28 February 2001
NATIONAL AND REGIONAL NEWS
Turkmenbashi Gets Own Star
28 February 2001
A star in the Ursa Major constellation has been named "Turkmenbashi" after the president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov.
The certificate of registration was today given to Niyazov by a representative of the Turkish Polimex company.
It is not the first time an extraterrestrial object has been given the name "Turkmenbashi." A meteorite, which crashed in Turkmenistan in 1999, was also given the name.
The title "Turkmenbashi" was conferred on Niyazov by the Turkmen parliament and Turkmenistan's press often use the title to refer to him. The name means "head of the Turkmen."
The country has a city named Turkmenbashi on the Caspian shore, and streets and factories and medical centers in the country also have the name. (ITAR-TASS, RFE/RL)
Polyethylene Plant To Be Built In Turkmenistan With Foreign Loans
28 February 2001
Japan�s Marubeni Corp, Japan Gasoline Corp, and Germany�s Linde AG have won a tender to build a $500 million gas-processing plant in Turkmenistan, the Turkmen Oil and Gas and Mineral Resources Ministry has recently announced. The consortium would start building the plant near the town of Gazojak in eastern Turkmenistan next year. Construction works will last for three years.
The plant would be built with foreign loans and will produce annually 200,000 tons of polyethylene. The official said the loans would be paid off in polyethylene and mineral resources, but gave no specific details of the loans. (Transcaspian.ru)
Baku-Ceyhan Route Sponsors: More Oil Firms Want To Join
27 February 2001
Increasingly confident sponsors of the Baku-Ceyhan export pipeline from the Caspian Sea say that more U.S. and other oil companies are in talks to join the group led by BP Amoco PLC that is preparing the U.S.-backed project for financing in June 2002 and operation by the end of 2004. The group is now halfway through a $26 million (28.3 million euros) basic engineering study, and on 26 February Turkey joined Georgia and Azerbaijan in giving approval to the approximate course of the planned 1,728-kilometer pipeline.
Chevron Corp. recently announced that it wants to join the eight shareholders in the group, a key attestation of faith in the $2.7 billion project. Valekh Aleskerov, chairman of the foreign investment division of Azerbaijan's state oil company, Socar, declined to name the others who now wanted part of the 50 percent stake Socar has kept back for the purpose.
At a news briefing, Mr. Aleskerov said the reason for the sudden interest was that companies now believed an alternative tanker route from Russian or Georgian ports in the Black Sea is unsafe in the long term because of the danger posed by oil tankers passing through Istanbul's narrow Bosporus waterway.
Wref Digings, head of oil exports for BP Amoco in Azerbaijan, attached as much importance to an attractive tariff agreed during negotiations ratified by host country parliaments last October -- said by oil men to be about $2.60 a barrel -- and a sense that a possible shorter route through Iran would be slow to negotiate and not necessarily cheaper.
"Baku-Ceyhan will prove to be the transport option of choice for producers from the south Caspian. The owners consider the reserve base in Azerbaijan is big enough to make this pipeline work," Mr. Digings said.
Azerbaijan was long thought not to have enough oil to justify the million-barrel-a-day pipeline. But oil men hint that sufficient volumes will be obtained by speeding up development of Azerbaijan�s major offshore project, the BP Amoco-led Azerbaijan International Operating Co. ("Wall Street Journal")
Caspian Summit Postponed
26 February 2001
Turkmenistan�s president said today that a summit of leaders from countries bordering the resource-rich Caspian Sea will be delayed from March to early April.
The summit was scheduled for 8-9 March in Turkmenbashi, a port city on the sea in Turkmenistan. But President Saparmurat Niyazov said in a television interview that the summit will be delayed until the first week of April at the request of Iran. He did not explain why Iran had asked for the delay.
The five nations with coastlines on the Caspian Sea -- Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan -- have tentatively approved a plan to divide the oil and fishery reserves in the area into national zones. (AP,RFE/RL)
Religious Holiday Decreed In Turkmenistan
26 February 2001
The president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, has adopted a resolution on the celebration of Id al-Adha, a Muslim religious holiday marking the end of Hajj. In accordance with this document, 5, 6 and 7 March 2001 are deemed days off in honor of the celebration of the national holiday of the Turkmen people Id al-Adha. (TDH)
Turkmen Media Asks For Proposals For 'Spiritual Constitution'
23 February 2001
State media in Turkmenistan are calling for people to send their proposals for the "spiritual constitution" Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov plans to write this year.
Proposals must be sent by September so that Niyazov can have everything in book form by the end of October.
Turkmen newspapers said the purpose of the spiritual constitution is so, "a person should sleep well at night instead of being tormented by doubts about justice...so that he not blush over acts of his youth when he�s reached a respectable age, so that the main traits of the Turkmen people will always be honesty."
