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TURKMENISTAN


 

 

Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 6,010 7,672 4,000 110
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 1,120 1,200 950 131
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

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Update No: 314 - (23/02/07)

Turkmenistan had become synonymous with the personal rule of one man, Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenbashi. But not even totalitarian dictators can escape the fell retribution of the Grim Reaper. He died on December 21st of a heart attack.

Triumphant election for the dentist president
For most countries, a 98.65 percent voter turnout in an election would be amazing. That is not necessarily the case for Turkmenistan, where official turnout at the last presidential election - in 1992 - was 99.8 percent. 
But the official overwhelming turnout in this presidential election is at odds with reports from RFE/RL correspondents, who reported sparse attendance at several voting centres, both in the capital, Ashgabat, and in the eastern Labap Province.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, acting president since December 21st, won 89.2% of the vote, eclipsing five other candidates completely. He is a dentist by training and rumoured to be the natural son of the Turkmembashi himself.
Officials here do not contest the view of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that the Turkmenistan election was neither free nor fair. But they say fact that the energy-rich country had a contested election for the first time since its independence in 1991, and that Mr. Berdymukhamedov's stated vote margin was smaller than those claimed by his predecessor, are signs of possible progress after years of stifling one-man rule.
This is rather like clutching at straws. The new president made it clear that he would faithfully follow the policies of his predecessor, although, admittedly, he had little choice but to do so.
The United States expressed cautious hope that this election in Turkmenistan will be a step toward democracy. A senior U.S. diplomat attended the inauguration ceremonies in Ashgabat. 

