The astonishingly cretinous will they/won’t they story of the U.S. Manas air transit center (in plain English, an air base) is creaking into life for another sorry round.

This time it is the Kyrgyzstan national boxing palladium — also known as the parliament — that is threatening, in language suggestive of a regretful nun casting off her habits, to “renounce” the treaty for the airbase’s presence at Bishkek’s international airport.

Something smells fishy here though. And it isn’t just recently released opposition head-case Kamchibek Tashiyev’s underpants.

First of all, the base deal is in any case set to expire in June 2014. This makes parliament’s move a formality so pointless it is surprising the chronically work-shy Kyrgyz legislators can be induced to withdraw their snouts from the trough for the time it will take for the vote to go ahead.

Empty symbolism then? In truth, this is an area the Zhogorku Kenesh excels.

The initiative comes from the government, however, which has somehow managed to fit this into its frenetic schedule between bouts of saving the country from economic, social and moral collapse. The renunciation bill is being presented to parliament, which has already approved the motion at committee stage, by deputy foreign minister Erlan Abdyldayev.

Kyrgyz budget will lose $200 million after the Manas transit center agreement denunciation; KyrTAG quotes the country’s first vice-prime Minister Djoomart Otorbayev as saying on Monday.

Earlier this month, deputy prime Joomart Otorbayev was cheerily informing the country how much further into staggering penury this will drive the state coffers. The United States pays around $60 million in lease annually for the base, which provides employment to 1,000 people and reportedly provides income for hundreds of supply companies.

One line of reasoning is that this is all part of a reorientation toward Russia, which purportedly intends to substantially expand its relatively modest Kant air base outside Bishkek. Following a visit to Kant earlier this year by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, reports appeared alluding to plans to expand the runway, modernize facilities and generally turn the base in a top-notch aviation outpost for the NATO-style Collective Security Treaty Organisation.

If it is the Russians trying to push the Americans out (again), then one wonders what Moscow’s motivations are. It is almost as though they were trying to slow down progress in the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which will likely take place in unseemly haste whatever happens.

In fact, if the base agreement were to be allowed to expire in June (as has been amply advertised for years now), the Americans will simply have to remove all permanent military presence in Kyrgyzstan and ferry their soldiers out on packed long-haul flights like sweaty British holidaymakers on their way to Pattaya. Logistically, this seems like a major hitch rather than an apocalyptic cataclysm, despite all the fretting and underpants-soiling among useless, lamebrain American diplomats.

Only this week, the foreign affairs committee in parliament approved giving British military transportation transit rights through Kyrgyz airspace. In the event of an emergency, the aircraft could even land at Manas, said Transportation Minister Maksatbek Diykanov, before presumably adding a theatrical wink.

There may be more significance in this affair to be found on Kyrgyzstan’s bacchanalian local political scene.

Kicking out the Americans will play well after years of fairly absurd claims they have been poisoning the Kyrgyz countryside and killing every first born child and heaven knows what else. (Admittedly, crashing a plane and possibly narrowly missing some densely populated village the other month can’t really have helped their cause).

This nationalist, philo-Russian stance will prove particularly useful now that the xenophobic contingent has come back into force with the release of pugnacious southerner Tashiyev and his chums. Also in that general political quarter, serious competition is in the offing from roly-poly Osh mayor Melis Myrzakmatov, who now scrubs up well, has stopped speaking with his mouth full and could make a run on a national stage when the opportunity presents itself; namely, at the next presidential elections.

Not that having been the government that kicked out the Americans will be particularly significant electorally, but having the Kremlin onside will surely help. The last person that angered Moscow over Manas is now moodily sucking on kompot cordials through a straw in the garden of a Belarusian dacha like something out of the world’s worst staging of Chekhov.

It is the relaxed air with which Bishkek says thank you, but no thank you to substantial amounts of easy cash from the Americans that creates much room for doubt.

The speculation doing the rounds when this pointless denunciation/renunciation thing first became public was that Kyrgyzstan might be in the process of pulling another three-card trick: Putting the proposal to parliament, which would then vote down the bill and then give the government coverage to negotiate another lucrative one-year extension. This scenario would require a pliant parliament, however, and this lot of legislators is anything but cooperative.

If the base does go, the government needs to find a way of plugging a new circa $100 million annual hole in the budget. With the Kumtor gold mine cash cow constantly tottering due to public unrest, incited by the rabble-rousing nationalists, the addition to the deficit almost seems like a triviality, but still.

For all the belly-aching, Manas won’t make or break Kyrgyzstan. Its disappearance will only simply further isolate a country that needs as many friends as it can get and further pauperize a state barely able to provide for its population.

