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Russia Rejected Turkmen Activist's Asylum Request, Deported Him To Turkey, Group Says

Rozgeldy Choliev spent three weeks in a Moscow airport waiting for a response to his asylum request.

The Memorial human rights organization says Russian authorities have rejected an asylum request filed by a Turkmen known for his public criticism of the regime in Ashgabat and deported him to Turkey.

Memorial said on March 24 that 27-year-old Rozgeldy Choliev, who spent three weeks in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport after he arrived there from Istanbul waiting for a response, was deported to Turkey accompanied by Russian police officers the previous day.

According to the Moscow-based rights group, Choliev faces possible extradition from Turkey to Turkmenistan, where he most likely will be persecuted for his public criticism of the isolated Central Asian state's government.

After complications over the lack of a COVID test, Turkish authorities allowed Choliev to enter the country, Memorial says, adding that there had been no communication with him at this point.

"It is worth noting in this regard that during the three weeks of Choliev's stay at Sheremetyevo, none of the Russian government agencies, including those responsible for working with refugees, took any part in issues related to providing him with food, accommodation, or access to fresh air, " Memorial's statement said.

Choliev was detained by Russian immigration police on his arrival from Istanbul in Moscow on March 2, although he had a valid Russia visa in his passport. He remained at the airport's immigration section until being deported.

Russian authorities were reluctant to accept his request for asylum and did so only after Choliev issued a video statement on March 7 asking Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene in the situation.

"You are the president of Russia and there is law in Russia that works, while in Turkmenistan it doesn't," Choliev said in his address to Putin.

Choliev studied at a university in the Russian North Caucasus region of Karachai-Cherkessia, where he was admitted in 2018. In 2020, he was expelled after he published articles on the Internet criticizing the Turkmen government.

His relatives in Turkmenistan, which is tightly controlled by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, also faced pressure at the time.

Government critics and human rights groups say Berdymukhammedov has suppressed dissent and made few changes in the secretive country since he came to power after the death of his authoritarian predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, in 2006.

According to Human Rights Watch, Berdymukhammedov, "his relatives, and their associates control all aspects of public life and the authorities encroach on private life."

Choliev, whose wife and child are in Karachai-Cherkessia, tried to come to Russia in November, but Russian airline Aeroflot did not allow him to board the plane.

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Turkmenistan's First Lady Appears In The Media For The First Time

Ogulgerek Berdymukhammedova is seen at far right in this photo that appeared in Turkish media, along her husband, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (second from right), Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan (second from left), and his wife, Emine Erdogan.

The first lady of Turkmenistan, Ogulgerek Berdymukhammedova, has appeared in the media for the first time since her husband took over the extremely secretive and isolated Central Asian country in December 2006 after the death of his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov.

Turkish media published a photo of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, along with their spouses, during Erdogan’s visit to Ashgabat over the weekend.

Media reports in Turkey mentioned Emine Erdogan, the Turkish president's wife, but did not mention Berdymukhammedova's name, only noting her as Berdymukhammedov's spouse.

Media in Turkmenistan did not publish the photo of the two presidents with their wives, which was taken on November 27 during a banquet in Ashgabat.

Ogulgerek Berdymukhammedova has never been shown on TV or in any other media; Berdymukhammedov is regularly shown on TV alone.

Berdymukhammedov has ruled the Central Asian state with an iron hand, tolerating little dissent.

In the rare family pictures actually shown on media outlets in Turkmenistan, Berdymukhammedov is often accompanied by his son, daughters, and grandchildren but never by his wife, whose background had never been made public.

With reporting by SonDakika, IHA, and Beyazgazete

Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan Sign Agreement On Gas Swap, Iranian Media Report

Iranian Oil Minister Javad Owji told state media that, under the terms of the deal, Iran will receive gas from Turkmenistan and deliver the same amount to Azerbaijan. (file photo)

Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan have signed a trilateral gas swap deal for up to 2 billion cubic meters per year, Iranian media reported.

The agreement was signed on November 28 in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, on the sidelines of a regional economic summit.

Under the swap deal – which boosts an existing agreement – Iran will receive gas from Turkmenistan and deliver the same amount to Azerbaijan, Iranian Oil Minister Javad Owji told Iranian state media.

"Turkmenistan will sell 5-6 million cubic meters of gas per day to Azerbaijan under the trilateral agreement," Iranian state TV quoted Owji as saying.

Owji also said Iran was moving to resolve a lingering gas debt dispute with Turkmenistan. Ashgabat claimed in 2016 that Iran owed at least $1.5 billion for gas it had received from Turkmenistan. Iran disputed the figure.

"We will soon pay the first installment to clear the gas debt that we owe to the Turkmen side, after talks that were held earlier," Owji said, without giving the amount of the debt.

Iran has the world's second largest reserves of natural gas after Russia. With most of its major gas fields located in the country’s south, Iran has imported natural gas from neighboring Turkmenistan since 1997 for distribution in its northern provinces, especially during the winter.

The new deal was signed on the sidelines of the summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization. The organization comprises all five Central Asian countries --Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- as well as Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey.

Based on reporting by Reuters, TASS, Mehrnews.com

Turkey, Turkmenistan Vow To Boost Trade Ahead Of ECO Summit

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (center-right) and his wife, Ogulgerek, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (center-left) and his spouse, Ernine, in Ashgabat on November 27.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Turkmenistan for talks on November 27 with his counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, and to attend a summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) on November 28.

During his meetings with Berdymukhammedov, Erdogan signed a joint agreement on trade, focusing on energy, culture, and education.

Erdogan told journalists that both countries were committed to increasing bilateral trade, which currently has a volume of some $5 billion.

On November 28, Erdogan will attend the 15th ECO leaders' summit. The ECO comprises all five Central Asian countries (Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan), as well as Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey.

Erdogan was scheduled to hold unspecified bilateral talks with the heads of other ECO member countries.

Based on reporting by TRTWorld and Hurriyet

Turkmen Leader Puts Son In Charge Of Oil-And-Gas Sector

Serdar Berdymukhammedov is seen as being groomed by his father to take power.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has put his son Serdar in charge of the country's oil-and-gas sector, in the latest sign that the authoritarian leader could be grooming the 40-year-old to succeed him some day.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov is already a lawmaker and deputy prime minister for economic affairs under his father's administration.

Critics say his rise is part of a plan to entrench a dynasty atop Turkmenistan, whose fuel exports help fuel massive vanity projects and luxurious lifestyles for a tiny number of politically connected elites.

