The Taliban arrived in large numbers in Turkmenistan at the end of last week.
The delegation led by Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi landed in Ashgabat on January 14 to discuss business. Namely, three major infrastructure projects: the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline, or TAPI; the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan High-Voltage Electricity Transmission Line, or TAP, and new rail links between the countries.
These initiatives have, in one form or another, been discussed for decades, but there is a decided do-or-die trend in the air these days. And so, attention turns to pragmatic considerations like dates and money.
On the first point, the Afghan Foreign Ministry said in a statement that technical specialists from the two countries would meet for consultations on January 22. Work on further construction of the pipeline, power and railway projects, meanwhile, will resume in March.
Regarding funding, Kabul-based TOLO news cited a representative of the Afghan Foreign Ministry said that Turkmenistan would provide the money for Afghanistan’s work on TAPI in the form of a loan.
“We have agreed with Turkmenistan that it will lend Afghanistan the expenses to be paid, and Afghanistan will reimburse it in the future from the income of this project,” said Waliullah Shaheen, director of strategic studies at the ministry. Foreign Affairs. saying.
The amount of the loan has not been disclosed and the Afghans have not yet determined their budget for the project.
The day-long talks held on January 15 between Muttaqi and his Turkmen opposition party, Rashid Meredov, could not have avoided addressing the issue of security. Official statements from the talks did not dwell on specifics, but the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan had previously committed he would form an armed division of up to 30,000 fighters to provide security for TAPI.
On January 17, when Afghan affairs were over, Deputy Prime Minister Serdar Berdymukhamedov, the president’s son, paid a working visit to Uzbekistan, where he met President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
That these two neighbours, with their nearly 1,800 kilometer long border, should be fast trading partners became apparent to all involved very late in the day. Things took a turn after the death in 2016 of the late and paranoid Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov. If bilateral trade in 2017 amounted at just $177 million, it had climbed to $527 million in 2020.
These ephemeral mutual crossings at the border aim to ensure the continuity of the dynamic. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov laid important foundations with his visit to Tashkent in October. Serdar Berdymukhamedov also met this time with the Uzbek Minister of Investment and Foreign Trade, Sardor Umurzakov. The vision is the creation of a border free trade zone to serve as the cornerstone for a new resurgence in trade. Representatives of business circles from both countries met in Tashkent while Berdymukhamedov junior was in town and signed several agreements.
As president-in-waiting, Serdar Berdymukhamedov is increasingly acting as the face of Turkmenistan to the world. But there has been lingering uncertainty about how long that wait will last. The 40-year-old has held a significant number of important positions in civilian government and has few career advancement opportunities, outside of the presidency, left to explore.
The unrest that unfolded in Kazakhstan this month has only complicated the situation. There are two schools of thought on the matter.
When President Berdymukhamedov announcement on January 7, as the violence in Kazakhstan reached its peak, he convened a special session of the Khalk Maslahaty (People’s Council), the senatorial upper house of the legislature, which was to be held in early February, it sparked rumors of a possible imminent succession. The idea is that since Kazakhstan’s poor transition planning was partly the cause of that country’s political turmoil, the Berdymukhamedovs might want to get ahead in time.
The Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta hypothesized the opposite scenario in an article of January 13 article. Viktoria Panfilova, a longtime Central Asia watcher, pointed to the heightened security measures adopted after the Kazakh unrest as evidence of the postponement of succession plans.
Indeed, like the RFE/RL correspondents based in Turkmenistan reported, the authorities have adopted many suffocating measures to stifle any emulation of the Kazakh events. These included increased police presence in residential areas, random checks of people’s phones and a nighttime curfew in the town of Mary.
Moreover, Berdymukhamedov on January 12 educated the Ministry of National Security, the successor agency to the KGB, to tighten control over the Internet to prevent the dissemination of “information that harms the constitutional order of our state”.
“It is necessary to control the Internet in accordance with the requirements,” Berdymukhamedov told National Security Minister Gurbanmyrat Annayev in a televised address.
Since Turkmenistan already has some of the slowest internet connections in the world, this decision was only guaranteed to make matters worse.
The wave of protests in Kazakhstan was sparked by discontent over rising fuel prices, while it is the price of food that worries Turkmenistanis. As RFE/RL also reported, police in Ashgabat visited the homes of signatories of a petition against the removal of food subsidies in government stores that was circulating last month. Many signatories were taken to police stations and threatened with criminal charges, the broadcaster reported.
Vienna-based Turkmenistan Chronicles, however, took a comprehensive look to the dynamics of food price fluctuations and found a much more mixed picture. The website found, by comparing the retail prices of several dozen common items over the past year, that food prices had actually fallen by an average of 20% in the last quarter of 2021. This was attributed by the website to the recovery of the Turkmen manat against the dollar on the black market and the resumption of pandemic-affected trade with neighboring Iran. Moreover, President Berdymukhamedov in December accused his son, Serdar, to make sure the bazaars offered reasonable prices before the New Year holidays.
Since the New Year, however, prices have returned to an upward trend, Chronicles noted.
Something else that is making a comeback is COVID-19. Authorities wrongly deny that the coronavirus is not present in the country, and Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news has cited Turkmen government sources said that even the Omicron variety had been detected. The infected individual is believed to be a Filipino national working in a field being developed by Dubai-based Dragon Oil.
Turkmen service of RFE/RL, Radio Azatlyk, reported on January 17, sweeping lockdown-like measures are reimposed. Markets, restaurants and other public facilities began closing without explanation over the weekend. In the city of Mary, people have been banned from holding weddings and other types of large gatherings.
In an encouraging development, Turkmenistan is moving forward with the construction of a modest 10 megawatt combined solar-wind power plant in the Balkan province. The plant would supply electricity to rural households near the Altyn Asyr artificial lake, a water harvesting project. Funds for the project would be provided in the form of a long-term, low-interest loan of $25 million from the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development.