The call for proposals for the work comes a week after Niyazov publicly unveiled his book "Rukhname," billed as second to the Koran in importance for the Turkmen people. (AP,RFE/RL)
Turkmenistan�s 2000 Trade Balance Up Over 60 Percent
23 February 2001
According to the National Institute of Statistics and Information (Turkmen milli hasabat), the foreign trade turnover of Turkmenistan in 2000 was $4.3 billion, a 60 percent increase on 1999. Turkmenistan�s largest export partners were Russia, Italy, Iran, Turkey, Ukraine, Switzerland, and Great Britain. In imports to Turkmenistan, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, UAE, Japan, Iran, and France were the leading partners. Exports exceeded $2.5 billion and increased more than twice compared to 1999. It consisted mainly of natural gas (50 percent of volume), petroleum and crude oil (20 and 10 percent), as well as textiles (12 percent). (Turkmenistan.ru)
New Radio Communications System Installed In Turkmenbashi
23 February 2001
A modern ETS-450 radio communications system, made by the Chinese company Huawei Technology, has been installed in the coastal town of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk, in western Turkmenistan).
The range of the new system varies from 25 to 70 km, depending on terrain. The radio telephones can link up with the Internet and receive faxes, and feature services like wake-up calls, call redirection, outgoing call limitation, and so on. (TDH)
Turkmen Representative Sums Up Tehran Meeting On Caspian Sea
21 February 2001
The way to the new Caspian regime is open, according to Boris Shikhmuradov, Turkmen President Niyazov�s special envoy for the Caspian issue, summing up the main result of the working meeting at the level of deputy foreign ministers of the five littoral states.
The main thing is that all the participants of the working meeting in Tehran demonstrated their ability for reasonable compromise, he said. �The work aimed at developing a new conception for the Caspian Sea has practically started,� Shikhmuradov stressed while talking to the press.
The existing differences in opinions �have no insurmountable antagonistic nature,� the Turkmen president's envoy said. When the problem of demilitarization of the Caspian Sea was discussed at the meeting, all parties said it is wise not to use military fleets in the Caspian Sea, he said.
In addition, four participants of the meeting, except Iran, basically agree with the method of dividing the Caspian Sea along the median line. (Interfax)
President Issues Decree On Raising Wages, Pensions
20 February 2001
The Turkmen mass media published the decree of President Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Niyazov on raising wages, pensions, and state welfare payments on 20 February. Pursuant to the decree of the president of Turkmenistan, beginning 1 March 2001 �the sizes of wages of the workers of budget establishments, of self-supporting state firms and organizations will increase up to 2 times, depending on their labor contribution.� The decree further said that �the wages of the citizens of Turkmenistan, working in firms and in organizations of all types of ownership, should on average not be lower than 950 thousand manats per month.� (Turkmenistan.ru)
Iran Plans to Increase Gas Imports from Turkmenistan
24 February 2001
Iran plans to increase gas imports from Turkmenistan in 2001 by up to 13 billion cubic meters.
Iran�s request was discussed in a meeting between experts from Turkmenistan�s Ministry of the Oil and Gas Industry and Mineral Resources and Iran's National Gas Company on Saturday.
The Turkmen ministry said that more than six billion cubic meters of gas have been sold to Iran since December 1997 since the joint Korpedzhe-Kurt Kui gas pipeline was built, including 2.7 billion cubic meters in 2000.
Under the sale agreement signed for 25 years, Turkmenistan will supply six billion cubic meters of gas to Iran in 2001 at a price of $ 40 per 1,000 cubic meters.
Iran needs more gas to fuel its power plants and industrial enterprises in the north and provide the population with gas.
The two sides discussed ways to bring the gas pipeline�s operation to full capacity of eight billion cubic meters a year. According to the agreement, this is expected to happen in 2002. In the future, the two countries plan to increase the pipeline�s capacity to 13 billion cubic meters a year.
The Turkmen-Iranian negotiations will continue in the near future at a higher level. They should lead to the signing of a commercial agreement. (Itar-Tass)
Turkmen President Turns 61, Will Step Down In 2010
19 February 2001
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov celebrated his 61st birthday in style on Monday, one day after his surprise announcement that he would step down in 2010 despite having been made head of state for life. Niyazov was quoted to have said that Turkmenistan will then �need a young president and an open election with several candidates running.�
Niyazov, more commonly known as Turkmenbashi, or Head of the Turkmen, reviewed a military parade in Ashgabat's immense Independence Square from atop an imposing purpose-built platform.
The platform, like many buildings in the former Soviet Central Asian state, bore the slogan �People. Motherland. Turkmenbashi�. Across the square stood a gold-domed palace with �Turkmenbashi Palace� picked out in gold letters on its facade.
For his birthday celebrations, row after row of Turkmen military marched past their commander-in-chief, bellowing his name.
After filing past the president, his troops marched under the Neutrality Arch, a vast tripod vaguely reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower. A revolving gold statue of Turkmenbashi is on top.
The military parade, celebrating Flag Day, an important Turkmen holiday, was followed by singing, dancing, and theater from crowds of performers in national dress.
One, dressed as an angel and representing Turkmenbashi�s mother who died in an earthquake in 1948, told him that fate had sent him to his people, who were justifiably proud of him.
Although the dramatic and meticulously choreographed parade lasted only an hour, the president had ample reminders for the rest of the day that it was his birthday.
