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Relations between Ashgabat and Tehran have soured somewhat since this picture was taken of Iranian President Hassan Rohani (right) shaking hands with his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov during the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) in the Iranian capital in November 2015.

The Turkmen government has been proudly proclaiming its UN-recognized status as a neutral country for more than 20 years now. Ashgabat's policy of "positive neutrality" is, since September 2016, even part of the country's constitution.

But the policy is not always positive for Turkmenistan, and the current gas spat with neighbor Iran might be a case in point.

Turkmenistan has either greatly reduced or suspended entirely -- depending on which country you believe -- supplies of gas to Iran.

Each side has its own version of the problem. I'll mention their claims later; that is not so much the issue in this article.

The audience they are trying to reach to tell their respective sides of the story, and in Turkmenistan's case those being kept in the dark, is the focus of this work.

First, some necessary background.

Turkmenistan's first post-independence president, Saparmurat Niyazov, was the architect of the policy of neutrality in the early 1990s. The policy was never articulated very clearly, and to this day it remains vague; but essentially it meant Turkmenistan would not take sides in anyone else's conflicts; nor would it join any alliances, excepting multinational economic organizations, but would act as a mediator or at least offer its territory as a neutral venue for feuding parties to meet and try to resolve their problems.

A benefit of this policy, in theory, was that by courting good ties with all, neutrality would be a shield for the country, since no outside party would have any reason to be upset or angry with Turkmenistan.

That's what the Turkmen government has told its people for more than 20 years.

Now to the current Turkmen-Iran dispute.

'Inflated' Prices

Starting in the last days of December, Iranian news agencies including Mehr, IRNA, ISNA, Fars, Shana, and Press TV, cited various government officials and representatives of the National Iranian Gas Company (NIGC) explaining the problems with Turkmenistan.

The general picture these officials and the media painted was that Turkmenistan was demanding payment for gas supplies in 2007-08, when Ashgabat used a freezing winter in northern Iran to demand nine times the previous price for gas. In any case, the price Turkmenistan was now demanding was incorrect and inflated.

On New Year's Eve, Iranian news agencies reported an 11th-hour deal was reached and there would be no cutoff, a new five-year agreement had been reached, and the issue of the debt would be discussed and resolved in the coming months.

Hours later, Iranian media reported Turkmenistan had "suddenly" suspended gas supplies to Iran.

Iran's Tasnim news agency interviewed NIGC spokesman Majod Bourjarzadeh, who said Turkmenistan had "reneged on the promise" and cut off gas supplies and that Turkmen officials "had gone on New Year' holidays" and could not be reached.

'Unreliable Partner'

The new Iranian media narrative has followed Bourjarzadeh's lead, and reports now have officials calling Turkmenistan an "unreliable partner" and generally blaming Ashgabat for the entire situation.

Turkmenistan did not respond until January 3, when the Foreign Ministry released a statement on its website calling reports in Iranian media "misleading" and saying the NIGC had "not made sufficient effort since 2013 to pay off its debt."

The ministry also claimed that during 2016 "the Iranian side was officially repeatedly informed of the adverse situation...and possible cuts in Turkmen natural gas supplies." The Turkmen statement says Ashgabat was forced to "limit" supplies, not halt them. There is no mention of the amount of Iran's debt.

The NIGC's response that same day, widely cited by Iranian media, said Turkmenistan had "time and again" violated the terms of gas agreement but had still been "compensated" by Iran. The NIGC also vowed to take the matter to international arbitration.

Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry responded once more on January 4, surprising many by revealing, at least according to the ministry, that Iran signed a "take or pay" contract for gas, that "the NIGC hasn't taken large volumes of the Turkmen gas for several years," and "at the same time, the company didn't pay any financial compensation to Turkmenistan."

So Turkmenistan is essentially demanding payment for gas Iran never received but said it would buy.

Tehran's version of the dispute with Turkmenistan is being disseminated by Iranian state media to the public.

But the government in "neutral" Turkmenistan can't tell its people because such a narrative runs contrary to the philosophy of positive neutrality. Turkmenistan's state media (the only media in the country) have not mentioned the problems with Iran. The statements from the Foreign Ministry, posted on the ministry's website, are unlikely to seen by Turkmenistan's citizens, who have limited opportunities to access the Internet and are unlikely to use such possibilities as exist to check their government's websites.

Caged In

Turkmen authorities have been telling the country's citizens for two decades that neutrality would make everyone their friend. Having to admit publicly that there has been a rift with a neighbor and partner Turkmen media has praised since the early 1990s would be difficult to explain.

Turkmen authorities have caged themselves in. Positive neutrality might be a means to avoid making enemies, but clearly it cannot resolve problems in which Turkmenistan itself is involved.

This is not the first example either. Neutrality failed to resolve a gas dispute with Russia in 2008 and 2009, and today Russia does not purchase any gas from Turkmenistan.

Neutrality has not prevented security problems across the border in northern Afghanistan from affecting the situation in Turkmenistan, one example being the sudden and unprecedented need to build up the military and spend state funds on massive amounts of new equipment.

But neutrality does make it impossible for the government to tell the people bad news that involves Turkmenistan, and this situation with Iran is just the latest example.

Iranian media have reported that power is being rerouted to alleviate the situation in northeastern Iran. Some officials go so far as to say that Iran can totally compensate for the power being lost due to the "suspension" of Turkmen gas supplies. This episode has given new impetus to projects already under way to provide northeastern Iran with domestic sources of power, ending forever the need to buy gas from Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan has only two customers for its gas: Iran and China.

And Turkmenistan might have just lost Iran as a customer, but that can't be explained by neutrality, so the Turkmen government can't tell its people about it.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, and my colleague and Iranian specialist Golnaz Esfandiari contributed to this report.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

Salimbay Abdullaev, the new deputy chief of Uzbekistan's National Olympic Committee, wears a T-shirt bearing the face of Shavkat Mirziyaev that says "My President."