The elder Berdymukhammedov has kept a tight lid on dissent in the post-Soviet Central Asian state since taking over under shady circumstances following the death in 2006 of longtime dictator Saparmurat Niyazov.

Many of Turkmenistan's 6 million people live in poverty, with food rationing and a state-controlled network of shops dominating essentials despite a massive industry based on its location atop one of the world's largest reserves of natural gas.

A state-controlled newspaper, Neutral Turkmenistan, reported that the president instructed Serdar Berdymukhammedov at a meeting of officials on November 25 to oversee the oil-and-gas complex.

Hydrocarbon sales are among Turkmenistan's most lucrative sources of revenue, and it ranks fourth globally by gas supplies.

But human rights group Crude Accountability and other observers say up to around 80 percent of the funds from gas sales go into a private economy dominated by elite connections, allegedly including personal accounts linked to the Berdymukhammedov family.

The younger Berdymukhammedov has effectively been in charge of the country's woeful economy since February.

Last week, local reports suggested the authorities were reducing rations and further curbing subsidies to a heavily dependent population by laying preparations for cutting of the sale of subsidized foods to the families of convicted criminals or stateless people residing in the former Soviet republic.

He has served in a staggering number of posts, including deputy foreign minister, deputy governor and then later governor of the province surrounding the capital, Ashgabat, minister of industry, and a member of the State Security Council.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov is officially described as "the son of the people," and his public appearances with his father a "symbol of the continuity of generations."

EU Delegation Discusses Cooperation, Situation In Afghanistan With Central Asian Nations

Josef Borrell (right), the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, is leading the bloc's delegation in Dushanbe on November 22.

DUSHANBE -- A high-level EU delegation has held talks in the Tajik capital with foreign ministers from Central Asia to discuss issues such as regional cooperation, human rights, and the situation in neighboring Afghanistan. Turkmenistan was represented by a deputy foreign minister.

After the 17th EU-Central Asia ministerial meeting was held behind closed doors in Dushanbe on November 22, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said recent developments in Afghanistan, where the Taliban took control over the country in August, require new approaches to the issue of security in Central Asia.

He also expressed hope that relations between the EU and the five countries of Central Asia -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- will intensify further in the future.

"Resilience, prosperity & supporting regional cooperation -- these are the priorities set out in the EU-Central Asia Strategy, which remain today more relevant than ever to guide our regional engagement for post-pandemic recovery," he said in a tweet.

Afghanistan, Human Rights, Energy, COVID-19 On Agenda At EU-Central Asia Meeting
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In a joint communique issued by the EU after the talks, the participants “reaffirmed their joint commitment to forge a strong, ambitious and forward-looking partnership, as well as “the importance of progressing on the rule of law, democracy, governance, gender equality and universal human rights” in a region where governments are often criticized by human rights groups for their repressive policies.

The participants vowed to intensify cooperation between the EU and Central Asia in areas such as the fight against terrorism, organized crime, human trafficking, and migrant smuggling.

They also “expressed shared concern about the regional repercussions of developments in Afghanistan, “stressed the importance of preventing the Afghan territory from being used as a base for hosting, financing or exporting terrorism to other countries,” and called for the establishment of an “inclusive and representative” government in Kabul.

According to the United Nations, millions in Afghanistan may face famine, with almost all the population living in poverty as the economy collapses following the Taliban takeover.

Last month, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said the EU plans to provide Afghanistan with a 1 billion euro ($1.2 billion) support package.

Ahead of the Dushanbe meeting, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the EU to press Central Asian governments to end rights violations and engage in meaningful reform at a time when the crisis in Afghanistan is high on the agenda, with security and migration dominating public engagement by the bloc and some European governments with the region.

In a statement on November 19, the New York-based human rights watchdog noted that “promises of reforms have stalled or backtracked in countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, while Tajikistan and Turkmenistan’s repressive human rights records have continued to worsen.”

Turkmenistan To Reportedly Cut Access To Subsidized Food As Woes Deepen

People wait in line for subsidized food at a state grocery in the Lebap region.

ASHGABAT -- Turkmen families who have relatives working abroad may have their subsidized food rations cut from next year as the country struggles with an acute shortage of foodstuffs and a spike in inflation.

Employees at several state stores selling subsidized food in the eastern region of Lebap and sources close to such stores told RFE/RL on November 19 that they had also been instructed by local authorities in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic to halt the sales of subsidized food to the families of people serving time in penitentiaries and to stateless persons residing in the country.

They added that families with a member serving in the armed forces and war veterans will be given priority for subsidized foodstuffs. In addition, families who are indebted to local utilities will be denied the right to buy food in the subsidized stores.

According to the stores' employees and sources, the instructions were given during a session of the local trade directorate on November 18.

Neither local government officials in Lebap nor the minister of trade and economic ties were available for immediate comment on the report.

Individuals working at subsidized food stores confirmed to RFE/RL that they had to cut the rations because supplies to the stores had been reduced.

Despite being home to the world's fourth-largest proven natural-gas reserves, corruption and chronic mismanagement of resources have led the country into an economic tailspin.

The situation has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which the Turkmen government officially denies.

RFE/RL correspondents reported on November 18 that authorities in the Keshi district in Ashgabat, the capital, announced that they were changing the allocation of subsidized food rations for 10 days, limiting the deliveries to one per dwelling instead of basing them on the number of families living in a residence.

Most private homes in the district house three or more generations, with residents living with their elderly parents and the families of their grown-up children and grandchildren.

Residents have complained that the subsidized food rations for 10 days include only 1 liter of sunflower or cottonseed oil, 1 kilogram of sugar, two chicken legs, and up to 15 eggs. This, they say, is barely enough for some extended families for two days, let along for five times that.

In another district in the capital, Parakhat-7, sunflower and cottonseed oil was taken off of the list of subsidized food from November 1.

Government critics and human rights groups say President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has suppressed dissent and made few changes since he came to power after the death of autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov.

Like his late predecessor, Berdymukhammedov has relied on providing people with subsidized goods and utilities to help maintain his grip on power.

The country has seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who rely on subsidized food as prices at state grocery stores rise.

According to Human Rights Watch, Berdymukhammedov, "his relatives, and their associates control all aspects of public life, and the authorities encroach on private life."

