19 August 2000
RFE/RL Correspondent In Ashgabat To Continue Reporting Despite Political Pressure
August 18, 2000
Despite increasing pressure from Turkmen authorities to stop reporting for RFE/RL, Saparmurat Ovezberdiev, the Turkmen Service correspondent in Ashgabat, will continue his work.
Ovezberdiev was told yesterday by the KNB, the National Security forces formerly known as the KGB, that he can no longer report for RFE/RL because he is not accredited in Turkmenistan. Yet, RFE/RL has an official permission from the Turkmen Foreign Ministry, enabling its journalists to work in the republic.
The ban on Ovezberdiev's reporting would leave the RFE/RL Turkmen Service without an official correspondent inside Turkmenistan. (RFE/RL)
Turkmen Government Contacts RFE/RL In A Surprise Move
August 18, 2000
President Saparmurat Niyazov's Press Secretary, Kakamurat Ballyev, telephoned RFE/RL correspondent in Ashgabat today saying he wanted to contribute an exclusive report to RFE/RL Turkmen Service program.
Ballyev's report praised president Niyazov's cadres policy and recent changes in the presidential administration.
Ballyev's second report, which he faxed to RFE/RL, applauded president Niyazov's speech to be given at the UN General Assembly meeting in September.
Both reports were aired by RFE/RL Turkmen Service during regular broadcast as a view of a govenment official. (RFE/RL)
Five Azeris Pardoned By Turkmen President, Extradited To Baku
August 18, 2000
Azerbaijani news agency Turan reported today that five Azerbaijani citizens imprisoned in Turkmenistan for various crimes were extradited to Baku today after being pardoned by Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.
The official announcement was made today by the head of the department for correctional issues and social protection of the [Azerbaijani] Justice Ministry, Niyazi Mammadov.
Mammadov said that Niyazov signed the pardon on March 24, 1999 on Gurban Bairam [Muslim holiday]. However, the extradition process took more than a year.
The five pardoned Azerbaijani citizens were charged with murder, theft and robbery. At present, 11 Azerbaijani citizens remain in Turkmen prisons, while eight Turkmen citizens are held in Azerbaijani prisons.
Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan are currently negotiating a bilateral agreement on legal assistance and extradition of prisoners. (BBC Central Asia Monitoring - Turan)
Niyazov's Speeches To Be Published In Booklets
August 17, 2000
The following is a report by Turkmen TV broadcast on August 17: "Speeches and reports delivered by our highly esteemed President Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Niyazov at government sessions and various meetings, every precious word pronounced by him, raise immediate, deep interest among people in our beloved country.
In connection with this, the president's press service and the state news service have initiated an excellent undertaking - the publication of the president's speeches in separate booklets, in addition to newspaper publications.
[Reporter] From now on, every speech by Saparmurat Turkmenbashi will be made available to people on the very next day after its publication in the press.
One of such publications is a speech entitled "The Turkmen people's path of honesty," delivered by Saparmurat Turkmenbashi on July 4, 2000 at a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers. (BBC Central Asia Monitoring - Turkmen TV Channel 1)
Top Turkmen Officials Get Performance-Related No Pay
August 16, 2000
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has refused to pay his subordinates their August wage due to poor performance, a report said today.
The Soviet-style dictator issued an order yesterday that the mayor of the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, Ashir Cherkezov, as well as eight other senior officials, should be denied their cash this month.
The action was being taken "in connection with the dissatisfactory way they had fulfilled their work duties," the government Neutralny Turkmenistan newspaper reported.
Niyazov criticized serious failures in work to develop the city's infrastructure and slammed Ashgabat's mayor for awarding land to build houses "to the first person he came across", the newspaper reported. (AFP)
Melon Holiday Celebrated In Turkmenistan
August 14, 2000
Turkmen Melon Holiday, introduced by President Saparmurat Niyazov in 1994, is being marked in Turkmenistan today.
The national holiday is celebrated on the second Sunday of August and is aimed at reviving the world popularity of Turkmen melons.
