Books on Turkmenistan
Update No: 327 - (26/03/08)
The new broom
There is no doubt that things are happening in Turkmenistan in the aftermath of
the death of President Saparmurat Nivazov in December 2006, eighteen months ago.
The new president, with the unpronounceable long name, Gurbanguly
Berdymukhammedov, is initiating important changes.
Berdymukhammedov inherited one of the most repressive and bizarre governments in
the world; and it takes time to make some of the more important changes. But
some things can be done early on. He is correcting some of the dottier aspects
of the Niyazov regime, who banned things left, right and centre, including
revered traditional cultural activities. A significant move for the arts-loving
people is announcing the return of the performing arts to Turkmenistan,
Berdymukhammedov said, "I propose to breathe life back into the lyrical
arts in this country."
If he follows through on this promise, Turkmenistan may one day see a return of
the many performers who left the country in the last decade -- and they will
include non-ethnic Turkmen. Since Turkmenistan does not produce many movies for
the big screen, reopening the cinemas means showing foreign films in theatres
that will give citizens a taste of the world outside that has been difficult for
them to see.
And the return of the circus also should showcase a source of Turkmen national
pride. Berdymukhammedov noted that bringing back the circus will include
"national equestrian shows" because -- as for many Central Asians --
the horse enjoys a prominent place in Turkmen history and culture.
Much work still needs to be done to prepare for the return of the performing
arts to Turkmenistan. The state opera house was torn down after opera was banned
and in its place stands a shopping centre. Berdymukhammedov acknowledged this by
saying that it is "time to rebuild and reopen." And this small but
important step could be the first stage in ending the government's "Turkmenization"
Cautiously Lifting State Control
Most of the country's production is still state-owned, state-directed and
state-controlled. The government has also subsidized housing, energy and staple
foodstuffs. And it has maintained an artificially strong exchange rate for its
currency, the manat, that masks a real average monthly income of $150, according
to World Bank data.
Berdymukhammedov's first moves this year were to decree the opening of money
changing offices, devalue the official rate to 6,200 manat per dollar from 5,200
and establish a commercial rate of about 20,000 manat per dollar. The actions
were aimed at helping to bring the official exchange rate in line with the black
market rate. "Without a doubt, this is the biggest reform,'' says one
diplomat. "The next challenge is to bring in new forms of ownership.''
The Next Frontier
US policymakers believe that they can convince the new president to open up his
country's purported vast reserves of natural gas to American companies.
Washington is aiming to revive a strategy that led to the greatest US diplomatic
triumph in the Caspian Basin to date -- the construction of the
Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline in the late 1990s and early part of this
decade. Sceptics, however, say the US push may be too little, too late.
Russia presently enjoys an overwhelming advantage in the Caspian Basin,
underscored by the December deal -- signed by Russian, Turkmen and Kazakhstani
leaders -- to greatly expand a pipeline network that runs along the Caspian
Sea's shoreline. At this late stage, especially given Washington's preoccupation
with the Iraq war, the United States may lack the resources and the influence to
surmount numerous obstacles in the Caspian Basin.
For one, the so-called Prikaspiiski agreement dealt a heavy blow to
American-supported plans of building a Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), which would
take gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan along the sea-bed and then onward via
existing pipelines through Georgia to Turkey. That plan may not be commercially
viable if the Prikaspiiski pipeline gets built. Similarly, European Union-backed
plans for the Nabucco pipeline from Turkey to Austria took a hit with a deal
between Russia and Bulgaria signed earlier this month for a pipeline across the
But the United States will not yet concede defeat to Russia. The centerpiece of
the State Department's effort to repulse the latest Russian advance in the
Caspian Basin is the creation of a new office, the Coordinator of Eurasian
Energy Diplomacy. Steven Mann, formerly US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
of State for South and Central Asian Affairs and US ambassador to Turkmenistan,
has been appointed to the post.
Washington is also seeking a high-level envoy to bring more diplomatic heft to
the US bargaining position, but the Bush administration is having trouble
finding a suitably high-profile diplomat to fill the post. The State Department
reportedly had selected Thomas Pickering, a former ambassador to Russia and top
department official, but he withdrew his name from consideration.
The primary task for Mann and the would-be new envoy will be convincing
Berdymukhamedov to grant American firms the opportunity to explore and develop
Turkmenistan's gas fields. Mann is wasting no time in trying to woo
Berdymukhamedov. On January 28, he arrived in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat for a
series of top-level meetings with Turkmen leaders, including the president,
according to the official newspaper Neytral'nii Turkmenistan.
Buoying US hopes for a comeback is the belief that the Prikaspiiski pipeline's
expansion blueprint will never get off the drawing board. "Pipeline
declarations are a dime a dozen," said one American official, speaking on
condition of anonymity. "If declarations counted, we would have seven
pipelines criss-crossing Afghanistan into India. You only know that a pipeline
is real when you get to financial close."
Similarly, while the Bulgaria-Russia deal "is not positive," the
official said "there is still room for Nabucco." The new diplomatic
office is similar to one that existed at the State Department from 1998-2004 --
a period when, against seemingly daunting odds, the United States promoted the
construction of the BTC pipeline. The BTC route, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, which by
crossing Turkey circumvents Russia, prevents Moscow from achieving a monopoly of
Caspian Basin export routes to the West. "Two successive administrations
got it seriously right," the official said.
The key to success back then, the official stressed, was focusing first on
getting access to the energy reserves and only then concentrating on the
pipeline to get it out, rather than on getting the pipeline built first. Only
when there is guaranteed access to the gas will Western companies and perhaps
more importantly, financiers be interested in building a pipeline, the official
But skeptics wonder if the US effort has enough weight to resist Russian
opposition. They note that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is personally involved
in arranging oil and gas deals with other former Soviet republics. The
to-be-named US special envoy will not be able to wield anywhere near the same
kind of influence as does the Russian leader. US officials believe they can best
make their case by stressing that American companies have better ecological
records and better practices of training local workers than does the Russian
state-controlled gas company Gazprom.
INDEPENDENT AUDIT OF GAS RESERVES
There are signs that Turkmenistan may be receptive to some American diplomatic
sweet-talking. The most significant recent signal sent by Berdymukhamedov was an
announcement that Ashgabat would allow an independent audit of the country's gas
reserves. This is so fundamental to schemes involving Turkmenistan.
The country's leaders have hitherto signed deals and declarations of intent in a
blaze of publicity, and as quickly yet more quietly, cancelled them. There has
been massive speculation about what reserves are already committed and what if
anything remains. The 'pipeline deal' through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India
has been on- off, for perhaps twenty years and still there is no deal. Of course
war-torn Afghanistan with its semi-independent warlords has been been the
obvious deterrent - international financiers are well aware of what happened to
the Russian pipeline through Chechnya - and indeed currently to pipelines in
Northern Iraq, but the fundamental question that may now for the first time be
answered, is whether Turkmenistan actually has the necessary quantities of gas
to supply, given its existing contractual commitments.
Too many uncertainties may remain to make a convincing argument that Western
companies are a better option for Turkmenistan, said Martha Brill Olcott, a
Central Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It is not
clear how much a pipeline will cost, how much natural gas is in the country, and
how much of it would be left after Turkmenistan fulfills its obligations to
China and Russia.
The Russians, who exploited Niyazov's isolation mercilessly, are treating his
successor quite differently. They have agreed to a 50% rise in the price of gas
they buy from the Turkmens whom they wish to keep on side. There is all to play
for in Turkmenistan.