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Qishloq Ovozi

Talant Mamytov has friends in high places.

In most Central Asian countries, the Central Election Commission does not do very much.

In countries such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, the election commission chief will announce the date of the elections, when the polls open and close, provide a running count of the percentage of voters who have voted, and announce when the requisite number of voters have participated for the election to be valid.

The next day the commission issues a preliminary vote count and usually one to two weeks later the official, final tally in an election that will be deemed neither free nor fair by Western-based election-monitoring groups.

The election commissioner's role is barely noticed and quickly forgotten after the elections are held.

But in Kyrgyzstan, the role of the Central Election Commission (BShK) is very different and, with just weeks remaining before the country conducts its November 28 parliamentary elections, this is evident once again.

Candidate No. 7

Talant Mamytov is the speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament -- or at least he was -- and when he was and wasn't is the problem right now.

The Yntymak (Unity) party held its nominating congress on October 12 and Mamytov was recorded as candidate No. 7 on the party's list. He was also the "toraga," or speaker of parliament at that time.

On October 24, which was a Sunday, the BShK approved the Yntymak party list except for Mamytov.

The BShK determined that Mamytov was ineligible to be a candidate because he was the toraga and, according to the law on elections, "a candidate, from the moment of nomination, ceases to exercise official powers if he or she is serving in a public office."

That includes the toraga.

The BShK applied the law to Mamytov and disqualified him from being a candidate.

Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission: doing what it's supposed to be doing?
Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission: doing what it's supposed to be doing?

Anyone who has followed Kyrgyzstan's elections for the last 30 years has seen that it is possible to contest a BShK ruling in court and have it overturned. And so it has been with Mamytov.

On October 30, Yntymak accused the BShK of violating procedural rules and also questioned why the BShK met on the weekend, in the absence of a quorum, and released this "loose interpretation of the law" disqualifying Mamytov late on a Sunday evening.

Yntymak also claimed that Mamytov had stepped down as toraga and handed over the responsibility to deputy speaker Aida Kasymalieva.

Yntymak took the case to the Bishkek Administrative Court. On October 28, the court overruled the BShK decision on Mamytov. The BShK then filed an appeal against the court's ruling.

Mamytov was obligated to step down as toraga on October 12, when he was officially included on the Yntymak party list, but he did not hand over his duties to Kasymalieva until October 22.

Deputy speaker of parliament Talant Sydygaliev is also running as a candidate from the Ishenim (Belief) party, and he did relinquish his post when he was included as a candidate.

Yntymak countered that Mamytov was also a deputy in parliament and the same law that forbids someone serving in public office ends by saying "...with the exception of members of parliament or the president."

On November 2, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal from the BShK because of the "power of attorney [was] not properly certified and therefore it was not possible to establish its authenticity and accept it as evidence."

The BShK returned the appeal the same day after correcting the problem.

On November 4, the Supreme Court again returned the appeal to the BShK, this time because the application deadline had expired.

Mamytov will almost surely be a candidate when election day arrives. He has friends in high places.

In 2013, Mamytov was on trial with current President Sadyr Japarov and the current head of the State Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiev, for creating public unrest and trying to overthrow the government in October 2012.

Kamchybek Tashiev (left to right), Sadyr Japarov and Talant Mamytov prepare to stand trial in Bishkek in 2013.
Kamchybek Tashiev (left to right), Sadyr Japarov and Talant Mamytov prepare to stand trial in Bishkek in 2013.

They were all convicted in late March 2013, with Japarov and Tashiev receiving 18 months in prison and Mamytov one year. They were all released in June 2013.

Together Again

Mamytov was named parliament speaker on November 4, 2020, and on November 14 he became acting president after Japarov, who had been in a prison cell one month earlier after being convicted on a kidnapping charge, stepped down as interim president so he could run for president in an election in January 2021.

Mamytov, Japarov, and Tashiev's sudden rise in position came after gross violations preceding and during the last parliamentary elections, on October 4, 2020, sparked unrest in Bishkek on October 5 that quickly brought down the government.

The BShK was busy ahead of those elections also. In July 2020, there was a problem over which faction of the splintered Social Democratic Party could register and eventually the Supreme Court overruled a BShK decision.

In late August there were problems over the registration of the Kyrgyzstan party, which the BShK said submitted its registration forms three minutes after the deadline had expired and that the party's authorized representatives were not the people who submitted the documents.

Then a candidate from Butun (United) Kyrgyzstan, Tursunbai Bakir-uulu, complained to the BShK that his name was on the list of candidates approved at the party congress but was not on the list of candidates submitted to the BShK. The BShK disqualified Butun Kyrgyzstan for having two different lists.

