Thursday, July 28, 2016

Audio Signs That Turkmenistan's Gas Sector Is In Crisis

A gas processing plant in Turkmenistan. The Central Asian country has the fourth-largest gas reserves in the world. (file photo)

Bruce Pannier

Turkmenistan is apparently having enormous economic problems. The country's system is so opaque that it is always difficult to know much about what is going on there. But the recent decision to scrap the two entities that were overseeing the oil and gas sector and to restructure the management of that industry give the impression that the authorities in Ashgabat are getting desperate. 

The hydrocarbon sector, particularly natural gas, is critical not only to Turkmenistan's economy but to its authoritarian political system also. There have been large-scale layoffs in the sector this year.

What does the restructuring mean for Turkmenistan, a country with the fourth-largest gas reserves in the world, and why were changes necessary? How bad is the situation in the country's hydrocarbon sector? And is there a way out of this for Turkmenistan?

Those were some of the questions discussed at a Majlis, a panel, organized by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk.

Muhammad Tahir, soon to be RFE/RL's Washington-based media relations manager on Asian affairs, moderated the panel. Participating from Baku, where he was attending a conference, was legendary energy expert John Roberts, a resident senior fellow at Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council. From Scotland, our extremely knowledgeable friend Dr. Luca Anceschi, professor of Central Asian Studies at Glasgow University, took part in the Majlis again. I would have been happy to sit back and just listen to those two but I need to earn my paycheck, so I said a few things.

Roberts started the talk by going to the heart of the matter, noting, "The only real source of income that Turkmenistan has is from gas." Anceschi followed that up by saying Turkmenistan has "essentially a mono-resource economy."

So the need for restructuring of the gas and oil industry, the major provider of revenue for the country, sends a signal that there are some serious concerns within Turkmenistan.

'Deck Chairs On The Titanic'

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov issued a decree on July 15 that abolished the Oil and Gas Ministry and the State Agency on Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources. The latter was the more important entity, being subordinate to the president's office. 

But it is not clear what purpose the restructuring serves. Anceschi said the changes "probably won't affect [Turkmenistan's hydrocarbon industry] in any significant way." Roberts said, "I think you'll probably find that this is no more than moving the chairs around as the Titanic sinks. There isn't any real rational understanding."

The decree divided the state oil company, Turkmennebit, and the state gas company, Turkmengaz. It made them, as "legal successors" to the state agency, separate entities, vaguely under the control of the Cabinet of Ministers. But the decree also says "relevant work on international oil and gas projects [is] entrusted to the State Concern Turkmengaz." 

Roberts explained Turkmengaz has the greater experience and has proven "in relative Turkmen terms" to be an efficient organization. This contrasts with recent problems at Turkmennebit. A multimillion dollar embezzlement scandal was recently uncovered at Turkmennebit and in late June there were reports that a reservoir tank at the Turkmenbashi oil refinery caught fire, killing at least several people less than two weeks after a new fire-fighting facility was commissioned at the refinery.

The basic functions of the former Oil and Gas Ministry now fall to the Cabinet of Ministers, specifically to Deputy Prime Minister Yashgeldy Kakaev, a veteran of Turkmenistan's gas sector. Anceschi recalled that, among the regular purges that occur in all sectors of the government and key industries, "Kakaev survived, [and] is still the man in charge of TAPI (The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline), is still the man in charge of many other projects, so it seems to me that we can consider him now the most powerful figure in the gas industry." 

'Impossible Job'

Roberts said of Kakaev: "He thinks very carefully before he says anything and he is actually occasionally open to new ideas. It might be quite interesting now that he is no longer, as it were, one of the top two people, but is the undisputed person."

But Roberts cautioned, "[Kakaev] has got the most impossible job you could have in energy on his plate right now, which is mainly trying to find how Turkmenistan can break out of its energy isolation at a time when it has no cash and when international interest in Turkmenistan is probably at an all-time low."

Anceschi gave an example of what Kakaev has to deal with by noting, "revenues are actually decreasing quite drastically, whereas the amount of gas that they are selling is pretty much stable." 

So barring the appearance of new gas customers, it seems there is little Kakaev, or the changes in the gas and oil industry, can do to stop Turkmenistan's economic decline.

The panel agreed that new ideas and policy changes are needed. Roberts pointed out that Turkmenistan's mentality toward gas sales needs to change.