The only thing that matter about Manas is how little it ultimately matters.

Advertisements

Image

Rustam Azimov: “I Break You.”

 It is all over bar the shouting in Uzbekistan, or so we are increasingly being led to believe.

Islam Karimov will be succeeded by his deputy prime minister, Rustam Azimov.

It is a dismal realization on a number of counts. For over two decades, Azimov, a largely Soviet-engineered bureaucrat born in 1958, has been a major decision-maker in Uzbekistan’s economic policy.

As the head of the National Bank of Foreign Economic Activity until 1998, he ensured the emphasis on securing international credit for the regeneration of the country’s industrial sector, eschewing credit for food and commodities. It was through him that hundreds of millions of loans from the EBRD and Asian Development Bank flowed into Uzbekistan.

In October 1998, he was appointed Finance Minister. Since that time, he has in some capacity or other been a leading figure in the nation’s economic policy decisions, much of them of his own device.

And as the ever dependably scurrilous U.S. diplomatic cables inform us, Azimov also made sure to benefit personally, along with presidential daughter and presumed political rival Gulnara Karimova. One cable from 2007 has Azimov leading the seizure of U.S.-based gold miner Newmont Mining Corp. and Israeli chemicals company Metal-Tech Limited.

Uzbekistan has been defying all expectations for years and posting robust economic growth figures, all while fuel and currency shortages abound and unemployment drives millions abroad. Azimov has consistently been the face of economic good news. If GDP growth is reported to be at typically high levels, it is Azimov that will likely be telling you about it.

In November 2002, it was Azimov that told Uzbekistan that on advice from the IMF, the government would be reducing import duties on cosmetics to 20 percent, from 30 percent. Going after the female vote perhaps?

Azimov has also been the Uzbek face that U.S. officials have come to know. A high-level delegation visiting Washington in November 2001, significantly only two months after 9/11, was headed by then (and now) deputy prime minister Azimov.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher spoke at the time of a “qualitatively new long-term relationship.” He also talked about how the United States and Uzbekistan agreed on the need to “combat terrorism, eradicate social, economic and financial sources of extremism, maintain peace and stability and strengthen security in Central Asia.”

The script has remained virtually unchanged, leaving U.S. diplomats to the important business of dancing, red-faced, at public events.

The range of meetings during that trip indicates the level of influence that Azimov wielded even then that he could be trusted with such a broad portfolio of responsibilities. Offices visited in DC included those of the National Security Council, the State Department, the Treasury, Defence, Commerce and Agriculture Departments, the Export-Import Bank, the Trade and Development Agency, and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

(Azimov was accompanied on that trip by Defence Minster Kadyr Gulyamov, who would be fired from his job in late 2005, a few months after the bloody events in Andijan. Gulyamov was later sentenced to five years probation for disclosing state secrets to a foreign government).

Ever the master of securing foreign financing, Azimov came back with a pledge of $100 million from the U.S. government as “aid for ensuring security.”Ahead of Islam Karimov visiting Washington in March 2002, however, Azimov told The Washington Times in an interview that Uzbekistan would seek no compensation for its security assistance as “our understanding is that we are allies and we should go together in this war — this is not a business for us.”

He must still be laughing about that one to this day. About the only thing he laughs about, if his hatchet-faced demeanour is anything to go by.

Azimov is also talked about as a reformer, although there is relatively scant evidence of that in what remains perhaps the most state-dominated economy in the former Soviet Union with the exception of Turkmenistan.

Arguably, he was a driving force behind Uzbekistan’s eventual decision to follow IMF advice on making the currency convertible in 2003 in an effort at attracting foreign investment. But in truth, the situation with hard cash remains as erratic and inflexible as it was then and has been in permanent flux.

In the brief liberal spring between 9/11 and Andijan now mourned by Karimov cheer-leading U.S. academics like Frederick Starr, Uzbekistan even slashed the size of its civil service in a supposed effort to reduce the role of the state.

In a July 2005 television appearance, Azimov told viewers to disregard foreign media naysayers over the country’s economic policies, insisting that their criticism was designed (under orders from unspecified agents) to sow “disorder, instability, social conflict and confrontation in Uzbekistan.”

Indeed, the Uzbek growth puzzle has long been something of a confounding mystery to experts at the IMF, whose guidance many would now agree succeeded only in propelling Russia into default in 1998.

That, said Azimov, was not an experience that Uzbekistan wished to replicate. It is, of course, arguably easier to administer crises in a police state.

Following Karimov’s re-election to a third term in December 2007, Azimov was named first deputy prime minister in a Cabinet reshuffle and began being more widely spoken about in analyst circles as potential successor material.

