Accessibility links

Turkmen Report: December 17, 2000

17 December 2000
Repentance on Road to Amnesty?
December 16, 2000

Official media in Turkmenistan broadcast the repentance speeches of two prominent regime critics currently in prison, Nurberdy Nurmamedov and Pirimguli Tangrykuliev. In speeches aired on Turkmen State Television on the night of 15 December and in the morning on 16 December, the two men acknowledged their wrongdoing and swore their fealty to the motherland and its leader, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. The timing of the broadcast suggests the two opposition figures may be included in a planned amnesty of 10,000 convicts in the last week of December. (Turkmen TV) See feature story below

Case Corp. in Barter Deal?
December 14, 2000

Top executives of the US Case Corporation met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat to discuss Turkmenistan's acquisition of 170 tractors. Unconfirmed Turkmen media reports suggest that individual tractors will be purchased directly by what were described as regional agricultural structures in exchange for the supply of 6,000 tons of raw cotton. (Turkmen TV)

Meeting of Caspian States Penciled in -- Again
December 14, 2000

Deputy foreign ministers from the five Caspian littoral states are planning to meet in Teheran at the end of January or early February 2001, according to Russian special presidential representative for the Caspian and Deputy Foreign Minister Victor Kalyuzhny. He declared that "significant progress was achieved" during talks with his counterpart Ali Akhani during talks in Moscow, clearing the way to hold the meeting in the near future. Iran has postponed participating repeatedly citing disagreements between the five countries on the future status of the Caspian Sea. (Interfax, AFP)

Aliyev to Turkey: Get on Board or Move Aside
December 14, 2000

Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev called on Turkey to reach a conclusion on the construction of a pipeline to flow gas from the offshore Shah-Deniz field in the near future or Baku may be obliged to open discussions with Iran on supplying that country instead. Aliev's remarks were made in a meeting with Turkish Energy Minister Y. Ilkizen. Aliyev noted that his country does not oppose the moribund Trans-Caspian pipeline project for the transport of Turkmen, and potentially, Azeri gas, to Turkey but stressed that Shah Deniz export flows will become possible in 2002, leaving no room for delays. A moth-balled Soviet-era gas pipeline connects Iran with Azerbaijan at present. (Interfax)

Turkmen Policy toward Taliban Unchanged by Sanctions Threat
December 14, 2000

The possible imposition of sanctions on the Taliban movement by the UN Security Council will not affect Turkmenistan's policy on Afghanistan, according to Boris Shikhmuradov, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's special representative on Caspian affairs and Afghanistan. "We will be in touch with both warring sides as before, and will supply the Afghan people with electricity, for we are saving people, not leaders," he said. (Vremya Novostey)

Textile Development Fund Established
December 14, 2000

Turkmen President Saparamurat Niyazov has signed a resolution establishing a state fund for the development of Turkmenistan's textile industry. The fund's council, headed by Jamal Aymuradovna Goklenova, deputy chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers and minister of the textile industry of Turkmenistan, is to monitor all foreign trade deals and investment projects involving foreign firms as well as the use of external loans in Turkmenistan's textile industry. (Turkmen State News Service)

Roots of Chess in Turkmenistan
December 13, 2000

The origins of chess have been traced to the Turkmen, according to an article appearing in Turkmenistan's newspaper "Nesil". The article claimed that chess was widespread in what is today Turkmenistan long before the Arab conquerors arrived. The article cited various anecdotes to support its conclusions, including remarks attributed to Turkmen military leader Alp Arslan, who following the battle of Malazgirt in 1071, said: "We showed the Byzantines how to play chess."(Turkmenistan.Ru)

Turkmen Power Cost Effective for Armenia
December 12, 2000

Implementation of a project to supply Turkmen electricity to Armenia via Iran is estimated to save Armenia around $3 million a year, according to Armenian Minister for Coordinating Production Infrastructures David Zadoyan. (Snark News Agency)

