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Uzbekistan's new Angren-Pap railway line cost some $i.9 billion. (file photo)

There are new steel threads on the old Silk Road.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, just reported that Uzbekistan has completed construction of the Angren-Pap railway line. It's quite a feat for Uzbekistan, especially as it was built much faster than original estimates. But it is symbolically also a sad reminder of the direction in which the five Central Asian states are heading.

The Angren-Pap connects the Tashkent area with Uzbekistan's eastern Ferghana Valley region. The line is 123.1 kilometers long; some 2,100 meters of new bridges were constructed and two tunnels, one of which is 19.1 kilometers long, were built. The project cost some $1.9 billion, some of which came from loans from the World Bank and Islamic Bank of Reconstruction and Development.

The reason for building the line? So Uzbek trains no longer need to transit through Tajikistan.

The governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan -- or more specifically the presidents of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan -- are not on good terms and haven't been for about 20 years.

The borders established during Soviet times left a spur of Tajikistan jutting up into Uzbekistan, partially dividing Uzbekistan's section of the Ferghana Valley from the rest of the country. During the Soviet days, the train between Margilan, in eastern Uzbekistan, and Tashkent went by way of Khujand, Tajikistan.

This line continued running after the collapse of the Soviet Union. That is how I usually traveled between the Uzbek capital and Ferghana Valley in 1992. Gradually, passenger trains have been phased out.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service spoke with Tolibboy Ashurov, a representative of Tajikistan's Sughd region, where Khujand is located, who said that even cargo trains have reduced service. In the past, "up to 4 million tons [of cargo] a year" of Uzbek freight passed through Sughd region, Ashurov said. "The transit of Uzbek goods brought some $28 million annually to Tajikistan's state coffers, but in recent years the volume of transit has dropped sharply," he added.

The new railway clearly benefits Uzbekistan. But conversely, it puts Tajikistan in a horrible situation. For one thing, Angren-Pap removes one of the few aspects of Uzbek-Tajik relations that really required some level of cooperation between the two governments since Uzbekistan needed the old line through Tajikistan to ship goods. Without this small bargaining chip, Dushanbe has no leverage to convince Tashkent to allow trains to reach Tajikistan, and all trains to or from Tajikistan must pass through Uzbekistan's territory.

That's already been a problem, for instance when Tajikistan was having construction material shipped by rail for use in building hydropower plants (HPPs). Tashkent objects to Tajikistan building HPPs on rivers that flow into Uzbekistan. Uzbek customs officials stopped and searched trains bound for Tajikistan; those with construction materials were turned back. These delays in railway traffic through Uzbekistan also led to food and fuel shortages in Tajikistan.

Sign Of The Times

So one could view the Angren-Pap line as an example of a failure of the Uzbek and Tajik governments to reach some agreement that could have kept the old line working smoothly and saved Uzbekistan nearly $2 billion. It stings a little worse realizing Uzbekistan originally planned for the project to take five years to complete but Tashkent pressed for the railway line to be completed faster and in the end it took just a bit more than two years.

This situation cannot be blamed solely on Uzbekistan. It is a failure that other Central Asian governments share. Tajikistan started construction of its own railway to bypass Uzbekistan in 2008. Turkmenistan completed a new line in 2011 that was built to bypass Uzbek territory but that was after Uzbekistan constructed a new railway to avoid Turkmen territory in 2009.

Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran just launched a railway (North-South Transport Corridor) linking the three countries in December 2014. But that is the only railway line built in post-Soviet Central Asia that actually connects two Central Asian countries. All the other railways built since late 1991 were built to other countries (Kazakhstan-China, Turkmenistan-Iran, and Uzbekistan-Afghanistan) or to avoid having to transit a neighbor's territory.

It says something about relations between the five Central Asian countries.

Ozodi's Abdullo Ashurov and Farruh Yusupov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov during a meeting with the Russian foreign minister in Ashgabat in January.

According to officials in Turkmenistan, it is still “Altyn Asyr,” the Golden Era, as it supposedly has been for many years now.

But recently things have been different in Turkmenistan. Cracks are appearing within the dictatorship and the shine is rubbing off the Golden Era.