Every television channel carried celebrations of the happy day. One female singer appeared simultaneously on two of the country�s three channels, singing in English to a catchy tune.
�Happy birthday our beloved president�, she sang. �Happy birthday, happy birthday Turkmenbashi�. Other songs set Turkmenbashi�s favorite slogan to music: in the Turkmen original, �Halk. Watan. Turkmenbashi�. (Reuters/ RFE/RL)
Passenger Service Planned On Turkmen-Iranian Railway Line
19 February 2001
The Turkmen-Iranian railway line Tedzhen-Sarakhs-Mashhad was built at the initiative of President Saparmurat Turkmenbashi and the former Iranian leader, Khashemi Rafsanjani, and has been used actively by both countries.
The development of economic and cultural relations has brought about a project to open a passenger route in this direction. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have expressed their interest in the project.
According to Turkmendemiryollary (Turkmen railways), an international train will depart weekly from Almaty and go via Tashkent, Samarkand (both in Uzbekistan), Turkmenabat, Mary (both in Turkmenistan), and Mashhad (northeastern Iran) to the Iranian capital, Tehran. The 3,290 km journey will take about 68 hours. (TDH)
Telephone Services Updated In Turkmen Lebap Region
19 February 2001
Thirteen forms of telephone services have been offered to about 2,000 people in Turkmenabat, eastern Turkmenistan. Modern digital communications equipment has been installed at the local telephone exchange. (Turkmen Radio)
Turkmen President Addresses Large Annual Government Session
18 February 2001
Turkmenistan�s President Saparmurat Niyazov today addressed an annual gathering of the country�s parliament, State council, People�s Council, Council of Elders, and members of the National Revival movement on the eve of Turkmenistan's National Flag Day celebration.
Niyazov repeated his statement of 16 February in which he promised to hold presidential elections by 2010. Niyazov, who turns 61 on Monday, said no man should be a country's leader after he turns 70.
Niyazov used today's meeting to present his new book �Rukhname�, a moral-philosophical book which he said is second to the Turkmen people after the Koran in terms of guiding personal behavior. (RFE/RL Turkmen Service)
Turkmen Leader Promises Elections At End Of Decade
18 February 2001
Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan�s authoritarian leader who was named president for life, said Sunday he would step down by the end of the decade and elections to name a successor would follow.
Niyazov made the announcement at the annual gathering of parliament, the State Council, the People�s Council, the Council of Elders and members of the ruling National Revival movement.
�I have no claim to the presidency except the faithful serving of the Turkmen people and its state,� Niyazov told the gathering on the eve of his 61st birthday. �I�m not going to pass my power to my heirs,� he said, responding to opposition charges he plans to create a hereditary system of leadership.
Therefore, he said, �elections of the second Turkmen president will be held in 2008 or 2010.�
Niyazov told the meeting, �When a man turns 70, he has no strength to bear the heavy duties of the head of state. If a man really loves his motherland and wishes prosperity for it, he must quit his post.�
At ceremonies marking his birthday last year, Niyazov had said he would remain in power for at least six or seven years, but did not announce a date for new elections.
At a meeting of foreign ambassadors on Friday, Niyazov said a law pertaining to the election of senior political positions, including the presidency and regional governors, would be introduced in 2008, and that elections for the presidency would be held in 2010 when he turns 70, the Interfax news agency reported.
Niyazov has led Turkmenistan since 1985, when the Central Asian nation of 5 million people was still part of the Soviet Union. He has resisted moves toward democracy and economic reforms, and his nation remains impoverished despite vast oil and gas reserves.
He has suppressed the opposition and created a massive cult of personality around himself. Niyazov has built palaces, mosques, and airports bearing his name and renamed cities in his own honor. His face decorates all the currency, while towns and villages are abundant with his portraits and statues.
Niyazov became Turkmenistan's leader for life in December 1999 after the People�s Council and parliament approved an indefinite extension of his term. (AP)
Turkmen President for Life Says to Step Down in 2010
18 February 2001
Saparmurat Niyazov, made president for life of Turkmenistan two years ago, said on Sunday he would step down in 2010 and make way for a younger elected leader.
�After you turn 70, it is too hard to work. But it is possible to work until then,� state television quoted Niyazov as saying in an address to more than 2,000 members of the People�s Council gathered in a blue-domed palace.
Niyazov, who turns 61 on 19 February, said last week he would hold a presidential election in 2010 but failed to make clear if he would seek re-election.
�We would need a young president and an open election with several candidates running,� said Niyazov, who has the official title of Turkmenbashi (Head of the Turkmens) and enjoys sweeping powers in the ex-Soviet nation of four million.
�Today, all those willing to become president may start preparing.�
A few minutes later the People�s Council, a decision-making body made up of Niyazov and representatives of the government, parliament, and the regions, approved a law to hold a presidential election in 2010.
Niyazov, last re-elected in 1992 with 98 to 99 percent of the vote, suggested that his successor might only be allowed to remain in office for two five-year terms. He said candidates had to be ethnic Turkmens, with at least five years' experience in politics and resident in Turkmenistan for not less than 10 years.
Given Niyazov�s iron grip on power and the fact that nearly all his opponents live in exile, hopefuls were likely to be drawn from a handful of regional heads handpicked by the president.