Azimov has operated in a consistently dull fashion, without fanfare, which will have endeared him to his supremely paranoid and dour superior, but has recently attracted press attention about his possible future.

When he makes the news, it is when he is meeting dignitaries from Arab states, South Korea, China, and whichever other nations still enjoy halfway cordial ties with Uzbekistan. How surprised he must have been then to find himself on the receiving end of a barrage of brazen allegations from Gulnara Karimova, which has kindled idle chatter about power struggle.

Still, Azimov’s star is in unquestionably in the ascendancy.

Despite increasing evidence the economy is in a state of permanent funk (official figures notwithstanding), Ferghana pointed out in a piece in December that Azimov was still being entrusted to head a state commission on optimizing the structure of government.

The website speculated that this might prove a perfect opportunity for Azimov to cull opponents, while drafting in his own people.

While the balance of power remains to all intents and purposes in the president’s hands, significant authority was handed to the executive under 2011 constitutional reforms that may one day come to be seen retrospectively as a piece of the succession puzzle.

Under one strand of the reforms, the president was denied the privilege of forming and heading the executive. The prime minister is now appointed by a political party in parliament – a kind of five-year special needs retreat camp.

The design could, depending on how you choose to look at it, be intended to acquit numerous functions. On paper (which means little, in fact), the powers of the presidency are substantively watered down, making the position all the less succulent for hopeful contenders unsure of whether they will have the muscle or the numbers to wield the requisite authority.

It is hard to credit the Uzbek regime with this much elegance, but this Chinese torture puzzle appears to consolidate Karimov’s position by making his position nominally less powerful.

The prime minister also acquired other powers, such as the privilege of proposing the appointment and dismissal of regional heads of administration. While the extent of regional power distribution is debatable (as in, there is no such thing), this detail still marks a major symbolic upgrade for the executive, of which Azimov forms a vital part.

Of course, Azimov is not the prime minister, which makes these relevance of these reforms slightly, but not completely, moot. But his not having scaled the heights of PMdom may be for the same reason that no head of cattle rushes to the front of the line at the abattoir.

The big minus sign against Azimov is his flagrant bloodlessness and apparent lack of imposing character. Karimov’s own experience shows that utter lack of charm does not count against you in Uzbek politics, but you could hardly accuse the man of a lack of presence of sorts. Albeit it is the kind of presence that might compel you to fill your underpants were you to meet it in a dark alleyway.

Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev is inevitably one of the oft-named presidential contenders, but that will only remain the case as long as he can absolutely guarantee that the remainder of his time at the helm is marked without a single major crisis or scandal. Some reports suggest he is not even after the presidency at all, and that he has his eye on the Tashkent province governor’s job, for whatever reason that might be.

Before the gambling shops are tempted to close the books on this, there are another couple of options. One is led in this game to speculate that one scenario sees Gulnara Karimova carried into power, presumably on the authority of her father’s name and the shoulders of her dimwitted admirers.

Anybody who believes this, and there is no point being mealy mouthed about this, is an idiot. Karimova indubitably warrants rich psychological study, being that she is absurd and cunning and stupid in such extraordinary and seemingly contradictory ways. Her legendary venality and vanity is ancient Roman in its decadence. She is a latter-day grotesque – her idiocy is a vigorous insult to every person alive and dead that has ever contributed to human knowledge and understanding. As cruel and spiteful as Karimov may well be, it is undeniable he has persistently evinced a degree of institutional responsibility in his own way. There are absolutely no grounds to believe he would want his cretin of a daughter to be his legacy, about which he must care, unless he is such a hidebound nihilist that he relishes the thought of his country imploding in a sickening crunch of blood, feathers and sequins upon his demise.

For want of names, another one bandied about is that of Karimov’s son-in-law (his wife’s sister’s son), Askar Abdullayev, who is also said to control swathes of the economy and wields particular influence in the populous Ferghana region.

But this is all just to keep the game interesting, because Azimov is the man. Right?

Abilov: “Please God let this referendum work!”