"The Turkmen for two decades...kept wanting to think big, 30 [billion cubic meters] to India, Pakistan, and India, 30 bcm or maybe more, maybe 40 or 50, to Europe."

Roberts said Azerbaijan has approached Turkmenistan at least four times in the last two years to discuss sending "5 bcm, maybe as much as 10 bcm" but Turkmenistan appears to have shown little, if any, interest in the plan. The Turkmen government, Roberts said, "never understood that if things go bad, you need to think small."

Onshore Vs. Offshore

The subject of onshore contracts came up several times during the discussion.

Many large foreign companies have shown interest in investing in Turkmenistan but only if they could get rights to develop sites on the Turkmen mainland and share in the profits.

The Turkmen government has been loath to give any contracts to develop sites on its territory, but is less concerned at signing deals with foreign companies for exploration and development at Turkmenistan's offshore sites in the Caspian Sea. The sole exception is the China National Petroleum Corporation that works a gas field on the right bank of the Amu-Darya River.

Anceschi said, "Obstructing the entry of foreign actors to onshore development is no longer sustainable."

This would prove problematic for the isolationist Turkmen government, which obsessively controls its onshore sites and, more importantly, the opaque bookkeeping for the revenues.

Roberts suggested that granting onshore contracts might now be Turkmenistan's last hope for turning its unfortunate economic situation around, and at this point even that might not be enough.

"It's probably far too late, but should a major international company come to [President Berdymukhammedov's] attention with a suggestion for a combination of construction of a major external pipeline in exchange for a direct stake in the upstream sector, he should look very carefully and change, if necessary, whatever regulations would prohibit such an arrangement."

The panel discussed these topics in more detail and looked at other issues connected to Turkmenistan's gas and oil industry. And audio recording of the Majlis session can be heard here:

Majlis Podcast: Challenges In The Turkmen Energy Sector
Majlis Podcast: Challenges In The Turkmen Energy Sectori
|| 0:00:00

Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

An Unbelievable Turn In Uzbekistan's Campaign Against Suspect Islamic Groups

Many Uzbek followers of the Sufi Naqshbandi order come from the region around the Silk Road city of Bukhara, (file photo)

Bruce Pannier

Authorities in Uzbekistan appear to have found a new Islamic group to worry about, and it happens to be one of the oldest Islamic groups in Central Asia.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, reports that, at the start of June, police in western Uzbekistan arrested a group people illegally gathering in a private home to conduct religious services (Zikr). The people arrested are Sufis from the Naqshbandi order.

Eleven people were taken into custody: Four are already in jail, sentenced to four years for a crime; the other seven were given stiff fines on charges that Ozodlik could not discern. It appears to have something to do with alleged ties to a Turkish group.

Given the opaque nature of the Uzbek government, it is difficult to get additional information about this case.

But if these people were arrested and some imprisoned, it marks a drastic departure from the Uzbek government's policy toward the Naqshbandi.

Certainly from the point of view of Tashkent, the Naqshbandi have been a useful order. As they are a Sufi order, purist Islamic groups such as Wahhabis or Salafis consider them heretics, so the Naqshbandi are, or at least have been, above suspicion in matters of Islamic extremism.

But the Naqshbandi are also a uniquely Central Asian Islamic group.

Bahauddin Naqshband was born in 1318 in a village near the ancient Silk Road of Bukhara, in current-day Uzbekistan. Except for two, some record three, pilgrimages to Mecca, Naqshband spent his entire life in the Bukhara and Merv -- near Mary City in present day Turkmenistan -- until he died in 1389.

There are far more interesting facts about Bahauddin Naqshband and the Naqshbandi order. But for the purposes of this story, and for the authorities in Uzbekistan, one of the important things is that Naqshbandi are an indigenous Central Asian group (though the order is among the most popular of Sufi groups and it has spread far beyond Central Asia's borders).

Uzbek President Islam Karimov said in 1993 during a celebration marking the 675th anniversary of Naqshband's birth that it was a suitable order for Uzbekistan to follow.

And the Naqshbandi have another important and more recent place in Central Asia's history.

The people living in the area between Bukhara and Merv today remember the Naqshbandi as the preservers of Islam during the Soviet era.* The Naqshbandi were persecuted before the arrival of the Russians in the 19th century and developed methods of clandestine communications. The experience helped the Naqshbandi to hide sacred books and quietly transmit scripture and proper means of worshipping from generation-to-generation. After the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, members of the Naqshbandi order, as Sunnis, were highly esteemed for their knowledge of Islam.