Watchdog Raises Alarm Over Fate Of Missing Turkmen Activist

Turkmen opposition activist Azat Isakov, who has lived in Russia for many years, had publicly criticized Turkmenistan’s “extraordinarily repressive” government.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging Turkmenistan to provide information about the whereabouts of a human rights activist who went missing in Russia last month, saying he was likely a victim of an enforced disappearance by the Turkmen security services.

“There were “many unanswered questions around [Azat] Isakov’s removal from Russia to Turkmenistan, but there is no reason to doubt that he is now in Turkmen detention, yet another victim of an enforced disappearance,” meaning that Turkmenistan’s authorities are concealing information about his detention and fate, the New York-based human rights watchdog said in a statement on November 18.

The 37-year-old Isakov, who has resided in Russia for many years, publicly criticized Turkmenistan’s “extraordinarily repressive” government in 2020 over its handling of the aftermath of a disastrous hurricane in his home region.

A Turkmen opposition activist in Moscow, Chemen Ore, raised concern about his fate in early November, saying he had gone missing on October 20 and may have been deported to Turkmenistan where he would face an arbitrary arrest and torture.

Last week, Russia's Interior Ministry denied that Isakov was deported, saying he had left Moscow for Turkmenistan on his own will.

However, HRW cited multiple sources as saying Isakov had lost his passport and had repeatedly said he had no desire to return to the Central Asian country.

The group noted that the Turkmen government “severely punishes all dissent, and there are many grim examples of people being imprisoned for daring to criticize the authorities.”

"Turkmen security services repeatedly threatened Isakov’s family, pressuring them to get him to stop his activism," it also said.

The statement cited Ore as saying she had learned through informal channels that Isakov is in the Turkmen security services’ custody but she had received no further information from these sources over the past three days.

The U.S. administration and the European Union should urge Turkmen authorities to “immediately confirm Isakov’s whereabouts and free him,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the HRW's Europe and Central Asia Division.

EU Urged To Address Central Asian Rights Abuses At Upcoming Meeting Of Foreign Ministers

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (file photo)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on the European Union to press Central Asian governments to end rights violations and engage in meaningful reform at a time when the crisis in Afghanistan is high on the agenda following the Taliban takeover of the war-torn country in mid-August.

The New York-based human rights watchdog issued the call ahead of a November 22 EU-Central Asia meeting in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, where EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is set to meet with the foreign ministers from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

“Some Central Asian countries are playing an important part in the global response to the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan, but domestic human rights concerns are also central,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW, said in a statement.

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The Afghan crisis “poses new challenges in the region, and respect for human rights and the rule of law must be key ingredients in dealing [with] these issues.”

The EU adopted a new strategy for Central Asia in 2019 setting objectives for human rights protection in the region.

However, issues regarding security and migration have dominated public engagement by the EU and some European governments with Central Asia in recent months, HRW said.

This comes at a time when promises of reforms have stalled or backtracked in countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, while Tajikistan and Turkmenistan’s repressive human rights records have continued to worsen, according to the group.

In Tajikistan, HRW said, the authorities “harass and imprison” government critics, as well as foreign-based dissidents and their family members within the country. Access to critical websites remain blocked, while human rights groups “routinely face harassment.”

In Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most repressive and closed countries, dozens of people remain victims of enforced disappearances, and no independent civil-society groups or media are allowed to operate. As the authorities continue to claim that the country is COVID free, they retaliate against people who openly demand access to information about the pandemic.

Kazakhstan, whose president -- Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev – is set to visit Brussels on November 25-26, has adopted new laws on peaceful assembly and trade unions. But peaceful protesters and supporters of banned opposition movements are still being detained, fined, and prosecuted, while independent trade unions are facing “serious obstacles” to register and operate, HRW said.

There have been a number of “problematic” legislative actions by Kyrgyzstan’s caretaker parliament, including a law imposing “unnecessary financial reporting requirements on nongovernmental groups and another overly broad bill penalizing ‘false’ information,” HRW said. Several provisions of the country’s constitutional reform also contradict international human rights norms, the group said.

In Uzbekistan, the reelection of President Shavkat Mirziyoev to a second term, with no real opposition candidates allowed to run, coincided with “clear setbacks” on the country’s human rights record, the group said.

Authorities harassed political opposition figures ahead of the presidential election and targeted outspoken and critical bloggers, as independent human rights groups continued to be denied registration.

Subsidized Food Rations Cut In Turkmen Capital Amid Shortages, Price Hikes

A market in Ashgabat. (file photo)

ASHGABAT -- Authorities in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, have cut subsidized food rations for residents amid acute shortages and rising prices.

RFE/RL correspondents report that, according to the new regulations, a subsidized food ration for 10 days will be allocated per house in the capital's Keshi district, a lowering of the allotment from the previous level, which was determined by the number of families residing in the dwelling.

The majority of private houses in the district are homes of three or more generations with residents living along with their elderly parents and the families of their grown-up children and grandchildren.

Residents complained that the subsidized food ration for 10 days includes only 1 liter of sunflower or cottonseed oil, 1 kilogram of sugar, two chicken legs, and up to 15 eggs -- barely enough, they say, for some extended families for two days.

In another district in the capital, Parakhat-7, sunflower and cottonseed oil was taken off the list of subsidized food from November 1.

Individuals working at subsidized food stores confirmed to RFE/RL that they had to cut the ration because food supplies to the stores had been lowered.

The cut in food supplies comes amid the dire economic situation in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic, marked by rising unemployment, food and medicine shortages, and overdue salaries and pensions.

Government critics and human rights groups say President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has suppressed dissent and made few changes since he came to power after the death of autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov.

Like his late predecessor, Berdymukhammedov has relied on providing citizens with subsidized goods and utilities to help maintain his grip on power.

The country has seen a dramatic increase in the number of individuals who rely on subsidized food as prices at state grocery stores rise.

Turkmenistan boasts the world's fourth-largest proven natural-gas reserves but has been mired in an economic slump worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, which the Turkmen government officially denies.

According to Human Rights Watch, Berdymukhammedov, "his relatives, and their associates control all aspects of public life, and the authorities encroach on private life."

U.S. Lawmakers Urge Turkmen President To Release Political Prisoners

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov attends a summit of the Organization of Turkic States in Istanbul on November 12.

A group of U.S. lawmakers have urged Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the authoritarian president of Turkmenistan, to release political prisoners in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.

U.S. Senators Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy, and Sherrod Brown and U.S. Representative Tom Malinowski sent the letter to Berdymukhammedov calling on him to release journalist Nurgeldy Halykov, physician Khursanai Ismatullaeva, and activist Gulgeldy Annaniyazov.