For anybody that has ever wondered whether Kazakhstan even has a political opposition, the answer is that it does, but not a very useful one.
Matters began promisingly on March 16 when one phalanx of the opposition met for an hours-long meeting to discuss a raft of referendum proposals that they hope could propel them into some kind of political relevance. The unwritten mantra among politicians in Kazakhstan is that if something is worth talking about, it is worth talking about for hour after endless hour.
Despite officially being banned, Respublika weekly newspaper usefully summed up the meeting with this pithy headline summary: “Opposition Says to Authorities: No to Eurasian Union, Yes to Elected Mayors.”
Other than backing referendums on those issues, the meeting also called for votes on whether to nationalize Kazakhmys, ArcelorMittal Temirtau, Kazzinc, ENRC and Halyk Bank, and on whether to prohibit the building of a nuclear fuel bank and an atomic power plant in Kazakhstan.
Overall, the proposals offer the suggestion of a nationalist-populist agenda that the largely anodyne opposition must hope will finally put a tiger in its tank.
The turnout at the meeting of 512 attendees was hailed as a success by Azat party leader Bulat Abilov.
“When, at the start of September, we proposed this referendum initiative, many told us that that we couldn’t bring people out and hold a meeting, that we would be harassed,” Abilov said.
But making the government see the error of its ways is imperative, he said.
The referendum, which will now need to be submitted to the election commission for approval, is also a useful platform for Abilov to return to the public eye.
He largely slipped from view last year after being jailed twice for participating in unauthorized rallies in which he vowed unending resistance to callous government indifference over the bloody suppression of unrest in Zhanaozen in late 2011. Presumably fearing a sentence longer than the two-week jail sentence slaps on the wrist he received, he judiciously tip-toed away from the whole Zhanaozen issue.

Zhanuzakov: "Alga Kazakhstan! No Alga Going to Jail!"

Zhanuzakov: “Alga Kazakhstan! No Alga Going to Jail!”

Other notable speakers at the March 16 meeting were the young, photogenic and well-spoken political analyst Mukhtar Taizhan and the leader of banned Alga political movement Marat Zhanuzakov.
Taizhan, who has spoken copiously elsewhere in opposition to the Customs Union/Eurasian Union and has thus set out his stall as a reasonable nationalist of sorts, is a figure to watch in the future. But many eyes will have been on Zhanuzakov, who has the unenviable task of taking over the helm of a party whose previous leader is now serving a seven-year prison sentence.
An interview with Respublika after his first public airing in the new role reveals a combative figure apparently intent on pursuing similar territory to his predecessor; namely the corruption and economic malfeasance that has hampered Kazakhstan’s potential.
The elephant in the room here is that both Respublika and Alga are known to be financed by fugitive businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov, which renders that position inevitably problematic, given that he has all but admitted to gross embezzlement.
The referendum proposals are certainly not without promise and clearly designed as a quixotically mischievous attempt to wrong-foot the government, since their chances of actually going to vote are negligible. On the Customs Union _ or the Eurasian Union as the opposition has taken to calling it, in a transparent attempt to raise nationalist hackles _ the public jury is clearly still out.
As KIMEP University Professor Nargis Kassenova has lucidly argued, the Customs Union has largely proved a hindrance to businesses in Kazakhstan by causing bureaucratic complications and raising the cost of Chinese and Western imports.
Speaking for the defence, independent political analyst Andrei Chebotaryev criticized the proposed Customs Union referendum, calling it a short-sighted policy as, in his opinion, voters may actually end up backing the economic bloc were they given the choice.
Media reports of Chebotaryev’s remarks do not dwell on how he reached that conclusion.
While it may have been smiles all around at the referendum meeting, it was a different story at the gathering of that other hapless opposition stalwart _ the All-National Social-Democratic Party, or OSDP.
With the unhappy marriage between the prima donnas in the Azat-OSDP union having more or less culminated in divorce, OSDP is now busy eating itself if events at their congress on March 20 are anything to go by.
Despite being party deputy secretary, Amirzhan Kosanov was told on the eve of the meeting that he need not bother to turn up, which was as good as an invitation to make a fuss.
“I did not want any scandal,” Kosanov says in this video, before launching into a lengthy invective in front of the bouncers keeping him out of the congress.
“Somebody is intentionally creating a provocation and attempting to discredit the party,” Kosanov says.
That statement seems to assume OSDP is unable to discredit itself on its own, which is patently not the case.
In his rambling peroration, Kosanov calls for greater efforts by a unified opposition in attracting young people _ indeed a pressing issue for these movements’ greying ranks.
As it happens, ODSP Zharmakhan Tuyakbay has announced that the party has approved the creation of a youth wing and that a woman’s wing has also begun operations.
This looks like too little and well over a decade too late.
The imminent death of this tired and aged opposition generation has become a recurrent refrain among political commentators. As this piece from December in Central Asia Monitor harshly but not unfairly notes, “people with big names do not join the opposition, even from among those injured by the authorities (incidentally, this is not to the opposition camp’s credit because it hints at its gradual degeneration).”

Mambetalin: "Shut your gob, you glamorous bitch!"

Mambetalin: “Shut your gob, you glamorous bitch!”

