Politics and Society
As News Central Asia reports, tomorrow sees the opening of the Oil & Gas Turkmenistan conference in Ashgabat. The items on the agenda are as follow:
- Strategic development priorities for Turkmenistan’s oil & gas sector.
- Experience, potential and prospects for international cooperation in developing fields in Turkmenistan’s sector of the Caspian Sea.
- Experience, potential and prospects for international cooperation in developing onshore fields.
- Experience, potential and prospects for international cooperation in refining, processing and transportation.
- Technology, equipment and services for the upstream and downstream sectors.
It’s not exactly exciting stuff, though it is a shame that not more coverage is available for events of this nature, particularly in view of the recent dismissal and arrest of Oil and Gas Minister Guychnazar Tachnazarov. In fact, given that this is one of the few aspects of Ashgabat’s engagment with the outside world, it would be interesting to know what it is that is meant by the “priorities and prospects of international cooperation in the field of new technologies and investments,” which is reportedly the theme of the conference.
Indeed, the exploitation of Caspian oil resources is the one area in which Turkmenistan has found its international isolationism most sorely tested. The process of equitably carving up the Caspian space has been a recurrent bugbear for Iran and Turkmenistan, who recently consulted on the direction of future strategy in this area (here and here for more info). For more background on the history of the Caspian Sea tussle read this excellent essay (on the Armenian Diaspora web site for some very strange reason).
Ensuring business deals in Turkmenistan requires an undignified routine of brown-nosing, as Siemens CEO Klaus Kleinfeld showed in his sickening gratitude to Saparmurat Niyazov for sending him a signed copy of the second installment of the Ruhnama:
«Dear Mr. President!
Many thanks for your kindness in sending me a signed copy of the second part of the Ruhnama. Allow me to express my heartfelt gratitude on behalf of my company for this generous gesture and for the benevolence you have demonstrated in our regard.
I am certain that this book, thanks to our mutual understanding, will further contribute to the deepening of excellent German-Turkmen relations. … The development of Turkmenistan is ample testament to what can be achieved as a result of political stability.”
Well, firstly, happy Revolution Day from Bishkek – seems a little incongruous as a public holiday here, but still, an extra day off isn’t something you’ll find me complaining about. Anyhow, on to what’s been happening over the last week or so, in no particular order.
The political fallout from Tynychbek Akmatbaev’s death is far from over, but the fears it has awakened are already clear. One is that the state’s institutions remain as fragile today as they were when protestors overran government offices on 24 March and sent President Akaev fleeing into exile. Another is that into the resulting vacuum will rush individuals who resolve conflicts not by the force of law, but by the law of force.
… we should expect to see some interesting new turns in Chinese policies toward both Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia as a whole as the trends set in motion by the Tulip Revolution become clearer.
“If [Kyrgyzstan's] president would chair the government himself, and he would be also responsible for economy, it would be right. However, you know that together with the current prime minister Feliks Sharshenbayevich [Kulov], we have established a union, a tandem after the 24 March [Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan]. If I would propose [uniting both positions of president and prime minister] right now, then some people might say ‘Now he is trying to get rid of Kulov.’”
Over and out from Bishkek for the time being.
US General John Abizaid, on his working visit to Astana, is quoted saying that the US would not decline if the Kazakh government invited them to open a base:
“We don’t envision opening bases here, unless Kazakhstan, the Kazakhstani government, would invite us to do so,” Gen John Abizaid said after meeting with Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbayev.
The United States are still trying to figure out how to deal with the loss of K2 in Uzbekistan and have not yet found a substitute.
Currently, the 11th World Lake Conference (31 October-4th November 2005) is taking place in Nairobi, Kenya. Obviously, due to the conference’s location, the focus appears to be on the great lakes of Africa. However, Klaus Topfer, executive director of the UNâ€™s Environment Programme, has stated,
“We face increasing tensions and instability as rising populations compete for lifeâ€™s most precious of resources.”
The World Lake Conference is the brainchild of the International Lake Environment Committee (ILEC), founded in 1986 and based in Japan. Discussion of the Aral Sea was the subject of a workshop (pdf) at the 9th World Lake Conference in 2001.