"We write with interest as Turkmenistan pursues an ambitious agenda under your administration to join international institutions, including the WTO, and highlight its economy to the world. Such welcome efforts to participate further in the global economy will undoubtedly be strengthened by further attention to your country’s human rights record," the lawmakers wrote in the letter, dated November 16.

The authors of the letter emphasized that although Annaniyazov was released from prison recently after serving 13 years, "he remains in remote and poor conditions, and his full unconditional release seems long overdue."

The lawmakers also wrote that journalist Halykov's arrest and sentencing to four years in prison last year for reposting a photo of a visiting World Health Organization mission "reinforces the image that people in Turkmenistan do not have freedom of expression."

The letter also calls on Berdymukhammedov to release Ismatullaeva, a noted physician who was dismissed in 2017 and then handed a lengthy prison term on corruption charges the day after the case of her dismissal following a sick leave was discussed in the European Parliament.

Berdymukhammedov has ruled the extremely isolated and secretive Central Asian state with an iron hand, tolerating little dissent, since he came to power after the death of autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006.

U.S. State Department Adds Russia To Register Of World's 'Worst Violators' Of Religious Freedom

For decades, religious minorities like Jehovah's Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. State Department has officially added Russia to its register of the world's “worst violators” of religious freedom, a list that includes Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and five other countries.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan, independent body created by Congress to make recommendations about global religious freedom, proposed in its annual report released on April 21 that Russia, India, Syria, and Vietnam be put on the "countries of particular concern" list, a category reserved for those countries that carry out "systematic, ongoing, and egregious" violations of religious freedoms.

On November 17, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that, of those four countries, he would be adding Russia to the list. Neither India, Syria, or Vietnam were designated as “countries of particular concern.”

The blacklisting paves the way for sanctions if the countries included do not improve their records.

The State Department added four countries to its special watch list, meaning there are still "severe" violations of religious freedom there, including Algeria, Comoros, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

The State Department did not follow through on USCIRF’s recommendation to add Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to the list.

5 Things To Know About The Jehovah's Witnesses In Russia
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“We will continue to press all governments to remedy shortcomings in their laws and practices, and to promote accountability for those responsible for abuses,” Blinken said in a November 17 statement.

In its April report, the USCIRF said that “religious freedom conditions in Russia deteriorated” last year, with the government targeting religious minorities deemed as “nontraditional” with fines, detentions, and criminal charges.

For decades, religious minorities like Jehovah's Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.

A total of 188 criminal cases alone were brought against the banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, while there were 477 raids and searches of members’ homes, with raids and interrogations including “instances of torture that continue to go uninvestigated and unpunished,” the April report said.

Russia has continued to crack down on Jehovah’s Witnesses since then.

A court in the southwestern city of Astrakhan on October 26 sentenced four Jehovah’s Witnesses to lengthy prison terms for creating or taking part in an extremist group.

Earlier that month, a court in the southern city of Krasnodar sentenced a 59-year-old disabled Jehovah’s Witness to four years in prison for holding a Bible study with fellow believers.

Turkmenistan Tightens Control Of Information As Economic Situation Worsens

People buy bread in the eastern Turkmen city of Turkmenabat.

ASHGABAT -- For many ordinary residents of the capital of Turkmenistan, a new day starts by standing in a long line for subsidized bread at a state-owned grocery store.

The lines in Ashgabat and other cities across this mainly desert country can last for hours as the shops wait to get fresh supplies -- and sometimes shortages send people home empty-handed.

Brawls even occasionally break out between people trying to get their hands on the last loaf of bread or another affordable staple that is in short supply in the energy-rich country.

But the authoritarian government in Turkmenistan doesn't want the outside world to see these images of people struggling with poverty and economic hardship.

Ashgabat police are detaining people who use their smartphones while waiting in line, fearing they might take photos or videos to post on social media or send to someone abroad.

"Officers closely follow people who have mobile phones. If they even remotely suspect that someone is filming the queue, officers detain them and take them to the police station for questioning," an Ashgabat resident told RFE/RL on November 12.

The resident spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, as dissent in the tightly controlled state is not tolerated.

Images the government doesn't want to get out: People wait in line for subsidized food in Ashgabat.
Images the government doesn't want to get out: People wait in line for subsidized food in Ashgabat.

According to one police source, plainclothes police sometimes stand in line to make sure others don't take photos or videos.

Food shortages and price hikes that began about five years ago show no sign of abating as they push more people in the Central Asian country into poverty. But instead of working to fix the economy, the hard-line government in Ashgabat is only stepping up control on people's access to information.

The authorities are trying to contain the message coming out of Turkmenistan about people's hardships while also blocking any information coming from abroad that is critical of the Turkmen government.

In their bid to "hide" the problem and make the lines look smaller in case someone might record the scene, police in some districts allow only five to 10 people at a time to stand in a line behind the store, an Ashgabat resident said.

"The others are ordered to stay further away and to be unnoticeable," he said. "When the first group of people leave the shop then the officers let the other group go in."

Videos secretly filmed by RFE/RL correspondents in Ashgabat show dozens of local residents -- including women carrying young children -- gathering near government stores in the early morning.

People rush into the shops when they open at 5:30 a.m. in an attempt to get ahead of each other.

For many it is worth the effort: a loaf of subsidized bread costs between $0.30 and $0.60 according to the official exchange rate. The bread is about 10 times more expensive in bazaars and private bakeries.

The videos show customers leaving the shop carrying three loafs of bread each, the most allowed by a rationing system for government stores on a first come, first served basis.

Several residents told RFE/RL there are usually up to 100 people standing in line early in the mornings behind each government store selling other staples -- such as rice, chicken, and cooking oil -- at subsidized prices. But most of the affordable goods are in short supply and empty shelves are a common feature.

Citing regular customers, RFE/RL correspondents say daily bread supplies at most state grocery stores in Ashgabat are only enough for about 60 percent of the customers in line. The others leave with nothing, only to come back and wait again.

Don't Listen To Criticism

As the economic crisis worsens, Ashgabat has intensified a campaign against Turkmen activists abroad who talk about the economic woes in a country already plagued by widespread unemployment, corruption, and a lack of civil liberties.

In the province of Lebap, security services conducted meetings with residents to discuss what Ashgabat sees as anti-government propaganda by Turkmen activists and opposition members in exile.