With all this, the Naqshbandi have been valuable to Uzbek authorities as the latter campaigns against the influence of "foreign" Islamic groups. That makes this information about arrests of Naqshbandi members very interesting, and possibly very problematic for the Uzbek government if it is true.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report


*The Naqshbandi were a favorite topic in conversations with people in southeastern Turkmenistan and southwestern Uzbekistan when I was roaming the area in 1991-1993. I do not know how the Naqshbandi are viewed in Turkmenistan today.

Kazakhstan -- In The Absence Of Official Information

A police officer responds in Almaty after a gunman targeted police and left seven people dead.

Bruce Pannier

Kazakhstan has been going through some tough times recently.
There were widespread protests against government land-reform plans in late April that culminated in countrywide rallies against government policies on May 21. Hundreds of people were arrested in the days leading up to and on the day of that protest.
Then in June, an armed group roamed the streets of the northwestern city of Aqtobe in an incident that left 28 people dead, most of them from the armed group, and that has just been followed by a killing spree by a lone gunman in the commercial capital, Almaty.
Certainly, these are occurrences the general population would like to be informed about, especially when the situation is evolving rapidly. But it has been difficult to receive accurate information -- or sometimes even any information -- from media and officials, especially from the country’s president, while these events unfolded.
In this most recent incident, on the morning of July 18, reports said policemen in Almaty had been shot, that attacks might be happening at three places in the city simultaneously, and that people should stay indoors.
Some local television channels “decided” to suspend broadcasting. So many of those who heeded the warning to stay indoors were left to use cell phones or the Internet to receive information about what was happening in Almaty. Kazakh officials have warned repeatedly against relying on information spread via social networks.
Some of those television channels that went off the air explained they had planned to do maintenance at that time and stuck to their schedules, despite the crisis situation unfolding in Almaty. When they did resume broadcasting, many of the channels had prepared reports about events in Almaty. The Khabar channel had a reporting team at the scene when it came back on the air in the early afternoon.
The temporary suspension of broadcasting is actually to be expected. Regulations adopted in 2014 obligate owners of media outlets -- print, radio, or television -- to hand over texts of their reports to the local "komendatura," the officials in charge of preserving order during a state of emergency, 24 hours before the reports are published or broadcast.
No one at the television stations said that was the reason for being off the air, but management is surely aware of these rules.

Kazakh President Nursultan NazarbaevKazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev

After the suspect in the attacks was apprehended in Almaty, President Nursultan Nazarbaev said, “It is important to rigidly suppress panicky rumors…and inform the public about Almaty events.”

It was a quick response from Nazarbaev, since he remained silent and out of the public eye for several days in the wake of the June 5 attack in Aqtobe and after the unsanctioned demonstrations on May 21.
The Kazakh president seems lately to prefer allowing top officials to speak when crises break out, but this, too, has led to some confusion, mainly due to what appears to be a rift between the Interior Ministry and the National Security Committee (KNB).
Commenting on the Almaty attacker, KNB chief Vladimir Zhumakanov, who was appointed to his position at the end of last year, said the assailant was a terrorist who had been imprisoned for robbery and had fallen under the influence of Islamic radicals while incarcerated.
The Interior Ministry later portrayed the Almaty attacker as a petty criminal who, having been released from jail, decided to target police in revenge for being imprisoned. Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov said on July 19 that the gunman said during questioning that his initial plan had been to attack judges and employees of the Prosecutor-General’s Office.

Following the June 5 violence in Aqtobe, when police were still searching for fugitives, KNB chief Zhumankanov was shown on television on June 7 briefing President Nazarbaev about the situation. Zhumakanov told Nazarbaev there was information earlier that day about an attack on a kindergarten and children’s summer camp. But shortly after that, the Interior Ministry released a statement denying there were attacks at either place.
Kazakhstan has been relatively free from acts of violence, mass killings, terrorism, and large-scale unrest throughout its nearly 25 years as an independent country. Incidents so far in 2016 have shown authorities still need to learn some things about how to respond to such crises when they occur.
But part of that response should be assigning some official or officials to keep a steady line of communication open to the public through the country’s media.

RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, contributed to this report

Are Uzbek Militants In Disarray?

