19 August 2001
U.S. Commission Nominates Nine Countries As Worst Religious-Freedom Violators
17 August 2001
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has nominated Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Laos, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Turkmenistan for designation by the State Department as "countries of particular concern" -- the world's worst religious-freedom violators, subject to U.S. action under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The Commission also urged redesignation of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan as a "particularly severe violator" of religious freedom. The action came in a 16 August letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"The government of Turkmenistan severely restricts religious activity other than that engaged in by the official Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church. Members of unrecognized religious communities -- including Bahai's, Baptists, Hare Krishnas, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims operating independently of the Sunni Muslim Board, Pentecostals, and Seventh-Day Adventists -- have reportedly been arrested, detained (with allegations of torture and other ill-treatment), imprisoned, deported, harassed, fined, and have had their services disrupted, congregations dispersed, religious literature confiscated, and places of worship destroyed. Specific promises made by President [Saparmurat] Niyazov to senior U.S. officials in 1999 have not been carried out; in fact, the situation continues to deteriorate, eliminating expectations for improvement."
The U.S. established the commission in 1998 to provide to the government independent advice on religious freedom. (USCIRF news release, RFE/RL)
Turkmen President Dismisses Senior Officer For Taking Bribe
17 August 2001
Saparmurat Niyazov issued a decree depriving Muratguly Abayev of his military rank of lieutenant colonel and of all material and other privileges provided for in Turkmen legislation for military servicemen for committing a grave act incompatible with an officer's title.
The head of the communication and automatization unit of the State Border Service, Lieutenant Colonel Abayev, was detained on 8 August while taking a bribe of $150 from Lieutenant Amanov for assisting him in acquiring an apartment. For committing this grave act incompatible with an officer's title and for breaking the law, Abayev was deprived of his military rank, and criminal proceedings were instituted against him. (Turkmen TV)
Intergas Central Asia Cuts Turkmen Gas Transit To Ukraine
16 August 2001
Kazakhstan's Intergas Central Asia company has officially informed the administration of the Itera international group about cutting the transit of Turkmen natural gas, which is supplied to Ukraine across Kazakhstan, to 50 million cubic meters a day.
The announcement was made in a press release from ITERA, who oversaw the supply of 30 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas to Ukraine in 2001.
The further reduction of Turkmen gas transit is caused by the failure of the Ukrainian Energy Ministry to pay the debts of national energy companies, which exceed $20 million, to Itera.
The agreement reached by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Itera President Igor Makarov in Kyiv on 13 July makes the continued supply of Turkmen gas conditional on the Ukrainian Energy Ministry's payment of $20 million and monthly payments of $5 million on the debt of Ukrainian energy companies.
The ministry has not transferred the next $5 million, and Itera is unable to pay for services of Intergas Central Asia, the press release reads.
It says that the Ukrainian president, First Deputy Prime Minister Oleh Dubyna and Energy Minister Stanislav Stashevskiy have been informed about the situation. (Interfax)
Turkmen Patrol Boat Violates Azerbaijani Waters
16 August 2001
A Turkmen speedboat reportedly entered Azerbaijani waters and damaged an Azerbaijani fishing boat.
According to the Azerbaijani newspaper "Zerkalo," competent sources at the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said that at 0200 on 14 August (2100 GMT on 13 August), a military patrol speedboat of the Turkmen navy violated Azerbaijan's sea borders. According to the information, the trespasser crossed the border and damaged a fishing boat near the Kiapaz oil field, which Turkmenistan calls Serdar and Azerbaijan considers its own. The vessel was reported to have been so badly damaged that the fishermen could hardly make their way back.
Commenting on this incident, Ramiz Malikov, head of the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry press service, said that "our job is to defend Azerbaijan's air and land borders, but the defense of the sea border lies outside our jurisdiction. There are border troops in our country to do this." The press service of the Ministry of National Security told "Zerkalo" that they had no concrete information about this incident.
At the same time, "Zerkalo" managed to find out that incidents of this kind are not rare for private commercial fishing boats. According to their source, "if a state-owned fishing boat had been involved in this incident, we would be aware of it. But if we are unaware of the violation that took place, then the incident obviously involved a poaching schooner and one of the Turkmen side's patrol speedboats. This means that this case is private in nature and has no political angle."
