Turkmenistan’s Pipe Dreams

Courtesy of The Economist, a detailed look at Turkmenistan:

“…AS THE Karakum desert sinks into cold darkness, a faint glow lights up the horizon. Another 15 minutes’ driving through dunes reveals why: a giant red pit is belching gases and flames into the night sky. This infernal sight first appeared some 30 or 40 years ago, after a drilling platform sank through the earth’s surface. The Darvaza crater could serve well as a symbol for the whole country—were Turkmenistan in need of any more monuments. Bordered by Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, surrounded by mountains and a desert shore, this land is rich in history, in natural gas and in misery. The Persians, Parthians, Arabs, Mongols and Russians passed through these arid plains. A “ruined and burned-out country”, is how Makhtum Kuli, an 18th-century Turkmen poet, summed it up.

It has the world’s fourth-largest gas deposits and its proud and poor population is ruled by one of the most oppressive and corrupt regimes in the world. A few kilometres south of the gas crater people sleep in yurts and drink rainwater. Scrawny children run about half-naked. Turkmenistan sells billions of dollars worth of gas each year. Yet the average income of its 5m people is under $300 a month.

The gas money goes into offshore accounts or into the fountains and marble palaces of the capital, a vision from “1984”. Its floodlit marble towers are occupied by the Turkmenistan equivalents of the Ministries of Truth, Peace and Plenty, all presiding over a low-rise Soviet town where people drink tea on the pavement and sheep nibble the trees.

Much of this is the legacy of the megalomaniacal Saparmurat Niyazov, who held onto power after the Soviet collapse and turned his backwater Communist republic into a medieval dictatorship. He deprived his people of proper education and health care, limiting school programmes, closing hospitals and pushing qualified ethnic Russians out of jobs.

Flattered by his vassals, and seduced by foreign firms, Russian and Western alike, he proclaimed himself “Turkmenbashi”—the father of all Turkmen—and eternal president to boot. His rule would have done Stalin proud. In the centre of Ashgabat stands a 75-metre (250-foot) tripodal—an arch of independence—topped with a 12-metre-tall golden statue of Turkmenbashi. It revolves so as always to face the sun. Lit at night it looks like a rocket ready to blast off. By the time he died three years ago Turkmenistan had become another planet: isolated from the outside world; its citizens barred from travel; the months of the year named after Niyazov (and his mother).

On his abrupt death, the country heaved a sigh of relief. A swift coup saw his constitutional successor arrested and power seized by Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a former minister of health. He reinstated the normal calendar, removed internal checkpoints and opened the border enough to let official foreign delegations flock in. A few of Turkmenbashi’s statues disappeared, but the system of Sultanic rule laced with centrally-planned economy and corruption remained intact.

“Berdymukhamedov is not a natural leader and needs to be seen doing something,” says one foreign observer. He soon ran out of small things to do, and serious reform might threaten his rule. So the “thaw” ended before it began. Last July 150 students were banned from attending the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan. Under Niyazov, humiliated officials were handcuffed as soon as they were fired. Now they are given a few months before being jailed discreetly. Andrei Zatoka, an environmental activist who was arrested on bogus charges, was forced out of the country. Those Turkmen who manage to get a foreign education are often scared to come back.

At least the president has recognised the existence of the market economy. He says he wants the private sector to make up 70% of non-oil-and-gas GDP by 2020. For this a local newspaper gushes: “We all are witnesses to how—thanks to your leadership—the Turkmen people have reached new frontiers to the amazement and vast respect of the international community.”

Mr Berdymukhamedov chipped off just enough from Niyazov’s personality cult to make some space for himself. No Turkmenbashi, Mr Berdymukhamedov settled for the title of “hero”. The television news is always happy and often shows the new president performing heroics. A recent broadcast showed Mr Berdymukhamedov, a dentist who styles himself a doctor, performing a small operation. Next morning the security services confiscated newspapers carrying the accompanying photo: someone had noticed that the X-ray the president had been holding was upside down.

Not only locals are keen to flatter the president. At a recent investment forum, representatives of the world’s largest energy companies touted their services and praised Turkmenistan’s visionary leader, who did not bother to turn up. (He was represented by a huge portrait.) However, no Western company has been allowed to drill onshore yet. Only the Chinese have managed to wangle a special concession and also to build a pipeline.

The main pipeline from Turkmenistan goes through Russia. This long allowed Gazprom, a Russian monopoly which generates 70% of Turkmenistan’s GDP, to dictate the price. In recent years, however, as demand increased Turkmenistan rebelled and started raising the price. Faced with rising demand and flat production, Gazprom had to agree. When demand fell, during last year’s crash, Gazprom did not renegotiate the contract. Instead, according to Mr Berdymukhamedov, it simply stopped importing gas—which caused the pipeline to explode on April 9th. Gazprom denies it was at fault and blames the explosion on poor maintenance of the pipeline.

Furious, Mr Berdymukhamedov declared that Turkmenistan could bypass Russia by supplying the planned “Nabucco” pipeline to the West. But that would require building beneath the Caspian Sea, which Russia would veto. Meantime, Turkmenistan is losing $1 billion a month in sales, for, though the pipeline is now repaired, Russia has yet to resume buying its gas. For Turkmenistan’s leaders this is clearly a problem. For its people however, a far greater danger is their country’s dependence on this gas. When it runs out they may be left with little more than a burning pit in the desert and a load of crumbling marble towers: once again, a burned-out and ruined country.

This entry was posted on Friday, December 18th, 2009 at 10:21 am and is filed under Turkmenistan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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