The vast majority of Uzbek militants in the Middle East are in Syria. Their numbers are nearly impossible to estimate, likely hundreds, possibly more than 1,000. (file photo)

Bruce Pannier

The actions of less than 1 percent of Central Asians are giving the entire region an odious reputation as a prime recruiting ground for Islamic extremist groups. In Syria and Iraq, for example, there have been reports and videos of Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmen, and Uzbeks who have joined some extremist group there.
Of all the peoples living in Central Asia today, Uzbeks are the most likely to be reported in militant groups from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Syria and Yemen. There are at least several explanations for why this is true, the most obvious being they are the largest ethnic group in Central Asia.
The most notorious Central Asian militant group to date is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has resurfaced in the news recently, but there are also Uzbeks in the ranks of Al-Qaeda and the extremist group Islamic State (IS).
RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, has been looking into the current state of Uzbek militants and uncovered some interesting details about them.
We'll start with the IMU. The IMU was thought to have ceased to exist as of the end of 2015.
Its most recent leader, Usman Ghazi, declared an oath of allegiance to IS in the summer of 2015 and late last year led a large group of his fighters from their sanctuary in Pakistan's tribal region to the Zabul Province in southeastern Afghanistan to join a Taliban splinter group under Mansur Dadullah that was loyal to IS. The traditional Taliban of then-leader Mullah Mansur joined with local ethnic Hazara forces that had suffered at the hands of the IMU, and together they annihilated the IMU in battles in late October and early November.
Nearly all the approximately 200 fighters, including Ghazi, were killed.
IMU fighters in northeastern Afghanistan came under Tajik leadership -- a group called either Jamaat Ansarullah or Jundallah. Those in northwestern Afghanistan appear to have been largely absorbed by local Taliban groups.

IMU Reforming?
But on June 6, a statement purportedly from the IMU was released. The statement mentions Ghazi's announcement that the IMU was joining IS but later refers to many "scholars" who said IS leader "Abu Bakr Baghdadi is not a caliph of Muslims but only an Ameer [Emir] of the 'Islamic State' group."
The statement says "the activities of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan did not stop," admits that its fighters were "dispersed in many faraway fields" and then later states the IMU will "stand shoulder-to-shoulder with… Muslim brothers of Afghanistan."
Ozodlik spoke with people who said the IMU was reforming under the leadership of former IMU leader Tohir Yuldash's son in the Fayzabad area in northeastern Afghanistan's Badakhshan Province. Tohir Yuldash was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan's tribal area in August 2009.
Ozodlik spoke to someone close to Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry. Under condition of anonymity, this person said the number of IMU fighters in northern Afghanistan was likely somewhere between 60 and 100, far lower than figures given by officials in Central Asia, Afghanistan, or Russia.
Asked why the Uzbek government claims there are hundreds of IMU fighters in northern Afghanistan, the source said, "To get money." They told Ozodlik that mid-level security officials in the border area know the real IMU numbers but report higher figures to keep their departments open, and people employed.
Clearly, authorities in Tashkent are still concerned about events in northern Afghanistan. RFE/RL's Gandhara website recently reported Uzbek security forces were conducting cross-border raids into Afghanistan, sometimes capturing Afghans and taking them back to Uzbekistan. 

High Casualty Rate
Further away, Uzbeks are taking part in fighting in Syria and Iraq. Ozodlik contacted sources in Uzbekistan, Turkey, and Russia to get information about those groups of Uzbeks.
The vast majority of Uzbek militants in the Middle East are in Syria and most of those are in or near Raqqa. It has been reported that some are in IS but others are in extremist groups fighting against IS. Their numbers are nearly impossible to estimate, likely hundreds, possibly more than 1,000. They suffer a high casualty rate, which makes guesses at counting them even more difficult.
Some are veteran fighters from the IMU but most are not. They were recruited among migrant laborers in Russia and Turkey [See Noah Tucker's work on the Registan website] and most of these, according to Ozodlik's sources, are Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan.
Ozodlik spoke with people involved in or familiar with recruitment efforts for extremist groups in Syria or Iraq. These "recruiters," or perhaps human traffickers would be a more appropriate term, are paid up to $10,000 for sending Uzbeks without military experience to extremist groups in the Middle East.An IMU veteran on the other hand, can be worth $30,000 or more to the person who successfully recruits and delivers such an experienced fighter.

So Uzbek militants are out there but their numbers are small. Depictions in some media give the idea that there are many thousands of them but a more sober estimate would be somewhere around 2,000 spread out from the Arabian Peninsula to Pakistan's tribal region.

Among the other Central Asian peoples, the number is even smaller.