However, the Turkmen side denied that such an incident had happened. The Tukmen defense minister's assistant Major Kulkaraev stated this officially on 17 August. ("Zerkalo", RFE/RL's correspondent in Ashgabat)
Niyazov To Read Lecture To Students
15 August 2001
Turkmenistan.Ru reports that in the beginning of September President Niyazov is going to read a lecture to students of the country. The Turkmen leader declared so on 14 August, during a conference with officials from TV, radio, and the Ministry of Culture.
The main subject of his lecture will be 10 years of independence and problems of the spiritual-moral revival of the Turkmen people. (Turkmenistan.ru, RFE/RL)
Niyazov: 'True Democracy Is Here, In Turkmenistan'
14 August 2001
Saparmurat Niyazov has turned on the media in his country, criticizing journalists for a lack of initiative and for over-praising the country's president rather than reflecting reality.
Speaking at a meeting on 14 August with the heads of the state-run TV and radio company and Culture Ministry officials, he said: "Programs like this, when everything is about me, make people tired. Therefore I ask you to stop such things completely. Please demonstrate to me your original creative works, because it is not so hard to make programs about me, praising and quoting me and showing my visits."
He also warned journalists against paying too much attention to politics in broadcasts: "I do not ask you to get too involved in politics, because our state has a neutral status. Therefore in your programs, like 'Char Tarapdan' and 'Watan' [news and current affairs programs], you should carefully select what to broadcast."
Straying into politics himself, Niyazov touched upon democracy and the multiparty system. "Some people keep advising us how to intensify reforms and create a multiparty system. They say that there is no democracy at all. But in fact if one is capable of understanding and seeing, true democracy is here, in Turkmenistan.... If necessary, I can establish ten parties. But those parties will be useless for the society.... Nobody is being persecuted here and the state is governed by the will of the entire nation."
Niyazov had harsh words for Minister of Culture Orazgeldi Aidogdyyev. He said that the Ministry of Culture was ineffective in improving the cultural situation and told the minister: "Aidogdyyev, you are not even trying to work better. Actually, you have to work day and night to bring culture closer to the people." Aidogdyyev was demoted from the post of deputy chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers in April, and warned that he would be sacked altogether if he did not prove himself over the next six months. (Turkmen TV. RFE/RL)
Kyiv Ready To Continue Negotiations On Ukraine's Debt With Ashgabat
17 August 2001
Ukraine has received an official proposal from the government of Turkmenistan on the restructuring of Ukrainian debt.
Ukraine has begun considering these proposals and will be ready to
continue the negotiations on debt restructuring after it has analyzed the proposals, according to the Ukrainian Finance Ministry statement released in Kyiv on 14 August.
"The Ukrainian Finance Ministry gives high marks to the relations between Ukraine and Turkmenistan, respects the position of the Turkmen side and welcomes its readiness for constructive negotiations on the restructuring of Ukraine's debts," the document read.
The Finance Ministry recalls that Ukraine has stressed the special status of its debts to Turkmenistan many times, including during the negotiations with the Paris Club. This is explained by the fact that the economic situation in Turkmenistan is different from that of the other members of the Paris Club of Creditors. In addition, in 1995 Ashgabat met Kyiv halfway and restructured the gas debts that existed at that time, the release reads.
At the same time, Ukraine hopes that Turkmenistan will show an understanding of the limitations that are now affecting Ukraine, and also take into account the agreements reached in Paris, the statement says.
As was reported earlier, after technical consultations with Ukrainian experts last week representatives of the Turkmen government said there will be no debt restructuring on the conditions of the Paris Club. According to them, Ashgabat insists on more profitable conditions for restructuring of Ukrainian debt, in particular, its repayment within 3 1/2 years starting in 2001.
Ukraine will be able to start negotiations with Turkmenistan after the protocol with the Paris Club comes into effect, which will take place after the International Monetary Fund resumes its Extended Fund Facility program for Ukraine.
The restructuring of Ukraine's debt for Turkmen gas is ruled by the intergovernmental agreement of 5 November 1994. Under this agreement, Ukraine's debt it $723.44 million, including penalties amounting to $51.54 million. (Interfax-Ukraine)
Exxon Mobil To Start Drilling First Exploratory Well In Turkmenistan In September
14 August 2001
Mobil Exploration and Producing Turkmenistan Inc., a subsidiary of U.S. Exxon Mobil, plans to start drilling a first exploratory well at the Cheleken prospect in Turkmenistan in September, the company's press service said.
