Turkmenistan: The big chill

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It is so cold that Turkmenistan has suspending gas exports to Uzbekistan, Iran and even its most important customer, China. Our weekly briefing.

Turkmenistan’s parliament does not do anything.  

The only function it serves is to enable the dictatorship in charge to claim that it is presiding over a representative democracy. International partners do their bit in bolstering this fiction by engaging with the ersatz legislators as though they were the real thing.

None of this stops the Turkmen regime from constantly – and puzzlingly – fiddling with their only theoretically representative body.  

On January 11, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the head of the upper house of parliament, the ex-president and de facto current co-president, suggested reverting from a bicameral setup back to a single-chamber parliament. This will bring a swift end to the experiment with bicameralism started two years ago. 

This looks at first blush like a watering-down of the parliament, such as it was. If Turkmenistan was on a hypothetical trajectory towards something genuinely (if only very partially) representative, this development takes it in another direction. That direction being what Turkmenistan had prior to 2008. 

It was in 2008, one year after Berdymukhamedov came to power following the death of his erratic and mercurial predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, that a decision was adopted to scrap the Halk Maslahaty, or People’s Council, in the form in which it then existed. This 2,507-member body was comprised of the political elite, some supposedly elected members and the fulsomely bearded community elders that added much-needed color to the council assemblies that took place around once a year. The scale and diversity of the Halk Maslahaty was intended to convey the illusory impression that it was an accurate reflection of the population’s wishes. 

Berdymukhamedov’s decision to get rid of the Halk Maslahaty and hand some formal powers over to the parliament, or Mejlis – itself also a rubber stamp – was naively read at the time as evidence of a reformist bent.  

When Turkmenistan in 2020 switched to a bicameral system, which Berdymukhamedov argued would enable legislators to somehow better reflect the interests of local communities, the Halk Maslahaty label was lent to the new senatorial upper house. Prior to stepping down as president and handing the reins to his son, Serdar, in early 2022, Berdymukhamedov assumed the chairmanship of this newly formed Senate. 

Now it turns out this will not do. Speaking at a joint session of parliament, Berdymukhamedov senior said members of the new-look Halk Maslahaty will include the president (his son), the Mejlis speaker, the chair of the Supreme Court, members of the cabinet and a whole array of other local government, national and parastatal apparatchiks. This body will have the authority to tinker with the constitution and decide major issues of domestic and foreign policy.

The joint houses of parliament will convene again on January 21 to push forward this agenda to centralize power.  

In a parallel ongoing development, an election for the 125-member Mejlis has been scheduled for March 26. Local representative bodies, all the way through from regional- to village-level, will hold elections on the same day. None of it will mean much in practice.

Turkmens would have been excused for not paying much heed to all this given that they are having to cope with a horrendously and atypically cold winter. Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news reported on January 16 that temperatures have dropped in some areas of the country to a staggering -25 degrees Celsius. Another outlet, Russia-based Meteojournal, reported a record-setting -27 degrees Celsius in the south of the country. 

Turkmen.news has reported stories of households seeing low pressure in their gas pipelines, which means they cannot get their stoves working reliably. The same problem has affected schools, so classes have had to be suspended. Thousands of heads of cattle have frozen to death. Ambulances are sometimes unable to reach people in need as engines are seizing up. Barracks housing young men doing their military service are so cold that many are falling ill. 

None of this is being reported in state media. 

It fell to media in neighboring Uzbekistan to report on the fact that gas exports from Turkmenistan had been suspended as of January 12 as an apparent consequence of the cold. This interruption is also impeding Turkmenistan’s ability to supply its most important gas customer, China.  

Turkmenistan’s gas deliveries to Iran have come to a halt too. Iranian Oil Minister Javad Owji has in part attributed the severe power crisis affecting his own country to Turkmenistan’s sudden cutoff. In contrast with the failure to deliver gas northward, the suspension of Iran-bound fuel apparently stems from Turkmenistan’s need to provide for its domestic customers first. This impasse will not do much for the state of Iranian-Turkmen relations, which had been improving of late, particularly as a result of intensifying energy cooperation dialogue.

It seems eminently probable that this concatenation of issues lay behind President Serdar Berdymukhamedov issuing a severe reprimand (with last warning) at the January 13 Cabinet meeting to Shahym Abdrahmanov, the deputy prime minister with the portfolio for oil and gas, and Batyr Amanov, the head of state gas company Turkmengaz. 

Anybody looking to see the efficacy of these routine reprimands need only consider the fact that Abdrahmanov and Amanov received similar treatment as recently as December. 

The pair may feel hard done by since they have otherwise been quite busy. At the same Cabinet meeting in which he was reprimanded, Abdrahmanov reported that planning work has begun on construction of Turkmenistan’s first underground gas storage facility. Abdrahmanov said international consultants would be hired to prepare a feasibility study for the project. 

Abdrahmanov also announced that the Turkmenbashi refinery complex had begun producing what he termed B-92-grade aviation gasoline. It is not clear what types of aircraft this fuel will be used for, but the fact that the state website described the development of this brand of fuel as a triumph for import-substitution probably makes it safe to assume it will not for now be exported or even used in aircraft performing international flights.  

Earlier this month, Top10VPN.com, a technology news website, published findings on how much internet censorship practices cost countries all around the world. According to its estimates, internet shutdowns in 2022 may have cost Turkmenistan up to $29 million, which looks like a paltry amount, although it is substantial considering how weakly connected to the outside world the country is in the first place. 

Authorities are determined to make things even worse. Turkmen.news reported on January 16 that the Turkmen government is contriving to make the ICQ messaging app, one of the few that have remained available for use, inaccessible to local internet users. Turkmen.news suggests the motivation behind this is to further popularize use of the locally developed Start messaging app, which is currently in beta. Needless to say, few will be enthusiastic to adopt a service that will provide no certainty of privacy. 

Source: Eurasia Net