The world pays court to the successor 
At the inauguration ceremony in the grandiose Palace of Spirituality, which was attended by high-ranking officials from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, the US, China and other countries, Gurbungali Berdymukhamedov - in appearance, a younger version of the late Turkmenbashi - was sworn in as Turkmenistan's new leader on February 14th. He pledged continuity, but some say change may result in some uncomfortable diversity as the new dictator may seek less of an anchor to Russia and begin courting China in the long term.
Officially, Berdymukhamedov - who represents the most powerful of the clans in the retinue of late dictator Saparmurat Niyazov - competed with five other candidates for the post of Turkmen president. But in reality, Berdymukhamedov's rivals were in the race largely to lend legitimacy to the elections.
The fact that neither Western countries nor international organizations refused to recognize the elections also lent legitimacy to the new leader who essentially violated the constitution by becoming an acting president in December. He had been Niyazov's deputy in the government and was made interim president after the dictator's death. The move was in apparent violation of the country's constitution, which stipulates that the parliamentary speaker is to take over until elections are held. 
"The new leadership has violated the constitution - and lacks legal credibility, which elections help to acquire," Skhokhrat Kadyrov, renowned Turkmen historian, told ISN Security Watch.
Both Kadyrov and other experts interviewed said they expected Berdymukhamedov to implement limited domestic reforms, but stay the course in terms of foreign policy, in essence neutrality, at least in the short-term. They said they did not expect the diversification of exports of gas, which continues to flow through Russian pipes to the West, for the time being.
"It is the previous president who called all shots in energy policy and the new president will most likely do the same, at least initially," Valery Nesterov, oil and gas analyst at Troika Dialogue investment bank in Moscow, told ISN Security Watch.
A senior Western diplomat agreed that the new leader would continue the same policy. "Turkmenbashi's policy of 'non-alignment' is most likely to stay in force at least in the beginning, while the new leadership takes stock of the situation," the diplomat, who requested anonymity, told ISN Security Watch.
Niyazov - who ruled Turkmenistan with an iron hand for 21 years - essentially set the course of the country's energy policy by signing a deal with Russian gas giant Gazprom in 2003 to export the bulk of gas through Russia for the next 25 years.
Given this agreement and the new president's ties to Moscow - not to mention ties between Moscow and Akmurad Redzhepov, the all-powerful chief of Niyazov's security detail - Berdymukhamedov has little options for foreign policy diversification in the short-term, experts agreed.
Moreover, Russia may use its influence to attempt to cement these ties further by convincing Turkmenistan to join one of its integration projects, the Eurasian Economic Community, according to Arkady Dubnov, one of Russia's most prominent Central Asia experts.
Kadyrov - who works at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs in Oslo - concurred. "The republic's national sovereignty will be even more limited, but it might be a positive development since Russia's involvement would not allow things to go stale and [would] facilitate modernization," Kadyrov said.
Eventually, however, as Berdymukhamedov and his clan gain strength they may attempt to decrease dependence on Russia for energy exports and on other issues and diversify export routes, if not foreign policy, the experts said.
"It will depend on what line Turkmenistan takes in the longer-term - either it will continue to give priority to Russia or pursue independent development of new export routes. Eventually, it is in their interest as it is in any country to diversify," Nesterov of the Troika Dialogue investment bank said.
However, he said, as for the 25-year agreement with Gazprom, "[.] there have been examples when such agreements were nullified" in what would free Turkmenistan 's hands in building new export routes.
Turkmenistan, which sells it gas to Gazprom at US$100 per 1,000 cubic meters, has already had experience in arguing with Russia over energy. The country cut exports to Russia by 13 times in 1998 during a gas export dispute, according to Adzhar Kurtov, an expert with the Azia Analitika Foundation. Turkmenistan has 1.6 percent of world's proven gas reserves, according to Nesterov. No international audit has been done to verify Niyazov's claims that the country has 3 trillion cubic meters of gas.
According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, Turkmenistan has 2.9 trillion cubic meters of gas reserves. According to Niyazov's own estimates, however, the country has total hydrocarbon resources equivalent to 45.44 trillion cubic meters.
It is Turkmenistan's vast resources that Russian experts say have helped the republic avoid being included in US President George W Bush's list of countries in the "axis of evil" and have mitigated Western criticism of Niyazov's regime in general.
Though Western officials' assessments of the recent election were critical, they were also reserved, and the courting process has long been underway.
"What we don't see is people being told to vote for Berdymukhamedov," a Western diplomat told Reuters on 13 February. "They've got a long way to go, but it's a big step for them."
The vote was "absolutely not free and fair," Portuguese parliamentarian Joao Soares said on Sunday. "But [] the fact that they are at least trying to do something that resembles a free election is a step forward," Reuters reported.
US has already made overtures to the new leader. Evan Feigenbaum, deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, met with Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov and others during a four-day visit that ended in late January, discussing issues including trade, democracy, human rights and security cooperation.
The EU has also expressed interest. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency - said after touring the region in December that Central Asia had an "urgent desire" for a EU role.
The EU will engage the new regime even though elections would fall short of democratic standards and be held without observers, a senior Western diplomat told ISN Security Watch. "The current German presidency is very keen to increase the EU focus on Central Asia," said the diplomat, who asked not to be named.
China, the US and the EU are keen on seeing Turkmenistan diversify its exports by building pipelines via Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea, respectively, but so far no progress has been made to those ends. A trans-Caspian pipeline would cost more than US$4 billion, which Turkmenistan could not afford on its own, experts say. The project would also be hindered by the ongoing disputes over ownership of Caspian Sea oilfields.
In one sign of how keen major powers are to anchor Turkmenistan, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov attended the 14 February inauguration ceremony.
However, the Western diplomat said, "Russia is by far the strongest and the EU the weakest - the European Commission doesn't even have a representation in Ashgabat."
Russia has at least two years to continue engaging Turkmenistan before energy-hungry external players, such as China, will have any meaningful influence there, Arkady Dubnov, one of Russia's best known experts on Central Asia, told a recent roundtable on Turkmen elections in Moscow.
While contemplating no immediate change in the foreign policy, the new leader has already promised certain domestic reforms. Among other things, the interim president has vowed to undo Niyazov's pension and educational reforms. Turkmenbashi had revoked the pensions of some 100,000 elderly Turkmen and cut the length of mandatory schooling and restricted enrolment at universities and banned students from studying abroad. He also prohibited the use of the internet, prohibited foreign papers and even banned Russian television channels.
Berdymukhamedov has also promised to lift restrictions on internet access, and has vowed agricultural reform and support for private businesses.
"Reforms are necessary in order to prevent the gradual collapse of the state on account of Turkmenbashi's experiments in the past.
While those reforms are welcome, the Western diplomat warns that real change might never manifest itself. "[] power has a tendency to corrupt and, as the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely," he said.
The country also needs economic reforms and foreign investment into the gas sector if only to keep up with its contractual obligations to export gas, Nesterov said.
Turkmenistan has been producing less than 64 billion cubic meters annually since 2001, while it has already signed contracts under Niyazov to export 60-70 billion cubic meters to Russia and another 30 billion to China, starting from 2009.
While cautiously implementing social and economic reforms, Berdymukhamedov has also turned a blind eye to appeals by foreign NGOs to release political prisoners and initiate democratic reform and will probably continue this. Any meaningful democratisation may irk the conservative wing of the ruling elite, which supported Niyazov's authoritarian style, and Berdymukhamedov would like to avoid confrontations with clans until he gains strength, according to Kadyrov.
The powerful clans in the ruling elite are not interested in allowing Berdymukhamedov to become a second Turkmenbashi, and he will probably not become one at least in the short-term, experts said.
The clan of power ministers led by Redzhepov will continue to dominate, the experts said. "And this is probably not a good development for the country, " Zeyno Baran, a Central Asia expert at the Hudson Institute, a US-based think-tank, told ISN Security Watch.
Eventually, however, the competition between clans may be aggravated to the point that it would allow the exiled opposition to weigh in, Aleksei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Centre told ISN Security Watch.

