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Turkmen Report: February 24, 2003

24 February 2003
Turkmenistan Reintroduces Exit Visas For Travel Abroad
21 February 2003

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov signed a decree on 21 February reinstating the requirement of an exit visa for Turkmen citizens to leave the country, ITAR-TASS and AP reported. Starting on 1 March, Turkmen citizens will again be required to have an exit visa before being allowed to travel abroad.

The exit visa requirement in Turkmenistan was only halted in January 2002 under pressure from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Today's decree said travel will be limited for people who have access to state secrets, people under criminal investigation, defendants in civil lawsuits, and those who give false information about themselves. The reinstatement of the exit visa follows the reported November assassination attempt on Niyazov.

Foreigners visiting Turkmenistan will also have to register and obtain a special migration card that they must carry with them at all times while in Turkmenistan. (ITAR-TASS, AP)

Turkmen President Changes Interior Minister
21 February 2003

President Niyazov replaced the country's interior minister on 21 February, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported the same day. Niyazov dismissed Annaberdy Kakabaev and named Ashyr Ataev to be the new interior minister.

Kakabaev just on 18 February publicly called Niyazov a "prophet" on the eve of the Turkmen president's birthday but that apparently did not help Kakabaev keep his position.

Niyazov, who prefers to be called Turkmenbashi, the chief of the Turkmen, is known for changing government officials often without giving any reason. Niyazov also appointed Rashid Meredov to be a deputy prime minister. Meredov keeps his post as foreign minister also. (RFE/RL Turkmen Service)

OSCE Concerned About Rights Situation In Turkmenistan
20 February 2003

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said on 20 February it was worried about the human rights situation in Turkmenistan following reports of mass arrests there, Russia's RTR and Reuters reported the same day. The OSCE chairman-in-office, Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said he will press President Niyazov on the issue when he visits Turkmenistan during a planned tour of the Central Asian states later this year.

De Hoop Scheffer said, "If we speak about upholding the rule of law and civil society, there is room for strong and fierce criticism."

A reported attempt on Niyazov's life last November sparked a wave of arrests that reportedly included family members of suspects. Detainees have appeared on Turkmen state television, often looking beaten or drugged, confessing their guilt and begging for the justice of death. In the wake of the assassination attempt a number of new and restrictive laws have been enacted. (RTR, Reuters)

Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan Halt Gas Supplies To Tajikistan
20 February 2003

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have temporarily stopped supplies of natural gas to Tajikistan while repairs are being made to a pipeline, ITAR-TASS reported on 20 February.

Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, the head of Tajikistan's state-run gas company Tajikgaz, said he expected normal supplies of gas to resume again within the next few days. Many sections of the capital Dushanbe are reportedly without heat or gas for cooking.

There was no explanation from any Turkmen officials about the halt in supplies but officials at Uzbekistan's gas company said they chose to do repair work now because the weather is warmer and the inconvenience would be less to consumers in Tajikistan.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan depend on supplies of natural gas from their neighbors, particularly Uzbekistan. The Uzbek government has often used gas exports for political leverage, cutting supplies when the Tajik or Kyrgyz governments make decisions that are unpopular with the Uzbek government. (ITAR-TASS)

Niyazov's Writing Translated Into Kyrgyz
19 February 2003

A translation into Kyrgyz of Saparmurat Niyazov's spiritual treatise "Rukhnama" was officially presented at the State History Museum in Bishkek on 19 February, Niyazov's 63rd birthday, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. (RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service)

Turkmenistan Marks Flag Day, President's Birthday
19 February 2003

Turkmenistan marked the national holiday Flag Day on 19 February, which is also President Niyazov's 63rd birthday, AFP, AP, and ITAR-TASS reported the same day.

Celebrations in the capital Ashgabat featured a military parade, concerts and crowds waving flags and holding portraits of Niyazov. Soldiers marching past Niyazov shouted "Halk, Watan, Beyik Turkmenbashi," meaning "People, the Homeland, Great Turkmenbashi."

Turkmenbashi is a title bestowed on Niyazov by the country's parliament, which means "head" or "chief" of the Turkmen people. International human rights organizations issued a joint press release on 18 February stating, "Turkmenistan has long had an appalling human rights record."

The statement was issued by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, and the Memorial Human Rights Center. (AFP, AP, ITAR-TASS)

Turkmenistan, Itera Discuss Oil, Gas Projects
18 February 2003

During talks in Ashgabat on 18 February, President Niyazov agreed to a proposal from visiting Itera head Igor Makarov to increase the volume of Turkmen gas Itera will purchase for export in 2003, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported.

The size of the increase and the price Itera will pay was not reported. Under an agreement signed in November, Itera undertook to purchase and export 10 billion cubic meters of Turkmen natural gas in 2003.

