Turkmenistan: Don’t love thy neighbor

Aliquid mali propter vicinum malum – it is ill living by bad neighbors, to quote a Latin saying.

Turkmenistan reportedly engaged in some treacherous behavior this week, when it handed 150 Afghan security troops who fled into its territory for safety over to their Taliban foes. If true – and the claim is contested – this would mark the largest ever capture of Afghan government forces by Taliban militants.

According to an account in the New York Times, the Afghan troops slipped into Turkmenistan after heavy fighting in the Murghab district of Afghanistan’s Badghis province on March 11. The Turkmens may even have handed over the soldiers’ weapons.

It is hard to see this doing much good for relations with Kabul, and it was only a few weeks ago that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was visiting Ashgabat.

These are not the only cross-border ties apparently coming under strain.

The Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan has reported that the government has since March 10 begun forbidding residents of areas along the border with Uzbekistan from engaging in shuttle trading between the two countries. It used to be that traders would take Turkmen textiles to sell in Uzbekistan and return with goods that are either undersupplied or overpriced in Turkmenistan.

Gundogar News, something of a pro-government attack dog (not to be confused with opposition-affiliated Gundogar ), pooh-poohed the report, accusing the Chronicles of Turkmenistan of seeking to poison bilateral relations.

The existence of outlets like Gundogar News attests to a fine-tuning of Turkmenistan’s messaging strategy. Rather than relying solely on sententious pronouncements in state outlets, the authorities have created the conditions for an ecosystem of friendly media to proliferate.

As the U.S. State Department’s latest country report on Turkmenistan’s human rights practices noted this week, “the government [finances] and [controls] the publication of books and almost all other print media and online newspapers and journals.”

The same report also helpfully confirms what most people sort of knew already, that the “the authorities blocked access to websites they considered sensitive, including YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as virtual private network connections, including those of diplomatic missions and international businesses, and severely restricted internet access to other websites.” Blocking the VPNs of diplomatic missions feels like a particularly aggressive move.

Much of the censorship is more old-fashioned and heavy-handed. This week, RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, reported that people are being detained at bazaars in the cities of Dashoguz and Turkmenabat just for taking photos of produce.

Reporters face even more harassment. The Chronicles of Turkmenistan revealed that independent journalist Soltan Achilova, who has often worked with Azatlyk, was barred from leaving the country on March 11. She had intended to participate in a media seminar in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Last June, Achilova was attacked by unknown men – most likely government-hired goons – near her family's home in Yoloten, in the Mary province. A month earlier she was detained and harassed by Ashgabat police, who tried to pressure her into ceasing to cooperate with RFE/RL.

State-controlled television news is not much good for anything other than relentless toadying , but it has at least gotten easier to watch. The government this week launched a website to make all its channels viewable online.

The drama between Turkmenistan and Belarus over the Garlyk potash refinery gives no indication of abating. Government-friendly outlet Turkmenportal announced on March 12 that Ashgabat has filed a counterclaim against Belarusian company Belgorkhimprom at the Arbitration Instituteof the StockholmChamber of Commerce.

But the state of health of bilateral relations is hard to fathom entirely. While this squabble is unfurling, there is more friendly diplomatic action seemingly taking place on the sidelines. Turkmenportal reported that Belarusian Ambassador Oleg Tabanyukhov and Turkmenistan’s Deputy Prime Minister with the portfolio for industry, Mammetkhan Chakiyev, met to discuss organizing a joint business forum.

It is possible, however, that this talk of forums is merely a smokescreen. Chakiyev, after all, was the inaugural director of the State Service for Combatting Economic Crimes, a post he held until last April . And there has been occasional talk of funny business at Garlyk.

The Garlyk saga is a clear illustration of the dangers of doing business in Turkmenistan, and yet the government continues to talk up its agenda of boosting the role of the private sector. The body charged with spearheading that initiative is the increasingly ubiquitous Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, or UIET.

From the outside though, it just looks like Turkmenistan is shifting ever so incrementally from statism to para-statism. It is hard to speak of a free market when all would-be private enterprise is required to pass through UIET.

The authorities are not even bothering to be especially coy about UIET’s effectively monopolistic role. In a recent Turkmenportal piece advising Turkmen citizens on how to formally establish a business, the first tip was to take a course run by UIET.

Foreign partners are also inevitably required to join forces with the union. On March 14, the ribbon was cut at the country’s first private food safety laboratory – a joint project between the U.S. Agency for International Development and UIET. U.S. Ambassador Alan Mustard and UIET head Alexander Dadayev attended the ceremony.

This stuff is for the birds compared with the epochal projects that Turkmenistan is banking on to secure its future economic prosperity. As expected, a package of new agreements aimed at furthering progress on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, which is commonly known as TAPI , was on March 12 signed by Pakistani officials and Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov at a ceremony in Islamabad. The hope is that these formalities will now serve as the impetus for Pakistan to finally start work on its section of TAPI.

Turkmenistan is also touting for business from Bahrain. The king of the Persian Gulf nation, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, came away from his March 17-18 visit to Ashgabat with an armful of memoranda of understanding on cooperation in a series of areas, including transportation, banking, culture, education, sports and tourism. Even e-government and “women’s affairs,” perplexingly.

More to the point, Turkmenistan invited Bahraini companies to get involved in the TAPI project. Bahrain and Turkmenistan have previously discussed joint oil and gas ventures, so Ashgabat may be angling for something more ambitious.

Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.