Turkmenbashi-Makarov Show
December 12, 2000

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and the head of the Florida based Itera Corporation, Igor Makarov, discussed terms of a gas contract for 2001. Itera is looking to lock in supplies of some 40 billion cubic meters, reportedly. Niyazov has declared that price and payment terms are one and the same for all clients -- $40 per 1,000 cubic meters at the Turkmen border. Makarov indicated Itera would entertain those terms only after the expiration of an existing contract signed in September for the supply of 10 billion cubic meters. " The contract terms have been met at 50 percent, and the rest will be done in 2001,� Makarov said. Itera is closely associated with Russian gas giant Gazprom, and effectively operates as its marketing arm. (Itar-Tass)

Turkmenistan Celebrates Neutrality
December 12, 2000

Turkmenistan celebrated the fifth anniversary of the proclamation by the UN General Assembly of the permanent neutrality of Turkmenistan with a military parade in the capital Ashgabat. At a subsequent press conference Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov declared that his country is half way through a 20-year transitional period. He noted that market reforms and privatization should be completed by 2010. (RFE/RL Turkmen Service)

Astronomical Hydrocarbon Reserves, Big Jump in Gas Sales Foreseen
December 12, 2000

Speaking at an international conference dedicated to Turkmenistan's policy of neutrality, Niyazov underscored the limits to privatization declaring that "We are not going to privatize the oil and gas industries any time soon", arguing that this "underground treasury" was common property of all Turkmen citizens. He went on to claim that one-third of the world's oil and gas reserves were in Turkmenistan � an assertion that will astound petroleum geologists worldwide and dismay major producers, particularly those in the Gulf. Somewhat more credibly, he outlined his hope that Turkmen natural gas exports in 2001 would rise to 65-70 billion cubic meters (Bcm). His sums are premised on Turkmenistan supplying 30 Bcm to Russia, an equal amount to Ukraine, and at least 5 Bcm to Iran. (RFE/RL Turkmen Service)

Rival Afghan Delegations Hold Informal Talks in Turkmenistan
December 10, 2000

Delegations from the ruling Taliban and the rival Northen Alliance met for the first time at an informal dinner hosted by the foreign ministry of Turkmenistan since the last round of peace talks ended without agreement in Tashkent, in July 1999. Shortly before the talks began the Taliban threatened to withdraw from the UN-sponsored talks if the world body imposed fresh sanctions on Afghanistan, saying they would accept Turkmenistan or the Organization of Islamic Conference as mediators instead. A resolution cosponsored by the United States and Russia circulated among UN members calling for new, tougher sanctions against the Taliban was the immediate cause of their threatened move. The chief participants in the informal discussions were the ruling Taliban�s education minister, Mullah Amirhan Muttaqi, ousted Afghan president Burhannedin Rabbani�s special envoy, Seidjon Abduraim, and Afghanistan's representative in the UN, Ravan Farhadi and UN envoy Francesc Vendrell. (AP, AFP, Itar-Tass)

Turkmen Dissidents on the Road to Amnesty?
December 16, 2000

RFE/RL Turkmen Service, Special Report

Official media in Turkmenistan last night broadcast the repentance speeches of two prominent regime critics currently in prison, suggesting that the authorities may be preparing to release them.

In statements aired on Turkmen State Television on the night of 15 December and in the morning on 16 December, the two men, Nurberdy Nurmamedov and Pirimguli Tangrykuliev, acknowledged their wrongdoing and swore their loyalty to the motherland and its leader, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.

Observers in and out of Turkmenistan believe that the statements were aired to lay the groundwork for the release of the two dissidents along with others in an amnesty planned for later this month.

Turkmen President Niyazov has pledged to amnesty 10,000 convicts on the Muslim holy night of Kadir, when magnanimity is traditionally shown. Kadir falls on the night of 22-23 December, three days before the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Both men are acknowledged opposition figures whose cases have drawn international attention from human rights organizations and international organizations.