Niyazov said he would allow the election of regional officials in the country bordering Iran only from 2010. "I take your applause as a sign of agreement," he said, with a smile.
Niyazov has run the gas-rich but impoverished nation since becoming Turkmenistan�s Communist Party boss in 1985. He was the sole candidate in 1990 and 1992 presidential elections.
In 1994, Niyazov extended his term until 2002 through a referendum. He said later he would rule until 2006 or 2007.
Avdy Kuliyev, Turkmenistan�s former foreign minister and now an opposition leader living in Moscow, said that by ordering an election in 2010 the president was ducking an election in 2002.
�A presidential election in Turkmenistan had been set for 2002, and the opposition has been seriously preparing for a change of power,� Kuliyev told Ekho Moskvy radio in Moscow. �Niyazov knows this and fears this.�
Niyazov also acts as prime minister, commander-in-chief, and head of the ruling Democratic Party. His title, Turkmenbashi, has been given to factories, military units, and a port town on the Caspian Sea and millions of dollars have been spent to glorify him in monuments. (Reuters)
ITERA To Buy 10 Billion Cubic Meters Of Turkmen Gas
17 February 2001
Turkmenistan resumed supply of natural gas to Russia under the recently signed contract between ITERA and the state-owned trading corporation Turkmenneftegaz. According to the contract, Turkmenistan will sell 10 billion cubic meters of gas at a price of $40 per 1,000 cubic meters to ITERA, operating according to an order from Gazprom. ITERA will pay for 50 percent of the gas in hard currency, and for 50 percent in goods. The total value of the Turkmen gas will be $400 million.
In his brief speech during the official signing of the contract, President Niyazov said that in 2001 Turkmenistan plans to export 30 billion cubic meters of gas to Ukraine, 10 billion cubic meters to Russia, and 6 billion cubic meters to Iran. The country has set a uniform price of $40 per 1,000 cubic meters for all buyers. (Turkmenistan.ru)
FEATURES AND ANALYSIS
Iran Boosts Gas Imports From Turkmenistan
27 February 2001
By Michael Lelyveld
Iran moved over the weekend to boost its gas imports from Turkmenistan at a time when Ashgabat is backing Tehran's position on dividing the Caspian Sea.
According to a news agency report, officials of Iran�s National Gas Company met 24 February with Turkmen counterparts in Ashgabat to advance plans for at least doubling gas purchases this year.
The report on the increased Turkmen gas sales to Iran is one of many that have surfaced in the past year. The difference this time seems to be that Iran reportedly sought the increase only three days after a crucial meeting on the Caspian division issue in Tehran.
The Caspian meeting of deputy foreign ministers from the five shoreline nations ended inconclusively last week after Iran stuck to its long-held position with Turkmenistan�s support, despite heavy pressure from Russia. The stalemate has left doubt about a summit meeting of presidents from the Caspian countries. The summit was originally scheduled for 8 and 9 March, but has now been postponed until April.
So far, Russia has won over Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to its formula for dividing the seabed into national sectors while keeping the water and its surface in common. But Iran has insisted on 20 percent of the entire Caspian, in part to keep the Russian navy at arm�s length.
Turkmenistan�s backing has spared Iran from isolation on the issue. Iran�s reported "request" for more Turkmen gas at the meeting on 24 February in Ashgabat may be seen as a reward.
Officials have been working on a new gas agreement since last November, while simultaneous contacts on the Caspian were taking place. The negotiations have marked a quiet end to Iran�s smoldering anger at Turkmenistan, which became evident last May when Iranian officials let it be known that they had cut imports of Turkmen gas by half.
The conflict has been over the terms of a 25-year gas deal that Iran signed with Turkmenistan in 1995. The agreement called for supplies of Turkmen gas and construction of a 200-kilometer pipeline from the country�s Korpedzhe gas field to northern Iran.
The $190 million pipeline was built at Iran's expense and commissioned in December 1997, becoming the first new export line from a CIS country since the Soviet breakup. But the exports of Turkmen gas never lived up to the publicity.
Although first reports stated that the line would carry 4 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas to northern Iran in its first year of operation, Iranian official reports now say that Turkmenistan provided a total of only 6 bcm in the past three years. Iran complained that Turkmenistan never invested enough in the Korpedzhe field to make more gas available. The poor performance sparked anger because Turkmenistan was supposed to provide gas at no cost for the first three years to pay for the line.
Iran�s annoyance seems to have grown because terms of the contract allowed Turkmenistan to charge off its debt at a rate that was higher than its tariff for Russia and Ukraine.
The conflict came to a head last April when Turkmenistan tried to negotiate an increase in gas exports to Iran in an apparent attempt to start a bidding war with Russia. Tehran responded by charging that Turkmenistan had never lived up to its commitments and cut its exports instead.
Since then, Turkmenistan has mended its ways by completing a gas processing plant to increase its deliveries. Iran has also reacted favorably to Turkmenistan�s effort to pump gas at the rate of 20 million cubic meters per day in January.