Agricultural produce is put on display for Harvest Festival celebrations at an exhibition hall in Ashgabat on November 14.
Agricultural produce is put on display for Harvest Festival celebrations at an exhibition hall in Ashgabat on November 14.

One such meeting at the cultural center in the district of Farap on November 9 focused on the campaigns by eight political activists who hail from Lebap. Among those named in the meeting were Istanbul-based activist Dursoltan Taganova and France-based Murad Kurbanov, the leader of the opposition Democratic Choice of Turkmenistan movement.

"The meeting organizers -- from the security services and police -- told the gathering that they must not view these [activists'] videos on YouTube," said a Lebap resident who attended the meeting. "The officials said if the videos don't get many views the [activists] won't be able to make money on YouTube and they will then lose their source of income."

Several others at the Farap meeting said officials also urged people not to follow foreign media, including RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, which they called a U.S. propaganda tool. According to those participants at the meetings, security officials were particularly critical of the Turkmen Service's reports on the lines for subsidized bread.

Turkmenistan has already blocked many social media and independent news websites, though many Turkmen still reach them through virtual private networks. Turkmen officials have also in recent weeks slowed down the Internet speed across the country to further curb people's access to information.

State media, meanwhile, praised the country's "significant success" this year in harvesting agricultural products, including more than 1.4 million tons of wheat, ahead of national Harvest Day celebrations on November 14.

Written by Farangis Najibullah in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service correspondents in Ashgabat and Lebap

Majlis Podcast: The Effects Of Climate Change On Central Asia

A Kazakh villager carries a bucket of water from a well in a desert that once formed the bed of the Aral Sea. (file photo)

The nearly two-week COP26 world climate conference in Glasgow came to an end on November 12.

Kyrgyzstan’s president participated. So did the son of Turkmenistan’s president.

The effects of climate change have been felt in Central Asia for many years now, measured by shrinking glaciers in the region’s eastern mountains and the expanding desert areas in the lowlands.*

On this week's Majlis podcast, RFE/RL's media-relations manager, Muhammad Tahir, moderates a discussion on the signs of climate change in Central Asia and what the governments of the region are doing in response.

This week's guests are: from RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz bureau in Bishkek, Bakytgul Chynybaeva, who was covering the COP26 conference in Glasgow; also from Bishkek, independent journalist and environmental researcher Ryskeldi Satke; from Michigan State University, Professor Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author of the book Environmental Crises In Central Asia: From Steppes To Seas, From Deserts To Glaciers; and Bruce Pannier, the author of the Qishloq Ovozi blog.

The Effects Of Climate Change On Central Asia
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*RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service has produced a video on the shrinking glaciers in Kyrgyzstan that was shown at the COP26 international climate conference.

Moscow Says Missing Turkmen Opposition Activist Left Russia Willingly

Turkmen opposition activist Azat Isakov (file photo)

Russian authorities deny that they deported noted Turkmen opposition activist Azat Isakov, who for several years lived in Russia's Moscow region, saying that he left of his own accord for his native Turkmenistan where rights groups say he may face imprisonment and torture.

The Chronicles Of Turkmenistan website obtained an official letter from Russia's Interior Ministry saying that Isakov left Russia for the city of Turkmenabat in Turkmenistan on October 22 and recommending that Turkmen authorities should be contacted to ascertain his whereabouts.

Exiled opposition politician Chemen Ore voiced concern about Isakov last week, saying that the 37-year-old opposition activist had been missing since October 20.

Ore said at the time that Isakov might have been deported to Turkmenistan, adding that Turkmen authorities had threatened him and his relatives, who are still in Turkmenistan, with prosecution on unspecified charges.

According to the Chronicles Of Turkmenistan, Isakov may face arbitrary detention and torture in the extremely isolated and secretive former Soviet republic.

Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive countries in the world, with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ruling with an iron fist and allowing little dissent since he came to power after the death of autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006.

WHO Expresses Doubt Over Turkmenistan's Official COVID-Free Claim

Catherine Smallwood gives a briefing on the results of the visit of the WHO regional office for Europe mission to Turkmenistan in July 2020.

A senior official of the World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed doubts about Turkmenistan's denial of a coronavirus presence within its borders.

Catherine Smallwood, a WHO senior emergencies officer, told the BBC on November 8 that "from the scientific point of view, it's unlikely that the virus is not circulating in Turkmenistan."

Smallwood's comments represent the first public challenge by the WHO to Turkmenistan's claim that is COVID-free.

Turkmenistan has insisted that the country has no cases despite reports that hospitals are filling up with sick patients and deaths from suspected coronavirus cases are soaring across the country.

Smallwood said that the government of the tightly controlled former Soviet republic "has a long history of suppressing data and a long history of punishing people who expose the truth."

However, Smallwood told the BBC that the health body could not "call into question" whether a country was following its legal obligations to provide transparent information pertaining to global health crises.

Smallwood, who led the only official WHO coronavirus mission to Turkmenistan in July 2020, said it was more important to "build a dialogue" with countries.

While officially denying the presence of the coronavirus, Turkmen authorities have taken unprecedented health measures in an apparent attempt to prevent the spread of the disease.

Turkmenistan's government earlier this week extended restrictions usually imposed to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The measures requiring private shops and restaurants to close, and street vendors to cease their activities were set to end on November 1, but the authorities extended them for two weeks. Weddings, burials, or other ceremonies will also remain banned across the country.

After visiting Turkmenistan in 2020, Smallwood said her team had not seen or heard anything that would contradict the government's assertion that coronavirus does not exist in Turkmenistan.

However, Smallwood did recommend that the authorities take "critical public-health measures in Turkmenistan, as if COVID-19 was circulating" in the country.

With reporting by the BBC

Turkmenistan's Heir Apparent Makes Vague Pledges In Glasgow To Cut Methane Emissions

Deputy Prime Minister Serdar Berdymukhammedov takes part in celebrations for the national Turkmen Horse Day and the Turkmen Shepherd Dog Day near Ashgabat on April 25.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov sent his only son, Serdar, to Glasgow to represent Turkmenistan at the COP26 world climate conference.

Serdar is seemingly being groomed to take over from his father one day, so he has been making a lot of trips recently representing Turkmenistan. He was even an honorary coach of Turkmenistan's Olympic team in Tokyo this summer.

One might not think that Turkmenistan, a desert country with a population of some 5 million, would have a big impact on the climate.

But it actually does, because it's one of the largest emitters of methane gas in the world.