But courts overturned the BShK decisions and both parties competed in parliamentary elections and won seats, or would have won seats -- but since the unrest brought down the government, on October 6 the BShK annulled the election results. Japarov's interim government then thwarted several attempts by the BShK to reschedule the parliamentary elections.

A Barometer For Election Problems

The actions that have been consistently taken by the BShK make it an interesting facet of the country's election process in that unlike the other election commissions in the region, it seems to function as it is supposed to.

The composition of and the selection process for the BShK has changed over the 30 years the country has been independent, but the body regularly calls out violations -- including ones that upset the government.

Article 19, Section 11 of the Law on Election Commissions to Conduct Elections and Referenda says BShK decisions "can be canceled...through judicial procedures," and most of the BShK's rulings in controversial cases -- which have been many over the years -- were overturned by the courts.

And the independence and impartiality of Kyrgyzstan's court system has been called into question many times since the country gained independence in 1991. But BShK decisions set the stage for how voters see the conduct of elections – and that is the case in the recent controversy over Mamytov's candidacy.

Political analyst and American University of Central Asia in Bishkek professor Emil Joroev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, that "this situation [regarding Mamytov] has a political context."

"The BShK could have just registered [Mamytov] and no one would have noticed," Joroev said. "The decision by the election commission to deny registration to a person who is a political heavyweight, close to the authorities, gave hope that the elections will be honest."

"But due to the cancellation of the BShK decision," Joroev continued, "the impression is that the voters were deceived."

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report
Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov (third from left) and his delegation meet with Taliban Prime Minister Mullah Hassan Akhund in Kabul on October 30.

Building a natural-gas pipeline through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India (TAPI) was the main topic of conversation when Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov went to Kabul to meet with the Taliban's interim government on October 30-31.

Since coming to power 15 years ago, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has been fixated on completing TAPI. But the authoritarian ruler's attention might be better turned to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), which looks more attractive to its European market than ever before.

Due to a lack of pipelines connecting Turkmenistan to other markets, this period of record gas prices on world markets is quietly passing the Central Asian country by -- a shame for cash-strapped Ashgabat and its destitute citizens since it holds the fourth-largest proven reserves of natural gas on the planet.

A Salesman In Kabul

Meredov met with Taliban acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, acting Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi, and acting Defense Minister Mawlawi Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of deceased Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Atop the agenda of their meetings was -- as Muttaqi said of his meeting with Meredov -- "Important issues such as TAPI, railroads, and electricity."

Yaqoob tweeted: “I am directly responsible for overseeing the security of the TAPI project...[and] we will not hesitate to make any sacrifices for the implementation of this national project."

TAPI was an important issue when Turkmen officials met with former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government as well as that of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, and with representatives of the Taliban when it ruled the country in the late 1990s.

The Afghan government has been promising since 2010 to create a special force of some 7,000 troops to guard the TAPI pipeline.

The Taliban even promised to guard TAPI in 2018 when they were battling government forces.

The pipeline aims to carry some 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas from fields in Turkmenistan more than 1,800 kilometers through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India.

Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov attends a conference of foreign ministers of Afghanistan's neighbors hosted by Tehran on October 27.
Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov attends a conference of foreign ministers of Afghanistan's neighbors hosted by Tehran on October 27.

Pakistan and India would each receive 14 bcm and Afghanistan would receive 5 bcm, which would be a huge increase for Afghanistan compared to the country's recent annual use of less than 200 million cubic meters.

Additionally, it was reported during Meredov's recent meeting with Taliban representatives that Afghanistan could earn some $500 million in transit fees annually, though Meredov said in November 2017 that Afghanistan would earn some $1 billion from transit fees.

When the price of gas briefly shot to more than $1,000 per 1,000 cubic meters in October this year, officials in Turkmenistan must have broken out in a sweat.

Twenty-five years ago, Turkmen officials were trying to get their only gas customer at that time -- Russia -- to pay $40 per 1,000 cubic meters instead of $32.

But even if the security situation in Afghanistan becomes more stable under the Taliban, there are still significant problems with financing the approximately 775-kilometer stretch of TAPI through Afghanistan.

The estimated cost of the total project is some $10 billion, though that estimate is a decade old.

In a recent article for the Atlantic Council, former U.S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan Steve Mann wrote that even with an improvement in security inside Afghanistan, "the ascent of the Taliban will do nothing to address the project’s dire flaws, including financing, bankability, and pipeline ownership and operation."

He added that "On top of that, the severe [economic] sanctions on the Taliban introduce a new deal-breaker."

Pakistan has sought to renegotiate the price of Turkmen gas from TAPI several times in recent years and Turkmenistan reportedly agreed in 2020 to consider lowering prices.

