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Saturday 9 October 2021

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Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (left) and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (file photo)

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov just visited Uzbekistan for talks with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev and, even though the two leaders have met several times recently, it was important for them -- and only them -- to sit down to discuss the number one topic in the region these days: Afghanistan.

That is because Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have a similar policy toward their southern neighbor, one focused on the economic potential of trade routes through Afghanistan.

Afghanistan In Turmoil: Full Coverage On Gandhara

Read RFE/RL's Gandhara website for complete coverage of developments in Afghanistan. Gandhara is the go-to source for English-language reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi and its network of journalists, and by RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, which offers extensive coverage of Pakistan's remote tribal regions.

Both presidents made clear at their October 5 meeting that their countries would continue to provide help "to the people of Afghanistan."

Mirziyoev said the situation in Afghanistan has a large influence on "the security and sustainable development of the region."

"Sustainable development" was a key comment since there are projects that could greatly benefit Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan but require stability in Afghanistan and the cooperation of whoever is in charge of that country.

For Turkmenistan the project is the 1,800-kilometer Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural-gas pipeline that aims to annually export some 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas.

It is a project that seemed possible the last time the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan in the late 1990s but has been completely unfeasible since due to insecurity in Afghanistan.

The policy Turkmenistan is pursuing now toward the Taliban is the policy of Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, who stayed out of Afghan politics and was willing to deal with anyone in power there to advance Turkmenistan's economic interests.

Pakistan wants TAPI to be built and has more influence over the Taliban than any other country.

With natural-gas prices currently at obscenely high record levels of well over $1,000 per 1,000 cubic meters, the government in cash-strapped Turkmenistan must be waiting eagerly for a sign the TAPI project is moving forward.

There remains a challenge in finding investors and financing for the project. Plus, India's role might be in question, again, as it has been several times before over the years, though Pakistan would almost surely take India's share of the gas. (Under the current breakdown, Afghanistan would get 5 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually; Pakistan 14 bcm; and India 14 bcm).

But Turkmenistan claims it has constructed its segment of the pipeline leading from Turkmen gas fields to the Afghan border, though there have been doubts of this claim before.

But recently it seems there has been work done on Turkmenistan's section of TAPI and at least $219 million spent on pipeline segments purchased from Russia's Chelyabinsk Pipe Rolling Plant in 2019.

Uzbek President Mirziyoev's government seems to be using the Niyazov model in its engagement with the Taliban.

In Uzbekistan's case, as previously noted, a lot of money has already gone into infrastructure projects in the last 15 years that link Uzbekistan to Afghanistan.

Several projects are unfinished or not yet started, but two are of significant value to Uzbekistan -- a railway and a new power transmission line.

Uzbekistan is connected by rail to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif.

China has already shipped goods to Afghanistan using this route and NATO used the Uzbek railway link for transporting material between Europe and Afghanistan.

President Mirziyoev has met twice with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan since July and both times construction of a railway line from Mazar-e Sharif through Kabul to Peshawar was high on the agenda.

Such a link would give Uzbekistan, and other countries in Asia and Europe, a connection to Pakistani ports on the Arabian Sea.

That should boost shipments of cargo in both directions, giving Uzbekistan extra revenue from transit fees and justifying the expense of the huge Termez Cargo Center that Uzbekistan built near the Afghan border in 2018.

Those are projects for the future. But for now, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan already export electricity to Afghanistan via power transmission lines built after 2001, and, as was expected, the Taliban government is short of cash and unable to pay for electricity imports.

According to the Asian Development Bank, 73 percent of Afghanistan's electricity is imported. Of that, Uzbekistan supplies 57 percent, Iran 22 percent, Turkmenistan 17 percent, and Tajikistan 4 percent.

There are various figures for how much money Afghanistan has been spending on electricity imports, but it appears to have been around $300 million per year.

So Turkmenistan has been receiving some $51 million and Uzbekistan about $171 million for electricity exports to Afghanistan.

And Uzbekistan is constructing a 260-kilometer section of a 500-kilovolt power line from Surkhon in Uzbekistan to Pul-e Khumri, north of Kabul, that would boost Uzbek electricity exports to Afghanistan by some 70 percent.

Performers at the launch ceremony in Serhetabat, Turkmenistan, of construction work on the Afghan section of the TAPI natural-gas pipeline in February 2018.
Performers at the launch ceremony in Serhetabat, Turkmenistan, of construction work on the Afghan section of the TAPI natural-gas pipeline in February 2018.

Turkmenistan's electricity goes to northwestern Afghanistan, but Uzbekistan's electricity powers Kabul.

When several power stations in Uzbekistan went off line in early January, it left Kabul in darkness and when the Taliban destroyed two power pylons on the transmission line in September 2019, it caused major power shortages in the Afghan capital.

So Afghanistan needs Uzbek electricity.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Afghanistan's state power company has no more than $40 million to pay for energy imports and that could lead to its Central Asian neighbors suspending electricity supplies to Afghanistan.

During Berdymukhammedov's visit to Uzbekistan, officials from both countries said there were no plans to discontinue electricity exports to Afghanistan.

The Turkmen and Uzbek governments have a history of keeping a tight rein on religion in their own countries. But the lure of pipeline, power line, and railway connections to and through Afghanistan seems to have convinced the governments in both countries that the cost of overlooking the Taliban's religious extremism is worth the potential gain in trade both countries could see if these big projects are realized.