The desiccation of the Aral Sea, owing in the greater part to the agricultural and industrial policies of the Soviet Union, is well known. (Likewise, Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash is also reportedly teetering on the abyss of calamity.) The Kazakhs have already started doing their bit to preserve the Aral Sea – by building a dam.
The issue of the desiccation of the Aral Sea, and how to combat it, is closely related to that of water-usage, particularly the volumes of water the Central Asian nations believe they are entitled to draw from the Amu-Darya (which once upon a time flowed into the Aral Sea but, rather like the Okavango Delta in Botswana, disappears into the desert a few miles short of the sea) and the Syr-Darya (which still flows into the Aral Sea).
The impact of the dessication of the Aral Sea has been most keenly felt in Uzbekistan’s Republic of Karakalpakstan, particularly Nukus, once a thriving local hub but now little more than a rust-belt settlement. Visitors testify to its grim nature. (Despite the presence of the unique Savitsky Art Museum – an unparallelled treasure-trove of Soviet-era art banned under the strictures of Soviet Realism. Many of the painters disappeared into the Gulag or were executed.)
Anyway, it will be interesting to hear if the Aral Sea does come up for discussion at the current World Lake Conference.
A new cartoon called “Tapmacha” (“The Puzzle”) produced by state film company Turkmentelekinofilm represented Turkmen cinema at the 20th International Youth Cinema Festival in Esfahan, Iran. The festival is also featuring the work of directors from Europe and Asia, whose short, full-length and animated features will be judged by a multinational panel.
The Turkmen entry was directed by veteran filmmaker Evgeny Mikhelson.
On his return to Ashgabat Mikhelson remarked:
It was my first visit to Iran and I was amazed by the scale of the festival and I was impressed by their organisation. Festivals widen cultural horizons as they give the opportunity to observe the current trends of world cinema. It is wonderful that the organisers of the festival gave particular prominence to films with a spiritual foundation, respect to eternal and permanent values, constituting a moral base for all nations.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the interest of my fellow filmmakers in the progress of Turkmen cinema and in Turkmenistan itself. Once again, this is confirmation of the uniqueness of Turkmenistan’s path of development, and that the culture and tradition of our people truly does draw the attention of people from all over the world.
I am profoundly convinced that Turkmen animation, which has a 35-year history behind it, will have a great future. Our first cartoons were created for television in the beginning of the 1970s. These were made using puppets and hand-drawn cartoons, but today we have the means to complement traditional films with computer graphic-generated cartoons. The new is always interesting and supersedes the old. However, in my work I endeavour to ensure that technical progress does not supplant the specific national basis of typical Turkmen cinema; an organic and profound vision of children’s psychology.
Turkmen animation has always given particular attention to national folklore; it has told stories about friendship and goodness, industrious people, respect for parents, reverence for bread, all things that have long been embedded in the nation’s traditional culture.
This story is particularly interesting as one of the most depressingly deleterious consequences of Niyazov’s malign influence over Turkmen national culture has been the abolition of cinema culture. Indeed, there are no cinemas in the country and none of the state channels show anything other than propaganda and political speeches, though this can be grimly amusing in their own way.
This is a faintly heartening display that modern culture can still survive in Turkmenistan. The only caveat to this is that by the sound of things, the film is a trite example of the fashioning of an artificial new folk culture that has flourished under Niyazov’s. Still, it would be interesting to see what the film looks like.
Kazakhstan is set to strengthen bileratal ties with almost everyone:
- Kazakhstan determined to deepen ties with Russia, U.S., EU
- Kazakh-American relations will be developing favourably
- Kazakhstan to strengthen cooperation with China
Apparently, the best ties exist with Russia. However, there won’t be a ‘reunification’: Kazakhstan has no Russia accession plans
The reason for the universal diplomatic love campaign is obvious: It’s diplomacy to secure the Kazakh people from external threats
According to [FM Kassymzhomart Tokayev], the main aim of the domestic diplomacy is to provide for security of our people from the external threats. In connection with this the ministry develops “business-plans” for each country. All priorities of bilateral relations and political profits, which Kazakhstan may derive from these contacts, will be described in them.