This drilling work will be the next stage in the implementation of a production-sharing agreement (PSA) for the Garashsyzlyk-2 contract territory, signed in July 1998 for a period of 25 years.
The aim of the project is to establish volumes of oil and gas reserves in deep beds that are under beds that are currently being developed at a number of deposits.
Mobil Exploration and Producing Turkmenistan Inc. is the operator of a consortium for the PSA and owns a 52.4 percent share in the project. Other participants in the consortium include Monument Resources Caspian Ltd. (27.6 percent) and the state concern Turkmenneft with 20 percent.
The consortium has received licenses to carry out geological development work to establish the oil and gas reserves in horizons under beds that are currently being developed at seven deposits and has received the right to all stratigraphic horizons outside these deposits.
The Garashsyzlyk-2 contract territory is a large oil and gas block in Turkmenistan, with an area of 4,500 square kilometers, and includes seven large deposits from the upper beds of which Turkmenneft is currently producing 80 percent of the republic's gas. Turkmenistan produced 7.1 million tons of oil in 2000 and plans to increase this to 10 million tons in 2001. (Interfax)
Russia, Turkmenistan, Ukraine To Draft Gas Transportation Accord
13 August 2001
Russia, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine are drafting an agreement on the coordination of Turkmen gas transportation.
The need for such a document, which will ensure steady and mutually advantageous supplies of natural gas, was emphasized by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkmen President Niyazov in a telephone conversation on 13 August. They agreed to instruct government working groups to draft such an agreement.
The presidents also informed each other about the work on draft agreements on long-term cooperation in the field of Turkmen gas supplies and transportation and on the participation of Russian companies in the development of Turkmen oil and gas fields both on land and in the sea. (ITAR-TASS, Interfax)
Turkmen Government Expands Social Privileges
13 August 2001
As Saparmurat Niyazov said on 10 August at a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers, the decision has been made that poor Turkmen families will be granted flour free of charge.
The president specified that this privilege will be given to families, whose income is less than 500,000 manats per person (one US dollar at the official rate is 5,200 manats). According to Niyazov, the possibility for acceptance of such a decision was granted by the grain-growers of the country, who gathered a crop of 2 million tons of food grain this year. (Turkmenistan.ru)
Turkey Urges Iran, Azerbaijan To Calm Caspian Row
13 August 2001
Turkey's Foreign Ministry said today that it has sent a message to Iran's ambassador urging a dialogue with Azerbaijan over the disputed waters of the Caspian Sea.
Last month an Iranian gunboat threatened an Azerbaijani-licensed oil ship in the oil-rich sea. Turkish officials urged Iran to abide by UN principles and abstain from threat of force.
A statement from the Foreign Ministry said Turkey is carefully watching the "latest tension...that arose because the legal status in the Caspian Sea is not yet clear."
The five countries that border the Caspian -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- have been unable to agree on how to share the Caspian's oil wealth. A Russian official last week said presidents of the littoral states are scheduled to hold their first-ever summit this fall in Turkmenistan. (RFE/RL Turkmen service, Reuters)
Development Of Disputed Caspian Oil, Gas Fields 'Impermissible'
10 August 2001
The development of Caspian oil and gas fields is impermissible, said Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani at the end of a meeting with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat on 10 August.
He said the leaders of Iran and Turkmenistan oppose tapping the disputed Caspian sites until the Caspian states have settled the sea's status.
Ahani added that the positions of Iran and Turkmenistan on the Caspian's status are close.
The deputy minister reported that President Mohammad Khatami plans to visit Turkmenistan this year. However, he did not elaborate on whether the upcoming visit was timed for the Caspian summit planned for autumn, or if these will be separate bilateral consultations on the Caspian's status. (Interfax)
Central Asia On Verge Of Epidemic
6 August 2001
The next outbreak of AIDS infections will, most likely, fall on the five countries of the Central Asia -- Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan -- medical experts from the International AIDS Prevention Committee declared.
These data, however, are refuted by the official government sources of these countries, stating that the officially registered quantity of HIV-infected is still very small.
Nevertheless, preventive actions taken in the former Soviet republics are rather ineffective, and consequently the official statistics do not prompt international experts' confidence. Especially taking into account that for almost 10 years since their independence from the Soviet Union, the countries of Central Asia have seen stable growth in drug addiction, prostitution, and the spread of venereal diseases.
