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Annexed by Russia between 1865 and 1885, Turkmenistan became a Soviet republic in 1925. It achieved its independence upon the dissolution of the USSR in
1991. President NIYAZOV retains absolute control over the country and opposition is not tolerated. Extensive hydrocarbon/natural gas reserves could prove a
boon to this underdeveloped country if extraction and delivery projects can be worked out.
Update No: 260 - (29/08/02)
Turkmenistan is the odd one out in Central Asia. It did not give the US such immediate and total support as the other four 'stans,' as
they are known in the trade, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It is more than likely that it was still cultivating ties with the Taleban,
whose troops were allowed to recuperate and retrain in Turkmenistan in its struggle with the Northern Alliance.
President Saparmurat Niyazov does not attend meetings of regional conferences and the like, an absentee from instance from the Shanghai Forum in which the
other Central Asian republics are represented, along with Russia and China. He likes to play the diplomatic poker game with the cards close to his chest.
The trouble is that he is not very good at it. He has bungled time and again when it comes to negotiating a new deal for his country in getting his country's
gas to global market other than via Russia. It is just possible that the post 9:11 world could see the idea of a gas pipeline across the Caspian Sea
resuscitated. And the Iranian option remains open. Luck may be on Niyazov's side. He needs a breakthrough abroad, because his regime is under pressure at
Niyazov has privately explained to a British diplomat, that the cult of his personality is a way of welding together an artificial nation out of a communist
creation made up of five regional tribes, to whose chiefs people immemorially owed allegiance. The cult of Turkmenbashi transcends that loyalty, but has to
outshine regional distinctions and appear larger even than that of a mere state.
Somehow even remote Turkmens feel that the day for that sort of thing is past. The tribal loyalties are not so strong any more and the need to eclipse them
not so relevant.
Turkmen dissidents held a meeting in Vienna recently at which they revealed human rights abuses and detailed ways to combat them.
It is noteworthy that this meeting was sponsored by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, in cooperation with Moscow's Memorial Human Rights
Centre. Representatives of these groups and staff from Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group and the Organisation for Security and
Cooperation in Europe joined human rights activists from other central Asian states to hear for themselves about the cures that Turkmen exiles propose for
their country. "The government of President Niyazov has obliterated any space for civil society," said Helsinki Foundation Executive Director, Aaron Rhodes,
in a statement. "This is why we had to hold this meeting in Vienna and not in Ashkhabad. In today's Turkmenistan it simply could not happen."
According to reports cited by eurasianet.org, the Austrian location did not lift all fears whilst earlier incidents of Niyazov's officers kidnapping or
beating opposition members, led to some conference participants hiding their identities. Under this arrangement, participants flatly accused Niyazov, who
renamed himself Tukmenbashi the Great (father of all Turkmen), of violating citizens' most elementary rights. "The cult of personality around him has reached
grotesque proportions," said the meeting's declaration. Members catalogue the ways in which Turkmenistan does not tolerate dissidence in any form.
Niyazov cracks down
Niyazov's reaction to dissent is simple, more repression. He has conducted a purge of the security forces and border guards.
Key figures in the central security apparatus have been sacked, including the key figure, Mukhammed Nazarov, in March in charge of coordinating law
enforcement and the military.
It is not just government corruption, which after all is endemic in Central Asia, to which one can find objection, but also its incompetence. This is what is
tipping things against Niyazov and might just topple him.
President's pipe dream lives on
A deal to build a gas pipeline across Central Asia has been signed - now all the Turkmen leader has to do is find someone to build it, Nyazik Ataeva in
Ashgabat reported for RCA No. 129, 12-July-02.
Turkmen president Saparmurat Niazov's dream of bringing wealth to Central Asia with a gas pipeline across Afghanistan is still alive - but only just.
Early in July, he signed an agreement with Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, and Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf, to construct a pipeline to carry an
estimated 15 billion cubic metres of gas from Turkmenistan's Dauletabad field to Kandahar in Afghanistan and on to the Pakistan port of Gvadar on the
southern shore of the Arabian Sea.
This may sound encouraging, but so far there is little evidence that any construction company is interested in building the proposed pipeline, nor have
investors been rushing forward with the estimated US$2-3bn it will cost.
A tripartite commission comprising officials from the three countries met in Ashgabat on July 9th to discuss construction plans. An official from the Asian
Development Bank reportedly told the session that it is willing to finance a feasibility study.
The possibility of such a scheme was first mooted in 1994, when the Argentinean company, Bridas, conceived the idea of a trans-Afghan pipeline. Niazov,
however, preferred to work with the United States. The Texas company, Unoca,l was then hired to build the project, receiving 54 per cent of shares in the
Central Asia gas consortium, known as Centgas, which was set up to oversee construction.
However, work on the 1,500-kilometre development was delayed due to the unstable situation in Afghanistan, and the interest of potential investors dropped
sharply following the rise of the Taleban in 1996. Two years later, citing growing risks within the country, Unocal backed out altogether.
Niazov refused to let go of his dream, though. He saw the Afghan project as a way of getting gas on to world markets without depending on Russia, which now
controls all Turkmen routes to the West.
To this end Niazov made overtures to the Taleban, personally befriending its spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, and providing the student militia with
diplomatic support against the opposition Northern Alliance.
The removal of the Taleban has not adversely affected Niazov, who simply began courting their successors, taking every opportunity to deliver his message -
that a trans-Afghan pipeline would bring enormous benefit to all parties involved.
According to official Turkmen sources, investors from the United States, Japan, and China have shown interest in building not only the gas pipeline but also
one for oil along the same route.
However, the identity of these companies is unknown. Russian organisations such as Gazprom and Itera, who had looked into the project at an earlier stage,
have refused to comment. And officials in the US have suggested that American firms are unlikely to be involved. "There are currently no new interesting
projects in the region," said Leonard Cobern, an official at the US energy ministry. "ExxonMobil is leaving Turkmenistan. They did not find anything, and
have realised that they cannot work in this country. Chevron Texaco is not involved in Turkmenistan, as it has begun serious projects in Pakistan and
Investors are clearly nervous about the volatile security situation in the region. While there are signs of growing stability in Afghanistan following the
fall of the Taleban, the protection of that part of the pipeline passing through the country will remain a headache.
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