That is something worth considering when assessing security aid to the Central Asian governments, particularly to the Uzbek government.

Sirojiddin Tolibov of Ozodlik contributed to this report

Audio Majlis Podcast: Turkmenistan's Afghan Dilemma

The return of Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Rashid Dostum (center right) has brought a modicum of stability to parts of northwest Afghanistan. (file photo)

Bruce Pannier

Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov made a rare and little publicized visit to three northwestern Afghan provinces at the end of June. Meredov’s trip was the latest evidence that Turkmen authorities are having to adjust their policies toward their southern neighbor in light of the breakdown in security in northwestern Afghanistan.

We’ve been discussing events in northern Afghanistan in the Majlis podcast and in Qishloq Ovozi for many months. But Meredov’s visit to Jowzjan, Faryab, and Balkh provinces was something unseen previously.

The trip, and what it means to Turkmenistan’s posturing toward Afghanistan, bears a closer look. So RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a Majlis panel to consider recent events in northwest Afghanistan and review how Turkmenistan has reacted and how Ashgabat might react in the future.

Moderating the discussion was Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir. Gennady Rudkevich, assistant professor of political science at Georgia University and a specialist in Central Asian affairs, joined the talk. And in the studio in Prague, Amin Mudaqiq, the director of RFE/RL’s Pakistani service, known as Radio Mashaal, participated. And I tossed in a few tidbits here and there, as well.

Mudaqiq started the discussion by recounting the recent fighting in northwest Afghanistan. Mudaqiq said the return of Afghanistan’s vice president, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, to the region has once again brought a modicum of stability to parts of northwest Afghanistan.

“Two months ago, the Taliban had almost encircled the provincial capitals of Faryab and Jowzjan and Sari Pul,” Mudaqiq explained. “I have relatives, I’ve been talking with them, they evacuated their families...because it was expected that the Taliban will overrun [their city] in hours.”

Mudaqiq said the situation changed after Dostum came back to northwest Afghanistan in the spring, the fourth time in less than a year that Dostum had returned to lead security operations against the militants.

The Taliban has been driven from some districts. But Rudkevich pointed out that a pattern has emerged where we see “Dostum coming in, Dostum clearing out the militants, Dostum leaving, the Taliban coming in.”

For Turkmenistan, one of the more alarming developments in northwest Afghanistan is the rise of a new group of Taliban, as Mudaqiq explained.

“To my surprise, [it is] the Turkmen commanders, Turkmen Taliban, who are the most resistant, the toughest fighters in this area,” Mudaqiq said. “These are the local Turkmen commanders, but they studied in Pakistan, they came [back] from Pakistan.” And he added that these Turkmen fighters are a departure from previous Turkmen groups.

“Traditionally, the young Turkmen would obey their elders, but right now they don’t obey their elders,” Mudaqiq said. “The elders are also not pushing so hard because they have their own grievances against Dostum.”

Mudaqiq also mentioned “local Taliban, local militants who are not ideological Taliban but [who] joined the Taliban either for their own security or [because of] their economic problems.”

Mudaqiq described these people as essentially hired guns and said they are often accepted back onto the government side after making vague oaths of allegiance. During Dostum’s offensives in the northwest, there have been several instances of Taliban commanders making peace with Dostum and joining the government side.

Rudkevich said this tactic might not pay off for long.

“If these local actors change sides so quickly and without punishment, apparently, then one day, whether it’s a month from now or a year from now or five years from now, we could have a situation where they decide that being on Dostum’s side, or being on the government’s side, is not in their interest," he said. "And in that case, the fighting will end up in a very different direction than what it is right now.”

Part of the reason for Foreign Minister Meredov’s trip to northwest Afghanistan was probably to get a first-hand look at these events so the Turkmen government can better assess the situation south of the border. His planned visit to a border town where Turkmenistan is building a retaining wall along the Amu-Darya River was abruptly canceled when “unfortunately there was a mine blast, which hit his convoy, and he returned,” Mudaqiq said.

Officially, Meredov was there to discuss bilateral projects. He participated in a groundbreaking ceremony for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway in the town of Akina in Faryab Province and he discussed plans for Turkmenistan to export electricity to areas in northwest Afghanistan. Such discussions could just as easily, and more usually, have been held in Ashgabat or Kabul. Mudaqiq mentioned that Meredov’s meetings with local officials were all conducted behind closed doors.

