Turkmenistan: new boss almost as wacky as old boss

Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov was sworn in as Turkmenistan’s president Feb. 17, having won last week’s election with a thoroughly predictable 97% of the vote. The seven token competitors were all from the same Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the only on permitted. Several of them praised the incumbent during the race. The primary Western monitoring group, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), declined to even send observers, citing the lack of real competition. An elaborate inauguration ceremony was attended by some 3,000 in the capital, Ashgabat, but no foreign leaders attended. Congratulatory messages were sent by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Uzbek leader Islam Karimov, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev. With natural gas reserves estimated to be the world’s fourth largest—exceeding those of the US—Turkmenistan is strategically critical. The hydrocarbon wealth is being used to consolidate support for the regime, with household gas, water and electricity all provided free (and families receiving monthly rations of salt). And Berdymukhamedov says he wants both greater foreign investment and transition to a multi-party system. But the regime remains one of the most autocratic on earth, and Berdymukhamedov is starting more and more to mirror his notoriously megalomaniacal predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov…

Despotism of eccentricity —again
Taking power upon Niyazov’s death in December 2006, Berdymukhammedov at first took moves to dismantle the former leader’s personality cult. He ordered the removal of the numerous monuments and portraits of his predecessor in towns and cities across the country; he restored the original names of the months that Niyazov had renamed after himself and his mother. But now giant billboards bearing Berdymukhammedov’s face brood over Turkmen cities. While Niyazov’s self-penned tome the Rukhnama (Book of the Soul) has been removed as required reading in Turkmenistan’s schools, Berdymukhamedov is said to be working on his own such spiritual guide for the Turkmen nation, by various reports entitled either the Turkmennama (Book of the Turkmen) or Adamnama (Book of Humanity). While Niyazov bore the title “Turkmenbashi” (Leader of the Turkmen), Berdymukhammedov has had the nation’s Council of Elders bestow upon him the formal sobriquet of “Arkadag” (Protector). While the 1991-2006 Niyazov era was officially dubbed “Turkmenistan’s Golden Age,” Berdymukhammedov has hailed his time in power “The Era of Turkmenistan’s Great Renaissance.” Berdymukhammedov’s personal tastes are becoming national holidays—such as the “Day of Akhal-Teke,” the horse breed the president hails as the nation’s “pride and glory.” The office where Berdymukhammedov’s father served as a police functionary has been turned into a museum. When Berdymukhammedov played a love song, “For You, My White Flowers,” on national TV, the guitar he used was immediately declared a “great treasure” and sent to a museum for safe-keeping. (RFE/RL, Feb. 19; AP, Moscow Times, RFE/RL, Feb. 17; NYT, Reuters, Feb. 13)

Trans-Afghan pipeline route in balance
This increasingly personalistic dictatorship is slated to become a regional lynchpin of Eurasia’s energy infrastructure with construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline—if the powers involved can ever work out their differences that continue to block progress. Pakistan and Turkmenistan are scheduled to meet in Dubai this month to try and break a deadlock on gas pricing and transit fees that has held up the Gas Sales Purchase Agreement (GSPA) for the pipeline. At a recent meeting held between Pakistani and Afghan authorities in Islamabad, the two governments agreed to a uniform transit fee for the project.

The dictatorship that obtains in Turkmenistan is convenient to US propaganda efforts, as Washington sees control of the prized trans-Afghan pipeline route fall under the sway of rival powers. The Turkmen regime also exercises greater state control over hydrocarbon resources than is considered proper under neoliberal dogma. At the end of last year, Turkmenistan agreed to increase its exports to China from the giant inland South Yolotan field, which Beijing has provided financing to develop, from the previously agreed 40 billion cubic meters per year to 65 bcm/y. The gas is to be exported to the People’s Republic via a new pipeline linking the two nations. Turkmenistan also announced it will not invite foreign oil companies to invest in the exploration or production of its prized onshore gas fields, restricting international energy firms to offshore blocks in its sector of the Caspian Sea, and service contracts for onshore fields. Dubai-based Dragon Oil, Malaysian state oil major Petronas and other foreign oil firms have invested some $3 billion in offshore production sharing agreements (PSAs) since 2010. Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Houston-based TXOil Ltd and Abu Dhabi-based Mubadala Oil & Gas have also recently made bids for PSAs with Turkmenistan. (Asia Times, Feb. 18; Express Tribune, Pakistan, Feb. 11; Reuters, March 4, 2011)

See our last posts on Turkmenistan, the regional pipeline wars, and the Great Game for Central Asia