Uzbekistan unveiled new measures to combat corruption on January 4, seemingly a good sign for the new government of President Shavkat Mirziyaev. But then, on January 6, Salimbay Abdullaev, reputedly one of the leading figures in Uzbekistan’s organized crime world, was appointed deputy chief of the country’s National Olympic Committee.

Mirziyaev has made other controversial appointments and some other notable figures who had fallen from grace under former President Islam Karimov have also seen their fortunes rise since the new leader took over.

For those hoping Uzbekistan’s government would embark on a path of reform that would finally enable the country to start realizing its potential, these are discouraging signals.

So let’s look at who’s in and who got out.

Abdullaev is known through Uzbekistan as a powerful figure.
Abdullaev is known through Uzbekistan as a powerful figure.

Salimbay Abdullaev

Abdullaev, 62, says he is just a businessman, a successful businessman. He was a top wrestler and has always remained connected to the sports world, which makes him a suitable candidate for Uzbekistan’s Olympic Committee.

But when Abdullaev is mentioned in articles (outside of Uzbekistan, that is), there is invariably a reference to his alleged role as an underworld boss, a charge Abdullaev denies.

Whatever his business, he is known in Uzbekistan as a powerful figure, someone you don’t mess with. Prior to Mirziyaev’s election as president on December 4, 2016, a photograph circulated widely of Abdullaev wearing a T-shirt bearing Mirziyaev’s photograph with the words "My President" written on it.

Aripov is Uzbekistan's new prime minister.
Aripov is Uzbekistan's new prime minister.

Abdulla Aripov

Uzbekistan’s new prime minister, as of December 14, 2016, is Abdulla Aripov. Very shortly after he became interim president in September 2016, Mirziyaev appointed Aripov to be deputy prime minister in charge of youth affairs, culture, and information systems and telecommunications.

That was essentially the same position Aripov had occupied before. Aripov was in charge of information systems and telecommunications from 2002 to 2012.

But in 2012, foreign telecommunications companies connected to former President Karimov’s eldest daughter, Gulnara, were under investigation over hundreds of millions of dollars of illegal financial actions. The companies had won contracts in Uzbekistan when Aripov was the head of telecommunications in Uzbekistan.

One of the companies was Sweden’s TeliaSonera, which would later admit to having paid bribes for contracts.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, interviewed Gunnar Stetler, the head of the department on battling corruption in the Swedish Prosecutor-General’s Office. He said Aripov’s signature was on many of the documents connected to the investigation of TeliaSonera.

Kazim Tulyaganov

Welcome back also to Kazim Tulyaganov.

Two days after the presidential election, Mirziyaev appointed Tulyaganov to be the head of the state committee for architecture and construction. That means he is in charge of anything that will be built in Uzbekistan.

Tulyaganov was the mayor of Tashkent from 1994 to 2001, then first deputy prime minister until January 2004, at which time he returned as Tashkent mayor. In 2006, he was charged with economic crimes and given a 20-year suspended sentence and the court ordered him to return $1.3 million to the government.

Presumably, Mirziyaev pardoned him for those crimes, though that is not clear.

Ulughbek Rozikulov

Ulughbek Rozikulov kept his position as deputy prime minister when Mirziyaev took over. Rozikulov’s role in the GM Uzbekistan scandal in 2016 has never been clarified, although it seems no one is really looking into that anymore.

Rozikulov, besides being deputy prime minister, is also the head of Uzavtosanoat, the automobile production industry.

When former President Karimov paid an official visit to Russia in late April 2016, he learned that vehicles intended for sale in Russia were not arriving at their destination. An investigation started as soon as Karimov returned and the head of GM Uzbekistan, Tohirjon Jalilov, was taken into custody. But there were never any reports that Rozikulov, despite his position overseeing Uzbekistan automotive production industry, had fallen under suspicion of any wrongdoing.

Jalilov was released from custody on September 20, 2016, less than two weeks after parliament named Mirziyaev interim president.​

Jalolov is the former head of the now defunct company Zeromax.
Jalolov is the former head of the now defunct company Zeromax.

Mirodil Jalolov

Also released from detention was Mirodil Jalolov, the former head of the now defunct company Zeromax. Zeromax was registered in Switzerland, where coincidentally Gulnara Karimova spent much of her time. Zeromax was notable for being the only Western company to receive service contracts in Uzbekistan’s oil and gas sector.

Zeromax was closed in May 2010 and that September Jalolov was arrested for economic crimes but never jailed. He remained at his home until Mirziyaev came to power, then Jalolov was taken into custody until January 4, when a court ordered him released.

Rahimov's current whereabouts are unknown.
Rahimov's current whereabouts are unknown.

Gafur Rahimov

Gafur Rahimov, an alleged drug kingpin who is on the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions list, was reportedly taken off Interpol’s wanted list in mid-September.

It is unclear where Rahimov is at the moment, but he had been living outside of Uzbekistan for the better part of the last decade.

Other people with shadowy pasts have occupied positions at lower levels in the government: district chiefs, mayors, etc.

The few inside who will comment on these appointments -- under condition of anonymity, of course -- say these newly appointed officials proved their loyalty to Mirziyaev during the years that Karimov was in power.

While that may be true, the presence of such people in positions of authority in Uzbekistan will not help the country’s badly tarnished image. It won’t help Uzbekistan attract foreign investment either, something the new government has already signaled would be a priority to help Uzbekistan’s flagging economy. These appointments also dampen any hopes for positive change in Uzbekistan anytime soon since loyalty, not ability, is what Mirziyaev apparently values.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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