Azatlyk already reported that the commander of the paramilitary “Arbaky” units and some local police officials were just in Ashgabat. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also made the first-ever visit by a Russian defense minister to Turkmenistan at the start of June.

So it could be that Turkmenistan, which for some 20 years has prided itself on being a neutral country, is choosing a side in the Afghan conflict.

But Mudaqiq drew attention to Turkmenistan’s projects in northwest Afghanistan and suggested that Turkmenistan does have a policy toward this region.

“This electricity, this railway project, these road projects do not benefit only the government. [They] benefit the whole population, which includes the Taliban,” Mudaqiq said. “Turkmenistan electricity in Faryab is distributed in villages, which are under the Taliban, so when the Taliban starts a disturbance against Turkmenistan, they will lose electricity as well.”

Mudaqiq said Turkmenistan might be seeking to make the Afghan provinces across the border dependent on Turkmenistan so that no matter who is in control in northwest Afghanistan that party will need to have friendly relations with Turkmenistan.

It would be a better policy than simply trying to stay out of Afghan politics altogether, which has already proven to be impossible.

Rudkevich said, “[The Turkmen government} wants to have stable borders with Afghanistan, and it looks like they’ve seen the situation degenerate to such an extent that they’re willing to make some sacrifices in the neutrality policy.” But Rudkevich cautioned, “I can’t see them going much further without really jeopardizing the whole neutrality policy, which, again, has been what their whole identity is based on for the last 20 years.”

The panel agreed we are likely to see a very flexible policy from the Turkmen government toward neighboring areas in Afghanistan, but not a coherent strategy, as Ashgabat is in the position of having to react to Afghan events without being able to do much to influence the situation.

The panel discussed these issues in greater detail and looked at other topics that are shaping the situation in northwest Afghanistan and forcing policymakers in Ashgabat to regularly make adjustments to Turkmenistan’s ties with its southern neighbor.

Majlis Podcast: Turkmenistan's Afghan Dilemma
Majlis Podcast: Turkmenistan's Afghan Dilemmai
|| 0:00:00

Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

Tajikistan's National Reconciliation Day Celebration: Table For One

Tajik children watch a supporter of the Islamic Renaissance Party paste a campaign poster on a wall in the capital, Dushanbe, in February 2015. Within a few months it would be disbanded.

Bruce Pannier

June 27, 1997, remains one of the greatest days in Tajikistan's nearly 25-year history as an independent country.

On that day in Moscow, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (then Rakhmonov) and the leader of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), Said Abdullo Nuri, signed a national peace accord. It ended five years of civil war in Tajikistan that estimates now say left some 100,000 people dead.

The core of the UTO was the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (HNIT) and the era of peace in Tajikistan seemed to get off to a good start when President Rahmon, three days after signing the peace deal, arrived in Saudi Arabia to make the "umrah," the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca.

This year only those who sided with the government during the civil war are celebrating National Reconciliation Day. Their partners in peace, the HNIT, are once again outlawed.

On June 23, RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, reported that a 35-year-old man was sentenced to five years in prison for propagating the ideas of the HNIT, a party that was legally registered less than one year ago.

Something To Brag About

For nearly 18 of the 19 years of peace in Tajikistan, the HNIT was part of the country's government. One of the provisions of the peace accord was that the UTO receive 30 percent of the places in government, from ministerial posts down to the village level. Most places went to the HNIT, which was the largest part of the UTO and had done most of the fighting. The percentage eroded away over the years until, in March 2015, the HNIT lost its last two seats in parliament.

During the roughly 18 years the HNIT was part of the government, the party demonstrated its dedication to the peace deal many times. The war might have ended but outbreaks of fighting continued. Sometimes it was former opposition members, sometimes it was former government allies who were responsible. The HNIT always sided with the government.

The HNIT had the credentials to speak authoritatively on matters of Islam, something that proved extremely valuable in countering the views of Islamic extremist groups. The HNIT was once the armed Islamic opposition, but it had reached an agreement with the government.

The HNIT's participation in governing the country was an example that cooperation between a secular government and an Islamic opposition was possible. The HNIT's presence in the government was a reminder to Tajikistan's people of a "happy ending" to a horrible time. The ability of the HNIT and President Rahmon's government to work together reinforced the idea that Tajikistan's civil war had truly been an incredible waste.

Harassment, Attacks

But after a few years, the harassment of HNIT members started; some were beaten, a few were killed. State media started reporting on alleged misdeeds by HNIT members, especially the party's leaders. HNIT leader Muhiddin Kabiri eventually fled the country as it became clear he would soon be charged with some crime.

