Leaked videos of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s tumble at a horse race last week surfaced in the international media, despite painstaking efforts by Berdymukhamedov’s government to conceal the incident.
The word “wasteland” comes to mind when driving around Turkmenbashi, the oil and gas hub on Turkmenistan’s Caspian Sea coast. Rusting pipelines crisscrosses barren, sandy expanses; an acrid smell hangs in the moist, sea air. Though the nearby beaches were once a destination for holidaying Turkmen, today the health-conscious visitor might think twice before taking a dip.
After reading a new report, that visitor might not need to think twice. Using satellite imagery, researchers at the non-profit American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C. have shown the waters around Turkmenbashi suffer dozens of oil spills annually.
“Sustained and ongoing release of oil into the waters of the Caspian Sea near the city and port of Turkmenbashi represents a legitimate environmental concern,” says the May 6 report by the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project at the AAAS. “Frequent, low-volume spills often spread to cover a wide area and have been occurring semi-continuously for more than a decade.”
In the past, efforts to detect oil spills remotely relied on expensive radar and high-resolution imagery. For this study, AAAS used publicly available NASA satellite imagery in a new way, allowing “for continuous monitoring of environmental phenomena, including oil spills.” Over 11,000 satellite images taken over 12 years corroborated on-the-ground reports of regular spills. “Between 2003 and 2012 … the AAAS team identified between 43 and 64 possible oil slicks every year in Turkmenbashi Bay.”
Profoundly embarrassed by a botched cover-up over President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s epic fail as a racehorse jockey, Turkmen authorities are engaged in frantic, if futile damage control efforts.
The opposition-oriented Gundogar.org website reported April 30 that Turkmen security agents were swarming all over Ashgabat airport, reportedly stopping people as they prepared to board departing flights and taking “aggressive measures” to prevent the spread of images and video of Arkadag’s horsecapades.
Meanwhile, Russia’s Regnum news agency reported May 1 that Turkmen “specialists” were going to great lengths to determine the source of the video, which first appeared here on EurasiaNet.org. Regnum quoted a Ministry of National Security official as saying security officers had “checked out every last one of our citizens” who were at the track and now they were turning their attention to the foreign attendees.
“They are trying to determine the spot in the guest bleachers where the filming took place and the possible cameraman who might have uploaded the footage of the fall to the internet,” the Turkmen official told Regnum.
As readers will recall, Berdymukhamedov “won” a high-stakes horse race on April 28, but his efforts to convince the world that he is the reincarnation of Willie Shoemaker hit a brick wall when he went flying off his mount and did a face plant on the track shortly after crossing the wire.
Last week, the 16th session of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the UN Human Rights Council completed its review of Turkmenistan's human rights record and issued a final report with recommendations focusing on human rights and the rule of law.