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Qishloq Ovozi

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been talking about improving respect for citizens' rights in the country, but his words don't seem to have filtered down to the lower echelons of government. (file photo)

Uzbekistan's second president, Shavkat Mirziyoev, has suggested that he wants his country to be a kinder, gentler nation than the one he inherited when predecessor Islam Karimov's death was announced in September 2016.

Mirziyoev has warned security and law enforcement personnel about torturing suspects, he said confessions made under duress would not be admissible in courts, he's told government officials they must respect the rights of citizens, and he has called on citizens to report on corrupt or abusive officials.

It actually appears to be starting to pay off. Even media in Uzbekistan are sometimes posting videos of officials physically or verbally abusing subordinates or citizens.

But it might take a while for orders from above to filter down into the lower levels of government.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, was recently sent a video from inside Uzbekistan that seems to demonstrate the persistence of habits from the old regime are still present.

The two main figures in the video are Abbashan Vakkasov, the head of the Tax Inspection Department in Jizzakh Province, and Olim Zakirov, a senior tax inspector.

For the record, Mirzioyev was the governor of Jizzakh Province from 1996 to 2001.

The person who forwarded the video said he was an employee at the Jizzakh Tax Inspection Department and was working there at the end of November when Vakkasov showed up -- allegedly inebriated -- and was angered to discover Zakirov had not collected enough taxes. That raises some questions about how taxes are collected in Uzbekistan, but we'll stick with the physical abuse for this article.

As troubling as the video is to watch, the accounts the two men gave of the incident were unsettling. Ozodlik contacted both Vakksasov and Zakirov.

"He [Vakkasov] didn't beat me. He was just joking," Zakirov said.

Zakirov also denied Vakkasov had been drinking.

Vakkasov told Ozodlik, "Nothing like that happened," and hung up the phone.

The person who sent the video suggested Vakkasov was known for slapping around subordinates.

No action has been taken against Vakkasov, but Ozodlik only obtained the video on April 29.

Officials have been punished when videos such as this one make their way around the Internet.

Zakirov's reluctance to admit he was assaulted by a superior, even though the incident was on film, could be an indication that the behavior that developed over 26 years won't be rooted out quickly.

Based on material from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (far-right), Indian Vice President, Hamid Ansari (left), Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (second-right) and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ceremonially press a button to begin welding on the TAPI gas pipeline in 2015. Although Berdymukhammedov has said work on TAPI should be done by the end of 2019, few believe this to be true.

Iran has made a surprise offer to Turkmenistan that officials in Ashgabat might find difficult to reject.

The head the National Iranian Oil Company, Hamidreza Araqi, said on April 29 that Iran was prepared enter into a gas-swap deal that would transfer Turkmen gas to Pakistan.

Turkmenistan is currently experiencing its worst economic crisis since the country became independent in late 1991, and the Turkmen government has been desperately seeking new export routes for its major export: natural gas.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov seems to have settled on the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline as the best option for boosting Turkmen gas exports and bringing in badly needed revenues to Turkmenistan's state coffers.

But doubts remain about the feasibility of realizing TAPI, which would carry some 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas but must pass through some 744 kilometers of Afghan territory, where fighting between militants and government forces has been increasing in recent years.

Concerns about the Afghan part of TAPI's route has made it difficult to find investors for the estimated $10 billion project.

Araqi noted that, saying, "In the best case scenario, TAPI could be constructed in 10 years, it is still unclear which party is going to provide the project's security and funding."

"We can conduct a swap in a short time at a considerably lower cost," Araqi said.

Araqi did not mention how much Turkmen gas Iran was willing to swap, but his comment about the Iranian option being the fastest would appear to be true.

Peace Pipeline

Iran has completed its part of the Peace Pipeline, a 1,900-kilometer project that would connect Iran's offshore South Pars gas field to Pakistan and eventually to India.

The Peace Pipeline is a competitor project to TAPI. Both projects were first conceived in the mid-1990s, and each has been delayed for different reasons.

In the case of the Peace Pipeline, the United States has successfully urged Pakistan to reject gas purchases from Iran.

But Iran went ahead and built the line on its territory, so Araqi is probably correct when he says the gas-swap arrangement with Iran is the quickest option for Turkmenistan to sell gas to Pakistan.

The Peace Pipeline should have a capacity to ship some 22 bcm of gas annually to Pakistan when it is launched, but plans call for increasing capacity to 55 bcm.

Araqi did not mention how much gas Turkmenistan could ship, but given Turkmenistan's dire economic situation, anything might arguably be welcomed by Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan currently exports gas only to China, more than 30 bcm, but some of that goes toward paying off billions of dollars in loans China gave Ashgabat to develop gas fields and for the construction of the pipelines leading from Turkmenistan to China.

A map of the region with the planned TAPI pipeline marked in blue.
A map of the region with the planned TAPI pipeline marked in blue.

Turkmenistan lost Russia as a gas customer at the start of 2016, and then a year later lost Iran as a customer when Ashgabat insisted Tehran pay off a debt for gas supplies Iran received during the winter of 2007-08. When Iran refused to pay, claiming Turkmenistan had hiked the price to from $40 per 1,000 cubic meters to $360 during that harsh winter, Turkmenistan shut off the gas to northern Iran.

But Tehran did allow a gas-swap deal between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan whereby Turkmenistan shipped an unknown quantity of gas to northern Iran and Iran made a like amount of its gas available to Azerbaijan. Armenia has been seeking a similar arrangement.

These gas-swap arrangements do not compensate for losing Russia, which once imported more than 40 bcm of Turkmen gas, and Iran, which once imported some 6-8 bcm of Turkmen gas, as customers.

And since neither Tehran nor Ashgabat seems willing to budge on its debt dispute, Turkmenistan's two gas pipelines to northern Iran, with a combined maximum capacity of some 20 bcm, are mostly empty.

So Iran's offer will be attractive to the Turkmen government, but Ashgabat must consider that, by agreeing to this swap arrangement for gas to Pakistan, it will likely make TAPI look even less feasible than it already does.

Ulterior Motive?

However, there is probably something more than generosity behind Iran's offer to Turkmenistan.

After all, last year when Turkmenistan was trying to arrange a gas-swap deal with Iran that involved Turkey, Araqi said, "We are against the sale of a rival country's gas to Turkey via swap operations."

The United States has opposed deals with Iran that bring profits to Tehran's coffers, but Washington has not opposed the oil-swap deal Kazakhstan has with Iran or the gas-swap deal Turkmenistan has with Iran, the logic being that the main profits do not go to Iran.

By advertising gas to Pakistan as being Turkmen gas, Iran might believe it can convince Pakistan to complete and launch the Peace Pipeline on its territory.

Whose gas would fill the pipeline 10 years from now is another question, but it is unlikely Pakistan would shut down supplies of needed gas simply because it was suddenly purely Iranian gas.

Araqi's April 29 statement was the first public acknowledgement of the offer to Turkmenistan, but his comments indicated the proposal was made earlier. "We have announced our readiness to Turkmenistan, that we are ready to export their gas to Pakistan, but have not received any response from them," Araqi said, suggesting this might have been a topic when Iranian President Hassan Rohani visited Turkmenistan at the end of March.

Now the question is: How confident is Turkmenistan in TAPI?

Berdymukhammedov has been saying TAPI should be done by the end of 2019, though few believe that is the case.

Turkmenistan appears to need money now, and this Iranian deal might be the best chance for Ashgabat to receive money in the near future; but it would also be a blow to TAPI, since the opening of the Iranian pipeline to Pakistan, and possibly India, would make TAPI less important for Pakistan and India.

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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