The HNIT's attempts to hold public meetings or press conferences were sometimes broken up by the sudden appearance of groups of supposedly irate citizens who spontaneously banded together to vent at the HNIT. This, despite strict prohibitions on unsanctioned rallies and demonstrations.

Not long after the HNIT lost its last two seats in parliament in 2015, the Tajik authorities started to claim the HNIT, the second-largest party in the country, did not actually enjoy widespread popularity and that many of its branches around the country had effectively ceased activities.

On this basis, the authorities initiated procedures that in late August resulted in the Justice Ministry ordering the HNIT to cease all activities. At the end of September, the Supreme Court ruled that the HNIT was an extremist group and outlawed the party.

At the start of June this year, 14 leading members of the HNIT were convicted on dubious charges. Some were given lengthy prison sentences.

HNIT deputy leaders Mahmadali Hayit and Saidumar Husaini were sentenced to life in prison for their alleged, and unlikely, involvement in the supposed coup attempt Tajikistan's deputy defense minister led in September, just before the deadline the Justice Ministry ordered the HNIT to cease all activities.

Hayit and Husaini had been targeted before.

On April 19, 2013, two unknown assailants attacked the then-56-year-old Hayit outside his Dushanbe home after he helped plan a public event the HNIT was about to hold to mark the anniversary of the party's founding. He was taken to the hospital with "severe wounds to the head, face, eyes, ribs, back, and stomach."

On April 28, 2014, Husaini, his son, and another HNIT member were attacked in Tajikistan's eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. Husaini said some 15 people were involved in the attack. He told Ozodi at the time he didn't intend to ask local authorities for help in apprehending the attackers because he believed some of the assailants were actually policemen.

End Of Reconciliation

Tajikistan is a poor country, the poorest in Central Asia. At least 25 percent of the country's eligible labor force is working abroad, mainly in Russia. There is little to distinguish Tajikistan today.

For 18 years Tajik authorities could say the country had the only registered Islamic party in Central Asia. Not anymore.

So this year Tajik authorities for the first time mark National Reconciliation Day without their partner in the reconciliation.

President Rahmon is marking the holiday in Gorno-Badakhshan, the poorest region of Tajikistan. He is not popular in Gorno-Badakhshan. The local Lal'i Badakhshan group established by the Pamiri population there was part of the UTO during the civil war.

Rahmon was in the regional capital, Khorog, on June 26 to present the government's gift to the people of Gorno-Badakhshan -- a 30-meter flagpole for an 8-meter-by-4-meter Tajik flag.

According to the president's press service, the project cost some 300,000 somonis (a bit more than $38,000); money that could have been better used in so many ways in this region.

This year's National Reconciliation Day celebration really marks the government's victory in a war it could not win 19 years ago. However, if the Tajik authorities continue on their present course, they could spark unrest and this might be one of the last Reconciliation Days the country marks.

Audio Majlis Podcast: Turkmenistan's Official 'Body Count' On The Rise

The only government official truly safe from being sacked is the president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

Bruce Pannier

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov visited his country’s northern Dashoguz Province in mid-June. He fired seven district officials and reprimanded nine others.

Berdymukhammedov visited the western Balkan Province at the end of May. Twelve provincial and district officials were fired and 13 others reprimanded. Qishloq Ovozi has written about earlier dismissals this year.

Regular dismissals of Turkmen government officials have become something of a tradition. The only person truly safe from being sacked is the president. A very, very small number of officials have lingered on; you could count them on one hand.

But 2016 has already been different. The rate at which officials are falling or receiving warnings about “shortcomings” is more accelerated than seen before in Turkmenistan.

To look a bit at the history of the tradition of the “Turkmen sack” and explore what might be prompting this recent, unprecedented wave of dismissals, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, organized a majlis, or a panel discussion.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir* moderated the talk. Luca Anceschi, chairperson of the Central Asian Center at Glasgow University, participated in the Majlis podcast, as did Ruslan Myatiev, who runs the Alternative Turkmenistan News website. I like talking with both of those guys, so I joined in also.

The symbol for the Turkmen government’s coat of arms should be a turnstile."

Turkmenistan’s people -- and those watching the country from outside -- have long grown accustomed to an endless rotation of officials. The symbol for the Turkmen government’s coat of arms should be a turnstile.