The second international melon congress, organized by the Turkmen Fruit and Vegetable Trade Association, was held in Ashgabat ahead of the festival.
Melon growing began developing on Turkmen territory in ancient times, judging from melon seeds found at the site of the ancient city of Gyaur-Kala in Merv (4th century A.D.).
Selectionist Durdy Nepesov, well-known not only in Turkmenistan, but also in the whole of the former Soviet Union, grows more than 100 varieties of Turkmen melons on his plot of land. Today, Turkmen farmers grow over 400 types of melons.
The holiday is marked by public festivities and performances of Turkmen folk dancers. (Interfax)
Turkmenistan's Eastern Regions No Longer In Need Of Uzbek Electricity
August 17, 2000
Turkmen TV reported today that the town of Gaurdak [eastern Turkmenistan] has been connected to the Turkmen electricity grid. Populated areas of Khodzhambass, Niyazov, and Koytendag Districts, all in the southeast [right bank of the Amudarya River] of Lebap Region, as well as the industrial town of Gaurdak, have been linked up to Turkmenistan's unified electricity grid as well.
In the past, the electricity in these areas was supplied by Uzbekistan.
Creating a unified Turkmen electricity grid required the construction of two 110 [kV] power transmission lines, each 1,500 meters long, and installation of additional equipment to upgrade the Voskhod transformer substation. (BBC Central Asia Monitoring - Turkmen TV Channel 1)
Investment In Turkmenistan Up 3% In January-July
August 15, 2000
Investment in Turkmenistan rose 3% year-on-year to 4.2 trillion manat in the first seven months of 2000 (5,200 manat/$1), the National Institute for Government Statistics and Information said in an economy report.
Turkmen companies and organizations financed 34% of investment on their own, while borrowed funds financed 28%, down from respectively 37% and 32% in the first seven months of 1999. Foreign investment accounted for 11% of total capital investment, the same as last year. Budget funding and state funds financed respectively 3% and 18% of investment, up from 1% and 13% in January-July 1999.
Foreign direct investment totaled an estimated 450 billion manat in the seven months. As of July 1, foreign companies were helping to build 137 assets, with a combined construction contract price of $3.7 billion. (Interfax)
Turkmenistan's Favorable Trade Balance Grows
August 14, 2000
According to the Turkmen National Statistics Agency, Turkmenistan's foreign trade turnover in the first six months of 2000 amounted to 2,019 million dollars, which was 52% up on the same period last year, the Turkmen State News Agency reported today.
There was a positive foreign trade balance of 227 million dollars against 121 million dollars in the first half of last year, the report said.
In the first six months of 2000, Turkmenistan's exports totaled 1,123 million dollars, 69% up compared to the same period last year, while its imports rose 35% to 896 million dollars.
Russia was Turkmenistan's biggest trading partner in the first half of 2000, accounting for 44% of its exports. Italy came next with 17%, Turkey - 8%, Iran - 7%, and Switzerland - 3%.
The report said that in this period Turkmenistan exported 14.7 billion cubic meters of natural gas, 771,600 tons of crude oil, 1,343,300 tons of petroleum products, 109,000 tons of cotton fiber, and 13,000 tons of cotton thread. (BBC Central Asia Monitoring - Turkmen State News Service)
Lukoil's Second Well In Northern Caspian Strikes Oil
August 15, 2000
A second oil well Lukoil is drilling in Russia's sector of the Caspian Sea has struck oil, Lukoil President Vagit Alekperov told Interfax today in St. Petersburg.
The well, drilled at the Yuri Korchagin structure (formerly called Shirotny), is producing "several hundred tons (of oil)" a day, he said.
Lukoil began drilling the second well in the Severny block, located in the northern portion of the Caspian, in early June. The well was drilled to a depth of 2,500 meters.