The 57-year old Nurmamedov was a prominent activist in the Turkmen opposition movement Agzybirlik, a pro-democratic group that the authorities refused to register after it emerged in 1989. He has been serving a 5-year prison term on charges of hooliganism and conspiracy to commit murder since January 5, 1999. His arrest followed shortly after he made public statements in the run up to parliamentary elections that Turkmenistan's post-Soviet constitution was contradiction-ridden and granted the president too much power.

Tangrykuliev, a medical doctor, has been in jail serving an 8-year prison term for misappropriating state funds and property since July 29, 1998. He was detained after he wrote directly to President Niyazov complaining about the country's health-care system and told representatives of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe that he planned to run for parliament.

Controversy on Kazakhstan's Oil Pipeline to Iran Announcement
December 15, 2000

By Michael Lelyveld, RFE/RL

Curiosity has deepened over reported talks between Kazakhstan and Western oil companies on building a pipeline to Iran after the country's foreign minister denied the basis for the reports.

Yerlan Idrisov in Almaty that his ministry had issued no official statement on the discussions, despite reports by both the Reuters and Agence France Presse news agencies that quoted from just such a statement last week.

Idrisov said, "This press release was not distributed by the Foreign Ministry, and the information published in the mass media does not coincide with reality," the Russian news agency Interfax reported. Idrisov insisted that "references to official Foreign Ministry documents are not valid," but he added that a "technical error" may have led to the release of a document, which he did not identify.

But the qualified denial did not appear to deny the substance of last week's stories on negotiations to form a consortium for a Caspian oil line to Iran. The foreign minister also did not contradict reports that Kazakhstan wants to speed up a feasibility study, or that it sees Iran as the "most economic and reliable" export route.

The reports of the Iran talks seemed to catch Kazakhstan in a difficult position. During the same week, Kazakh officials met with a visiting US ambassador and voiced support for the Baku-Ceyhan oil route, which is backed by Washington.

On the same day that Idrisov issued his denial, Kazakhstan Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev also met in Almaty with Iran's deputy foreign minister, Sadeq Kharrazi, and called for pursuing the Iranian pipeline project, according to Iran's official news agency IRNA. The Kazakhstan government did not explain the apparent conflicts.

Further reports have focused on Kazakhstan's embarrassment over the events of last week and tried to provide an explanation of what went wrong.

According to Platt's Oilgram, an industry news service, both Idrisov's account and the news reports may be technically correct. Platt's explained that Kazakhstan has actually been holding talks on the Iranian route with Western firms for some time, although an unnamed Kazakh oil official stressed that negotiations are still at a "very preliminary stage."

The pipeline was mentioned in a Foreign Ministry report that was prepared for a meeting with one of the companies, Platt's said. A press spokesman passed the report on to a journalist. Platt's quoted a source "close to the government" as calling the release a "deadly mistake."

But while the public embarrassment seems to stem from having told different stories to Iranian and US officials, the greater problem may be with Russia, which is also in the competition to provide routes for Kazakhstan's oil.

Russia now handles most of Kazakhstan's exports, but Astana is trying to plan for the time when it will have more oil than can be pumped through Russia's existing lines. That day could come in 2005, when Kazakhstan expects oil to flow from its giant Kashagan field on the Caspian shelf.

Kazakhstan is reportedly worried that even the capacity of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium route to Novorossiisk, which opens next year, will not be enough for Kashagan. Russia is also competing against Baku-Ceyhan with another route that would expand on its current line around Chechnya.

But Kazakhstan is worried about relying on Russia's capacity. Platt's quoted an official of the Kazakh oil company KazTransOil as saying, "If they can give it to us, they can also take it away."

At the same time, Kazakhstan is concerned that it may have trouble convincing Western oil companies to stick to the 2005 deadline for oil production at Kashagan. Some of the companies are concerned that the oil contains so much sulfur that they will have to deal with that problem first.

Last week, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev objected to the delay, telling a press conference that the Kashagan consortium would be in violation of its contract if it does not start production in 2005.

In one sense, Kazakhstan has shown its ability to plan for all these possibilities by trying to keep pipeline options open in all directions. But its diplomacy and public declarations appear to be so poorly managed that it may find it hard to gain an advantage in bargaining for competitive routes.

