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Qishloq Ovozi

Wearing their traditional costumes (and beards) Turkmen elders listen to Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov during a meeting in Dashoguz. (file photo)

Turkmenistan's Council of Elders just met in the capital, Ashgabat. It has long been the custom for the council to laud the alleged achievements of the president, and this latest meeting was no exception. The Council of Elders bestowed another award on President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and the president honored the equally well-established tradition of lauding the country's supposed achievements, this time ahead of the 20th anniversary of the United Nations recognizing Turkmenistan as a neutral country.

I have long had questions about these elders: how they receive their positions and what they do. And fortunately for me, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, recently interviewed a man who is now a former elder.

Jora Aga has an amazing tale to tell, although he told it only reluctantly to our Azatlyk correspondent.

It started with a question about why Jora had shaved his "beautiful beard."

"I'm a pensioner, and when I became a pensioner suddenly I was invited to sit in places of honor at weddings and events with other elders, many of whom had beards. I had a grandson, so I decided one day I should grow a beard," he said.

But he continued, "If I had known I would face so many difficulties, I never would have grown it."

Jora's beard grew long. "It covered my entire chest," he explained.

His beard came to the attention of the village chief, who invited Jora for a conversation one day.

"He said, 'You are a confident speaker in front of people, you also have a beautiful beard. It suits you. We need people like you to greet the masses. So what would you think if we invited you to celebrations and mass events?'"

It sounded like a great honor as well as potentially being a bit of fun, so Jora accepted.

"I said yes," Jora recalled, "after two or three days the village chief came to my home."

The chief told Jora elders who participate in public events needed the proper attire and offered, for 340 manats, to purchase such clothing for Jora.

"He brought me a hat" -- the large white fur hat of the Turkmen -- "and a gown," Jora said. "The ordeal started from there."

"They started to take me to events in the village, then around the district. They asked me to speak and I spoke. Then they started taking me to provincial events, and two or three times they asked me to come to the capital for national events," Jora said.

On His Own Dime

While officials were pleased to have Jora attend these events, they did not offer him free transportation. That money came from Jora's pocket. Jora said he regularly attended 10 or 15 events a month, sometimes even as many as 20 public gatherings.

"If there was a wedding,' Jora please come.'"

"If there was a commemoration banquet, 'Jora come.'"

"If they were planting grain or cotton, 'Jora come.'"

"If they were harvesting grain or cotton, 'Jora come.'"

Jora said he was often away from his home and that it became a problem.

"My wife started nagging, saying, 'It is either these events or us, or make them pay you something for your time.'"

He went on: "I told her you cannot get snow from officials in winter, let alone receive a salary [for attending public events]."

Our correspondent mentioned there were reports that the elders received gifts when they attended high-level events.

"People might talk about this," Jora responded, "but in reality, no such thing exists."

So why didn't Jora simply resign from his position as a venerated elder?

"I tried. I went to the village chief and told him I wanted to stop participating in mass events. He said no, because my name was already written down on the official list of invitees," Jora said.

"I went to the district chief's office and requested my name be taken off the [official] list," Jora continued. "They said, 'We don't invite all old men to events. If we want, there are many people who could be invited, but some have problems growing beards and others have problems in the background checks that go back seven generations.'"

Such generation checks were instituted several years ago and are mandatory for people seeking posts in the government. Anyone who had an ancestor who committed a crime, even more than 100 years ago, is barred from receiving state posts; and, more generally, it complicates the lives and aspirations of those living in Turkmenistan today if they had such an ancestor.

"I realized I couldn't escape," Jora said, "So I decided to play a trick. I told them one of my relatives in the seven-generation list had a criminal record, but they didn't pay any attention."

Desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say, so Jora resorted to...the barber.

"I went straight to the barber shop and told him to shave off my beard," Jora said. "I was relieved, as if a great weight had been taken off my shoulders."

It was the end of Jora's days of attending public events.

"These days I shave every day, or at least every other day. Thank God, I can spend time with my grandsons, I don't leave home, and my wife has stopped nagging."

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) and his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbaev, are two leaders of Turkic-speaking, former Soviet nations who will be nervously monitoring relations between Moscow and Ankara in the coming months.

Tensions between Moscow and Ankara show no sign of abating in the wake of Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane last month. It seemed inevitable that there would be spillover into countries that have ties with both Russia and Turkey, and that these third-party governments would be forced to make some careful statements and difficult decisions.