The Severny block includes five structures, including the Khvalynsky and Yuri Korchagin. The first well, Khvalynsky-1, was drilled to a depth of 4,200 meters and also produced a flow of hydrocarbons. (Interfax)
Lukoil, Azerbaijan Poised To Sign Deal On Two Oil Fields
August 15, 2000
Russian oil company Lukoil and Azerbaijani state oil company SOCAR are ready to sign the production-sharing agreement (PSA) on the onshore Govsany and Zykh oil fields, spokesman for Lukoil-Baku, Eldar Aliyev, told Interfax today.
The signing of the contract, however, could come in late September or early October when President Vladimir Putin makes an official visit to Azerbaijan, Aliyev said.
SOCAR had signed an agreement on the basic principles of the PSA on Govsany and Zykh. Remaining reserves at the fields, located in the southeastern portion of the Absheron peninsula, (35-40 kilometers east of Baku) total 20 million tons. Development will cost $250 million. SOCAR and Lukoil will each receive 50% of output.
Lukoil is participating in several other projects in Azerbaijan. It has a 10% stake in the Azeri, Chirag, and Guneshli field development, 10% in Shah-Deniz, and 60% in D-222. The company has already invested over $400 million in Azerbaijani oil and gas projects, Lukoil-Baku reported. (Interfax)
Meeting Of Experts From Five Caspian Countries Called Off
August 14, 2000
A meeting between experts from the five Caspian Sea countries (Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Iran) scheduled to be held in Moscow on August 15 has been canceled at Iran's request, diplomatic sources told Interfax today.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhny, presidential envoy in the Caspian region, recently toured the Caspian countries and tried to organize the meeting. (Interfax)
Fighting Continues In Central Asia; Security Issues Addressed In Yalta
August 18, 2000
Kyrgyz Security Council Secretary Bolot Januzakov said today the country's armed forces are in control of the situation in the south, where armed Islamic militants crossed from Tajikistan last week.
Januzakov said government troops have surrounded one group of 30 militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Januzakov said there is fighting in two areas near the border with Tajikistan but since yesterday there are no casualties reported among Kyrgyz forces.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-based organization Human Rights Watch released a statement urging authorities in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan not to resort to arbitrary arrests of members of religious organizations and political opposition as a response to the militants incursions.
In Tajikistan, seventy members of the banned Khizbi Takhrir (Freedom) party have been arrested. The Leninabad region prosecutor said most were aged between 17 and 25. Earlier this week, a court in Leninabad jailed seven members for seven to 12 years. They were accused of wanting to build an Islamic state in Central Asia and of infiltrating the country from Uzbekistan.
In Yalta, the Kazakh, Russian and Tajik presidents met today vowing to use all means both political and military to defeat the militants who are also fighting Uzbek government troops.
The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are scheduled to meet in Bishkek on August 20 to discuss tactics for defeating the militants. Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov will attend also. (RFE/RL)
Kazakhstan Will Not Persecute Citizens Seeking Asylum In Norway
August 18, 2000
The Kazakh National Security Committee will not persecute Kazakh citizens who have requested political asylum in Norway.
There is no "reason and grounds" for such persecution, as Kazakh legislation does not presuppose that citizens should be held responsible for requesting political asylum in other countries, Yevgeny Ivanenko, an employee of the Kazakh National Security Committee's press service, told Interfax on Friday.
Twenty-two Kazakh citizens, who were on a tourist voyage in the North Sea, requested political asylum in Norway in July.
At the same time, Ivanenko said Norway has so far not notified the Kazakh National Security Committee of whether the Kazakh citizens' requests have been granted or not. Under Norwegian legislation, it takes three weeks to consider such requests, Ivanenko said. (Interfax)
Democratic Changes In Kazakhstan Uncertain - OSCE Ambassador
August 16, 2000
The process of social democratization experiences ebbs and flows, OSCE Ambassador to Kazakhstan Ulrich Schoning told the press in Astana today after a meeting with First Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Pavlov.
There is no sufficient mutual respect between the government and various political parties and pressure groups, Schoning said.