In Uzbekistan's case, this was emphasized at the October 7 visit of Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov to Kabul where he and Taliban officials discussed construction of the Surhon-Pul-e Khumri power line and the Mazar-e Sharif-Kabul Peshawar railway line.

One more thing distinguishes Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan from their Central Asian neighbors.

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are the only two Central Asian countries that do not border Russia or China. Both have long looked to the south for connectivity to the wider world.

They might not like the Taliban -- they wouldn't even say the word "Taliban," only referencing the "government in Afghanistan" -- but tolerating and engaging with the Afghan group could help both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan see huge profits.

Berdymukhammedov and Mirziyoev did not say this, but it likely has not escaped their notice.

A voter studies the ballot during a parliamentary election in the village of Besh-Kungey on October 4, 2020.

Suspicions of election irregularities that marred two previous parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan triggered revolutions that ousted two separate presidents.

The Central Asian country will go to the polls again on November 28, and there are already accusations of misuse of funds and gerrymandering, the practice of redrawing electoral districts in a way that gives one political party or candidate an advantage.

New electoral laws have reduced the number of seats in parliament -- the Jogorku Kenesh, or Supreme Council -- from 120 to 90 seats. Of these, 54 seats will be elected through national party lists and the remaining 36 will be decided in single-mandate districts, also referred to as single-winner voting.

The new rules mean voting districts need to be redrawn, a contentious issue that has led to claims of foul play.

There are nearly 3.7 million eligible voters in Kyrgyzstan, according to the Central Election Commission (BShK), which decided each voting district should have around 100,000 voters.

The BShK finished redrawing the voting districts on September 5. But in a move that raised eyebrows, it then redrew several districts just days later.

"One of the main requirements of the districts is that the number of voters must be the same," Abdyjapar Bekmatov, a member of the BShK, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service last month.

But Bekmatov, speaking after the first round of redistricting, said it had emerged "that in some districts there were 80,000 voters and in others 120,000 voters." Because of this, he said, "it was necessary to change the boundaries."

Not everyone was convinced by the official reasoning. "The map of the districts approved by the BShK has no logic," lawmaker Anvar Artykov told RFE/RL. Artykov said the redrawing of voting districts looked like "a group of people made decisions and created [favorable] conditions for four or five candidates."

Artykov is not alone in suspecting that some districts had been "tailor-made" for certain candidates.

"I was elected as a deputy in Bazar-Korgon," said lawmaker Saydulla Nyshanov, referring to a district in the southern region of Jalal-Abad. "Now it is being joined to Toguz-Torou [district]. These districts are not even directly connected by road."

Nyshanov added that Bazar-Korgon, which he said had 97,000 voters, should be a separate voting district.

Members of a local election commission count votes at a polling station in the village of Gornaya-Mayevka, outside Bishkek, on October 4, 2020.
Members of a local election commission count votes at a polling station in the village of Gornaya-Mayevka, outside Bishkek, on October 4, 2020.

The 36 seats that will be decided through single-mandate districts is the lowest in Kyrgyzstan's history.

In the 1995 and 2000 elections, Kyrgyzstan had a bicameral parliament. In 1995, parliament had 105 seats -- 35 in the Legislative Assembly and 70 in the Assembly of People's Representatives. All the seats were filled through voting in single-mandate districts.

The parliament elected in 2000 also had 105 seats -- 60 in the Legislative Assembly, 45 of which were filled by voting in single-mandate districts and 15 from party lists. Another 45 seats in the Assembly of People's Representatives were elected through voting in single-mandate districts.

In 2005, after constitutional changes restored a unicameral parliament, the number of seats was reduced to 75, all of them by voting in single-mandate districts.

Party Lists

New electoral laws, coming into effect on August 27, have also changed the national party-list system.

One of the biggest complaints about the party-list system was a perception that candidates needed to buy their way onto the list. The view was that the more money a candidate offered, the higher their position on a party's list. Rumors had suggested that candidates had to fork out up to $1 million to occupy the top places on a party's list.

If a party won five seats, the top five people on its list became parliamentary deputies. Sometimes, parties had more candidates on their list than there were seats in parliament.

That has changed. No party list can have more than 54 candidates, the number of seats available through party lists.

Previously, parties contesting parliamentary elections were assigned numbers on the ballots.

The Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party, for example, might be assigned number "6" on ballot papers. If voters want to cast ballots for Ata-Meken then they needed to check the box next to the number 6.

But under the new system, people can select a specific candidate from the party. That candidate also has a number on his or her party list, a move that observers say will create confusion on election day.

Lawmaker Janar Akaev says the changes to the party list system will not eliminate candidates from buying their way to the top of lists. "Now the most influential officials are recruiting rich people to the party," he told RFE/RL.

Vote-buying has been a problem in many of Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary elections. While Akaev did not name any specific parties, he suggests that these practices are still threatening the conduct of November's elections.

So far, about 75 parties have declared their intention to contest the vote, though that is likely to decrease to 20 or less before the elections.

The electoral changes could further taint the legitimacy of current President Sadyr Japarov, who was the architect of the reforms.

Japarov's government has been under growing scrutiny since his meteoric rise from prisoner to prime minister and then president in October 2020.

Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary elections have sparked unrest before 2020.

In 2005, parliamentary elections that saw numerous irregularities led to the ouster of the president and government.

A fairer election would help Japarov, who is increasingly unpopular for failing to make good on the many promises he made.

But already there are questions and suspicions about the conduct of these next elections.

Gulaiym Ashekeeva and Kubat Kasymbekov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service 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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