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Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov (left) at his inauguration with his predecessor Almazbek Atambaev. Relations between the two men seem to have soured in recent weeks

During the final months of Almazbek Atambaev's term as Kyrgyz president last year, his candor rankled many inside and outside of Kyrgyzstan.

Atambaev had kept a relatively low profile since officially leaving office on November 24, but after his election as head of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) on March 31, Atambaev was back in front of a microphone and returned to making controversial comments-- though this time about the man he selected and helped elect as president: Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

After the closed-door meeting in which he was elected SDPK party chief, Atambaev was asked about his relationship with Jeenbekov.

Atambaev said his successor was an "old friend" that he had known for 23 years. But he added that "sometimes, as an older brother, I have to say something."

He then proceeded to say that Jeenbekov had done a poor job handling the crisis that erupted when the thermal power plant (TPP) in Bishkek broke down in subfreezing January weather just a few months after repairs and renovations that cost some $386 million.

"All the tenders, all the preparation was carried out by the team of Prime Minister Jeenbekov," Atambaev claimed.

He also recommended that Jeenbekov convince his brother, Asylbek, to resign as a member of parliament and so avoid any hints of the clan politics that characterized and eventually helped lead to the downfall of Askar Akaev, the first Kyrgyz president, and his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Atambaev said he had discussed the matter with the president, urging him to convince his brother to quit parliament.

Asylbek Jeenbekov -- who was democratically elected as an SDPK lawmaker -- was not invited to the March 31 SDPK congress at which Atambaev was elected. Several other SDPK deputies were also not invited.

'Emotional Comments'

Presidential spokeswoman Tolgonai Stamalieva replied to Atambaev's critical statements by saying that President Jeenbekov had no plans to hold a press conference as it would be "inappropriate" to respond to Atambaev's "emotional comments."

Stamalieva said Jeenbekov had spoken with Atambaev about these issues before the SDPK congress and "Almazbek Sharshenovich [Atambaev] already knows the position of the president on all these matters that were raised."

But Stamalieva defended the president against Atambaev's charges about the breakdown of Bishkek's TPP.

"The president of the country has no connection to the scandal around the tender for the modernization of the Bishkek TPP," she said. "The agreement for the tender was signed in 2013 when Sooronbai Jeenbekov was the governor of Osh Province."

"Society will find out the whole truth [about the breakdown] after an investigation into the reasons for the January accident is finished," she said.

Stamalieva continued, saying "the launching of the repaired [TPP] took place on August 30, 2017, without the participation of Sooronbai Jeenbekov. He had stepped down as prime minister on August 21 to participate in the presidential race."

Stamalieva also noted that Jeenbekov had not taken part in the planning for the 2017-2018 winter but reminded reporters that "when he was prime minister during 2016-2017, the long winter passed without serious incident, except for a small issue at a kindergarten in Tokmak" during which the heating failed.

Serious Rift

A serious rift between Atambaev and Jeenbekov was bound to break out as the former president had made it clear he expected Jeenbekov to continue his policies and to keep his advisers and other aides in place throughout the presidential administration.

The resignation from the presidential administration in late February of Farid Niyazov, a well-known journalist and long-time close ally and adviser of Atambaev, was the first sign that Jeenbekov was not going to continue to surround himself with his predecessor's people. It became clear that Niyazov was pressured to leave his post.

Atambaev's greatest achievement as president, arguably, was his ability to keep the country stable and together after a popular uprising had ousted President Bakiev in April 2010, followed by bloody interethnic violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan a few months later.

In his last several months of his presidency, Atambaev launched almost daily attacks against anyone in the opposition or the press who dared to counter him, with several individuals and press outlets being saddled with lawsuits and criminal charges seen by many observers as politically motivated.

During the presidential election campaign, Atambaev attacked Jeenbekov's primary rival -- Omurbek Babanov of the Respublika party and harshly criticized his supporters in the western Talas Province, telling them to move to Kazakhstan if they disagreed with policies in Kyrgyzstan.

Atambaev also wrought incredible harm to Kyrgyz-Kazakh relations by repeatedly criticizing and insulting the leadership and policies in Kazakhstan after Babanov was welcomed in Almaty by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in September, in a meeting seen as an endorsement of the opposition candidate just weeks before the Kyrgyz presidential election.

For Jeenbekov to move Kyrgyzstan forward he was clearly going to have to make some changes from the previous administration. The resignation of Niyazov was seen as the first personnel move toward that change.

The Kyrgyz news site Kloop noted that Jeenbekov might have even started this feud with Atambaev back in February when he addressed a meeting of the Security Council and ordered them to rein in rampant corruption in government.

Atambaev had credited himself with doing just that and, Kloop wrote, "Atambaev probably took this as criticism directed at him."

Whoever started this current row between the two leaders, it appears to be reaching a critical point.

Jeenbekov said when he was campaigning and immediately after he was elected that he would continue Atambaev's policies.

If Jeenbekov allows Atambaev to criticize him without pushing back and to offer warnings couched as advice, then many will view Jeenbekov as nothing more than Atambaev's stooge and conclude that Atambaev continues to run things in Kyrgyzstan.

To avoid such a scenario, Jeenbekov may have to find a way to distance or even totally remove Atambaev from Kyrgyzstan's political scene, something which will now be more difficult to do since Atambaev heads the SDPK, the party to which Jeenbekov himself belongs.

And Atambaev added at his fiery March 31 press conference that he intends to prepare the SDPK for the 2020 parliamentary elections, indicating that the former ex-president has no intention of leaving Kyrgyz politics anytime soon.