The sound of falling axes has been heard once again at Cabinet office in Ashgabat. Yesterday, Niyazov dismissed Oil and Gas Minister Guychnazar Tachnazarov during a Cabinet meeting for his “grave shortcomings”. In what is now becoming a customary routine, Tachnazarov is also to be charged with appropriating state property. As Niyazov told him on live television:
“You used your post for your own interests. What is more, you were unable to discharge your obligations as a state minister and a deputy chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers, which resulted in grave shortcomings. I have warned you about this several times. I am dismissing you for these reasons. Go and cooperate with the prosecutor’s office and investigators, let them investigate you. If you can prove [your innocence], then prove it. But you are hardly fit to be a senior official and you cannot be one.”
Tachnazarov had only been appointed to the ministry in September this year, so it is anybody’s guess what it is he did to incur Niyazov’s rage. At the time of his appointment he was already deputy chairman of the Cabinet and was replacing Amangeldi Pudakov, who was then made director of the Turkmenbashi Oil-Refining Complex. Curiously, Pudakov was replacing a certain Guichmurad Esenov at the refinery in Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk). And yes, Esenov was dismissed for corruption and drunkenness. For more info on other high-profile dismissals look here (Yolly Gurbanmuradov) and here (Saparmamed Valiev).
The new Oil and Gas Minister is Atamyrat Berdiyev, who is either foolishly brave or knows something we don’t. He has previously been deputy chairman of the Cabinet, Minister of Power Engineering and Industry (till May 2005), and rector of the Turkmen State Power Engineering Institute.
Meanwhile, the current Minister for Energy and Industry Yusip Davudov has been named deputy Cabinet chairman. Also, the new Minister for Construction and Construction Materials Industry is Batyr Gaipov, though this position is pending a six-month trial period, a customary Niyazov policy. The last ministerial tap to report is Gurbanmyrat Atayev’s new position as deputy Oil and Gas Minister.
And that was just to get started. According to reports from Deutsche Welle, via Watan.ru
a number of regional officials and agricultural enterprise managers across Turkmenistan have been put under arrest. Among those that have been put under house arrest and had their property seized are the heads of the Dashoguz and Balkan velyats. They have been accused of failing to carry out Niyazov’s instructions on cotton-gathering and appropriation of state property. During a private cabinet meeting Turkmenbashi demanded that prompt legal action be taken against these and other offenders. He went on to list a number of managers and heads of central offices for industrial management that he felt had improperly reported figures relating to cotton-gathering data.
And since he was at it, Niyazov also recalled Turkmenistan’s ambassador to Ukraine, Amangeldi Bairamova. No reasons for this action have yet been given.
Prior to the celebrations of Turkmenistan’s 14th year of independence the 16th session of the Khalk Maslahaty was convened (please see ‘Nothing is forever, nobody is forever post 25/10/05). During the session a new law was passed which signalled some changes to the political organisation of the country. Most significantly, the president has changed the law so local officials will now be elected by the population rather than be appointed by himself.
There will be new 40-member ‘People’s Councils’ in every etrap (district) in Turkmenistan. The entire population of the etrap will elect the members to these Councils. The 40 members will then be charged with electing the mayor of the etrap. According to the law, arcins [heads of village councils] are directly subordinate to the mayor’s office of a district. The mayor’s office will be in charge of the implementation of resolutions of a district People’s Council and keep a record of its work. There will also be larger ‘Regional People’s Councils’ that will oversee the work of the Mayor’s office and etrap Council. It will be made up of 80 deputies and the entire population of a region, too, will elect them, from each town and village.
Such commitment to elections at the local level is quite a step. However, there is no certainty to how competitive they will be, or what it really means for the future of political development in the country. The President’s thinking on this is fairly straightforward and honest:
Please, go ahead and elect; elect the best and skilled ones, but the next day don’t come and complain to me that I appointed that person. In that case, I will say that it was your choice. You have a right to dismiss that person. These 80 people can gather and dismiss that person [presumably governor of a region] if he does not do his job well. There should be at least 2-3 candidates when electing officials and all three of them won’t be the same or possess the same skills.
