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A disabled man is helped off a bus in Ashgabat by a fellow passsenger. (file photo)

The Turkmen government’s quest to cut state expenditures seems to be coinciding, officially, with some miraculous recoveries by disabled citizens.

Residents of Turkmenistan’s northern Dashoguz Province tell RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, that some infirm citizens are being called in for medical checkups.

We should note that we will avoid identifying the Azatlyk sources by name; Turkmen authorities strongly discourage citizens from speaking to RFE/RL, and bad things can -- and do -- happen to people after they speak to Azatlyk.

One resident of Dashoguz who suffers from diabetes told Azatlyk, “If you want to keep your Category Three [disability status], like diabetics, you have to pay 500 manats" -- or around $142, at the official rate -- "to the doctors.”

The status of those who won’t or can’t pay off doctors is frequently upgraded, curbing or cutting off completely certain state benefits.

Category Three is for those with mobility challenges that do not require the help of another person, or those in need of medications, such as diabetics.

But another person in Dashoguz who receives state benefits for a disability told Azatlyk: “Even if you are Category Two, and everyone can see you’re hurting, you have to pay 5,000 manats to the commission that recognizes you as a disabled person.”

A Category Two disability acknowledges the need for a caregiver or special equipment to get around and may or may not also require medication.

Previously, I received 250 manats per month from the government, but that still was not enough to pay for insulin, which cost 280 manats.”
-- Diabetes sufferer in Dashoguz

Turkmen authorities have not publicly announced any major cutbacks in social benefits for the disabled. But they also haven't publicly acknowledged that the country is experiencing its worst economic crisis in 26 years of independence.

Basic foods -- flour, sugar, cooking oil, bread, eggs, and other items -- are often difficult to obtain at state stores, where prices are controlled. Private stores appear to have a variety of goods, but these are often imported and cost two or three times as much as those in state stores.

That is now beyond the reach of many in Turkmenistan, where unemployment is thought to affect a majority of the workforce.

In 2017, Turkmen authorities announced the gradual reduction of subsidies for gas, electricity, and water that the population had enjoyed since 1993. Some believe that move was prompted by shortfalls in state revenues.

The government has also cut back on subsidies for medications, which in some cases rose by some 50 percent in 2017.

The diabetes sufferer in Dashoguz said, “Previously, I received 250 manats per month from the government, but that still was not enough to pay for insulin, which cost 280 manats.”

The source said the state is now giving even less than 250 manats a month and supplies of medicines are sometimes in short supply.

“Medicine costs more now anyway,” the diabetic said. “It’s scarce, and often we have to give money to people going to Ashgabat or abroad to buy the medicine there.”

Other people from around Turkmenistan have reported shortages or steep price rises on medicine for almost a year now.

Turkmen authorities spent at least $5 billion to host the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in September and $2.3 billion more on a new international airport before those games started.

It is unlikely that any new guidelines on the classification of “disabled” citizens would be confined to Dashoguz Province. In the past two years, reports of problems like shortages or price hikes in one region have frequently been echoed in other parts of the country.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service contributed to this report.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
A Turkmen boy in traditional dress waits for the president at an official launch ceremony for the East-West gas trunk pipeline in Shatlyk in May 2010.

After almost a decade of absence, U.S. diplomacy is back in the Caspian energy game. This is happening as the toughest nut that prevented Central Asian gas from reaching European markets is just in the process of being cracked. That is the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP) and its transmission systems to Europe, including the White Stream pipeline under the Black Sea.

It is happening just as the Trump administration's new National Security Strategy asserts that the United States "pursues economic ties not only for market access but also to create enduring relationships to advance common political and security interests." It contrasts this with Russia's perceived projection of influence "through the control of key energy and other infrastructure throughout parts of Europe and Central Asia."

The Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline: A Long Time Coming

In the mid-1990s, the two U.S. companies Bechtel and the GE Capital unit of General Electric formed PSG, a joint venture that contracted in 1998 to construct the TCGP (also called TCP) from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan. Despite the fact that the project's economics were robust and its planning was well advanced, other factors nevertheless contributed to derailing it.

Partners in the Nabucco pipeline project tried, about a decade ago, to get 10 billion cubic meters per year (bcm/y) of gas from Turkmenistan to improve their own economic chances. However, Russia and Iran used excuses about environmental security (which have well established technical solutions) to block it politically. They also contended that all five Caspian Sea littoral countries should have to approve any pipeline, although this contention never prevented Kazakhstan and Russia from cooperating on their own bilateral offshore joint ventures.