Niyazov and Makarov also discussed the envisaged exploitation by the Zairit consortium of oil and gas deposits in Turkmenistan's sector of the Caspian shelf and on the right bank of the Amu-Darya River. Itera's subsidiary, Gazkhiminvest, and Rosneft each have 37 percent stakes in Zairit. Zarubezhneft owns the remaining 26 percent. (Interfax, ITAR-TASS)

Turkmen Natural Gas Exported To Europe By Ukraine
21 February 2003

By Michael Lelyveld

Rising amounts of gas from Turkmenistan are reaching European markets for the first time in years as Ukraine resells supplies it cannot use.

In Ashgabat this week, Yuriy Boyko, head of the Ukrainian petroleum company Naftohaz Ukrayiny, said the firm sold 6 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas to European countries in 2002. Boyko said the re-exports went to Romania, Germany, and Poland, ITAR-TASS reported. More sales are planned to Great Britain this year "at a large amount," he said.

Although the volumes are still modest by European standards, they accounted for one-seventh of Turkmenistan's gas exports of 41 billion cubic meters last year. For the Central Asian nation, with its large but landlocked reserves, the sales also represent the first return to the European market since the early 1990s, when Russia blocked access to former Soviet pipelines and claimed the business for itself.

The prospect of selling Turkmen gas to Great Britain is remarkable, given the distance of more than 4,000 kilometers to the market. But the evolution of the new trade may be all the more notable because Turkmenistan seems to have little or no role in how it came about.

After complaining repeatedly in the 1990s about the Russian cutoff, Turkmenistan has now become a gas source for European countries, virtually without the effort of marketing or arranging tariffs and transit deals.

The arrangement may actually be preferable for European importers, because Turkmenistan's autocratic President Saparmurat Niyazov has been famously difficult to negotiate with. Russia has been trying to settle a long-term price deal on supplies with him for nearly three years.

But Ukraine has had more success after having been thrown together with Turkmenistan in a match first engineered by Russia. In order to reduce Ukraine's dependence on Russian gas supplies, Moscow channeled Kyiv's demand toward Ashgabat as an alternate source several years ago.

The strategy helped to keep Turkmen gas out of the profitable European markets that Russia reserved for itself. At the same time, Russia's gas monopoly Gazprom hoped it would curb Ukraine's habit of diverting Russian gas from transit lines on its way to Europe and running up huge unpaid debts. In 2001, Turkmenistan signed an agreement to supply Ukraine with 250 billion cubic meters of gas through 2006.

Despite periodic frictions over nonpayment, the Turkmen-Ukraine link has endured. Niyazov has been forgiving about two tiers of Ukrainian gas debts from 1993 and 1999, running into the hundreds of millions of dollars. He has also allowed Ukraine to pay for half its current gas deliveries in goods and services, reducing its costs from the quoted rate of $44 per thousand cubic meters.

Over time, Russia has also eased its conflict with Ukraine over the transit lines to Europe. Plans for an international consortium to manage the lines have tried to finesse the issue of whether Russia will eventually gain control. Ukraine's diversions have stopped.

But Boyko's statement about Turkmen gas sales in Europe may be a measure of how much has actually changed. Three years ago, Moscow exploded with anger when it discovered that Ukrainian traders were selling gas in the European spot market while the country was still diverting Russia's gas from the transit lines. The practice undercut Gazprom sales because Ukraine was selling at a lower price.

After the blowup, an agreement strictly limited the amount of gas that Ukraine could resell. But this week, Boyko spoke openly about the Turkmen re-exports, which seem to be far above the agreed limits.

One reason for the reduced tension is that Ukraine's gas consumption has been falling for the past two years following payment reforms first instituted by former Deputy Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, now a leader of the opposition to President Leonid Kuchma. While Ukraine's economy has recorded strong growth, its gas consumption dropped 4 percent in 2001 and another 2 percent last year.

The reductions have left Ukraine with a surplus, while contracted imports continue from Turkmenistan along with gas collected from Russia as a transit fee, in addition to purchased imports. Boyko argued that the resale of Turkmen gas in Europe is helping it pay for its purchases. Although Boyko did not quote figures, European gas prices are about twice as much as Ukraine's costs.

So far, no one has complained about the profitable practice, although Russia is still likely to dominate the region's European gas trade. Turkmen gas can only reach Ukraine through Russia, allowing Moscow to stop it whenever it wants. Gazprom has also formed a joint venture with Kazakhstan to export its gas to Europe and has been negotiating with countries, including Great Britain, Interfax reported in December.

The developments suggest that there may be better prospects for Central Asian gas exports to Europe over the long term. (RFE/RL)