Turkmenistan: Putting on a show

Will Turkmenistan come to Kyrgyzstan’s rescue?

Akhal-Teke: A Turkmenistan Bulletin

Kyrgyzstan’s president traveled to Turkmenistan this week in the hope of a lucky break.

Among the deals agreed by Sadyr Japarov and his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, on June 28, was one for Turkmenistan to supply Kyrgyzstan with natural gas and electricity in the fall and winter.

Details are still sparse, though.

This arrangement could become extremely important for Kyrgyzstan, which is hoping to convert its filthy coal-burning power plant in Bishkek over to gas. But as head of the Kyrgyz cabinet, Ulukbek Maripov, was ruefully compelled to tell lawmakers on June 17, gas is simply too costly.

Russia’s Gazprom, which is who Kyrgyzstan currently buys its gas from, will not budge any lower than $175 per 1,000 cubic meters, Maripov said. Only a figure of about $100 would suit, he said.

“Therefore, negotiations are underway with Turkmenistan,” he said.

Neither side has revealed if any agreement was hashed out. But if there is any breakthrough it would be in part product of Turkmen largesse. Ashgabat is presumed to currently be selling gas to Russia and China at around $187 per 1,000 cubic meters, and even allowing for lower transit costs to Kyrgyzstan, $100 would be a very sharp discount indeed.

Japarov may well be relying on some brotherly charity here. It is not for nothing that he ended his speech during a joint reading of statements with these words of gratitude: “Thank you esteemed Gurbanguly Malikguliyevich for your help, for everything.” This was a somewhat perplexing nicety, because what help has Turkmenistan as yet given Kyrgyzstan?

Analysts point out the awkward detail that Kyrgyzstan’s gas transportation infrastructure is owned wholly by Gazprom, meaning that any deal reached by Bishkek and Ashgabat might need Moscow’s blessing first. So would – on account of the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union trading bloc – opening Kyrgyzstan’s market up to other kinds of Turkmen exports. Despite their relative proximity, trade between the two former Soviet republics is utterly miserable and came in at only $11.7 million in 2020.

Sideways, regional trading of gas is becoming more frequent these days though – and this is happening thanks to Gazprom. As the gas giant revealed earlier this month, Gazprom, which has the option of buying up to 5.5 billion cubic meters of gas annually from Turkmenistan, has since 2020 begun sending some of that gas to Uzbekistan. Last year, it sent 900 million cubic meters of Turkmen gas to Uzbekistan, Interfax news agency reported on June 21. That has already grown to 1.5 billion cubic meters in the first quarter of 2021 alone.

Although Gazprom’s deal with Turkmenistan is to take delivery of up to 5.5 billion cubic meters per year, that has not actually been happening. Deliveries in 2019, the year they resumed after a lengthy hiatus, amounted to 4 billion. Last year, they rose to 4.7 billion. In the first quarter of 2021, they were 2.2 billion, up from 1.3 billion in the same period in 2020.

Other business was done during Japarov’s stay. One was the notional creation of a $100 million Kyrgyz-Turkmen joint investment development fund. And Turkmenistan wants to build a five-star resort on the shores of Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul Lake.

A more disturbing figure – one hidden from public view – is how many people are falling ill with COVID-19 in Turkmenistan. RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, reported on June 25 on a sharp surge of people, including many children, being diagnosed with pneumonia. This illness has widely been used as a euphemism for COVID-19 across Central Asia. But Azatlyk reports that many positive coronavirus tests are also being returned, although the authorities continue as before to stick to the story of the country being free of COVID-19.

Azatlyk says rules on mandatory mask-wearing in public have been tightened again with fines being raised many times over. A vaccination campaign of sorts is also underway, although there is no useful information about how many people are getting jabs.

State daily newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan reported on June 28 that Turkmenistan is to buy 1.5 million doses of vaccine from China National Biotec Group, a subsidiary of state-owned Sinopharm.

The subject of COVID-19 even came up on June 29, when Russian President Vladimir Putin called up Berdymukhamedov to wish him a happy 64th birthday. Turkmenistan was the first country in Central Asia to register Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and it may well want more.

“Bread and circuses” is usually just a figure of speech, but it is very literal in Turkmenistan these days.

Berdymukhamedov traveled to the Lebap province on June 22 and was immediately informed by the governor, even before he could leave Turkmenabat airport, that local grain growers have already met their state-fixed production quota of 310,000 tons. Similarly upbeat bulletins are coming in from other provinces too.

Soviet-style blaring about Stakhanovite work rhythms are not quite enough to paper over anxieties. State media regularly produces images of bountiful wheatfields and stalls spilling over with fresh produce.

But government conferences about food security, and how international cooperation can help ensure it, like the one held in Ashgabat on June 25, speaks to shortcomings in Turkmenistan’s dysfunctional autarkic model. And the triumphalism is strongly at odds with the drought conditions being reported by Meteozhurnal, a weather-focused Russian website that has latterly been a veritable Cassandra on all things Turkmenistan.

Azatlyk reported on June 24 that prices for food at privately owned stores keep rising, while the rations provided at state-subsidized prices are growing stingier. It used to be that people had to queue for groceries at state stores, but Azatlyk claims it has learned that Berdymukhamedov’s son and presumed heir, Serdar, was irked by how the large lines reflected poorly on his father’s image, and so a home-delivery system has been in place since May. But where deliveries were initially performed weekly, it is now every 10 days.

Even if the state cannot provide enough food, it can surely put on a good show.

Neutral Turkmenistan reported on June 26 that Berdymukhamedov has issued orders for opera, ballet, and circus troupes to be formed up and down the country. So-called White Yurts of the Turkmen – tent-shaped multipurpose halls – are being built in each of Turkmenistan’s five provinces, and something needs to be put in them.

“In this context, it would be appropriate … for work to be done creating dramatic, musical opera, ballet, circus, pop music and puppetry troupes, theatrical and singing groups, art and applied arts studios, as well as folk and craft collectives,” he said.

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