All this changed late last year. In December 2017, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that agreement had been reached among the five littoral states over the text of a convention to establish an international legal regime for the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov specifically clarified that "rights for laying pipelines are foreseen in the draft convention" and that "those countries through whose sectors [the pipelines] will run" are the ones that "will coordinate the issue."

Why The EU Wants And Needs The TCGP

European imports of Russian natural gas are forecast to rise from the present level of slightly over 30 percent of all natural-gas imports to 35 percent by 2025 and 40 percent by the 2030s. The European Union officially sees the TCGP as a complementary element of the Southern Gas Corridor.

Permitting the construction of the TCGP is established as a matter for the participating countries, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, alone. With this, the final excuse to block construction of the TCGP disappears. Late last summer, at a bilateral summit in Ashgabat, the two countries for the first time signed a memorandum endorsing that principle and declaring their intent to cooperate not only in energy transmission but also in transportation and a host of other matters.

The European Union has put the TCGP on its List Of Projects Of Common Interest, making it eligible for preferential consideration for support from EU funding agencies and European banks. Should events continue progressing quickly, gas from the TCGP's first string may arrive in Italy for European distribution already in 2020, and from the second string in Romania in 2022. The responsible Georgian ministry has presented such a vision and road map to the Energy Community (download PowerPoint here).

Yet Turkmenistan will have little appetite to export gas through the TCGP's first string unless it has confidence that the second string will also be built; and the TCGP's second string requires the White Stream's construction for the gas from the second string to reach Europe.

Two Entry Points For Turkmen Gas To Europe

The route for the first string is already well established and well under construction: through Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP, already undergoing expansion to become SCPx), then through Turkey and the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline (TANAP), and finally across Greece and to Italy via the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). Although the system starting with SCPx, including its further expansion SCPF(x), and continuing through the TANAP-TAP connection, would take gas from the TCGP's first string, nevertheless it would not be sufficient to handle quantities via the second string as well.

Turkmenistan underlines its ability, in line with its objectives, to export 30-40 bcm/y, which is the capacity of the East-West Pipeline that it has constructed domestically for this purpose. The country has always sought an arrangement for larger volumes, allowing higher overall revenues. Clarity about prospects for the second string thus seems necessary before gas may be committed for the first string.

The second route from Turkmenistan to Europe literally has one missing link (also the key link). It is the White Stream pipeline, from Georgia to Romania under the Black Sea, for the TCGP's second string. Coming via Azerbaijan and Georgia, Turkmenistan's natural gas would be taken under the Black Sea by the White Stream pipeline to Romania. It would use the ultra-deep-sea technology that has become much more economical and widely available since first developed by Russia for the Blue Stream to Turkey, now being used also for the Turkish Stream pipeline.

From Romania, already landed in European Union territory, Turkmenistan's gas would transit to Central Europe: both through the BRUA (Bulgaria-Romania-Hungary-Austria, "U" for Ungaria) pipeline now under construction; and also via the Trans-Balkan Pipeline then through Ukraine (after Gazprom's contract for Romania's and Ukraine's gas transport systems runs out in a few years) to Poland and, via the Bratstvo pipeline, to Slovakia whence Germany via the Czech Republic, as well as Austria.

Making The Southern Gas Corridor Really Strategic

The new U.S. National Security Strategy addresses such a situation by affirming that Washington will "help our allies and partners become more resilient against those that use energy to coerce" and "support the diversification of energy sources, supplies, and routes at home and abroad." It provides a firm basis for diplomatic support for the TCGP initiative, including White Stream. Following the strategic line defined in the new National Security Strategy, the United States could draw significant benefit here for a relatively small investment of support in this initiative.

Indeed, it was in the context of such diversification that acting Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs at the U.S. Department of State Sue Saarnio affirmed toward the end of last year that the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) "could be expanded to deliver additional volumes from...Turkmenistan," thus becoming "a basis for positive cooperation across the region...while helping to underpin Europe's long-term energy security."

Gas from Turkmenistan would also enhance competition, affecting prices, and so making the SGC a genuinely strategic project for Europe as well. However, the window of opportunity for Turkmen gas may be a narrow one, as the European energy market is undergoing transformation. When large investments are made elsewhere, it may become difficult to add this further new infrastructure.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL. Robert M. Cutler is senior researcher, Center of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Carleton University; and fellow, Canadian Energy Research Institute

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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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