Based on material from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service (Radio Azattyk)
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Turkmenistan's Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (left) and Iran's Hassan Rohani in happier times

Iranian President Hassan Rohani visited Turkmenistan on March 27-28 to meet with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

It was the first time the two leaders of the neighboring countries had met since the two governments had a major falling out at the start of 2017 over Turkmen natural-gas supplies to Iran. Tehran and Ashgabat have been threatening each other with international arbitration ever since, so it seemed fair to believe that some sort of breakthrough in ties would come from Rohani's visit.

But there was nothing of the sort, at least according to reports.

In fact, judging from media reports, there seemed little reason for Rohani to go to Turkmenistan at all, which raises some questions about what might not have been reported.

Iran has had good ties with Turkmenistan since the latter became independent in late 1991. In fact, Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, visited Iran on October 9, 1991, more than two weeks before Turkmenistan formally declared independence.

Two railway lines connect the two countries, there are two gas pipelines running from fields in Turkmenistan to areas in northern Iran, and Turkmenistan exports electricity to Iran. As important, if not more important for Tehran, Turkmenistan's policy of "positive neutrality" has meant that the Turkmen government has never been part of international criticism or sanctions against Iran.

Relations bottomed out at the start of 2017, when Turkmenistan shut off gas supplies that Iran used to power northern areas of the country that were not connected to Iran's gas pipeline network. Turkmen authorities, faced with the worst economic crisis the country has seen since independence, decided to lean on Iran to pay off a decade-old gas debt that Tehran says is more than three times higher than it should be.

It appears the subject of Turkmen gas supplies was discussed. "Iran and Turkmenistan have vast energy resources, they are strong energy powers, so we have agreed to bring our partnership in the area to a higher level...decisions will be made in this area at future meetings," Rohani said.

So essentially, no deal yet to renew Turkmen gas supplies.

Rohani said the two countries agreed to continue discussions on gas-swap arrangements and use of Iranian pipelines to neighboring countries. Turkmenistan does have a gas-swap arrangement with Iran that involves Azerbaijan and another one has been discussed with Armenia.

Rohani did not specify which neighboring countries but it is unlikely it involved Turkey, with which Turkmenistan had asked Iran for such a deal in 2017. Turkey, and possibly markets further west once the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) is completed, would be far larger market than Armenia and Azerbaijan.

But in late October 2017 Iranian National Gas Company director Hamid Reza Araki said, "We are against the sale of a rival country's gas to Turkey via swap operations."

Little To Show For Trip

On the second day of his visit, Rohani went to Mary in western Turkmenistan, the location of the power plant that will provide new electricity exports to Iran.

Past that there was little to show for Rohani's trip. The two governments signed 13 agreements covering cooperation in the areas such as culture, art, science, education, and sport. Iran signed similar agreements with Azerbaijan after Rohani left Turkmenistan and traveled to Baku.

Berdymukhammedov said he and Rohani discussed the potential of the newer railway line, the North-South line, that links Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran and started operations in 2014. The North-South line does have the potential to boost trade between Iran and Turkmenistan, and brings goods from both countries to areas much further away.

But it's worth remembering that in May 1996, President Niyazov and then-Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani opened the Tejen-Sarakhs-Mashhad railway that Niyazov said then would become the "junction of the planet," carrying some 500,000 people and 2 million tons of freight annually. Today the line is almost forgotten.

Berdymukhammedov also said he and Rohani discussed increased maritime trade across the Caspian Sea now that the new seaport at Turkmenbashi City is nearly complete.

But reports did not mention the two leaders discussing the legal status of the Caspian Sea, an issue Russia believes will be resolved later this year after more than 20 years of negotiations, but also an issue on which Tehran and Ashgabat have had nearly opposite stances.

Rohani and Berdymukhammedov did agree their two countries would participate in unspecified joint projects in the Caspian Sea. When Rohani went to Baku, the Azerbaijani Energy Ministry and the Iranian Oil Ministry signed a memorandum of understanding on jointly developing blocks in the Caspian Sea but such cooperation would be a big jump in Turkmen-Iranian cooperation at the moment.

Waning Influence

None of this seems to merit a two-day visit by the Iranian leader, which raises questions about why Rohani went to Turkmenistan at all.

One possible reason is that Iran is rallying support as the U.S. administration and others implement harsher sanctions on Iran.

Another reason is that Turkmenistan has increasingly sought cooperation with Arab states. Admittedly, Turkmenistan is looking for money but Berdymukhammedov went to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates in mid-March and in 2017 the Turkmen president went to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Iran has been losing influence in Central Asia in recent years as Arab countries have increased their presence there. Nowhere has this been more visible than in Tajikistan, a country that shares linguistic and cultural affinities with Iran but where the government has lately criticized Tehran's policies, including accusing the Iranian government of organizing assassinations in Tajikistan during the 1992-97 Tajik civil war.

If Rohani's reason for going to Turkmenistan was to dissuade Ashgabat from courting better ties with Arab states, it seems that was in vain. Given Turkmenistan's current economic situation and need for funds for new gas-exporting projects, there is little chance Turkmen authorities would forsake money from any quarter and currently Berdymukhammedov at least, seems to feel Arab countries are Turkmenistan's best chance for new investment.

Turkmenistan missed an opportunity also. Under the previous gas agreement, Iran paid for the first $3 billion of Turkmen gas with food, services, and equipment. That deal might not have suited Turkmen authorities in the past but with reports of shortages in Turkmenistan of basic goods, including cooking oil and sugar, it would have made sense for Ashgabat to agree to renew gas supplies to northern Iran while talks continue about Iran's debt.

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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

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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