The OSCE ambassador welcomed the plan to have a roundtable discussion on relations between the opposition and the authorities and to reform the penitentiary and investigation system in Kazakhstan. (Interfax)
Kazakhstan To Accelerate Law Reform
August 15, 2000
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev intends to speed up law reforms in the republic.
Nazarbayev's counselor on legal matters Igor Rogov told the journalists after the president's meeting with the country's leading lawyers yesterday that the chief result of reforms must be independence of the judicial system from executive bodies. (Interfax)
Kazakhstan Files Criminal Case Against Religious Sect
August 14, 2000
The Kazakh National Security department in the Kustanai region in the northern part of the republic has launched a criminal case against a religious sect Ayat.
Members of the sect are suspected of being involved in unlawful religious and medical practices, first deputy chief of the department Nagashybai Atshabarov told Interfax today.
The Ayat sect had been set up in Kustanai by followers of the occult mystical teachings of Farkhat-ata, Atshabarov said.
This sect puts people under hypnosis under the guise of healing and then they are given post-hypnotic suggestions such as that they should submit themselves to "the one god Farkhat-ata," Atshabarov said. Ultimately, the sect is preparing its followers to commit suicide "in the name of ideas that reject both Islam and Christianity," he said.
Psychiatric disorders have already been registered among sect members, the department said, adding that three women, followers of the Farkhat-ata teachings, are current inpatients at the regional psychiatric hospital. (Interfax)
Uzbek President Karimov Signs Decree On Perfecting Judicial System
August 15, 2000
President Islam Karimov has signed a decree on perfecting the country's judicial system.
Karimov's press service told Interfax today that the decree aims to reform and strengthen the judicial system's democratic pillars, ensure fair and timely trials, and strengthen the guaranteed protection of individual, political, economic, and social rights and freedoms. (Interfax)
Kulov Says Kyrgyz President Has Nothing To Do With His Acquittal
August 14, 2000
Leader of the Arnamys opposition party Felix Kulov believes that Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev has no connection with his acquittal.
Kulov said at a press conference today in Bishkek that the verdict of acquittal was "arranged by the judge himself."
Kulov denied information distributed by some media sources that he gave the judge a bribe worth $500 for his release.
"It is absolute nonsense," Kulov said. He added that in the nearest future he intends to go to Moscow for unofficial political consultations. He emphasized that he has no intention to seek political asylum or to "flee" Kyrgyzstan.
The Arnamys leader has confirmed his intention to participate in the presidential elections. (Interfax)
In A Policy Reversal, Turkmenistan Backs Gas Pipeline Link To Turkey
By James M. Dorsey, Special to The Wall Street Journal
August 18, 2000
President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, in a sudden reversal of policy, has endorsed a U.S.-backed plan for a $2 billion (2.19 billion euro) trans-Caspian gas pipeline linking his country with Turkey, and he is expected to name Royal Dutch/Shell Group to develop the project, according to Shell executives as well as Turkish and Turkmen officials.
Mr. Niyazov had spoken negatively about the pipeline and had courted Russia, which is eager to export Turkmen gas to Turkey. His change of heart, say government officials and oil executives, was prompted by fear that he may end up empty-handed trying to play off Russian and U.S.-backed competitors against one another.
Mr. Niyazov indicated the shift earlier this month in talks with Shell as well as in a meeting with Turkey's new ambassador to Turkmenistan, Bahattin Gursoz. Turkish officials quote Mr. Niyazov as telling Mr. Gursoz that Turkey was likely to soon be getting Turkmen gas from both Russia and Iran. Therefore, he favored the gas pipeline, these people quoted Mr. Niyazov as saying.
Mr. Niyazov invited Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer to visit Turkmenistan for talks on the pipeline subject and said he would send his foreign minister, Batyr Berdyev, to Ankara for further discussions, Turkish officials said.
Turkmen officials said Mr. Niyazov was eager to push ahead with the pipeline, but that terms for the project hadn't been determined.