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FOREIGN COOPERATION

Ashgabat, Moscow to develop constructive partnership

Russia and Turkmenistan want to build a constructive partnership and develop close cooperation. The heads of the Russian and Turkmen foreign ministries, Sergei Lavrov and Rashid Meredov, respectively, had a telephone conversation on January 17, says a statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry and received by Interfax. "During the conversation it was stressed that Russia and Turkmenistan are still keen on building a constructive partnership, developing close cooperation on the basis of equal rights and mutual benefit and will strictly abide by all existing legal documents and agreements," says the document. The Russian Foreign Ministry says that the officials also discussed issues in Russian-Turkmen relations, with a focus on the humanitarian sphere. Lavrov said in a subsequent statement that both sides wish to develop a "constructive partnership" and "close cooperation." He also says all bilateral agreements signed during the tenure of late President Saparmurat Niyazov will be honoured. It is unclear whether Lavrov and Meredov discussed the fate of environmentalist Andrei Zatoka. A Russian-Turkmen citizen, Zatoka was detained in Dashhowuz on December 17 and reportedly charged with illegally possessing a weapon and poisonous substances. His arrest took place four days before news of Niyazov's death was made public. 

Ashgabat, Beijing ink contract for carbamide plant

Turkmenistan and China signed on January 27 a contract for the construction of a carbamide plant with the capacity of 400,000 tonnes in the town of Mary and for reconstruction of existing production units at Maryazot plant. A high-ranking business delegation of China arrived in Ashgabat for this occasion, Turkmenistan.ru reported. 
The agreement was signed in the ministry of energy and industry of Turkmenistan.
The contract worth US$266 million was concluded within the framework of the intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the sphere of chemical industry signed by two countries earlier. Chinese company CITIC GROUP will implement the large-scale project.
According to the contract, 90 percent of works will be funded by a soft loan issued by the Chinese government with the remaining 10 percent covered by the customer, Turkmendokun joint-stock company. During the talks, the Turkmen side invited CITIC GROUP to take part in an international tender for construction of industrial facilities near the village of Garlyk in Lebap province where vast reserves of potassium salt were discovered.

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