Central Asia Monitor also alludes to relatively youthful Serikh Mambetalin, the delusional former leader of the now-nationalist, now-environmentalist, now-nothing Rukhaniyat party, as another missed opportunity.
Mambetalin these days prefers to hang out in social media sites, where the newspaper tartly notes he indulges in petty name-calling, dismissing people as “glamourous bitches” and telling them to “shut their gob.”
Rukhaniyat, which once included Taizhan in its ranks until he wisely dropped out, collapsed farcically in the weeks ahead of the show elections in January 2011 that led to the formation of the sitting rubber stamp non-parliament.
(Somewhat hilariously, former KazTransGas chairman Serik Sultangali was in February elected the new chair of Rukhaniyat. As party founder Altyntash Jaganova told a party congress, Rukhaniyat’s vision has always coincided with the ideas of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, which must have come as a surprise to Mambetalin.)
Central Asia Monitor, which seems to specialize in these obituaries on the opposition, ran with another piece earlier this month that revisited the same theme, albeit in an almost entirely incoherent fashion.
“An opposition that cannot see itself in power and simply occupies a certain political niche will never work up to the required standard,” writes commentator Bolat Shakuyev, without ever really getting to the point.
The standard is indeed low, but the burning question is whether it matters that Kazakhstan does not actually have an opposition party worthy of that title.
The government evidently doesn’t appear to believe so, but then again they were the people that let the issue of striking oil workers fester in Zhanaozen until it descended into bloodshed.
It is obvious that few lessons have really been learned from that tragic and quite possibly avoidable episode _ other than how best to massage the public relations fallout that is.
On the contrary, Alga, the one party vocally talking about Zhanaozen and warning of the dangers it represented in advance was instead accused of actually inciting the unrest and had its leader jailed in a kangaroo court.
The opposition is hapless and helpless, but there is no indication the government under the increasingly senescent Nazarbayev is possessed of a whole lot more vision.
The authorities’ strategy at the moment is a blind gamble on black: letting the population bumble around ideologically rudderless and hoping the oil money will be enough to quell any signs of unrest.

If the flow of gas from Turkmenistan to Ukraine is to resume, the decisive factors will be political not economic, and they will be decided in Moscow, not Kiev or Ashgabat.
And so Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s visit to Moscow this week will be watched with interest for developments over energy cooperation.
Yanukovych set an apparently combative tone Friday when he told reporters that Kiev would not “sacrifice it’s sovereignty” while negotiating on the price paid for Russian gas.
Ukraine is currently bound by a 10-year take-or-pay deal with Russia’s Gazprom that leaves it open to punishing claims if it fails to buy less than given quantities of gas over a particular year.
A perceived shortfall in gas imports from Russia last year last month prompted Gazprom to claim $7 billion from state-run Naftogaz Ukrainy. The sum is clearly purposeful in its unrealism.
 Ukraine currently pays around $430 per 1,000 cubic meters for Russian gas.
“It’s clear that we have to make concessions and find a price that Russia will accept to change the contract,” Yanukovych said Friday.
Indulging in some creative thinking, Ukraine now speaks of developing its substantial reserves of shale gas and, on Friday, of bypassing Bosphorous routes for liquified natural gas imports.
“We see there is such an opportunity, the building of a gas terminal in the Mediterranean in front of the Bosporus, so that it does not go through the Bosporus, and build a terminal there,” Yanukovych said. “If we are able to do this — we are now working on this — we will have another opportunity to transport up to 10 billion, 7 to 10 billion cubic meters from these liquefied gas terminals,” he said.
Bringing cheaper Central Asian gas into the mix is evidently what Ukraine sees as another route out of the impasse.
What is abundantly clear is that this is most likely to happen if Kiev relinquishes control over its domestic natural pipeline network. Such a scenario was firmly resisted in the past, but has now evolved into a certainty that explains Yanukovych’s need to protest that he will protect his country’s sovereignty.
The proposal in the air is that a consortium involving Gazprom would operate the pipelines, finally giving Moscow the control over transit that is has so long sought. Yanukovych plaintively stated Friday that Kiev would seek assurances that it would still be able to make the call on what gas could transit to Europe.
“We want for the Ukrainian (gas transportation system) to work reliably, for it to be able to pump certain amounts of gas to Europe — the more, the better. And we want it to be technically modernised,” he said.
And, going by what Ukrainian officials said last month during Yanukovych’s visit to Ashgabat, some of that gas should be Turkmen and sold onward to Western Europe for Kiev’s profit.
Yanukovych is now also talking about “de-monopolising” the gas market, which sounds a signal for allowing in Russian and other investors. He has also made more positive noises about the Moscow-dominated Customs Union, tentatively committing his nation’s fate eastward.
The European Union, meanwhile, looks on with a degree of trepidation. Interfax cited the EU envoy to Ukraine, Jan Tombinski, as saying Friday that one option was was a three-way EU-Russian-Ukrainian consortium running the pipelines.
Whatever the outcome, the Ukrainian pipeline taboo is now broken, and that could set the stage for Turkmenistan’s long-held ambition to see its gas delivered to European households.
The finer details of the arrangement — which will be mired in the standard opaqueness and doubtless subject to all manner of financial chicanery — are yet to be decided.

