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Turkmenistan's Foreign Minister, Rashid Meredov, is seen at a meeting in Tehran.

Turkmenistan might be getting one of its natural-gas customers back.

Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov was in Tehran from October 26-28 for a meeting of the foreign ministers from the countries bordering Afghanistan plus Russia.

Meredov used the opportunity to meet with Iranian officials to discuss a very important bilateral issue – Iran's importing natural gas from Turkmenistan.

After meeting with Meredov, Iranian Oil Minister Javad Owji reportedly said his country is interested in resuming the imports that Turkmenistan cut in early 2017.

Possible breakthrough?

The timing could not be better for Turkmenistan, as the country has been experiencing several years of severe economic problems.

The possible breakthrough with Iran comes as Turkmenistan is sending representatives to Kabul to try to breathe life back into the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-Afghanistan (TAPI) natural-gas pipeline project.

The difference is that very little of TAPI has been built and financing remains a huge question, whereas there are already two pipelines connecting Turkmenistan to Iran -- the older (1997) Korpeje-Kordkuy pipeline with a capacity of some 8 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year, and the newer (2010) Dauletabad-Sarakhs-Khangiran pipeline, which has an annual capacity of 12 bcm.

Part of a pipeline between Turkmenistan and Iran is unveiled in 2010.
Part of a pipeline between Turkmenistan and Iran is unveiled in 2010.

In the early days of Turkmenistan’s economic woes, the government showed its desperation by announcing in late 2016 that Iran owed some $2 billion for gas it had received in the winter of 2007-2008. It added that if it was not paid before 2017 then Turkmenistan would cut off supplies.

Iran said the debt given by Turkmenistan was far higher than the $500-$600 million that Tehran said it owed and decided not to pay.

So Turkmenistan ceased shipping gas to Iran on January 1, 2017.

Iran is rich in natural gas, but its big fields are in the south of the country and the north has poor connections to the domestic gas-pipeline network.

So Turkmen gas is very important for northern Iran, something that Turkmen authorities were banking on in late 2016 after they lost Russia as a customer earlier in the year.

Turkmenistan didn't think Iran would be able to do without its natural gas.

Nearly five years later there is still no gas flowing from Turkmenistan to Iran.

But if Owji’s remarks are genuine, that could change soon.

Owji -- previously the head of Iran's national gas company -- said “positive negotiations were held to settle the debt" and that talks are ongoing.

He added that “the debt to the Turkmen side will undoubtedly be settled and we are determined in this regard.”

Flour for gas?

The two sides took their dispute to international arbitration and, in June 2020, there were reports that the court ruled in favor of Turkmenistan, though Iran said neither side had won.

Settling the debt is only the first step needed for Turkmen gas to resume flowing to northern Iran.

Iran had previously paid for Turkmen gas by barter, with the Turkmen government increasingly demanding cash instead.

Considering Turkmenistan’s dire economic situation and shortages of basic goods such as cooking oil, flour, and sugar, barter might be acceptable to Ashgabat for the time being.

It appears the chances are good that Turkmenistan will resume supplying gas to Iran – and with that a warming of bilateral ties as well.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov discussed resolving the gas issue with Iran with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Dushanbe in September.

Also announced during Meredov’s visit to Tehran was a more than decade-old n agreement for Iranian contractors to build a 400 kV power line from the Turkmen city of Mary to the Iranian border town of Sarakhs.

Turkmenistan has continued to export electricity to Iran even after turning off the gas pipelines.

Afghanistan also gets electricity from Turkmenistan but, since the mid-August takeover by the Taliban, it is already clear the Taliban authorities will be unable to pay -- at least in full -- for the Turkmen electricity they are importing.

A new power line to Iran could offset the losses in revenue for electricity exports to Afghanistan, though Iran has also been paying for its Turkmen electricity by barter.

Turkmenistan and Iran also reached a new agreement on railway traffic, and Iran promised to make available a zone at its Persian Gulf port at Shahid Rajaee for the transit of Turkmen goods through Iran.

Iranian officials also announced on October 17 that all four border crossings with Turkmenistan -- Sarakhs, Lotfabad, Bajgiran, and Incheh Borun -- had been reopened, a move that will improve bilateral trade.

This is all very welcome news for Turkmen authorities who have been struggling for years to find new sources of revenue to help quell its economic meltdown.

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov made his land-swap offer at a recent press conference.

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov surprised many at a recent press conference in Bishkek by proposing a land swap with Tajikistan to help resolve a long-standing border dispute.

But it was an offer that Tajikistan could easily refuse -- and the Kyrgyz leader's proposal may have led to increased tensions along an already tense border.

The Kyrgyz-Tajik border -- which meanders through the Pamir Mountains for some 970 kilometers -- didn't really exist until about a century ago.

It has been difficult to demarcate because over the course of some 100 years Soviet mapmakers drew and redrew the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, incorporating land that had traditionally belonged to one people in the territory of the other Soviet republic.

Exclaves appeared and temporary land use agreements were signed.