This process is already evident in Central Asia and Azerbaijan.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel to explore the balancing acts of diplomacy as the Russian-Turkish relationship deteriorates.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the discussion. Participating in the talk was Nikita Mendkovich, expert at the Center for Modern Afghanistan Studies and the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow, and Vugar Imanbeyli, professor of international relations at Sehir University in Istanbul. I had some things to say on this topic also.

It was noted at the start of the discussion that the Turkic-speaking countries that are also formerly part of the Soviet Union -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- face some of the greatest challenges in balancing ties between Russia and Turkey.

Imanbeyli noted these difficulties, saying the Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan "try to preserve their positions and to distance [themselves] from this conflict because…these regional countries have developed good relations with Russia and also with Turkey."

But there are already indications some of these countries are choosing sides.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev suggested Turkey was wrong to shoot down the Russian warplane, whether it violated Turkish airspace or not. Speaking on November 30, Nazarbaev said: "The fact is that the Russian bomber did not attack Turkey. It was not on its way against Turkey, but to fight terrorists" Those words echoed remarks by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said that the Russian warplane posed no threat to Turkey. Attempting to keep a balance, Nazarbaev added, "As hard as it may be, I believe there is a necessity to set up a joint commission, get...[an investigation] over with fast, determine the culprits, punish them, acknowledge mistakes, and restore ties. I call on our friends -- both in Russia and in Turkey -- to do so."

Mendkovich interpreted Nazarbaev’s comments this way: "A lot of countries, including Kazakhstan, have been quite disappointed at this situation and they think Turkey is the one that must do something to deescalate the situation. That's the reason for the comment by Nazarbaev."

Gas, Media Issues

On the other side of the Caspian Sea, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Baku a few days after Nazarbaev spoke. On December 4, Davutoglu told university students in Baku, "Turkey and Azerbaijan have always supported and will continue to support each other." Davutoglu met the same day with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who echoed the Turkish premier’s words to Baku students and added, "This is an unchangeable policy. This policy is based on both justice and our historical past."

Azerbaijani officials said prior to Davutoglu's visit that work on the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) would be speeded up and Davutoglu and President Aliyev spoke about this in their joint press briefing. TANAP is meant to bring Azerbaijani gas to Europe but Turkey, as the transit country for TANAP, stands to receive some of that gas also.

Turkey is on the verge of losing the 16 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas it purchases annually from Russia via the Blue Stream gas pipeline but once TANAP is finished, and that now is estimated to happen in late 2018, Turkey will initially receive some 6 bcm of gas and that amount will grow as the pipeline is expanded.

But Imanbeyli said despite this seeming preference for Turkey over Russia, Azerbaijani officials "don't want any deterioration in Turkish-Russian relations because…they will suffer also from the deterioration of relations."

Interesting, it was precisely Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan that Imanbeyli said Turkey contacted "to mediate with Russia, with Mr. Putin" after the Russian warplane was shot down.

Russia's sanctions on Turkey in the wake of the downing of the Russian bomber promise to have a detrimental effect on Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said he would be talking to members of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which include Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, about the limitation or possible suspension of the movement of Turkish goods through Russian territory.

Mendkovich said that "Turkish goods [sent to Central Asia] in most situations do transit through Russian territory" so "of course, all countries that are part of this union (EEU) are to discuss the situation because it's a new topic and so everybody should be informed how they're going to work in new conditions."

The discussion also touched on reasons why individual countries in Central Asia might favor Russia or Turkey if they needed to make a choice.

Nazarbaev's stance could, for example, reflect the fact that Kazakhstan has a 6,800-kilometer border with Russia. Turkmenistan, on the other hand, has deep economic ties with Turkey while its trade with Russia is far less and continues to decline.

The panelists also talked about public sentiment, noting, in some cases, that the people of individual countries could be swayed through their access to Russian media. But at the same time Imanbeyli recalled that "it’s not the 1990s" and that nearly 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union there are many people in Central Asia and Azerbaijan who have studied or worked in Turkey at some point and continue to follow world events through the eyes of Turkish media.

These issues were examined in greater detail during the round table event and other topics concerning Central Asia and Azerbaijan’s relations with Russia and Turkey were also discussed.

An audio recording of the roundtable can be heard here:

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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.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws 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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