For all its fabulous wealth, Turkmenistan has stooped once more to asking the Chinese for a staggering $4.1 billion loan to develop the huge and untapped South Yolotan field. Not wanting for a brass neck, President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov ordered his cowering minions to begin negotiations with the China State Development Bank for a loan on preferential terms.

The debt will pile on top of the $4 billion, of which $3 billion is also for developing South Yolotan, China has lent Turkmenistan last year. But why does a country supposedly awash with gas money and whose outlays on the provision of social services are seemingly risible suddenly need all this cash? Will China puts its hands in its pockets and where is the money likely to end up?

Turkmenistan is unwilling to embrace the more unmanageable aspects of modernity like an open society or the even vaguely comprehensive provision of healthcare, but it is striving nonetheless to convey the notion that it is speeding ahead towards the ranks of developed nations. Accordingly, state television and newspapers are little more than a wall-to-wall eulogy to the wisdom of Turkmenistan’s leader, the greatness of the country’s textile industry, the wonderfulness of its schools, the sterling dynamism of its army, the modernity of its confectionery factories, and so on and so forth. The most visible, and expensive, aspect of this tireless striving to some indefinable historical apotheosis has manifested itself in a gargantuan construction boom in the weird capital city, Ashgabat, and the utterly potty Caspian resort town of Awaza.

The numbers speak for themselves. Lording over his terrified browbeaten Cabinet, perennially smug-looking Berdymukhamedov announced in January that no less than $23.6 billion will be spent on hundreds of new buildings over the coming two years. Laughably, he suggested that some of this money would wash in courtesy of foreign investors. The only foreigner that would dream of parting with cash for Turkmen real estate, probably in Awaza, would do so exclusively in the hope it might put them in good stead when bidding for some government tender. Heaven only knows what proportion of the country’s economy that eats up, although with an official real gross domestic product of around $16 billion in 2009, it is safe to say that Turkmenistan may be spending a little beyond its means on things that it probably doesn’t really need. Plus ca change.

The bulk of construction work in Ashgabat appears to be focused on residential apartments, although no Turkmen building boom would be complete without a fair share of waste. As usual, dictator-serving French construction titan Bouygues has cornered the market for official buildings with its orders for a new Oil and Gas Institute, Makhtumkuli University, the Sport and Tourism Institute and extra premises for the oh-so-busy parliament.

Presumably, Ashgabat thinks that $4 billion here or there will come out in the wash, and that it can always offset the debt against future sales of gas. Because, of course, by the time the pipeline to China is pumping 40 billion cubic meters of gas annually, the country’s economy will be fully diversified, what with German teenagers clamoring for Turkmen-made jeans, Turkish children nibbling on Ashgabat choccies and German tourists hogging the sun-beds along the Caspian coastline. At least this is the hazy vision that appears to Berdymukhamedov in his sleep, amid dreams of grateful subjects willfully prostrating themselves at his diminutive frame as his pudgy face beams contentedly. Chinese economic policy is made of somewhat more reality-bound stuff, and they will likely part with requested cash as much of it will end up in their own pockets anyhow.

In December, the Turkmen state media announced that the government had awarded $9.7 billion to several foreign companies to develop South Yolotan. Among those companies was CNPC Chuanqing Drilling Engineering Company, which won a $3.13 billion deal to produce 10 billion cubic metres of gas annually. That is to say, please lend us $4 billion, so we can pay a company you own $3 billion to do work in our own country.

On the face of it, none of this necessarily makes bad economic sense, but being that it is Turkmenistan we are dealing with here, much room must be reserved for pessimism and cynicism.