It may also help that Turkmenistan recently succeeded in raising its tariff for Russia and Ukraine to the same rate that Iran has been paying all along.
The two sides have now returned to negotiating their original target of increasing Turkmen gas sales to 13 bcm per year. The current pipeline can carry up to 8 bcm. A second line is being discussed. Reports indicate that Turkmenistan will deliver 6 bcm this year, more than double last year�s exports of only 2.7 bcm.
Iran's interest in importing more gas may also raise questions about how much of the fuel it has available. The country needs gas for its northern power plants, industries, and consumers, ITAR-TASS and the official Iranian news agency IRNA said. But at the same time, it intends to start exporting gas to Turkey in July.
Iran is also interested in supplying gas to Azerbaijan. Although the country has the second-largest gas reserves in the world, they remain largely undeveloped. Most of Iran's largest fields are in the south. The country is working to develop those fields for export. (RFE/RL)
Secretive Turkmenistan's Economy Faces Problems
26 February 2001
The economy of the secretive Central Asian state of Turkmenistan is facing serious problems despite apparently booming economic indicators, analysts studying the country and informed sources in the capital say.
But Turkmen authorities are tight-lipped. On a recent week-long visit, not one official agreed to talk to Reuters.
The former Soviet republic�s economy is based on natural gas and cotton. Both sectors face major challenges, analysts say, and Turkmenistan�s currency is losing value fast.
Natural gas should be the greatest growth area. The country of less than five million has huge reserves, and in Soviet times produced and sold 80 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year.
But in the late 1990s, after a row over pricing with Russia, the country�s only export route, exports slowed to a trickle.
They skyrocketed in 2000 after Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed a new export program with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. The result was gross domestic product growth of 17 percent in 2000, according to official data.
But there are signs the gas boom is already slowing.
Gas analyst Jonathan Stern, associate fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, says he doubts Turkmenistan will be able to raise output to 70-75 bcm this year as planned from 47 bcm officially produced last year.
This is partly because some gas in transit to Russia passes through neighboring Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, where pipelines have become run down in recent years. The countries are unwilling to spend on modernization because of the erratic supplies coming from Turkmenistan over the last few years.
"It seems nobody is spending any money, so capacity certainly won�t expand and may contract," Stern said, adding that last year�s export level may already be near the ceiling.
He said Russia would need to import large gas supplies in the next few years to meet existing commitments to domestic and European buyers while some of its main fields are in depletion.
But there is likely to be competition from the huge Kashagan oil field in the Kazakh part of the Caspian Sea, and other Kazakh fields. If gas export pipelines are built to join up with the Russian network, these may offer cheaper gas than Turkmenistan.
Russian gas monopoly Gazprom may also develop new fields of its own over the coming years, he added, which could eliminate the need for Russia to buy Turkmen gas at all -- a bitter blow for a country with no other export routes.
This year Itera, a Russian trading company thought to be close to Gazprom, has signed a contract to buy 10 bcm of Turkmen gas, well down on around 35 bcm initially planned.
There are further sales, to Ukraine and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, but these countries always have trouble paying on time in hard currency.
"Since payment from Ukraine can�t be enforced, no substantial gas will ever flow. If we discount everything except what Itera says it will buy, then we�re looking at about a third of last year�s exports," Stern said.
He added that a lack of commercial acumen by Turkmen negotiators, as well as fears of unreliability following the years of wildly fluctuating exports, were behind Russian unwillingness to buy larger volumes.
COTTON NO BETTER
Cotton is faring little better. Turkmenistan officially produced 1.03 million tons last year, well below the planned 1.3 million. Niyazov sacked numerous officials for incompetence.
But informed sources in Ashgabat say the true figure may be half that, or less. One Western diplomatic source said the cotton yield fell to 1.85 tons per hectare by 1999 from 2.34 tons in the early 1990s.
This results from planting on marginal soil, and a lack of machinery, fertilizer, seed and fuel -- a problem exacerbated near the Uzbek border, as Turkmen fuel is extremely cheap and so frequently smuggled to Uzbekistan, leading to local shortages.
The same source said Turkmenistan was making the problem worse by planting grain at the expense of cotton, even though each hectare of grain sown incurs a loss of up to $32 because of inefficient farming policies, while cotton is profitable.
Meanwhile the currency is sliding fast. A dollar buys 5,200 Turkmen manats at the official rate. On the black market it bought 21,400 manats at the beginning of last week, slipping to 24,000 by Saturday. Rumors of a possible devaluation are circulating.
None of the economic problems are immediately obvious in the capital, which is undergoing an orgy of new building as new ministries, mosques, palaces, and statues of Niyazov go up.
But increasingly, while official Ashgabat refuses to comment, observers wonder how long it can be sustained. (Reuters)
No Breakthrough Seen In Caspian Sea Meeting
24 February 2001
By Michael Lelyveld
A long-awaited meeting in Tehran of deputy foreign ministers from five neighboring nations appears to have produced no breakthrough on a legal division of the Caspian Sea.
Russia�s ITAR-TASS news agency reported Thursday that the Caspian working group agreed to convene again in Baku. But no date was announced, and it was unclear that the officials would be able to draft an accord in time for a scheduled summit of the five nations' presidents in Turkmenistan on 8 and 9 March.