"We have always supported this pipeline project. The president has said that instead of trying to sell our gas indirectly, we should sell it directly," Halil Ugur, Turkmenistan's ambassador to the U.S., said in a telephone interview.
A Shell executive said it is "a question of days or at most weeks" before Mr. Niyazov names them to develop the pipeline, which would travel 2,000 kilometers across Turkmenistan and under the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, Georgia and then Turkey. "We want to start work as soon as possible," said Mark Cross, Shell's Rotterdam-based head of the Turkmenistan-to-Turkey Gas Project.
Shell executives, Turkmen officials and analysts say a major issue yet to be resolved is Turkmen fears that Russia would respond to the pipeline by refusing to buy Turkmen gas. "The president is concerned about the short-term flow of revenues. We have to see in the negotiations how that will be resolved," says Mr. Ugur, the Turkmen ambassador. Mr. Cross says Shell has made "crystal clear" to Turkmenistan that it will not be able to compensate the government if Russia tried to strangle the former Soviet republic economically.
The trans-Caspian pipeline is competing with a Russian-backed project dubbed Blue Stream that industry experts and consultants say is most advanced. Blue Stream is a joint venture between Russian gas monopoly Gazprom and Italy's Eni Sp to lay a gas pipeline with a capacity of 16 billion cubic meters a year under the Black Sea, linking the Russian and Turkish coasts. Already Turkey's main supplier of natural gas, Russia has been pushing for a deal under which Turkmenistan would supply Gazprom with up to 50 billion cubic meters of gas over 30 years.
Analysts say Mr. Niyazov's renewed support for the pipeline followed warnings by Turkey that it would have to prioritize agreements it has concluded with a number of countries, including Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iraq, for the supply of gas and that the ability to get the gas to market would weigh heavily in its decision. Turkmenistan has an agreement to supply Turkey with 16 billion cubic meters of gas over 30 years.
Analysts add that Turkmenistan also was taking note of other developments:
1. In June, General Electric Co. and Bechtel Group Inc. pulled out of PSG International, the consortium formed with Shell to build the pipeline, because of Mr. Niyazov's reluctance to push ahead with the project.
2. Shell warned that Azerbaijan could grab Turkmenistan's chance to export gas to Turkey. BP Amoco PLC is pushing ahead with plans to supply Turkey with gas from its Azerbaijani fields.
3. Iran will start gas supplies to Turkey next July under a $20 billion, 20-billion-cubic-meter gas-supply agreement between the two countries signed in 1996.
4. Gazprom and Turkmenistan have been disagreeing over the price Gazprom would pay for Turkmen gas.
"Shell made clear in no uncertain terms that if Turkmenistan did not get anything going with the pipeline, it could end up having nobody but Gazprom to sell its gas to. That would put Gazprom in a position of having no competition and Niyazov would get a price that would not be to his liking," said Julian Lee, an analyst with the London-based Center for Global Energy Studies.
Shell executives said it would be up to PSG partners Bechtel and General Electric to decide whether to rejoin the project and that they would invite BP Amoco to join once Shell had received its mandate.
Turkmenistan's monopoly on Caspian Sea gas was broken last year when a BP Amoco-led consortium discovered substantial gas reserves at Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz field. Azerbaijan has since been projecting itself not only as a major oil country but also as a major gas supplier able to fill Turkey's growing needs more quickly than its Caspian Sea neighbor. "To make this work, [the pipeline] will have to allow significant amounts of Azeri gas to flow through its pipeline," Mr. Lee said.
Putin May Be Ready to Probe Gazprom
By Michael Lelyveld, RFE/RL
August 15, 2000
After months of speculation, there are signs that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be ready to crack down on the mysterious dealings of the state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom.
The Financial Times reported last Friday that Russia's state accounting chamber has been investigating a huge transaction by Gazprom's marketing partner Itera in the arctic region of Yamalo-Nenetsk.
According to a report by the state auditing agency, the regional administration sold 66,000 million cubic meters of gas to Itera, apparently without charging a profit, after Gazprom paid the gas to the region's budget as a tax.
