Turkmenistan, rich and inaccessible

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Isolated and authoritarian, it is the fourth largest gas reserve in the world. But financial difficulties do not allow bringing that gas to the market

Turkmenistan, one of Asia’s least visited countries, has retreated further into isolation following the European Union’s decision in February to ban flight of Turkmenistan Airlines from its airspace. We have watched as the country tries to modernise while hiding itself from the outside world.   

Turkmenistan is not exactly a favourite destination. It does not welcome attention from the outside world nor readily grant visas, except to those with business in the gas or construction industries. Turkmenistan relishes its isolation. Its world heritage site, the ancient city of Merv, once the world’s largest city, is for archaeology enthusiasts only.

Even so, the enforced cancellation for “safety” reasons of flights connecting its capital, Ashgabat, to London, Birmingham and Frankfurt came as a shock and may undermine the viability of an airline used by European travellers as a cheap way of reaching Thailand or India. Flights from Ashgabad to Paris were halted earlier – because of unsettled debts at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, according to the Turkmen news service, Azatlyk.

This is hard on Ashgabat’s brand new airport terminal built in the shape of a falcon, one of many prestige constructions. Even before the ban it had little international business because the xenophobic regime of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov does not encourage visitors. The government is barely on speaking terms with most of its neighbours, who include Iran, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and has remained outside the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, a regional economic and security pact linking all the other former Soviet Central Asian nations with Russia and China. Bordered by the Caspian Sea and otherwise land-locked, so with no ocean-going seaports, Turkmenistan’s chief ports of entry by air are through Istanbul and Moscow.

In terms of its limited diplomatic engagement, Turkmenistan resembles North Korea, but in other respects there is a big difference. Whereas North Korea can barely feed its own people, Turkmenistan is, in theory, fabulously wealthy from natural gas reserves lying under the desert which covers 80 per cent of the country. It holds the world’s fourth largest proven reserves of gas, after Russia, Iran and Qatar. Its problem, though, is getting that gas to the market.

Following the completion ten years ago of a 3666 km pipeline flowing east via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, China became its main gas buyer. Last year work started on a second major pipeline, known as TAPI, to carry Turkmen gas via Afghanistan to energy hungry Pakistan and India. However, reports suggest that Pakistan has yet to start building work on its 826 km sector, the longest. Talks took place in March to try to unblock this pipeline, which is a year behind schedule. Sceptics question whether such a pipeline is viable as long as civil war continues in Afghanistan and relations between India and Pakistan remain volatile.

Turmenistan would love to find a new market for its gas to finance an ambitious modernisation programme. Agricultural production is just enough to feed a population of under 6 million, though the government has boasted of exporting $3.8 million worth of chicken eggs last year, apparently leaving few for its own people. Cotton production is much below that of its neighbour, Uzbekistan. Revenue received from oil and gas exports are a closely guarded secret, though should be higher than when its only pipeline outlet was through Russia. Europe has long lusted after Turkmen gas as an alternative to Russian gas on which the continent is heavily dependent.

For political reasons, routing Turkmen gas through Iran or Russia is out of the question. The only other option is for a sub-Caspian pipeline to Azerbaijan, which is already connected to Europe by pipelines. According to state media, President Berdymukhamedov was gratified to receive a greeting from President Trump on the occasion of Nowruz, the Turkmen New Year (21 March). The US president hoped Turkmenistan will “seize new opportunities for exporting gas to the West following the recent determination of the legal status of the Caspian Sea.”

The US president was referring to the much talked about plan for a Trans Caspian Pipeline (TCP). While the Caspian states of Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan signed an accord in August 2018 on sharing the Caspian Sea, this relates only to its surface and does not facilitate sharing seabed resources or a sub-sea pipeline.

Meanwhile there are signs that, notwithstanding its rich gas reserves, the Turkmen economy is faltering. The unpaid airport bill in Paris may be a sign of a deeper economic malaise affecting the nation at present. Despite recent government enthusiasm for placing multi-million dollar construction contracts with state run enterprises, the dissident Akhal-Teke news service said in February that the placing of so many contracts “doesn’t mean everyone will get paid”.  On the ‘at-risk’ list is the contract for a multi-lane highway connecting the capital with the Uzbek border, awarded to a company that has not previously built a road. (The existing road seems adequate for the low level of use.) Another contract was to construct a golf course in the desert! 

There are persistent rumours that this secretive country is suffering financial difficulties, evidenced by a slow-down in actual building work, and suggestions even that Turkmenistan’s sector of the TAPI pipeline has not yet been started. You only have to look at the construction work which has taken place in the capital to understand the cause of the problems.

Though who manage to overcome the challenges to get to Ashgabat will be surprised at this modern city in the desert. All signs of its ancient heritage, and even of its 70-year Soviet era, have disappeared in a construction spree. In their place is a gleaming white metropolis built of marble imported from Italy. Visitors may wonder at all the newly-built hotels in a country which gets so few visitors. Their main use is to accommodate Turkmen citizens from the countryside shipped into celebrate Turkmenistan’s Constitution and Flag Day on 27 September, though they do not get to use the 5 and 6 star hotels most of whose room are vacant throughout the year.

The visitor will be struck by the modern statues commemorating heroes from Turkmen history. President Berdymukhamedov and his deceased predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, who liked to be called “Turkmenbashi” or “Father of the Turkmen”, set no limits in their efforts to create a modern nation with a Turkmen identity in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, ending 150 years of Russian hegemony. One of the most absurd ‘reforms’ of Turkmenbashi was reversed when his successor cancelled an edict renaming days of the week and months of the year after members of his family.

Turkmens may no longer suffer the level of terror associated with Turkmenbashi’s rule, but its people have few illusions that they are living in the socialist paradise of which their current leader boasts. All media are government controlled and the few citizens with access to internet find many websites blocked. Many want to leave. Last year the government restricted money withdrawals to make it harder to leave. This slowed rather than ended the exodus of young Turkmen seeking a life elsewhere.

Latest figures from the Azatlyk news agency show the cost of a black market exit visa has soared to $3500. So while few people are visiting Turkmenistan it seems the numbers of those wanting to leave are mounting.

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