Turkmenistan responding to the demands of a human rights group? Whatever next?
Last week, Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and Turkmenistan’s Independent Lawyers Association, based in Holland, published a fascinating and grim report on the state of the country’s prisons. The principal premise underlying the survey was that the Turkmenistan’s harsh judicial system is leading to overcrowding in the jails:
Due to a huge, for the size of the country, prison population, Turkmenistan’s penitentiary facilities house 3.3 times the number of inmates they are designed to accommodate. This results in the fast spread of diseases and numerous deaths in the correctional facilities.
Accordingly, the report calls for milder sentences for minor crimes and the introduction of methods such as home arrest and fines instead of prison terms.
It also draws attention once again to the authorities failure to allow access to jails by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The government has made feeble overturtes in that direction in the past, but nothing has ever come of it.
Clearly, the main reason that the Turkmens don’t want foreigners nosing about their prisons is because of what they might find in there. Tuberculosis – which is likely to become worse in the country in the absence of Medecins Sans Frontieres, who left under bad cloud last year – is rampant. If TIHR’s report is even half accurate, the conditions are nightmarish and the cruelty routine.
But perhaps even more importantly, for the highly sensitive Turkmen authorities, prisons are full of political undesirables that might be inclined to say something inappropriate.
At any rate, it would have have been legitimate to expect this report and its findings to disappear down a deep, dark hole, but the government has responded with surprising alacrity, as AP reports:
Turkmenistan’s president has ordered the country’s maximum prison sentence cut to 15 years and called for improving prison conditions, state media reported Tuesday.
The measures come as doubts grow about the authoritarian government’s commitment to democratic reforms.
President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov told a meeting of security officials Monday that the maximum sentence will be reduced from 25 years and fines will replace prison time for certain crimes, state newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan reported.
Berdymukhamedov instructed the interior minister to study bringing prison conditions up to international standards, the paper said.
Where the authorities fall short, however, is on the issue of oversight. All Berdymukhamedov seems willing to commit to is to allow unspecified civic groups to monitor the state of jails. But given how craven and toothless those groups tend to be in Turkmenistan, there is no reason to believe that will come to anything.
Regardless of how this works out – and on the face of it, this announcement is unequivocably good news – the very fact that the government seems to have been stung into action by the report of an exiled activist group is a startling development.
Who knows that Berdymukhamedov hasn’t been surfing the net?

As of March 4, results from Tajikistan’s parliamentary elections show the People’s Democratic Party led by President Emomali Rakhmon winning 54 seats in the 63-seat lower chamber. Other parties – namely the Islamic Revival Party, the Communist Party, the Agrarian Party and the Economic Development Party* – won two seats each.

Depending on whom you believe, this outcome is either the vindication of the long-sighted platform put forward by the pro-presidential party or the outcome of systemic fraud.

In any case, the composition of parliament remains almost unchanged; the Communists have lost a couple of deputies, and the government party has lost a few seats to two dummy opposition parties that essentially materialized from nowhere, despite them having absolutely no public profile to speak of.

Reactions have varied from weary disdain to creeping dread about what lies ahead for Tajikistan. So what does the future hold in store: stagnation, tentative development or spiraling instability and a descent into worsening authoritarianism?

Kabiri: Two to Tango?

The fate of the Islamic Revival Party seems a useful illustration of general tendencies. Party leader Muhiddin Kabiri optimistically predicted before the vote that the IRP would win 10 seats. Kabiri has also insisted, since results were announced, that his party claimed at least 30 percent of votes cast, far more than the 7.7 percent officially attributed to it.

Kabiri earned some glowing write-ups on the eve of the election, and was cast by Radio Free Europe as a secular modernizer, complete with clean-shaven look and suit. Indeed, Kabiri seems like a confident and interesting personality, while his party has conducted a lively campaign, with supporters hitting the pavements and taking the message from door-to-door. The IRP also benefits from a natural hard-core base due to its regional roots and its, admittedly soft-focus, religious stripes.

One strand of thought on the eve of the elections had it that the IRP could be gradually co-opted by the government as a useful pressure valve for Islamic currents. There are monthly reports of arrests of adherents to banned groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Tablighi Jamaat, not to speak of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan terrorist organization. IRP represents the respectable face of political Islam and it has gone to great lengths to disavow the values of those underground groups and reject the notion of creating an Islamic state.

Kabiri, who lived and studied in Yemen during Tajikistan’s five-year civil war, also adamantly insists his party has received no support from foreign movements or governments.

Even more propitiously for Rakhmon’s regime, as suggested above, the IRP does not even make any claims to power. The party’s very modest expectation of claiming less than one-sixth of the available seats in parliament was an advance declaration of defeat and evinced a clear desire to engage in a compromise stance from the outset.

"Check if any of those pesky OSCE people are coming?"

Why then would Rakhmon’s party, with the connivance of the Central Elections Commission refuse to accept the possibility of admitting the existence of the IRP as a weak, if viable, opposition?