Itera then reportedly sold the gas through affiliates at rates that were in some cases more than 40 times the purchase price. An Itera official said the report did not reflect the charges that were paid to Gazprom for use of its pipelines, but the official did not say what the company's profit was.
The auditing investigation by Yuri Boldyrev, one of the founders of the Yabloko party, has been trying to answer a central question about Gazprom. Why does it channel so much of its business through Itera, a company with corporate offices in the United States.
Itera, whose offices are in the southern U.S. city of Jacksonville, Florida, has long been a focus of unanswered inquiries. The Financial Times called the company's ownership a "closely guarded secret." An Itera vice president has now promised to publish a list of shareholders in a matter of weeks.
But Itera, which was started in 1992, has already spawned 120 subsidiaries and affiliates. Previous plans have called for some to become independent. It is unclear whether the disclosures will include all the Itera entities. The Financial Times cited widespread suspicions that Itera is secretly owned by "Gazprom's management or their relatives."
The complexities of the gas deal with Yamalo-Nenetsk appear to have much in common with the transfer pricing schemes that have been used by many Russian enterprises as a legal way to avoid taxes. Under the schemes, enterprises that face high taxes can sell their goods at low prices to related companies or distributors that enjoy tax exemptions or lower rates.
While it is unclear whether the transfer of gas through a regional government fits the same pattern, the arrangement could have huge consequences for Russia and benefits for Gazprom, its biggest taxpayer. The amount of gas handled by Itera under the 1997 deal with Yamalo-Nenetsk equals one-tenth of Russia's production and five times the amount used annually by Turkey.
According to Itera, the company is supplying gas to 11 former Soviet republics. But there have been few details about its profits from doing business with Gazprom, or the costs and benefits to the Russian treasury.
Because the government owns 38 percent of Gazprom, it could be expected to benefit even if the company found a way to save on its tax payments. But if Gazprom has been shifting assets to reduce both its taxes and profits, the state may be the big loser, unless it can collect from Itera instead.
More investigations of Gazprom may be needed to convince Putin's critics that his campaign against corruption is more than a pressure tactic against political enemies. Last March, former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, the head of the State Duma's Corruption Commission, pledged to Western audiences that Putin would examine energy monopolies and introduce competition. So far, his moves regarding Gazprom have smacked more of manipulation than reform.
In June, Putin succeeded in ousting former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as Gazprom's chairman. Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Fyodorov, who has vowed to investigate Itera, was also named to the board. But so far, few details of the ties to Itera have emerged.
In his recent confrontation with oligarch Vladimir Gusinski, Putin pressured Gazprom to recall its loan to the Media-Most group. The government has forced Gazprom to raise its tariffs and increase collections in what may be the early stages of energy sector reform. But in relations with other former Soviet republics, Putin appears to view Gazprom as little more than the instrument of Russian power and influence that it as always been.
Despite the speed of many Putin initiatives, he has so far been slow to take on the hidden interests of Gazprom, one of the government's biggest reform problems and the one over which it should have the most control. Yuri Boldyrev's audit may have started the process, but only Putin may have the power to follow it up.
Turkey Plans Massive Gas Purchases
By Michael Lelyveld, RFE/RL
August 14, 2000
A Turkish energy expert says his country has agreed to buy nearly twice as much gas as it needs, underscoring concerns that the race to supply Turkey may be out of control.
Ferruh Demirmen, an oil industry consultant, told the Turkish Daily News last week that Turkey has agreed to buy 107,000 million cubic meters annually by 2010, compared with government forecasts that demand will be 55,000 million cubic meters 10 years from now.
Demirmen cited plans to buy gas from a long list of countries, including Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Nigeria, Yemen and the Balkan nations.
He said, "While some of these plans may be dropped, there are other pledges which cannot be broken."
When asked why Turkey plans to buy gas from so many countries, Demirmen answered, "It is natural that gas is purchased from a variety of locations for security reasons. But there is no sense in buying extra gas. I have asked many people why we are purchasing so much gas, but I haven't been given an answer. The question should be directed at the political leadership."
