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Qishloq Ovozi

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (center) waves to the media during the starting ceremony of a 500-day nationwide horse race at the historical site of Nisa just outside Ashgabat on May 5 in preparation for the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games.

Qishloq Ovozi just looked at the situation in Turkmenistan, where wage arrears and shortages of basic food are becoming the norm for many.

In a superficial way -- and Turkmenistan’s government is nothing if not superficial -- it appears the problem with delayed salaries has eased in some areas of the country.

Some workers in the northern Dashoguz Province were finally paid their overdue salaries -- except the money was reportedly put directly into their bank accounts, accessible only through use of plastic banking cards. Not many stores in Dashoguz Province are set up to take bank cards in exchange for merchandise. There are ATMs, a few, for 1.2 million people; they run out of cash quickly and are not restocked regularly.

Many of these workers in Dashoguz, and others like them around the country who are finally starting to receive at least some of their back pay, might have a problem accessing their money. But the state has had no problem at all.

In yet another sign of Turkmenistan’s economic plunge, the state is said to be removing money from the paychecks of at least some employees of state institutions. RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, heard from workers at state institutions that up to half of their salaries are being withheld as “contributions” to fund construction of facilities for the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games that Ashgabat is hosting next year.

Several teachers who have been subjected to this deduction told Azatlyk they were made to sign a form stating that they were “voluntarily” donating the money.

The games (which I’ll confess I had never heard of before Turkmenistan was named host country for 2017) are one of the Turkmen government’s many prestige projects. The government likes showing off to the world, even when Turkmen authorities don’t really want foreign visitors.

Billions of dollars have been spent on the nearly empty Awaza resort area on Turkmenistan’s Caspian coast, billions more on the white-marble capital, Ashgabat, where residents seem to be discouraged from roaming the broad avenues, themselves nearly devoid of automobiles. Once again, the new Ashgabat airport -- $2.3 billion, practically empty.

The cost of building the “Olympic Village” for next year’s games is estimated at $5 billion.

All these projects were started when the price of natural gas was hitting record highs on world markets. Turkmenistan’s government likes to boast the country has the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves. Just how meaningless that is in a region where all Turkmenistan’s neighbors also have gas is becoming apparent.

Turkmenistan’s big hope is for long pipelines, like the three, soon to be four, pipelines running from Turkmenistan to China -- which is also Turkmenistan’s biggest creditor and only paying customer. (Exports to Iran are repaid in barter; on October 3, Iran’s Oil Ministry said Turkmen gas imports were “not a necessity.")

It is unlikely there will be any more multinational pipelines connecting Turkmenistan to major markets of the world anytime soon, so it is equally unlikely Turkmenistan’s economic fortunes will take a turn for the better anytime soon.

That means in September 2017, when martial arts champions from around Asia come to Ashgabat for the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, Turkmenistan can honestly say nearly everyone in the country pitched in to prepare for the big event.

Azatlyk’s Farruh Yusupov and Toymyrat Bugaev contributed to this report; The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect he views of RFE/RL.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev's new softer line toward its fellow Central Asian states might be a signal that Tashkent is willing to try the "carrot" rather resorting to the "stick," as it has for many years now.

Uzbekistan's new leader, Shavkat Mirziyaev, is already making a difference in regional politics in Central Asia. In less than one month, Mirziyaev has moved to improve ties with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and in so doing has sparked hopes for a new era of regional cooperation.

Under former President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan was an obstacle to regional integration. Uzbekistan lies at the center of Central Asia, bordered by all the other Central Asian states and also sharing an approximately 160-kilometer border with Afghanistan. Uzbekistan has proven to be a knot at the heart of the region.

Tashkent's relations with its immediate neighbors have ranged from bad to horrible. Ties with Turkmenistan warmed after the country's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, died in late 2006, and in the last decade Karimov seemed to finally find some common ground with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, which eased Uzbek-Kazakh relations.

But the Uzbek government has always been hard on eastern neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

When Mirziyaev took over as Uzbekistan's leader on September 8, Uzbek police had been occupying a hill in Kyrgyzstan, Ungar-Too, for more than two weeks. The Uzbek forces detained four Kyrgyz nationals who were working at the television relay station on Ungar-Too and refused to free them, angering Kyrgyz villagers in the area and the government in Bishkek.

