found to test positive with the infection of their status.
Tragically, the very recommendations that ICG makes as a way out of this impasse -- more transparency on public budgets; more democratic participation in decision-making that would transfer wealth more to needs like hospitals instead of racetracks and government ministry buildings -- are not possible to implement under the oppressive government of Turkmenistan. There's unlikely to be more transparency than already very sparingly provided; with the government’s fear of the spread of revolutions of various sorts in the region and around the world, Turkmenistan is retreating into its shell. Such civil society groups as have struggled to operate under very harsh conditions, raising even cautiously approved issues like concern for the environment, have been ruthlessly suppressed, their leaders jailed or forced into exile.
There isn't any sort of "glasnost" movement even among government supporters, to use the media even in a limited sort of way to expose corruption. The president himself has been a one-man grand jury in that respect, doling out warnings and reprimands and dismissals with alarming frequency and speed to any subordinates suspected of laxness of oversight or outright corruption. Yet in that sort of abusive climate, it actually becomes harder to fight real corruption, because fraud becomes defined as whatever the ruling clan can get away with, and exploit selectively only as a means of eliminating rivals.
In the wake of the shutdown of MTS, Berdymukhamedov has been indifferent to proposals to extend the Russian company’s contract and work out some new profit-sharing arrangement Instead, he announced at a cabinet meeting that he hoped to see several private Turkmen companies to come into being, but indicated their likely dependent status by insisting that they take patriotic names like "Galkynysh," which means "Revival," like the name for his term in office, "Era of New Revival."
The hapless MTS customers have found long waits in line and bureaucracy at Altyn Assyr, the sole domestic state provider. The artificially induced shortage of Internet connections has now enabled the government monopoly Turkmenistan Online, the service of Turkmen Telekom, to charge outrageous prices (and maybe that was the idea all along). An unlimited high-speed Internet connection now costs $7,000 a month, AFP reported.
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