Turkish officials have repeatedly denied that the country's agreements will give it more gas than it can use. But Western analysts, including World Bank officials, have estimated that Turkey's needs will fall far short of the government forecasts, perhaps reaching 30 billion cubic meters in 2010. If that is the case, Turkish plans may be for more than triple the amount of necessary imports.
The issue is critical because Caspian countries and other nations are counting on gas sales to Turkey for the future of their economies. Russia and Iran are also depending on Turkish growth to justify big investments in pipeline projects. If the supplies exceed demand, some of the projects could fail.
But rather than cutting its estimates, Ankara may be making an even greater push for gas. After a decision last month to cancel a tender for its first nuclear power plant, Turkey reportedly is studying plans to rely even more heavily on conventional fuels.
An agreement last month between Turkey and Greece to work toward connecting their gas networks offers hope that Ankara will be able to export some of its excess fuel to Europe, if it winds up with too much. But the pact, which resulted from a sudden thaw in relations after Turkey's earthquake last year, does not explain why Ankara previously pursued a strategy of seeking so much gas for so long.
Turkey appears to have invested heavily in its own expectations of rapid economic growth. Domestic political pressures and current electricity shortages have contributed to the shopping spree for gas contracts. But the forecasts have also helped to enhance Turkey's position as a focal point for the regional policies of nations of the east and west, as well as the Middle East.
In an interview with The Associated Press in February, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem stressed the importance of the country's image as a crossroads between Europe and the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Speaking after Turkey's designation as a candidate for European Union membership, Cem said, "This has been the historical role of Turkey, but now it is reconfirmed, and it is much more important than it used to be."
Turkey may receive many benefits by serving not only as the destination for Caspian exports but as a gateway to the region's riches. Its Turkic ties give it links to both sides of the Caspian, no matter how far the sources of energy are removed.
Although doubts have been raised for several years about Turkey's ambitious forecasts, none of the Caspian countries has seriously considered the consequences if Ankara's predictions prove wrong. This is perhaps because of the political yearning to be connected to Turkey as an alternative to Russia.
In some sense, Caspian countries may have come to feel Turkey's hopes for a future as a modern nation and an EU member as their own. This sense may keep them from questioning Turkey's ability to absorb all of the gas they can produce.
There is also an assumption that Turkey will choose to buy gas from Turkic-language nations, even though it has already signed binding contracts with Russia and Iran. But it seems unlikely that Turkey will have room for both Azerbaijani and Turkmen gas, if it honors those pacts.
It may matter little to the Caspian countries whether their gas goes to Turkey or through it to Europe. But with uncertainty over EU efforts to liberalize its gas markets, new Caspian supplies could find few places to go. Countries like Germany, which have supply contracts with Russia, have been dragging their feet over the EU directive to open their markets this year.
The problems suggest that there will soon be big losers among the Caspian competitors in the race to supply gas. Their faith in Ankara may be limitless, but Turkey's gas market is not.
By Luke Allnutt, Special to The Wall Street Journal
August 11, 2000
Like their counterparts around the world, students and businessmen in Dushanbe's "Internet Cafe" jostle for computers, drinking coffee while they wait to surf. The cafe's name may sound unoriginal, but in the Tajik capital it has no competitors. This Internet cafe is the country's first.
Central Asia's relationship with the Internet is like the old joke about men and women: They can't live with each other, but can't live without each other. In a region where democracy exists in name only, governments are well aware of the Internet's role in economic development and are keen to promote online use - especially if it facilitates the arrival of dollars from the West. But at the same time they are concerned about the threat the Web might pose to their authoritarian regimes.
A recent report by the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers placed all five Central Asian states within the top 20 enemies of the Internet. It seems these former Soviet regimes want the new creed to spread only as long as it's on their terms.