And according to the pro-Turkmen government website Business.com.tm, Serdar got right down to it, dedicating his speech at the conference to his country's methane emissions.

Serdar said on November 3 that his country paid special attention to reducing its methane emissions and welcomes the Global Methane Pledge, which he said Turkmenistan was interested in "studying."

Outsized Impact

For most of the delegates at the conference that statement probably did not mean much, but according to an October 19 report by Bloomberg: "In 2020, the International Energy Agency estimates that [Turkmenistan’s] overall methane emissions from oil and gas were behind only Russia and the U.S., both of which have significantly larger energy industries and populations."

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov visits the Ahalteke Equestrian Complex with Serdar in June.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov visits the Ahalteke Equestrian Complex with Serdar in June.

The report referred to data from the French firm Kayrros that indicated just how bad Turkmenistan's methane-gas problem is.

Kayrros uses satellites to monitor leaks from fossil-fuel facilities around the world. According to the Bloomberg report, Kayrros found that "of the 50 most severe methane releases at onshore oil and gas operations analyzed since 2019 by [Kayrros], Turkmenistan accounted for 31 of them."

Back in Glasgow, the Turkmen heir apparent said Turkmenistan "in the medium term plans to achieve zero growth of greenhouse emissions, starting in 2030," and he added, "in the long term -- annual significant reductions in emissions."

"Zero growth" on existing outputs that are already the third-worst in the world?

And there were no details about how much of a significant reduction will be made from current emission levels.

The Bloomberg report noted that just one leak at the Korpeje natural-gas field in Turkmenistan "had a climate impact roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of all the cars in Arizona."

Deny Everything

Serdar officially went to Glasgow as the deputy chairman of Turkmenistan's ministerial cabinet, which means he was speaking on behalf of the government when he made the pledges about methane reductions.

That is the same Turkmen government that continues to deny there has ever been even a single case of coronavirus in the country, despite heavy evidence to the contrary.

It is also the same Turkmen government that denies there are food shortages and mass unemployment in the country.

And the same Turkmen government that has still not acknowledged any methane leaks in the country and never did admit to Turkmenistan's oil industry polluting the Caspian Sea.

The Global Methane Pledge that Serdar Berdymukhammedov said his country was interested in "studying" is an initiative approved at this conference in Glasgow to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent before 2030.

It was signed by 103 countries -- but not by Turkmenistan.

Chinese Ripples: An Evolving Energy Crisis Takes Hold Across Eurasia As Winter Approaches 

An aerial view shows coal being loaded onto trucks near a coal mine in Datong in China's northern Shanxi Province on November 2.

Blackouts in Tajikistan, energy shortages in Ukraine, rising electricity costs across the Balkans, and short-term profits for state companies in Russia.

Those are some of the early ripple effects being felt across Eurasia from an accelerating global energy crisis caused by fuel shortages for power generation inside China and soaring prices across Europe that are affecting consumers and producers alike.

The deepening crisis taking hold across Europe and Asia also risks imperiling the global economy as it attempts to recover from the slowdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With winter approaching, the sudden energy crunch hitting the world is threatening already stressed supply chains, stirring geopolitical tensions, and raising questions about how ready the world is for a transition to greener forms of energy.

“The global energy price rally has affected economies all over the world, as the prices of oil, coal, and gas have risen,” Jack Sharples, an expert at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, told RFE/RL. “Furthermore, the energy crisis has exposed the inelasticity of our energy demand: Even with high prices, we keep consuming hydrocarbons because we have no readily available alternative.”

Chinese imports of coal from Russia have tripled compared to last year. The rising cost of natural gas has also given Moscow and Gazprom, its state-run gas company, additional leverage over Brussels as it pushes for final approvals for its new and controversial Baltic Sea gas pipeline to Germany, Nord Stream 2, which will bypass Ukraine.

China’s energy-producing neighbors, like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, have also seen a rise in demand for coal and gas, respectively, although those shipments have been slowed by logistical and production limits in delivering larger than planned quantities to China.

An employee checks a gas valve at the Atamanskaya compressor station, part of Gazprom's Power of Siberia gas pipeline, outside the Far Eastern town of Svobodny, in the Amur region of Russia. (file photo)
An employee checks a gas valve at the Atamanskaya compressor station, part of Gazprom's Power of Siberia gas pipeline, outside the Far Eastern town of Svobodny, in the Amur region of Russia. (file photo)

Elsewhere, North Macedonia’s government has held emergency meetings to address the unfolding crisis, announcing temporary funds to boost energy companies and introducing caps on electricity use for businesses.

Inside the European Union, disagreements over how to respond to the crisis are emerging, with some leaders asking the bloc for assistance and others -- like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban -- blaming the price hikes on the EU’s sweeping policies to combat climate change and reduce emissions.

“This energy crisis could affect how Brussels implements its flagship Green Deal climate policies, particularly the expansion of the EU’s emissions trading system,” Charles Dunst, an associate at Eurasia Group's Global Macro team, told RFE/RL. “The plans were already unpopular and the energy crisis is likely to [make any] support dwindle [even further] in the coming months.”

Origins Of An Energy Crisis

The current energy crunch first emerged in China, the world’s top manufacturer, as global demand for its products suddenly and unexpectedly shot upward this year as part of a post-pandemic economic surge.

Due to an unofficial Chinese ban on Australian coal, which had previously been the country’s top supplier, coal stocks were low. China’s electricity deficit was also added to by conflicting climate policies adopted within the country.

Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that China would be carbon-neutral by 2060, leaving regional governments in China scrambling to bring emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in line with the set limits. As a result, factories were left dealing with electricity rationing and power cuts.

With coal supplies dwindling at home, Chinese power companies also turned to the natural-gas market, leading to purchases at an even faster rate than traders in Europe had been anticipating and causing prices to soar.

A coal stacker in Russia’s Far East prepares shipments to customers in China, South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia.
A coal stacker in Russia’s Far East prepares shipments to customers in China, South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia.

“The energy crisis has disrupted production in China, which risks further slowing global supply chains ahead of the West’s busy Christmas shopping season and beyond,” Dunst said.

Natural-gas prices have since hit a series of record highs.

In Europe, the prospect of supply shortages is growing as demand is also rising across Asia, where buyers have been prepared to keep paying a premium and outbid their European counterparts.

That disparity is likely to intensify after China ordered state-backed companies in October to secure energy supplies no matter the cost. Since then, imports of coal and gas have continued to grow.