Workers stand by a gas pipe during the inauguration of construction on the Afghan segment of the TAPI natural-gas pipeline.
Workers stand by a gas pipe during the inauguration of construction on the Afghan segment of the TAPI natural-gas pipeline.

India might now be out of the project entirely as New Delhi's relations with Islamabad have never been good and are even worse with the Taliban.

The Kazakh and Uzbek foreign ministers have also visited Kabul since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in mid-August, and Meredov's visit may have also been aimed at firming Turkmenistan’s ties with the new Afghan authorities.

Pivot To The TCP?

But it is odd that Turkmenistan is making an effort to revive TAPI while the possibilities of constructing the TCP seem to have improved significantly.

The TCP aims to carry some 30 bcm from Turkmenistan across the bottom of the Caspian Sea to the pipeline network in Azerbaijan and eventually to Europe.

The European Union has been hoping for years to see the project realized as part of its Southern Gas Corridor (SGC).

With the record gas prices at the moment and fears that the EU is becoming too dependent on Russia as Nord Stream 2 reaches completion, a boost in gas volumes from a different supplier should be seen by the EU and Turkmenistan as a golden opportunity -- especially as some of the key obstacles to the TCP's construction have been removed.

One was the dispute between Turkmenistan, on the east side of the Caspian, and Azerbaijan, on the west side, over three oil and gas fields located halfway between the two countries in the middle of the sea.

That decades-old dispute was resolved in January.

There was also the problem of needing a pipeline that stretched from Azerbaijan to Europe, but the 1,841-kilometer Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) that runs through Turkey was completed in 2018.

The TANAP project foresees expanding pipeline capacity to some 60 bcm annually.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the opening ceremony of the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) in Eskisehir in June 2018.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the opening ceremony of the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) in Eskisehir in June 2018.

But Azerbaijan does not have enough gas to provide such a volume, so TANAP would have to include Turkmen gas to reach that level.

The SGC pipeline network was completed at the end of 2020, and gas from Azerbaijan's Caspian field Shah Deniz 2 is already being supplied through the SGC and TANAP to Greece, Albania, and -- via the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline -- to Italy.

All that is needed is to build the roughly 300-kilometer TCP at an estimated cost that ranges from $5 billion to $8 billion.

A U.S. company called Trans Caspian Resources just proposed an option that would carry smaller volumes of gas but be operational within two years.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan Allan Mustard attended the recent Oil and Gas of Turkmenistan International Conference and suggested an alternative: the Caspian Connector. It could carry some 10-12 bcm of gas annually and, using existing infrastructure, be built for $500 million-$800 million.

But one major obstacle remains.

Russia and Iran have raised environmental concerns over the construction of a pipeline along the bottom of the Caspian Sea, despite the fact that Kazakhstan has already done so in the northern part of the Caspian. And Russia has constructed longer and deeper pipelines across the bottom of the Black Sea to Turkey and, in the case of Nord Stream 1 and 2, across the bottom of the Baltic Sea (some 1,222 kilometers), making the two lines the longest underwater pipelines in the world.

There was little, however, that Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan could do in the face of Russian and Iranian resistance.

Turkey is a rising power in the world again with its influential roles in the conflicts in Libya and Syria, not to mention the military support it gave Azerbaijan during the recent conflict with Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. It has even recently supplied armed drones to Ukraine, one of which Kyiv recently used to destroy some artillery of the Moscow-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

(Left to right) Former Indian Petroleum and Gas Minister Murli Deora, former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, and former Afghan President Hamid Karzai after signing an agreement on the TAPI gas pipeline in 2010.
(Left to right) Former Indian Petroleum and Gas Minister Murli Deora, former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, and former Afghan President Hamid Karzai after signing an agreement on the TAPI gas pipeline in 2010.

Ankara has shown its willingness to stand up to Moscow and Tehran, and if Turkey increases its public support for the TCP that could convince Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to move forward with the project.

But obtaining Ankara's support might be the problem for Turkmenistan.

Turkmen officials are urging Turkish authorities to shut down protests in Turkey against the Turkmen government that are led by migrant laborers. It is also seeking to have the activists deported to Turkmenistan.

Ankara was apparently upset when one Turkmen protester was forced into the Turkmen Consulate in Istanbul and beaten in early August.

The Turkish government has been sensitive to such incidents since Saudi journalist and activist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

There is speculation that Turkey’s reluctance to shut down anti-Turkmen government protests on Turkish territory has led to Ashgabat’s hesitancy in accepting Ankara's offer to join the Turkic Council, which comprises Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

But Turkmenistan needs to move on its proposed gas pipelines if the country is ever going to cash in on its extensive gas reserves.

While TAPI seems no closer to being realized than it was 25 years ago, the TCP or some form of it -- with a guaranteed market of paying customers -- could be completed in the near future.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, 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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