Year 2000: Central Asia Is More Dangerous and Less Democratic
December 14, 2000

By Bruce Pannier, RFE/RL

The year 2000 proved a disappointment for the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

In spite of promises to move toward democracy, elections this year showed little progress has been made so far.

The security situation also deteriorated, as armed militants again invaded parts of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

This year saw the end of a cycle of presidential and parliamentary elections across the region. New elections are not expected until 2003.

During the year, Uzbeks elected a new president, Tajiks voted on a new parliament and Kyrgyz voters selected both a new president and a new legislature -- but everywhere the result was the same. Incumbents, most dating back to Soviet times, retained their positions, and showed they were willing to use all means necessary to hold onto power.

Even in Kyrgyzstan, which is often cited as the most democratic of the five, opposition parties faced numerous obstacles in registering, getting access to media and voters and keeping their leading candidates out of court. The situation was worse in the other countries.

Hrair Balian is the head of the elections department in the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. The OSCE often serves as an observer to elections in the region. Balian summed up Central Asia's elections this way.

"Those who were making progress or had made progress in the past years in terms of human rights seemed to have regressed during the elections. In all of the Central Asian countries we are seeing similar problems. The main problem being that of local officials, executive branches of government, interfering in the work of the election commissions", he said

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistan-based analyst of events in Central Asia, says that the populations in the region are feeling increasingly alienated from their governments. He says that an increasing number of people, particularly in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, see their only option as going underground and taking more drastic action:

"There is no avenue for political expression in these states. Political opposition has been crushed. There is no avenue for political parties or political expression, which means everything tends to go underground. And when political opposition goes underground, it becomes radicalized. And that is what happened especially in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The opposition has gone underground and come under the influence of this huge network of mosques and madressahs (religious schools) and has become Islamicized."

The most clearly visible evidence of this new radical element is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU.

The armed group, which claims several thousand fighters, aims to overthrow Uzbekistan's government and create an Islamic state. Uzbek authorities blame the IMU leadership for setting off bombs in Tashkent in February 1999 that killed 16 people. The US State Department this year put the group on its list of officially recognized terrorist organizations.

The IMU first invaded Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 1999, and returned again this year with incursions in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Although Uzbek and Kyrgyz soldiers effectively repelled the invaders, the incursions highlighted the vulnerability of both countries to attack.

"Fighting terrorism" this year became a focal point of the five countries' relations with Russia, which is struggling with its own Islamic separatist movement in Chechnya.

Russian President Vladimir Putin made terrorism the centerpiece of his foreign policy with Central Asia on a visit to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in May, shortly after being inaugurated president:

"It's no secret for anyone anymore that recently criminal attempts have been made through terrorist means to divide up the post-Soviet space. And if we don't halt this aggressive attempt, together with our Uzbek friends here in the south, we will encounter it at home."

Part of the governments' strategy to fight terrorism involved arresting suspected militants and putting them on trial. The arrests frequently drew criticism from international groups that say the arrests contravene human rights norms allowing freedom of worship.

In November, the Uzbek government ended a high-profile trial against several suspected leaders of the IMU, sentencing -- in absentia -- two men to death and 10 others to long prison sentences.

One of those sentenced to death was Takhir Yuldash, a leader of the IMU. He says the group is not a terrorist organization but is merely defending the Islamic faith:

"The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are not terrorists but Mujaheddin. These people took up arms to defend their religion and suffering Muslims. These goals have not changed at all. Until we achieve these goals, the leaders of this group are ready to sacrifice their lives."

Others have questioned the IMU's links to Islam and point to the group's suspected ties to illegal arms and drugs trading.

Such fervor bodes ill for future stability in Central Asia, which lacks the resources to solve basic problems and the will to make improvements in the lives of ordinary people.

Year 2000: Mixed Results for Caspian Development
December 14, 2000

By Michael Lelyveld, RFE/RL

As the year 2000 draws to a close, experts see mixed results for the Caspian Sea region and oil development.