Of course, with Turkmenistan it is always difficult to tell what exactly is happening inside the country, dubbed the hermit kingdom, so it is difficult to see where the country is headed.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel to look at what we know about recent events in Turkmenistan.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the discussion. Participating in the talk was Peter Leonard, Central Asia editor at Eurasia Net, Ruslan Myatiev, journalist and founder of the Alternative Turkmenistan News website. And since I’ve been following the often bizarre events in Turkmenistan for many years, I said some things also.

Myatiev started by saying, “A lot of things have changed especially in the last year. That applies to the economy, to the social life… to the freedom of the people in the country.”

Hard times have hit Turkmenistan, the sort of hard times the country really has not seen since it became independent. Turkmenistan is heavily dependent on natural-gas exports for revenue. The recent sharp decrease in gas prices on world markets seems to have touched off a chain reaction in Turkmenistan. As Leonard said, “This sort of cushion of large riches flowing into the country has suddenly dried up, kind of creating a great crisis of confidence.”

There is ample evidence of crisis. Last year, the Turkmen government announced cuts in subsidies for gas, electricity, and water, which were all previously free. Rates are still very low for the use of these utilities but they could get higher quickly if the government acts on a proposal to totally do away with these subsidies.

There are also reports of growing unemployment, though the Turkmen government does not speak about unemployment, so it is unclear how bad the problem is. Some opposition websites, based on information from people inside Turkmenistan, reported there were layoffs in the gas industry and suggestions nearly half the gas workers would eventually be let go. Recently, authorities have been preventing nonresidents of the capital Ashgabat from entering the city. One thought is that officials are preventing a mass migration of unemployed people seeking to find work in the capital.

Leonard cautioned that in Turkmenistan the government has a counternarrative it has been preaching for years when it comes to socioeconomic problems. “In Turkmenistan, the state message is [that] the white marble, the big projects, the stadiums, the hippodromes, the statues, whatever, all of this is a sign of economic success. The signs of economic failure are not unemployment or drops in productivity. The signs of economic failure are holes in the road, ugly buildings, all of these things,” he said.

That explains to some extent how the government has been able to cut back on social spending while at the same time allocating state funds for realizing grandiose projects, many of which seem to serve little or no purpose.

All the same, there have been some reports of social discontent, the kind of reports not heard out of Turkmenistan for some two decades. The gas workers in the eastern Lebap Province went on strike last summer. Something happened last year in the late winter in the city of Tejen, some 220 kilometers east of Ashgabat, that involved mass arrests but there have been conflicting reports about the cause.

Conflicting because of course it is nearly impossible for outside news services to gain access to Turkmenistan, especially to areas outside the capital or Caspian resort area Awaza, especially in recent months. Azatlyk, for example, has been able to do some reporting from inside Turkmenistan, but last year, as the economic problems set in across Central Asia, harassment of Azatlyk correspondents increased and Azatlyk correspondent Saparmamed Nepeskuliev was arrested.

Nepeskuliev was charged with narcotics possession, was held in custody without authorities informing his family, and was quickly convicted and was sentenced at a trial where he had no legal representation. [You can find out more about this here.)

Turkmen authorities prefer to control what information comes out of the country. Azatlyk was allowed to work within tight and tacit parameters but Nepeskuliev’s case, and that of other Azatlyk correspondents, seems to show those parameters have contracted as conditions inside Turkmenistan have gone into decline.

Myatiev said it is part of a broader pattern of renewed repression. “People started to display their disagreement with the current policies and the repression here started to become… more tangible,” he said.

The reduction in revenues may also be leading to infighting in the government. There have been a wave of dismissals in the government in recent weeks (I deal with that in a report to be released soon), more so than usual.

Leonard suggested “under [the president] are all these people trying to grab a now, smaller and smaller pie, and that the best way to get a piece of the pie is to say ‘look at that guy, he’s stealing’ or ‘he’s doing his job badly’… this kind of fighting under the rug is going on.”

I’ve made it all the way through this text without mentioning President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov by name. That’s not easy when writing about Turkmenistan.

Myatiev agreed with Leonard that there is “fighting under the rug” and said the source of this is Berdymukhammedov’s family, which has been acquiring ever more sectors of the economy.

And all this comes as amendments are about to be introduced to the constitution that will allow Berdymukhammedov to run for a third term in office in next year’s election, and possibly stay on far longer than just this one additional term.

The panel looked at these topics in greater detail and touched on other important events taking place currently in Turkmenistan. An audio recording of the discussion can be heard here:

Majlis Podcast: Turkmenistan -- Rotting Away From The Inside
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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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