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20 February 2024

Turkmenistan: Sowing the Seeds

The Trans-Afghan TAPI natural gas pipeline remains stuck in limbo, while an Iran-Pakistan pipeline could undermine its financial viability.

Turkmenistan: Sowing the Seeds

Image: tdh.gov.tm

(Eurasianet) The trans-Afghan TAPI natural gas pipeline is the Groundhog Day of infrastructure projects.

Over and again, officials from some or all of the countries involved — which is to say Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India — meet and exchange assurances that the project will happen. When it does, everybody will prosper, they agree.

And then nothing happens.

But time is now pressing.

Kabul-based outlet ToloNews reported on February 19 on a meeting between Shahabuddin Delawar, the acting Mines and Petroleum Minister in the Taliban-run government in Afghanistan, and Muhammetmyrat Amanov, chief executive of the Ashgabat-based TAPI Pipeline Limited Corporation.

As ToloNews reported, discussions centered on “accelerating the process of starting the TAPI project.”

A spokesman for the self-styled Islamic Emirate implied that Afghanistan could not be blamed for the hold-up as it has provided all necessary security guarantees.

“We hope that the TAPI project will be started but you know that this is not only the subject of one country, four other countries are also engaged with it and they all should be ready,” the spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, was quoted as saying by TOLONews.

This is not happening in a vacuum, however.

As Lahore-based newspaper The Nation reported, also on February 19, Pakistan is “contemplating” starting work on building an 80-kilometer stretch of pipeline that would run from the port of Gwadar to the border of Iran. This section would become part of the long-delayed Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.

The Nation’s sources claim the urgency behind this initiative is that Pakistan is nervous about a potential $18 billion penalty for failure to implement a project that has been decades in the making.

An Iran-Pakistan pipeline could well undermine the financial viability of TAPI, which will be making Turkmenistan — a leading beneficiary of the latter project — nervous.

To complicate the geopolitics of all this, Russia is playing a curious role. It has expressed willingness to provide material support for both projects at various junctures, in effect rendering it an important broker in the economic fortunes of several countries in the region.

At the moment, though, Moscow is engaged in some very aggressive courting of Turkmen favor. Barely a week passes without a major Russian official or politician going on record to express their enthusiasm for Russo-Turkmen amity.

On February 18, the duty fell to Russia’s Ambassador in Ashgabat, Ivan Volynkin, who used the Day of Diplomatic Workers holiday to praise Turkmen diplomacy and the country’s commitment to the principles of neutrality.

Turkmenistan’s international initiatives are “strengthening peace and security in Central Asia,” Volynkin said.

The highlight of the holiday was the opening a diplomat training institute and museum dedicated to the history of Turkmen diplomacy in Ashgabat.

Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov illustrated his commitment to neutrality in a highly visual manner at one opening ceremony by having the Russian ambassador, Volynkin, and U.S. ambassador Matthew Klimow stand on either side of him, holding up a green ribbon that he then cut.

Earlier in the week, on February 15, President Serdar Berdymukhamedov dealt with the altogether more pedestrian business of appointing a new prosecutor for Ashgabat. Nedirguly Allanazarov will leave his post as deputy prosecutor of the Ahal province to take up the job.

This appointment is mainly of note as Allanazarov’s predecessor, Ovezmammed Shykhmammedov, was reportedly arrested after being fired all the way back on February 2 for “improper performance of official duties and serious shortcomings in his work.” RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, which reported on this development, suggested that Shykhmammedov, along with the also-recently fired General Prosecutor Serdar Myalikgulyev, were responsible for embezzlement that led to chronic shortages at subsidized state stores.

Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news reported earlier this month on how the cost of bread and flour at those state stores has been spiraling upward.

If this is indeed happening as a result of the Berdymukhamedov regime’s desire to transition the economy to market rules, an early lesson is being imparted on what that agenda implies.

As Turkmen.news relayed on February 19, rising prices for domestically produced flour has compelled many in the Mary province to opt instead for the variety imported from Kazakhstan. While the latter is slightly more costly, it is also much better in quality. The outlet’s informants claim that Turkmen flour is inclined to spoil due to the poor quality of seeds used for the wheat crop.

All the pieces of the puzzle are now shifting.

Berdymukhamedov on February 9 signed a resolution — cast as a measure to aid agricultural development — to increase the price that the government pays farmers for their wheat and cotton crops. The last time this was done was in 2019.

The hike for wheat is notable in scale — up from 800 manat ($230 at the entirely bogus and overvalued official rate) per ton to 2,000 manat.

If the motivation here is to ease the life of long-suffering and low-earning farmers, the effect is likely to be cancelled out by another measure reported by Turkmen.news. Namely, the manifold increase in the cost of fertilizers, irrigation and renting government-owned equipment.

This is playing out against an alarming backdrop.

Meteozhurnal, a weather-focused Russian website that is a veritable Cassandra on all things Turkmenistan, carried an article on February 18 about the strange weather patterns observed in February. The piece described unseasonably warm conditions in the middle of the month suddenly being displaced by a cold snap accompanied in some places by a dust storm.

If persistent, such madcap meteorological phenomena pose more than just short-term dangers. Farming becomes a fraught business, and where little or no thought is given to bolstering resilience, which appears very much the case in Turkmenistan, only bad things can happen.

The regime’s priorities may be elsewhere, though.

Berdymukhamedov met on February 13 with Stefano Pontecorvo, the chairman of Italian aerospace and defense equipment manufacturer Leonardo, seemingly to discuss the possibility of Turkmenistan buying a satellite from the company.

In 2015, Turkmenistan blasted a satellite into orbit onboard a SpaceX craft. The 4.5-ton satellite, known confusingly by the double monicker TurkmenAlem 52°E / MonacoSAT on account of being operated jointly with the principality of Monaco, was built on order by France’s Thales Alenia Space and has provided telecommunications services across Europe and Africa, and Central Asia. As it has now passed the halfway point of its anticipated lifespan, a replacement must be prepared.

It is something of a puzzle why Turkmenistan would need to expend doubtless considerable financial resources on buying a satellite designed to provide services that could more easily and cheaply be provided by major global companies.

Except that one of the transponders on the TurkmenAlem satellite is notably centered on the territory of Turkmenistan, suggesting that the Turkmen authorities prize the privilege of controlling a wholly exclusive channel of digital data. Dreams of building a sovereign internet immune from the pernicious influences of the outside world may hinge in future on investments like a new satellite.