Myatiev explained that these changes of officials have reached the point where "very few people know who their governors are, who their deputies are, what their duties are..."

As concerns “who” they are, most of us stopped even trying to learn their names, since they don’t stay in their positions for very long. As Anceschi said, “The fact that we can’t even remember their names shows...that the politics of Turkmenistan is really personalized.”

And the ultimate person in the country’s politics, the one who makes policy is, seemingly, the president. That is, of course, currently Berdymukhammedov. But the architect of Turkmenistan’s unique system of governance is Berdymukhammedov’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

That system includes a steady reshuffling of officials, most believe, to ensure that no one could ever have the time to develop a support base of any kind and potentially become a rival to the president.

There are inherent problems with this constant rotation.

Turkmenistan is an isolationist state. Few people get in and few get out. That extends to education. Turkmenistan’s education system has been hit hard since independence, to the point where some required course material deals with the mythology of the president that the state has been pushing on the people for 25 years. Subjects that could provide valuable management skills are not stressed in the curriculum.

“I think that they lack competence,” Myatiev said, “because for 30 years Turkmenistan did not manage to prepare young professionals, who have, for instance, received Western educations...”

Anceschi explained, “The reasons they’ve been appointed are not because they are more competent than their predecessor.”

Loyalty to the president is clearly key in Turkmenistan’s system, but Myatiev said that, beyond that, “God knows what [the president’s] criteria for these [appointments] are -- whether it’s tribal things, whether it’s personal devotion, whether it’s anything else."

And Anceschi said officials “are staying [in office] only if the president wants [them] to stay.”

So that brings us to the present and the wave of dismissals this year. As opaque as Turkmenistan’s internal affairs are, it is clear the country is suffering serious economic problems.

The dismissals of dozens of provincial and district officials, and a few ministers, this year seems to show some desperation on the part of the government.

Anceschi characterized the Turkmen government as a “highly paranoid regime” and said this trait can be seen in these recent mass dismissals.

“When you have seven or eight dismissals at willayat (provincial) level or even etrap (district), you have to think that someone must have said to the center there might be a problem here or there,” Anceschi said, adding, “Decreasing loyalties are punished pretty quickly.”

It was noted that despite a shrinking state budget, officials are required to meet government targets that would be difficult to achieve in better economic times. Without adequate funding or proper resources, these officials inevitably fail to fulfill their work.

In the meantime, Anceschi pointed out the average tenure of some district or provincial officials is not even long enough to become familiar with the requisite tasks.

Beyond that, Myatiev noted, it is not just the district chief or his deputy involved. A new official, Myatiev said, “gets a new assistant; he gets new key personnel within that district. It can be as low as changing a school director or a factory chief.”

Stability and productivity are difficult in such a situation.

The panel agreed this constant replacement of officials was generally counterproductive but is especially detrimental during these current hard economic times.

But these frequent dismissals do serve some purpose.

Myatiev said, “It’s a very expected move by President Berdymukhammedov, given the financial state of the country.” And Anceschi added that many officials “are sacked because the government needs that kind of rotation.” It makes other officials afraid, providing a crude form of motivation.

But Anceschi also said he senses “an elite instability” and noted that Berdymukhammedov appears to “trying to narrow down the elite and make himself the center of a patronage network which is narrower and narrower.” Anceschi added that in some ways this could be a sort of rite of passage.

“Berdymukhammedov has got to the point in which his grip on power is so stable that he can do exactly the same things that Niyazov was doing,” Anceschi said.

And he has an opportune moment. The pieces of the “pie” the elites are fighting for are getting smaller and that, to some extent, probably explains some of the ministerial dismissals. The rich in Turkmenistan will not stay rich by taking from the poor. Turkmenistan’s people are too poor to offer much. So it is necessary for the rich to rob from the rich.

But when a top official falls, so, too, do all the lower level officials whose fortunes were tied to that individual. That is leading Turkmenistan into dangerous territory.

The panel looked at these issues in greater detail and discussed other topics related to the dismissals in Turkmenistan, the patronage network, and how people such as Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov have managed to stay in office for long periods of time.

Majlis Podcast: Turkmenistan's 'Body Count'
Majlis Podcast: Turkmenistan's 'Body Count'i
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

* Muhammad will be heading to RFE/RL's Washington, D.C., office soon. We’ll miss him in the Prague studio, but he will continue to moderate the Majlis podcast from the U.S. capital. All the best in Washington, Mr. Tahir! 

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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