On one level, petroleum and pipeline projects are proceeding. Every country in the region recorded economic growth during the past year. World energy prices are high and Russia's neighbors have largely recovered from the effects of the 1998 ruble collapse.

But on another level, very few of the problems facing the Caspian countries and their citizens have been addressed or resolved. There seems to be little progress on sustainable development or any assurance that growth can be maintained if oil prices decline.

Robert Ebel, director of the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, sums up the situation: "If you were to ask whether the average man benefited from any of the changes since the Soviet collapse, it would be very difficult to come up with a positive answer."

Ebel says, so far, oil development has helped only "a very thin layer at the top."

One reason may be that most Caspian countries continue to be ruled by leaders from the Soviet era. In Turkmenistan, for example, President Saparmurat Niyazov has barred opposition parties, eliminating any chance of criticism about how oil revenues are spent.

In Azerbaijan, President Heydar Aliyev and his majority party held onto power after a parliamentary election that was strongly criticized by the OSCE. The contested poll tarnished his image in the West at a time when much of the country is suffering energy shortages, despite Azerbaijan's oil wealth.

The larger strategic visions for the Caspian are also clouded. In the past year, the five shoreline states have remained at odds over a legal division of Caspian resources, despite a new push by President Vladimir Putin to resolve the issue on Russia's terms.

In recent weeks, the Russian initiative has led to increasingly open friction with Iran, complicating a contest that was previously seen as one between East and West.

But some energy experts believe Russia under Putin is having the most success in advancing its agenda in a region where all progress has been slow.

Julia Nanay, director of the Petroleum Finance Company in Washington, says Russia is making progress. She cites both Russian commercial ventures to deliver petroleum and perceived political pressure against rival export routes. Nanay puts it this way:

"They're (Russia) taking the European gas market and the Turkish gas market. And they're creating serious instability in Georgia, as well as in Azerbaijan."

Despite many plans, only one pipeline project has actually been completed in the past year: Russia's emergency bypass oil line around Chechnya, built during the war with the breakaway territory. But the project has been a story of failure as much as success because the war continues despite Putin's promises that it would be finished by last March. Although the bypass was completed to keep oil flowing to the port of Novorossiisk, the Russians have had trouble attracting enough oil to keep it filled.

Another important 748-kilometer section of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium project has also been completed to link Kazakhstan's Tengiz oilfield to Novorossiisk. The entire length of the 1,580-kilometer line, which is also supported by the United States, is due to be opened next year, forming the largest new export route from the region since the Soviet collapse.

At least one US.-backed project stalled this year, when Turkmenistan's Niyazov failed to approve plans for a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline. Turkmenistan's feuds with Azerbaijan over Caspian division and shares in the pipeline put cooperation on hold. It remains to be seen whether Ashgabat can honor its pledge to supply gas to Turkey if the line is not built. Both Iran and Russia plan to pump gas to the Turkish market next year through new links, but it is not yet clear whether either will use Turkmen gas.

Opinions are also divided on the progress of plans for the Baku-Ceyhan oil line. In October, sponsoring oil companies agreed to finance a feasibility study for the project, which could lead to completion by 2004. The decision prompted the US newspaper "The New York Times" to report that the 1,730-kilometer pipeline is "closer to reality."

Robert Ebel said that Baku-Ceyhan is making progress because "the US. government keeps pressing, pressing, pressing." But there are still questions about whether banks will finance the project unless more oil is found in the Caspian to fill the pipeline.

Those prospects suffered a setback in November when the Exxon Mobil and Shell oil companies announced that they may delay development of Kazakhstan's giant Kashagan oilfield until they can remove the high sulfur content of the oil. Supporters of Baku-Ceyhan have repeatedly held out hope that Kashagan could provide the needed volumes of oil for the pipeline that Azerbaijan lacks.

As a result, the outlook for Baku-Ceyhan remains much the same at the end of 2000 as it did a year before. According to Julia Nanay, "Politically, it's still very much alive, but economically, without the oil volumes, it's hard."