The move by China suggests that other parts of the world will face an even tougher time securing the fuel they need, Dunst said.

Crisis And Opportunity

Amid the flux in the global energy market, Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved to leverage his country’s vast energy reserves.

During the pandemic, overall gas exports to the EU from Russia -- which supplies about 50 percent of the bloc’s imports -- fell because there was less demand as economic activity shrank. Although it has picked up again in Europe, this downward trend has been continuing, with lower supplies this year. This has led to European stocks being depleted, which in turn is driving up prices.

Putin and Russian officials have urged Germany to speed up its regulatory approval of Nord Stream 2, suggesting that it would provide a long-term solution to the country’s energy problems.

Meanwhile, on Russia’s eastern front, energy companies have moved quickly to meet China’s growing demands, supplying three times as much coal this year to the country as during 2020, according to Chinese customs data.

Smoke belches from a coal-fueled power station near Datong in China's northern Shanxi Province. (file photo)
Smoke belches from a coal-fueled power station near Datong in China's northern Shanxi Province. (file photo)

“The current two-front energy crisis presents a short-term window of opportunity for Moscow to push for the realization of its energy projects in Europe under sanctions and to strengthen its position as energy supplier to China,” Vita Spivak, an analyst at the consulting firm Control Risks, told RFE/RL. “While the current crises appear to be mostly the result of post-coronavirus economic development, energy shortages might present themselves in the future as the world is trying to embark upon the ‘green transition.’”

Moscow has pivoted to supply China’s evolving energy needs with oil and gas accounting for more than 60 percent of Russian exports to China, a trend that could continue as China weans itself off coal and relies more on gas.

The Power of Siberia pipeline launched in 2019 already provides gas to China, with plans for its output to increase in the future. A second pipeline, Power of Siberia 2, is also under discussion.

In the meantime, Russia continues to have its attention on coal.

Moscow announced it would temporarily halt coal shipments to Ukraine starting on November 1, saying that it was needed for domestic consumption, despite increasing its exports to other countries.

Further down the line, Russia is also looking at how to ramp up its coal supplies to China and is currently investing $10 billion into railroad infrastructure in its Far East in order to meet future Chinese needs before the country progresses on its transition to alternative energy sources.

“In order to leverage its position, Moscow has to ensure the relevant energy export infrastructure is in place, which presents a challenge within this window of opportunity,” said Spivak. “Moscow realizes that the window of opportunity to sell its hydrocarbons to Europe and China is limited.”

Small Private Shops Shut Down In Ashgabat As Turkmen Authorities Continue To Deny Presence Of COVID

Women wearing protective face masks walk along the street in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat. (file photo)

ASHGABAT -- Small private shops in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, have been shut down apparently as a measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus although authorities in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic continue to deny the presence of COVID-19 within the country's borders.

Owners of shops located on the ground levels of apartment blocks in Ashgabat told RFE/RL's correspondents that they were instructed to suspend operations on November 1, right after the lockdown that lasted for more than two months was extended at least until mid-November.

The authorities gave no explanation for the decision, but local officials said they were aimed at preventing the spread of "contagious diseases."

The closure affects many Ashgabat residents who have bought food from the small private shops as larger private groceries and marketplaces have been shut down since August.

People can currently buy food only at state-controlled, subsidized stores with a limited choice of products.

Furthermore, the operations of "marshrutka" minibuses that connected the outskirts of the capital with the city center have been suspended as well as part of the lockdown.

In the eastern region of Lebap, the lockdown was extended at least until December. Mass gatherings, including wedding parties, traditional burials, or other ceremonies also remain banned across the country.

The restrictions were imposed in August as the situation with coronavirus-like diseases abruptly worsened and the number of fatalities rose to unprecedentedly high levels.

However, many vendors and shop owners have continued to sell goods in the streets, running away when police arrive to detain violators of the lockdown regime.

RFE/RL correspondents reported earlier that some vendors were bribing police officers to continue to sell groceries and other goods in the streets. In some cases, people are also bribing local officials or police officers in order to hold private gatherings.

Turkmenistan's government still clings to its narrative that the country has no cases of the coronavirus -- even though practically no one believes the claim.

People in different parts of the country have told RFE/RL that the bodies of those who have died of COVID-19-like lung diseases were being delivered to their relatives in special plastic bags and the number of fresh graves across the country was increasing exponentially.

On November 1, the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) recommended that U.S. citizens should not to travel to Turkmenistan.

"Because the current situation in Turkmenistan is unknown, even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants," the CDCP's recommendation said.

Watchdogs Call On Turkey To Halt Deportations To Turkmenistan, Citing 'Grave Risk Of Persecution'

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) and his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (file photo)

Dozens of human rights groups are calling on Turkey to halt plans to deport Turkmen activists to Turkmenistan, warning they could face persecution at home.

Turkmen activists residing in Turkey have faced increased pressure in recent months, with a number of reports suggesting some are being detained, placed in deportation facilities, and threatened with deportation to Turkmenistan.

“Taking into account that Turkmenistan has a long record of severely punishing peaceful critics of its government, forcibly returning activists to Turkmenistan would place them at grave risk of persecution, including a high risk of arbitrary arrest, torture, and even enforced disappearance in prisons,” 33 Turkmen and international human rights organizations said in a joint statement on November 2.

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Since last year, Turkmen citizens in Turkey have staged protests against authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s economic crisis, and restrictions on basic freedoms.

In recent years, Turkmenistan’s diplomatic missions have refused to renew and replace Turkmen citizens’ passports, instead forcing them to return to Turkmenistan in order to renew their Turkmen identity documents.

As a result of this policy, many Turkmen migrants cannot comply with the migration laws of the countries where they reside, including Turkey, according to the 33 human rights groups.

Travel restrictions introduced to stem the spread of the coronavirus have also exacerbated the problem, leaving thousands of Turkmen migrants with expired passports without access to employment, education, health care, and freedom of movement.

The situation prompted Turkmen migrants in Turkey to organize a group of civil activists who participated in peaceful rallies outside Turkmenistan’s diplomatic missions and shared their problems on social media.

Those who criticize Turkmen government policies have been subjected to threats, “presumably as a result of pressure from the Turkmen authorities or the law enforcement authorities of Turkey,” the human rights groups said.

In addition, there are reports that Turkmen supporters of Berdymukhammedov’s government have been threatening and attacking Turkmen civil activists in Turkey, as well as their family members in their homeland.