Reports during the two-day gathering in Tehran were sketchy, at best. Iranian officials had little of substance to say at the close of the session, which was only the third such meeting since the controversy over Caspian dividing lines began with the Soviet breakup nearly a decade ago.
Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani hailed the group�s decision that any future agreement on the Caspian's status must be unanimous among the shoreline countries, which include Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.
Ahani claimed that the declaration was a precedent, although there was nothing new in it. All five countries were previously committed verbally to reaching consensus on the division issue. The only alternative would be a legal dispute.
Ahani also said the littoral states pledged to treat two pacts between the Soviet Union and Iran in 1921 and 1940 as the basis for future accords. The announcement appeared to break no new ground. The only real agreement seemed to be that the parties should meet again, perhaps in a last effort to keep the summit in the port of Turkmenbashi on track.
A long standoff in positions taken by Russia and Iran seems to have diminished chances for any significant progress and could renew concerns about holding the meeting of the five presidents at all.
Last Tuesday, Ahani praised his visiting Russian counterpart, Viktor Kalyuzhny, despite his earlier complaints that Tehran had stalled the meeting of the working group for months.
Ahani said, �I think that our fruitful and constructive consultations will help us hold our next session. And if we find common ground, it will help us move towards holding a general meeting on the Caspian Sea.� One interpretation is that no common ground had been found, and the next meeting was not yet assured.
So far, the Russian and Iranian views have been hard to reconcile. Russia wants to split the Caspian seabed into national sectors, while keeping the water and its surface in common. Moscow's proposal has won the support of Kazakhstan and, more recently, Azerbaijan.
Iran has sought a complete division, claiming an equal 20 percent share. One reason is that a line based on Iran's land borders would give it far less. Another is Iran's concern that the Russian navy could sail too close to its shore. Turkmenistan has backed Iran's stands on national sectors and demilitarization as �the only acceptable approach.�
Despite the difficulty of bridging the differences, hope had risen in recent weeks with increased diplomacy. Foreign oil companies have said they will not invest in any disputed Caspian deposits until a settlement is reached.
Azerbaijani officials raised expectations that the working group would produce accords in Tehran that the five presidents could sign. Reports suggested that Iranian President Mohammed Khatami would also conclude a settlement with Russia during a visit to Moscow on 19 March.
So far, there are only hints that a partial pact could be possible, based on the few principles that might not prompt an open clash.
Before the Tehran meeting, Kalyuzhny suggested a phased approach that might allow work on a sectoral division of the sea bottom, even though a deal on the water has yet to be reached. Turkmenistan�s envoy, Boris Shikhmuradov, also said that there was no basic argument about demilitarization.
But even those formulas might have to be watered down. Iran may not agree to a split of the sea floor on a median line, even in a preliminary way. Complete demilitarization may also be difficult, because of the reported presence of some 100 Russian naval vessels in the Caspian.
In the absence of progress, the countries could hark back to an earlier warning given by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov that the summit in Turkmenbashi is not necessarily assured.
Losyukov said the summit would take place only if the working group produced an agreement. In other words, there is no point in bringing five presidents together unless they have something to sign. An accord that breaks no new ground and codifies no compromise would have little value, other than show. On the other hand, a cancellation would be seen as a setback. Either way, there may be little to gain.
There is still a temptation to think that summits can settle everything, particularly in a region where presidents wield great power. But in this case, the summit desperately needs a pre-arranged agreement.
While leaders like Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov have absolute authority to negotiate, the same cannot be said of Khatami on a matter of foreign policy, where Iran�s supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, has the last word. Any settlement involving four neighbors would have to be fully reviewed and approved.
If the working group fails to make significant progress, it could doom the upcoming summit to a meaningless meeting, or perhaps none at all. The five countries may have only a few days to revise their positions, or they may have good reason to call the whole thing off. (RFE/RL)
Turkish Vice Premier Visits Turkmenistan
21 February 2001
By Nadir Devlet
Turkish Vice Premier, Minister of State and the leader of Milliyetci Hareket Partisi (MHP: National Action Party) Devlet Bakhceli visited Turkmenistan from 18 to 20 February. MHP is a partner in the three-party coalition government and known as a far-right party which insists on preserving the Turkish-Muslim identity of Turkey. This visit was the first foreign visit of Bakhceli since he became state minister and vice premier in a coalition government two and a half years ago.
Vice Premier Devlet Bakhceli�s official visit to Turkmenistan could be considered as an important political step towards the Turkic republics or show Turkish interest in the Turkic world has not diminished.
Turkish-Turkmen relations could be considered as normal or at least not as problematic as with Uzbekistan. Turkish businessmen are investing mainly in the textile, building, and food sectors in Turkmenistan and in general they are successful. Another sector of Turkish involvement in Turkmenistan is in the field of education. In Turkey there are several thousand Turkmen students who get their education in different disciplines. Besides the education of university students in Turkey, the Turkish government and one private company, Baskent, have 20 schools in Turkmenistan. International Turkmen-Turkish University and most of the high schools are run by Baskent, which follows the religious community leader Fethullah Gulen. Turkey, which has serious energy supply shortages, has a well-known interest in Turkmen gas. But the region's political situation won�t allow for the construction of a gas pipeline for the time being.