Conflicting Reports Raise Doubts on Kazakh Claims for Oil Routes
December 11, 2000

By Michael Lelyveld, RFE/RL Kazakhstan has once again shaken up the competition for pipelines from the Caspian Sea with an announcement of plans for an export route through Iran.

In a statement last week (Wednesday), Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry said it has opened talks with three Western companies on a feasibility study for an oil line through Iran to the Persian Gulf.

According to the ministry statement, "This pipeline could provide economical access to markets in the Asian and Pacific region through the Persian Gulf to oil producers working in Kazakhstan, particularly on the Caspian shelf."

But the news of the talks with TotalFina of France, British Gas and Italy's Agip came just one day after positive statements about Kazakhstan's support for a rival pipeline route from Baku to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. The conflicting reports have raised doubts about which route Kazakhstan wants.

U.S. special envoy Stephen Sestanovich last week met in Astana with Foreign Minister Erlan Idrisov and praised Kazakhstan's commitment to Baku-Ceyhan. Sestanovich suggested that the route could be renamed Aktau-Baku-Ceyhan, adding the name of Kazakhstan's Caspian port.

That idea originated not with Sestanovich but rather with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev. In October, Nazarbaev first proposed extending the route to Aktau during a visit by Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer to Kazakhstan. The statement buoyed hopes for Baku-Ceyhan, which is seen as needing Kazakh oil to be commercially viable.

At the time, Nazarbayev told Sezer, "We will support the project by supplying 15 million tons of crude oil from our newly opened reserves." In one of many contradictory statements, Nazarbayev promised Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze last August that the figure would be a "minimum of 20 million tons." In November 1999, Nazarbayev also pledged 20 million tons of oil annually for the pipeline, but he then withdrew the promise, saying it was made under pressure.

But Nazarbayev has made no firm commitment of Kazakhstan's oil to either the US-backed Baku-Ceyhan project or the Iranian route, turning his periodic announcements into a source of confusion more than anything else. US officials have acknowledged privately that Nazarbayev's statements seem to be tailored to whatever visiting diplomats want to hear.

In fact, Russia has dominated Kazakhstan's exports and will likely continue to do so. Kazakhstan is expected to produce about 33 million tons of oil and condensate this year, using about 10 million tons at home. The country's export quota through a Russian pipeline to Samara is 14 million tons, the maximum that it can carry. Next year, a new pipeline through Russia to the port of Novorossiisk is scheduled to open. Its initial capacity of 28 million tons will give Russia enough to handle all of Kazakhstan's oil.

The competition is for Caspian oil that may still be far in Kazakhstan's future. Pipeline developers are counting on the country's Kashagan oilfield, which may be one of the biggest in the world. But two Western oil companies said last month that they may delay the project until they build facilities to handle the large amounts of sulfur and gas that are mixed with the oil. In spite of the setback, the pipeline competition goes on.

It is unclear whether the announcement on the Iran route is significant or only another political move. In 1997, China made headlines when it signed an agreement with Nazarbayev for 9,500 million dollars worth of oil projects, including the oil line through Turkmenistan to Iran. Nothing came of the plan.

In the meantime, Iran has been building an oil line from its Caspian port of Neka to its oil refinery south of Tehran to handle oil from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Despite an agreement to process Kazakh oil and export it through swaps, almost no oil has moved. Iran said recently that it has spent 450 million dollars on its part of the project, far more than forecast.

The Iranians have portrayed the Neka pipeline as the first phase of a larger project to carry Kazakh oil to the Persian Gulf. Recent reports estimate that the overall cost would be 1,200 million dollars to 1,500 million dollars, far less than Baku-Ceyhan.

But it is hard to say whether the announcement on talks is a sign of real movement or only a consolation for the problems in dealing with Kazakhstan in the past. Russia's continuing dominance over Kazakh exports and the delays at Kashagan suggest that any change may be slow.

Kazakhstan may also have lost a large measure of credibility for its conflicting statements on pipeline decisions, either through confusion or attempts to please all sides. Whatever the reason, competing projects will find it hard to rely on pledges that change from one month to the next.