Broadly, and crudely, speaking there is something in the Central Asian-Soviet regime mindset that determines that legitimacy can only be conferred by appearing to gain an absurdly and implausibly large swathe of popular support (with 72 percent of the vote and an 87 percent turnout, more than 62.5 percent of registered voters supposedly cast their ballot for deputies from the People’s Democratic Party). To put it more succinctly, again and again, crooked post-Soviet leaders decide that legitimacy is earned by numbers, not process.

Rakhmon also evidently believes that compromise is not a necessity. That much has been evident from the immediate postwar years, when Rakhmon’s Kulyabi clan began reneging on power-sharing commitments made during the peace negotiations. Over time, the legitimate Islamic opposition has been squeezed out and, all the while, the authorities have been muscularly stamping out alleged militants or terrorists (whatever you want to call them) and their troublesome teenage chai-wallahs**.

This steady process cannot but add impetus to the widely held theory that all the government is contriving to do is drive Islamic movement underground, where they will fester and grow malignant. Perhaps Rakhmon looks with hidden admiration to Uzbekistan, where Islam Karimov’s intransigent line has led to apparent success in terrifying and extirpating potential violent radicalism into virtual extinction. Or even to Kyrgyzstan, which has been seemingly blessed with a lack of active extremist groups, but whose forces have also claimed victories in the fight against terrorist groups.

Those parallels can be misleading, because the countries are so fundamentally different in their political structures, demographics and recent legacies.

But what should be clear is that all the leaders of these countries pursue a malign and dangerous logic drawn from the small blueprint: Crush the religious underground, while using it as the straw man justification for quashing basic democratic freedoms in the name of some hazy indigenous notion of national development.

Because Tajikistan’s regime is no less absolutist than those of its ex-Soviet neighbors, its pursuit of unfettered power cannot allow for the appearance of an opposition in the ascendancy. Therefore, the Islamic Revival Party must wither or remain stunted, and those that desert it for the radical fringes will be hunted down without mercy.

Pretending for a moment that Rakhmon is driven by something other than megalomania, greed and an unquenchable thirst for power, what else would explain this desire to remain so utterly unchallenged?

Wanting to make a purely academic argument, one could argue that the Rakhmon regime has come to understand that its model for the country’s future economic prosperity, which appeared predicated almost entirely on the success of the Roghun hydroelectric dam, requires absolute control and supremacy.

It is true that Rakhmon’s government will need total control over all levers of power to get away with squeezing the population as hard as it is doing to raise the money needed to build Roghun.

Road to Ruin or Stairway to Heaven?

A little bit of background here – The Tajik government has issued $1.3 billion worth of stock in Roghun and it hopes the cashless population will be able to stump up the sum and pay, which will cover the cost of building the plant’s first two units. According to plans, Roghun will eventually comprise six 600 megawatt units, which would be more than enough to supply the country with its own electricity needs and leave enough left over to export to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Having broken off a deal with Russia’s RusAl some years ago and realizing that nobody would want anything to do with a project rife with peril from corruption and intemperate Uzbek resistance, Tajikistan has decided to go the first part alone. The government ensures Roghun will pay dividends (literally) in spades, although Rakhmon seems curiously reluctant to sink his ill-gotten hundreds of million (if not billions) into the enterprise, but that is hardly surprising.

No, this will need a Soviet-style combination of ceaseless propaganda and strong-arming. And there is no room for even the smallest hint of dissent in this scenario.

Cynicism apart, the publicity drive does appear to have been successful and will ensure that the anger that should be brimming over will be tempered for some to come.

Kabiri has warned that he will bring his supporters onto the streets in a peaceful and legal protest against the fraudulent elections, but there are all too many reasons to think this call will not be heeded, if it is even formally issued in the first place.

Christian Bleuer at Registan.net predicts conflict fatigue – a legacy of the civil war – and the IRP’s inability to mobilize and organize mass crowds makes a successful protest unlikely. This is a fair but perhaps only partial explanation for what seems like the most probable outcome.

There is a case to be made that the People’s Democratic Party and Rakhmon have been successful in ramming home the anodyne, but effective, rhetoric of sustainable development, stability and energy independence.

The fact that many people may bought into this line makes it all the more tragic that the corruption, incompetence and thoughtless callousness of the Rakhmon regime is likely only to drive Tajikistan further to the brink of collapse and conflict.

* These two parties were both created in 2005, the year of the last parliamentary elections. The Economic Reform Party, led by Olim Boboyev, reputedly has 17,000 registered members. The Agrarian Party, led by former Soviet apparatchik Amir Karakulov, has 20,500 members.

** Last month, Soghd regional court jailed four men for “involvement” with the IMU, including 16-year-old schoolboy Nasibulloh Zabirzoda. The court found Zabirzoda guilty of providing his uncle, an IMU member, with food and provisions.