In such a reformist and generous mood the president also announced changes to the way the parliament works. The Mejlis (parliament) has been considered for sometime, by western scholars, to be nothing more than a rubber stamp legislature beckoning to the call of the president. Its powers were further weakened some years ago when the Khalk Maslahaty took over some of its functions. However, according to the new law, passed by the Khalk Maslahaty, the national parliament is to have its powers raised and its number of deputies increased. The parliament’s duties have now been extended, according to the president:
Their duties will include controlling the work of regional People’s Councils, district People’s Councils, village councils as well as people’s representatives. They [parliament members] can also control the work of economic sectors by visiting them because we issue laws ourselves and we issue decrees ourselves too. We also determine the development of the economic sectors and society. If officials commit wrongdoings, then they will be accountable both before the parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers. Cabinet of Ministers and parliament should carry out a joint investigation and then inform the President of its results. It is their responsibility to correct the shortcomings and they should inform only after correcting. They should not switch to bribery by not correcting the shortcomings and not recommending dismissing that person.
Moreover, the number of deputies will be increased from 50-65.
Again, how significant these changes are will just have to be seen. But a firm commitment to the reorganisation of local government, the holding of elections (whether to western democratic standards or not) and a strengthening of the parliament’s powers, does suggest a shift in executive policy from the heightened centralisation of recent years. Only time will tell how this pans out in reality.
The elections will be held as follow:
Village councils and heads of village council’s mid-2006
District People’s Councils in December 2006
Regional People’s Councils in December 2007
Parliamentary elections in December 2008
Presidential Election December 2009???
Gundogar carries a comprehensive transcript of some of the discussions at this session of the Khalk Maslahaty, here.
And one last final thing, a new passport has been introduced for Turkmen citizens. The new passports will include biometric data – a digital photo and fingerprints – in line with international standards. Further details here.
The Ukrainians have gone visiting, so it was only natural the Russians would follow suit. Niyazov’s latest visitors, also in town to mark the Independence celebrations, were the Russian presidential energy envoy Igor Yusufov and Gazprom deputy CEO Alexander Ryazanov. In what was a clear dig at the Ukrainian drama, Ryazanov remarked that cooperation between the countries was “developing normally, and there are no disputes or unresolved issues.”
The one reference to the background of problems was a reassurance that there have been no technical hindrances to the conveyance of gas to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine the leader of the Republican Party Yuriy Boiko has spoken about his optimism about the progress of negotiations. In particular, he indicated his Prime Minister’s preparedness to go to the Turkmen independence celebrations as a sign of their countries’ mutual respect.
“I am certain that relations between us and Turkmenistan will be fine if we settle up debts for the gas delivered in the first half of 2005. We have been saying this for a long time, ever since problems first began to arise,” said Boiko
And if money isn’t sufficient, Niyazov’s pride may be placated by Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov’s suggestion to his Culture Minister that he organise a day devoted to Turkmen culture. During the government meeting he went on to express his satisfaction with the educational standards of the Ukrainian diaspora in Turkmenistan:
“There’s a Ukrainian school operating there and, you know, you should see what excellent Ukrainian they speak. Many would do well to study there.”
Speaking to the Energy Minister, Yekhanurov suggested information should be posted on his ministry’s web site detailing outstanding debt to the Turkmen government. The data would be updated on a weekly basis, in order for the general public to keep tabs on the rate and scale of the reimbursements. In this way, the Turkmens will be obliged to raise objections in due time, rather than at the opportune moments they have relied on to date.
And finally, doubt has been cast on earlier claims that Naftohaz Ukrayiny CEO Oleksiy Ivchenko had been refused a visa to Turkmenistan. Head of the Ukrainian Presidential Secretariat Oleg Ribachuk described the claim as cheap sensationalism. He scorned the suggestion that such manoeuvre would be in Turkmen style, and that it was just a rumour designed for PR. Indeed, it seems that such a possibility would have been technically impossible as Ivchneko was already in receipt of a diplomatic visa.
Everything points therefore to a Ukrainian scramble to bury any grievances that the last few months of disagreement have exposed.