Problems between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan include land, border demarcation, and, most importantly, water -- and the three things are often intertwined.

On September 9, Uzbek troops released the four Kyrgyz nationals.

Mirziyaev did not attend a CIS summit in Bishkek on September 16. Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov went instead and arrived one day early to meet with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev.

On September 20, the Uzbek police withdrew from Ungar-Too. The same day, the pro-government website reported that from September 14 to 20 a working group of officials from both countries had been reviewing questions of border demarcation in 23 disputed areas along the common frontier.

And then, on October 1, a government delegation from Kyrgyzstan made up largely of officials from Kyrgyzstan's Jalal-Abat, Osh, and Batken provinces, which border Uzbekistan, visited the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon to take part in events dedicated to Uzbek-Kyrgyz friendship.

Tajik Tensions Ease

Uzbek-Tajik ties have probably been the worst bilateral ties across Central Asia. All railway traffic bound for or leaving Tajikistan must transit Uzbek territory and Uzbek authorities have on occasion held up, and in cases turned back, shipments to Tajikistan -- particularly shipments of construction materials for Tajikistan's hydropower plants. Both countries have tried and convicted their own nationals on charges of spying for the other country.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon attended Karimov's funeral in Samarkand on September 3 and met with Mirziyaev. At the end of September, Tajik media enthusiastically reported on Uzbek Foreign Minister Komilov's September 23 speech at the UN General Assembly, which, for once, did not include any mention of Tajikistan's plans to build the Roghun hydropower plant. Roghun has been a major sticking point in relations between the two countries.

Komilov traveled to Tajikistan on September 29 and met with President Rahmon to discuss renewing the railway and air links, and economic ties in general, between the two countries. Flights between Tashkent and Dushanbe were suspended in 1992 and trade between the two countries was only some $10 million in 2015, which was actually an increase of more than 50 percent compared to 2014.

Komilov did mention he hoped the two countries could find a fair and mutually advantageous solution to water and energy problems. He also gave an interview to Tajik television, saying it was time to renew "long-interrupted" ties.

On September 30, the pro-government website reported a meeting of the Uzbek-Kazakh border demarcation took place from September 26 to 30 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. noted that a similar meeting took place in Almaty on February 18 to 27 this year, and that the process of demarcating the Uzbek-Kazakh border has been under way since 2003.

These are all hopeful signs that Uzbekistan under Mirziyaev, who seems certain to be elected president in the December 4 election, might come out of its regional isolation and become a productive regional partner.

Turkmenistan went a similar route when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov took over after Niyazov's death. Turkmenistan succeeded in improving relations with all its Central Asian neighbors, including Uzbekistan -- not an easy feat considering Niyazov had all but said publicly that Uzbek authorities were behind an assassination plot against him.

More 'Carrot,' Less 'Stick'

That said, there are possible reasons for this new Uzbek diplomacy.

In the case of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, water has always been one of Uzbekistan's key interests in relations. In the past, Uzbekistan cut off supplies to natural gas to its two eastern neighbors when Tashkent was displeased with moves in Bishkek or Dushanbe, as almost always happened when either country spoke about building large hydropower plants on the rivers that flowed into Uzbekistan. Tashkent has maintained that construction of those huge hydropower plants threatens the water supply to Uzbekistan's agricultural fields.

That form of pressure no longer works, since both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have turned to their abundant domestic supplies of coal to wean themselves off Uzbek gas. In Kyrgyzstan's case, Bishkek sold the state natural-gas company to Russia's Gazprom which uses gas from sites it has helped develop in Uzbekistan to serve the energy needs of Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan is still far from constructing the Kambar-Ata hydropower plant, the project that angered Karimov's government. Tajikistan might be closer to realizing the Roghun hydropower plant after the Italian firm Salinin Impregilo expressed interest in the project earlier this year.

So, Uzbekistan's new softer line toward its fellow Central Asian states might be a signal that Tashkent is willing to try the "carrot" rather resorting to the "stick," as it has for many years now.

Uzbekistan might also be considering the benefits of looser border controls, which could open the way for it to take advantage of its geographic position and become the main trade hub in Central Asia.

Based on material from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek services. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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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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