Devlet Bahceli was welcomed by Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov very warmly. The Turkish newspaper �Sabah� printed on its front page -- and other newspapers like �Milliyet� and �Turkiye� printed on their interior pages -- photos of red roses spilled on the floor as Bahceli and Niyazov visited different sites. Turkmen President Niyazov asked Bahceli whether he was a Turkmen. When Bahceli answered that he is a Turkmen, Niyazov promised to present him a Turkmen passport as a gesture to his answer. Bahceli was the first foreigner allowed to attend the annual session of the Turkmen legislature. This was an important event, as Niyazov announced in the same session that he would leave presidential office no later than 2010. In his turn Vice Premier Bahceli greeted the Turkmen Flag Day and congratulated Niyazov on his birthday.
Bahceli also said �The scholars had come to the conclusion that the father of Turks were the first people who tamed horses, invented the wheel, created states. The four-thousand-year Turkish history shows us that when Turks were able to preserve their identity, help each other, keep the unity in language, thought, and work, they were in leading positions in science, arts, politics, and military forces. We Turkmens and Turks belong to the same nation, which have two different states.�
But the visit of Turkish Vice Premier Bahceli was clouded by political developments in Turkey. On 19 February at the National Security Council meeting, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit had a quarrel, and Ecevit left the meeting. After this unusual, rather weird political situation, accusations came from both sides and had a very disturbing effect on Turkish society and especially to its economic life. When Bahceli received this news he immediately wanted to return to Turkey, but Prime Minister Ecevit told him to finish his visit to Turkmenistan as it had been previously planned. Certainly this political and economic development in Turkey was a shock for Mr. Bahceli and journalists could see he was upset. He told the Turkish journalists that the accusations of the Turkish president were not fair, because the government had discovered at least 27 serious cases of corruption.
Because of interior development in Turkey, the Turkish press didn�t pay much attention to the second and third days of Bahceli�s visit. In short, in spite of the Turkish interior political crisis, the official visit of the Turkish vice premier to Turkmenistan could be considered as an important development in the relations between Ashgabat and Ankara. (RFE/RL Turkmen Service)
Turkmen President Preparing To Stand Down?
21 February 2001
By Sebastian Alison
The Turkmen president�s decision to stand down and hold elections in nine years� time may seem encouraging but does not necessarily mean he will leave office, Western diplomats say.
The announcement also appeared to be the first official statement that presidential elections scheduled for next year in this former Soviet Central Asian state have been cancelled, even though this had been widely predicted.
�You gave me authority as the first president to serve without limit to provide stability at the initial stage of our country�s development, but I�m not going to be president always,� Saparmurat Niyazov told the People�s Council on 18 February.
�I want to leave this position while I�m alive, and see a sober-minded, intelligent person lead the country,� he said in a speech televised in Turkmen and translated into English by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
�Let�s have the elections in 2010, it will be right to do so.�
The OSCE�s ambassador in Turkmenistan, Istvan Venczel, told Reuters that in December 1999 the People�s Council offered Niyazov, usually known as Turkmenbashi, or Head of the Turkmen, the right to remain president for life if he chose.
But he said Turkmenbashi had never formally announced his plans, which meant that at least in theory elections scheduled for 2002 were still due to go ahead.
�According to my understanding, as of Sunday these elections have now been cancelled,� Venczel said.
He said it could be seen as encouraging that Turkmenbashi was talking of holding elections at all.
�He is reconfirming a commitment for a democratic transition, and he spoke not only about the presidency but about a multi-party system. At least he is speaking about a commitment which Turkmenistan, like all members of the OSCE, has agreed to.�
Venczel added that the OSCE -- Europe�s main watchdog on security and rights issues -- had been sharply critical in 1999 when Turkmenbashi was offered the presidency for life.
Another Western diplomatic source in Ashgabat said Sunday�s announcement was nothing new.
�He has in the past referred to 2010 as being (the time) when political reform may be possible, but not before, as until then the country would not be economically stable enough,� he told Reuters.
He added that a national economic program, effectively a second 10-year plan, was published in 1999 and entitled �The strategy of socio-economic developments in Turkmenistan for the period up to 2010.�
He was also doubtful that Turkmenbashi, who became head of the Turkmen Communist Party in 1985 and the first president of independent Turkmenistan in 1991, would want to stand down as he says he does if still in office in 2010.
�He has made claims in the past which have not always been carried through,� the diplomat said.
The OSCE�s Venczel said he believed Turkmenbashi was sincere in not wanting to carry on after 2010, when he will be 70, not least as he underwent bypass surgery in 1997 and there were still question marks over his health.
He added that greater political flexibility, in a country where Turkmenbashi now enjoys extremely wide powers, was imperative if the impoverished state�s economy was to grow.