Not that the only impediment to spreading is political at the moment. Internet use is low in Central Asia and still largely the preserve of the elite, chiefly because computer and connection costs are well beyond the means of most people. State-run telecom monopolies keep prices artificially high - and standards of service low. Those who do have access are usually working for nongovernmental organizations or international corporations and using leased lines at work.
Internet cafes are spreading but still considered expensive. Surfing for an hour in an Internet cafe in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent will cost about 700-1050 soums ($1-$1.50). Quite a lot when the average monthly stipend for students is $5. In Kazakhstan, unlimited access for private individuals costs between $70 and $120 a month and for registered organizations between $100 and $240. The average monthly wage in Kazakhstan is about $30.
Despite the high costs, low numbers of users and rickety infrastructure, Central Asian governments have made encouraging noises about boosting Internet use. Such enthusiasm brings investment. In an April trip to Uzbekistan, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright encouraged President Islam Karimov to provide wider Internet access. She said that the Internet could play as important a role for economic development as the Great Silk Road did in the 19th century.
In March, with the help of the UNDP and the Open Society Institute, Uzbek authorities began implementing a $500,000 Internet centers project. After Albright's trip, the U.S. government announced that - through the nonprofit sector - it would provide funding for three new Internet centers. The project provides new technological resources for the country's academic and scientific community and Internet training centers in the capital and two other regions.
But such projects are rare. Indeed, you have to wonder what the foreign donors and connection cheerleaders hope to accomplish in countries where suppression and surveillance are practiced more frequently than home-grown investment and deregulation. Central Asian governments are taking cyber-repression seriously for two reasons: First, the Internet offers an open window to people still living in essentially closed societies; second, the Internet is a useful forum for opposition parties and Islamists, otherwise banned or persecuted.
The methods of repression, although not always particularly sophisticated, have been effective. In Turkmenistan, the state telecommunications monopoly has bought the national domain, .tm, and created Web sites for governmental institutions and the president. Private individuals and companies, however, are barred from creating Web sites. Recently, the Turkmen government revoked the licenses of all ISPs, effectively creating a lucrative monopoly for itself and enabling it to monitor e-traffic.
In February 1999, Uzbekistan approved a decree to create a national data-transfer network and regulate the Web. The country's ISPs can only provide access to international domains by going through the state's monopoly provider, UzPAK. The government decides which sites are acceptable to the country's citizens; users trying to access illicit sites - like those of the BBC or the opposition party Birlak - are often denied access.
Governments have forced ISPs to install expensive monitoring devices - normally a "rerouting" box costing around $10,000 - that records electronic traffic. In addition, extra phone lines are installed so that transmissions can be quickly and efficiently bounced back to monitoring headquarters in real time. In November 1999, all Kazakh ISPs had to connect to the government's new center that monitors Internet transmissions. The system now runs on one of the most powerful servers on the market.
Such draconian measures - far more stringent and, thus, more effective than China's - should come as no surprise in a region where democracy has developed at glacial rates. Corruption is rife, reform has been negligible and most media remain under state control. Power is concentrated in the executive rather than in the legislature or judiciary.
The presidents of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan are all former high-ranking Soviet officials well used to parading in democrats' clothes - especially when granted an audience with Western donors and politicians. These virtual dictators are likely to hold onto power for life. In a region weighed down by years of communist repression - where bugging, censorship, and an unfree media were the norm - excessive control over the Internet comes naturally.
As long as money is on the table from the nongovernmental sector and the U.S., Central Asian governments will continue to blather about the benefits of the Internet. But they'll be directing their energies into control rather than liberalization.
In the long term, that will be counter-productive, stifling growth. In other countries with dubious human rights records - think of East Asia - the desire to reap the economic benefits of an electronically open society has tempered governments' natural instinct for control. Hopefully, the instinct to repress will give way to economic reality in Central Asia, too.
But there's also room for bottom-up change. As we've seen elsewhere, there is only so much authorities can do to thwart the human urge to communicate freely. Sooner or later, the citizens of Central Asian countries are bound to find their way onto the Internet; with or without their governments' help or approval.