Turkmen authorities have also reportedly drawn up a list of 25 individuals and handed it to Turkey, in an apparent attempt to quash criticism by having them detained and deported, the rights groups said.

While Turkey has long been sympathetic toward Turkmen migrants and had not penalized them because of expired passports, the rights groups said the situation recently changed as Ankara seeks to get Turkmenistan to join the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States at the body’s next meeting in Istanbul on November 12.

Ahead of the meeting, “There has been an increasing number of reports of the arbitrary detention of Turkmen civil activists by the Turkish police, their placement in deportation facilities, and threats of their immediate deportation to Turkmenistan,” the rights groups said.

“Changes in the policy pursued by the Turkish authorities towards Turkey-based Turkmen activists have occurred, apparently, in response to requests by the Turkmen government, which seeks to put an end to its nationals’ civic activities abroad,” they said.

Turkmen Opposition Activist Missing In Russia

Activists Murat Ovezov (left) and Azat Isakov (combo photo)

Noted Turkmen opposition activist Azat Isakov, who for several years has lived in Russia's Moscow region, has been reported missing after mysteriously disappearing last month.

The Chronicles Of Turkmenistan website quoted the exiled opposition politician Chemen Ore as saying the 37-year-old Isakov had been missing since October 20.

Ore said that before his disappearance, Isakov sent him a message saying: "The police came. If they find me, they will take me away. I am hiding."

Russian police have not commented on the situation.

Ore added that Turkmen authorities had threatened Isakov and his relatives still inside Turkmenistan with prosecution on unspecified charges.

According to the Chronicles Of Turkmenistan, if deported to Ashgabat, Isakov may face arbitrary detention and torture.

Another website that focuses on developments in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic, Turkmen.news, reported on November 2 that vlogger Murat Ovezov, 48, who is known for his writings criticizing the Turkmen authorities for their ongoing refusal to acknowledge any coronavirus cases in the country, was sentenced to five years in prison on fraud charges more than a year ago.

The secretive authorities of the extremely isolated country rarely officially announce such cases.

Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive countries in the world, with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ruling with an iron fist and allowing little dissent since he came to power after the death of autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006.

With reporting by Turkmen.news and Chronicles Of Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan Talks TAPI Pipeline With Taliban, But Should Ashgabat Instead Be Looking To Send Gas To Europe?

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

Turkmenistan Says Kabul Backs TAPI Gas Pipeline Project

Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov (3rd left) and his delegation meet with Taliban Prime Minister Mullah Hassan Akhund in Kabul on October 30.

Turkmenistan says the Taliban-led government in neighboring Afghanistan has vowed to ensure the completion and security of a pipeline project to bring Turkmen natural gas to Pakistan and India via Afghan territory.

The 1,800-kilometer Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline is projected to run from the Galkynysh gas field in Turkmenistan to the Indian city of Fazilka, passing through Herat and Kandahar in Afghanistan and Quetta and Multan in Pakistan.

Turkmenistan has already built its segment of the pipeline, but it remains unclear when the remaining length of the pipeline will be built.

A Turkmen government delegation led by Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov visited Kabul over the weekend to discuss "close cooperation and constructive dialogue with the new state structures of Afghanistan," Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry said on November 1.

"In this regard, the sides expressed readiness of the two countries to further cooperation in promoting the construction of the projects Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) transnational gas pipeline, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) high-voltage power transmission line, and railroad lines from Turkmenistan to some provinces of Afghanistan," according to the ministry.

The statement quoted two top Taliban officials, Defense Minister Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob and Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi, as saying the new government was committed to ensuring security and launching joint national projects.

While no country has recognized the government set up by the Taliban following the hard-line Islamist group's takeover of Afghan in August, senior officials from a number of countries have met with the movement's leadership both in Kabul and abroad.

With reporting by Reuters

'Coronavirus-Free' Turkmenistan Extends Lockdown Measures

Many vendors and shop owners have continued to sell goods in the streets, running away when police arrive to detain violators of the lockdown regime.

ASHGABAT -- Authorities in Turkmenistan, where the government has yet to officially register a single case of coronavirus, have extended restrictions usually imposed to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The measures forcing private shops and restaurants to close and street vendors to cease their activities were set to end on November 1, but the authorities extended them for two weeks. Weddings, burials, or other ceremonies will also remain banned across the country.

The authorities gave no explanation for the decision, but local officials said they were aimed at preventing the spread of "contagious diseases."

The restrictions were imposed in August as the situation with coronavirus-like diseases abruptly worsened and the number of fatalities rose rapidly.

However, many vendors and shop owners have continued to sell goods in the streets, running away when police arrive to detain violators of the lockdown regime.

RFE/RL correspondents report that some vendors are bribing police officers to continue to sell groceries and other goods in the streets. In some cases, people are also bribing local officials or police officers in order to hold private gatherings.

Turkmenistan's government still clings to its narrative that the country has no cases of coronavirus -- even though practically no one believes them.

People in different parts of the country have told RFE/RL that the bodies of those who have died of COVID-19-like lung diseases were being delivered to their relatives in special plastic bags and the number of fresh graves across the country was increasing exponentially.

Majlis Podcast: Shortages On People's Minds As Central Asia Heads Into Winter

A young woman with her child begs amid heavy snow at a market in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. (file photo)

Temperatures are dropping in Central Asia, reminding everyone that winter is starting.

And this winter promises to be particularly challenging in the region.

Shortages of many essentials seem unavoidable.

There was drought this year, so food will be in shorter supply and the prices for many basic goods will be significantly higher.

The price of oil and natural gas have increased on world markets, so the cost of electricity and heating are going to rise in Central Asia.

And the region’s aging and dilapidated energy network has already shown signs of buckling under the pressure of high demand during periods of cold, bringing concerns about power outages in the months to come.

On this week's Majlis podcast, RFE/RL's media-relations manager, Muhammad Tahir, moderates on the current situation in Central Asian countries while they prepare for winter and what could be in store for them as temperatures continue to drop.

This week's guests are: from Bishkek, Janybek Omarov, an international energy economist; from Prague, Farruh Yusufy, the director of RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk; and Bruce Pannier, the author of the Qishloq Ovozi blog.

Shortages On People’s Minds As Central Asia Heads Into Winter
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Listen to the podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

Turkmen-Iranian Relations Warm Ahead Of Winter

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

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

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

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

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

Possible breakthrough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flour for gas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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