All of this survived the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and people in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have various Soviet-era maps they use to justify their claim to specific areas along the border.

Only slightly more than half of the frontier has been demarcated, leading to conflicts between rival ethnic communities.

In April, Kyrgyz and Tajik soldiers got involved in a cross-border conflict, with 55 people perishing and hundreds being injured.

It was the first time since the five Central Asian states became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991 that the armies of two of the region's countries had fought each other.

At his October 23 press conference, Japarov spoke about “275 meters” of land that was recognized as Tajik land in a 2009 agreement that also provided for Kyrgyzstan to lease that land for 49 years, saying the land belongs to Kyrgyzstan and he does not accept the 2009 agreement.

The person on the Kyrgyz side who signed that document was Adakhan Madumarov, a long-time politician who in 2009 was the head of Kyrgyzstan’s security council. More recently, Madumarov ran against Japarov in the presidential election in January 2021.

Madumarov responded that the document was a nonbinding agreement and that discussions on the matter were to be continued.

But Japarov said the Tajik side is insisting in talks that the agreement is valid and that land was transferred to Tajikistan in 1924 when it became the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.

“I answered that, if that is so, in 1924 we handed over Murghab to you, some 3 million hectares. Why don’t you return it to us?”

Japarov said the Tajik side rejected his proposal.

There was really no way Tajikistan could agree to it.

A Small But Significant Town

Besides the huge amount of land involved, the small town of Murghab, with a population of some 16,000, is the largest settlement in northeastern Tajikistan.

Murghab is in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region and a road runs through the town that goes north to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, and south to Khorugh, the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan.

That road is one of only two roads that connect Khorugh to the rest of Tajikistan.

However, the larger region around the town of Murghab going north and northwest has been home to many ethnic Kyrgyz for centuries.

Murghab, Tajikistan
Murghab, Tajikistan

The Tajik government has not made any official response to Japarov’s remarks so far, but the Democratic Party of Tajikistan released a statement on October 26 saying that, since the formation of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, Murghab has been part of Tajikistan’s territory.

Party leader Saidjafar Usmonzoda told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, that Japarov’s statement on Murghab amounted to “pressure on Tajikistan in the negotiations on delimitation and demarcation of the state border.”

The comment on returning Murghab received a lot of attention on social media in Tajikistan, much of it predictably negative.

People on the streets of Murghab in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region.
People on the streets of Murghab in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region.

Sherali Rizoyon is a Tajik political commentator who has written extensively about the problems along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

In an October 25 post, Rizoyon, unsurprisingly, sided with Tajik authorities in their interpretation of where the border is, writing that the land Kyrgyzstan is leasing for 49 years “never belonged to Kyrgyzstan.”

Rizoyon took issue with Japarov’s statement about scrapping the 2009 agreement, calling it “irresponsible.”

Rizoyon said that, if Japarov intends to cancel the 2009 deal unilaterally, “Tajikistan will be able to rescind all agreements that ‘do not comply with its national interests.’”

Access Issues

Access to farmland and water has increasingly been a problem between the communities along the border and the deadly conflict in April was sparked by an attempt to put monitoring equipment at a small water reservoir used by both countries.

On March 26, barely one month before that deadly fighting, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiev, proposed that Tajikistan trade its Vorukh exclave for Kyrgyz land.

That prompted Tajik President Emomali Rahmon to make a rare visit to Vorukh on April 7 where he said there had not been and never would be any discussion of transferring the exclave to Kyrgyzstan.

That set the stage for what happened three weeks later.

Japarov said on October 23 that, prior to April 2021, his government had been focusing on talks about border demarcation with Uzbekistan, which has been moving rapidly since Shavkat Mirziyoev became Uzbekistan’s leader in 2016.

“After [negotiations with Uzbekistan] we planned to take up matters concerning the border with Tajikistan,” Japarov said. “Before that I had not studied the documents on the border with Tajikistan.”

Unfortunate Remarks

Japarov’s remarks about Murghab were unfortunate, as they overshadowed some positive recent developments in relations with Tajikistan.

After the conflict in late April, the Kyrgyz-Tajik working group on border issues resumed work.

After Kyrgyz-Tajik Clashes, Residents Of Border Area Say Tensions Are All Too Familiar
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After the group met in July, they announced the demarcation of an additional 48 kilometers of the border and said they were close to an agreement on 25 more hectares of land.

The working group has been meeting monthly since the April conflict after a halt in talks in recent years.

And in another measure aimed at building better ties between the two countries, Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Edil Baisalov said on October 21 that his country would allow nearly 2,000 Tajik students to return to Kyrgyz universities.

Tajik citizens had been largely unable to enter Kyrgyzstan since the April events.

Many, even in Tajikistan, believe Japarov’s remarks were simply more of his populist rhetoric and an attempt to marginalize Madumarov, something of a political opponent of his.

But all the same, the talk of handing over Murghab is being taken seriously by some in Tajikistan and it will not help promote the de-escalation of tensions along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz and Tajik services contributed to this report

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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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