�If economic development is to accelerate, it should accompany political transparency. If private business is to get stronger, it won�t tolerate such a rigid system.� (Reuters)
Rights Groups: Turkmenistan Represses Non-Traditional Religions
By Jean-Christophe Peuch
Human rights organizations are expressing growing concern over persistent attacks on religious freedom in the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan.
Earlier this month, the London-based Amnesty International organization issued an alert that urged Turkmen authorities to release Baptist Christian Shagildy Atakov, who is being held in a labor camp in northeastern Turkmenistan.
A father of five, Atakov was fined 12,000 dollars and sentenced to two years in a labor camp in March 1999 on charges of fraud connected with his automobile business. His sentence was later increased to four years.
But Amnesty International believes that the case was fabricated and that the real reason for Atakov�s imprisonment is his religious affiliation. Atakov�s wife and children have been placed under house arrest in a small village close to the Iranian border.
Anna Sunder-Plassman deals with South Caucasus and Central Asia affairs for Amnesty International. She says Atakov�s health has substantially deteriorated in the past few weeks as a result of ill treatment:
�[Atakov] is believed to be in imminent danger of dying in custody. There are reports that he has bruises all over his body, that he was inappropriately treated with psychotropic drugs, and that he frequently loses consciousness. Recently his family visited him in the labor camp and he said that he didn�t expect to live. He said goodbye to his wife.�
Baptist, Adventist, and Pentecostal communities first appeared in Central Asia following persecutions ordered by Moscow against religious minorities in the early years of the Soviet regime and under Stalinism. Representatives of these groups settled down in the region after they were released from labor camps, where they had usually served long sentences.
Vitaly Ponomaryov chairs the Central Asia Program at the Moscow-based Memorial human rights group. He told RFE/RL that, of all religious communities in Turkmenistan, only Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians are not facing harassment and imprisonment.
�Turkmenistan is the only CIS country where all faiths other than Orthodoxy and Islam are banned. Moreover, the authorities closed half of the country�s mosques in 1997 and religious life is tightly controlled by the government. In any case, the activities [of religious communities] is entirely controlled by the presidential apparatus, which sees the existence of other religious tendencies in Turkmenistan as a threat to the unity of Turkmen society and, therefore, is reinforcing coercive measures [against them].�
Internal and external exile is another means used by Turkmen authorities in their attempts to stem the spread of banned religious communities. Ponomaryov says scores of religious activists have been deported in the past few years.
In November 1999, Turkmen authorities ordered the razing of a Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the capital Ashgabat without prior notice. The decision followed a similar attack on a Hare Krishna temple.
Turkmenistan�s Constitution provides for freedom of religion, but attacks on minority religious groups have been common practice since the country gained independence in 1991.
Under Turkmen law, religious organizations must prove that they have at least 500 citizens over the age of 18 as adherents to gain official recognition. In addition, all of the faithful must live in the same city or town. This double requirement has prevented all but Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians from attaining legal status. Ethnic Russians are estimated to comprise between 7 and 9 percent of the country�s population.
Turkmen officials argue that the 500-strong quota is needed to keep Islamic fundamentalism at bay and to keep track of all religious communities. Authorities have repeatedly promised that provisions of the law on religion would be reconsidered, but the requirement of 500 signatures has remained unchanged. Religious communities without legal status are forbidden to hold meetings or to distribute religious literature. And because Turkmenistan has no law on alternative civilian service, young men who refuse to serve in the army out of religious conviction are sent to jail as deserters.
Memorial�s Ponomaryov says he believes about 10 religious activists are currently serving jail sentences. But Sunder-Plassman of Amnesty says precise information is very difficult to come by.
�The government in Turkmenistan is extremely intolerant of dissent, and most members of the political opposition and human rights defenders are outside the country. Therefore, it is very, very difficult to obtain information about the human rights situation in Turkmenistan, and people inside the country are often afraid to pass on information because they fear persecution in case they are identified as a source. So it is very, very difficult to give any exact information on numbers of people who are in prison for their political or religious belief.�
A modest revival of Islam has taken place in Turkmenistan since 1991. President Saparmurad Niyazov has ordered that basic principles of Islam be taught in schools, but the teaching of Islam remains under strict government control and has been totally banned from mosques.
Ponomaryov says only one Muslim theological seminary (medrese) remains open in Turkmenistan and that authorities have forbidden the distribution of Islamic religious literature printed out of the country.
Last year, Turkmen authorities arrested Khodzha Ahmed Orazgylych, an Islamic cleric whose interpretation of the Koran had been questioned by Niyazov.
Members of the Shiite Muslim minority also face harassment and many of them have been deported from the country.
Ponomaryov says Turkmen authorities are trying to turn representatives of religious minorities into apostates or to force them into exile.
�Since approximately 1996, Turkmen authorities have exerted pressure on religious minorities by filing criminal cases against them. Today this is a rather widespread phenomenon, and it seems to me that the aim of the authorities is to �break� the leaders of these religious minorities and force them to renounce their faith or to leave the country.�
Amnesty International says Baptist Atakov should have been released in December under a presidential amnesty that marked the end of the Ramadan holy feast. Memorial believes he was not included in the amnesty because he had refused to renounce his faith and pledge allegiance to Niyazov. (RFE/RL)