According to the UN observers, the spread of AIDS in the area is directly related to Central Asia's role as a transit point for narcotics from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe. The high level of crime in the area and decreasing social and material status of the overwhelming majority of the citizens of these countries has resulted, under statistical data, in that more than half of the area's population uses narcotics in some way.
Also, the virtual absence of properly equipped clinics leads to numerous cases of infection with "common" venereal diseases and AIDS. The unofficial number of HIV-infected cases has long exceeded 300,000. (GazetaSNG.ru, MIGnews.com)
U.S.: Turkmenistan Among Worst Religious-Freedom Violators
17 August 2001
By Don Hill
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF), said today that Turkmenistan should be added to the State Department's list of what it calls "countries of particular concern" for their violations of religious freedom.
Commission spokesperson Lawrence Goodrich told RFE/RL in a telephone interview from Washington that Turkmenistan systematically suppresses all religions other than Sunni Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church.
He said the suppression comes in the form of arrests, detention, imprisonment, fines, and harassment. Authorities have bulldozed churches and other places of worship, Goodrich said, and there have been credible reports of torture:
"We give a lot of credence to those [reports] because they are frequent, the come from various sources, and there's plenty of first-hand evidence that that's going on."
The commission was created by the U.S. Congress three years ago to monitor religious freedom in other countries and advise the president, secretary of state, and Congress on how best to promote it.
Goodrich said the CIRF, in a letter this week to Secretary of State Colin Powell, singled out Afghanistan as what it called "a particularly severe violator of religious freedom." He noted, in particular, massacres of Shiite Muslims, the official destruction of ancient Buddhist religious statues, and requirements initiated by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban that believers in minority religions wear identifying symbols.
The commission said its has not recommended Uzbekistan for designation as a country of particular concern but has asked the State Department to maintain a strict watch of religious-freedom developments there. Goodrich said in the interview that Uzbekistan is may eventually come under CIRF condemnation:
"We're also quite concerned about Uzbekistan, although we did not recommend it as a country of particular concern. But Uzbekistan is walking really close to the line, in the commission's view, and we have asked the State Department to keep a very close eye on events there. There have been round-ups of thousands of religious men on the pretext that they are somehow Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, just because they are outwardly religious."
The CIRF spokesperson said that the commission is not presently expressing concern about any of the nations in transition from communism in Central and Eastern Europe. In Russia, however, the commission has been following the application of a law requiring re-registration of religious organizations:
"We have been watching Russia for the last two years very carefully to see how the registration law is implemented there. And, of course, what we find in Russia is that the federal government appears for the most part to be trying to do the right thing, but that there are lots of problems with local and provincial officials who are violating the Russian Constitution and violating Russian law in harassing or refusing to register legitimate religious groups."
In its letter to the State Department, the commission recommended that 10 countries be placed or retained on a list of egregious religious freedom violators. In addition to Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, these are Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Laos, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. (RFE/RL)
Turkmenistan Has Problems in Collecting Debt
15 August 2001
By Michael Lelyveld
Turkmenistan appears to be having little success in collecting on debts for its past natural gas supplies.
In recent days, both Azerbaijan and Ukraine have resisted Turkmenistan's claims for gas that it delivered over seven years ago. Relations with Kyiv are friendly, while those with Baku have been frosty. Yet, the debt talks with both countries have led to a similar lack of results.
On 14 August, Ukrainian Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh said his country would keep negotiating and would offer better terms for settling its $281 million bill for Turkmen gas it used in the winter of 1993-94.
Kinakh cited the "close relationship" between the two nations, but he did not disclose what Ukraine's next offer would be. On 13 August, Ashgabat rejected an attempt to reschedule the arrears over the next 12 years, demanding payment in 3 1/2 years instead.
The accounting seems to exclude an additional $82 million in penalties, which Turkmenistan says Ukraine owes. The dispute also appears to ignore a barter agreement for services and joint projects, which was supposed to have cleared up the matter last March.
Ukraine is Turkmenistan's biggest gas customer. The two countries signed a five-year supply deal in May. But they failed to clear up their old accounts. For new supplies, Turkmenistan has been keeping Ukraine on a tight tether, demanding regular payments in advance, although only half have been in cash.
Even those arrangements have been less than foolproof. Kazakhstan recently cut the flow of Turkmen gas to Ukraine after the Russian gas trader Itera stopped paying for transit through Kazakh pipelines. That move was revenge for Kyiv's refusal to pay Itera for gas debts run up by Ukrainian power generators last winter.
The tactic proved partially successful last month, when Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma agreed to settle $20 million of the $56 million debt of the power companies. Kazakhstan then restored the flow of Turkmen gas.
With Azerbaijan, the talks have been more contentious but just as inconclusive.
Last week, Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov said Turkmenistan could not "frighten" his country with "threats" to take Baku to an international court of arbitration, Azerbaijan's ANS television reported.
Abbasov said Turkmenistan lacked documentation for its claim that Azerbaijan owes $59 million for gas supplied in the same winter of 1993-94.
Baku says that the government's debt is about $18 million, while Abbasov argues that an additional $8 million "is debt owed by companies," Interfax reported. Kuchma has used much the same argument in avoiding debts owed to Itera and Russia's Gazprom.
The situation with Azerbaijan is complicated by Turkmenistan's competing claims to several Caspian oil fields. Baku sees Ashgabat's debt collection efforts as another form of pressure over Caspian border issues.
In the most recent round of disputes, Turkmenistan has said nothing about debts owed by Kazakhstan, which broke off talks in February after failing to agree on terms for paying $52 million for Turkmen gas and electricity.
Kazakhstan is in much better shape to settle its debts than either Azerbaijan or Ukraine. The country had $3.4 billion in hard currency and gold reserves in its national bank and national fund at the start of this month, according to Interfax. But it apparently sees no pressing reason to pay.
All told, Turkmenistan claims it is owed over $1 billion, a figure that compares with the country's $1.6 billion in foreign debt, according to an accounting by President Saparmurat Niyazov in May.
But Niyazov seems powerless to compel his customers to pay up. His only export routes are through Russia, giving him little leverage. Although exports to Iran reportedly doubled in the first half of this year, they remain behind schedule to reach the 6 billion cubic meters that were promised for 2001 and only a fraction of the 1.3 billion cubic meters that Iran discussed in February.
Turkmenistan's major option of a trans-Caspian pipeline to Turkey was also blocked by wrangling with Azerbaijan over shares in the transit. As a result, the arrears issue has simply been added to the list of hopeless disputes instead of becoming an element in a possible trade-off.
As long as Ashgabat pursues policies that seem to assure isolation, it may have no choice but to keep pumping gas to customers that see debt payment as voluntary. (RFE/RL)
Why Did Turkmen Railways' Chief Die?
17 August 2001
A listener, who is close to power ministries' sources and wants to be unnamed, sent a letter to RFE/RL.
On 14 June 2001 the Turkmen railways chief, Khalmurat Berdiev, was killed by a train in Ashgabat. A few days before this accident happened, the Russian minister of transportation sent a telegram to the chief of the Turkmen railways. The Russian side demanded the return of railway cargo cars, which had not been returned by the Turkmen side in time. There was no answer to that telegram.
Soon the Russian ministry sent another official telegram and the invoice for $20 million for the mentioned cargo cars.
Those hundreds of cars could not be returned to Russia, because they had been long since sold to Iran as metal trash. Experts suppose that the metal could have been remanufactured already and sold back to Turkmenistan as commodities.
Turkmen President Niyazov has learned of this case. Top officials of the Turkmen railways, such as Khalykov, a former vice premier; Pirliev, head of the transport department; and Altymukhammedov, head of finance and planning department, have been immediately detained. Although all the suspects are considered to have already paid compensation to the state in the amount of 1 billion manats each, it is still not clear who organized that deal with Iran and what exact damage had been caused. The investigation is under way.
Cotton Harvesting Starts
16 August 2001
According to an unofficial order by Niyazov, state identification plates have been withdrawn temporarily from the buses and minibuses, operating on the routes Ashgabat-Gokdepe, Ashgabat-Bakherden, and Ashgabat-Bezmein, in order not to let them transport passengers commercially. Those buses are now used for the transportation of state employees, students, and even schoolchildren to and from the cotton fields. This measure will last till the end of the cotton-harvesting season.
Every family is supposed to collect at least 250 kilograms of cotton and bring it to the state collecting points. Those who refuse "to freely help the state", have their water, gas, and electricity cut off. Local officials confirm they had recieved such an order from the "upper" chiefs.
People now thank God for having trolleybuses, because they can not be used as additional transport to the cotton fields. (Geldymurat Ataev, Ashgabat)