Turkmenistan: Big brother is listening

Turkmenistan: Big brother is listening
Turkmen officials are eager to tout the appeal of Turkmenbashi port. / Turkmenistan government website
By Akhal-Teke: A Eurasianet Bulletin January 31, 2024

Long lines outside stores in Turkmenistan are a reliable place to find people complaining about their quality of life.

And so it is there that the security services are focusing their latest hunt for malcontents, as RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Radio Azatlykreported on January 29.

Azatlyk tells the story of one recent incident when a man kvetched to fellow waiting customers outside a pharmacy about the misery of his living conditions and how his wages barely covered the cost of his medicines.

“He also said that the government is uninterested in the problems and living conditions of the people,” a witness to this scene told the broadcaster.

At this, a squealer in the queue called the police, who quickly arrived and bundled the complainer into their van.

“But they didn’t leave right away. After the man was pushed into the police van, he was beaten for some time inside so that others could see it,” Azatlyk’s source said.

The broadcaster said it has been informed by several Ashgabat residents that it has become commonplace for plainclothes security services personnel or their informants to lurk around bus stops, pharmacies and state-owned stores monitoring conversations.

Pursuing justice in such conditions is illusory.

The fate of Allamurat Khudayramov, a 34-year-old man who died in police custody late last year, is illustrative. The details were reported by Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news. On November 27, Khudayramov was detained on suspicion of dealing in tramadol pills, a banned substance in Turkmenistan, and taken to a police holding cell in the city of Mary. Three days later, his relatives received a call telling them to collect his body.

Video footage apparently filmed by Khudayramov’s relatives reveal severe bruising all over his body, indicating that he was likely beaten. His family lodged a complaint with the General Prosecutor's Office, which responded earlier this month with the airiest of brush-offs.

In a January 9 letter obtained by Turkmen.news, Deputy Prosecutor General Rakhim Atayev suggests that Khudayramov possibly administered a fatal beating to himself while under the influence of tramadol.

Turkmen.news editorially registered its incredulity at this conclusion.

“It is impossible to inflict injuries of this kind [to oneself] on the feet, the back of the thighs, to the back and the buttocks. Traces from a soldering iron, handcuffs and the blows of a club are visible on the body,” the website concluded.

And when punishment is meted out to those that probably deserve it, the consequences can be mild.

Turkmen.news reported on January 24 that the former head of state chemicals company Turkmenkhimiya, Nyyazly Nyyazlyev, was earlier in the month sentenced to 15 years in prison on corruption charges. The claim is that he oversaw the sale of urea produced by Turkmenhimiya to a conspirator at below-market prices and that the commodity was later traded internationally at a handsome profit.

Who was the conspirator? None other, says Turkmen.news, than Hajymyrat Rejepov, a cousin of President Serdar Berdimuhamedov.

Rejepov is at least proving a loyal confederate. He has reportedly paid off Nyyazlyev’s $500,000 fine and has badgered the prison service into giving his comrade cushy conditions behind bars. Rejepov has also promised to get Nyyazlyev freed as soon as possible under one of the president’s regular amnesties.

In Brussels on January 29, Batyr Annayev, the deputy director general of Turkmenistan’s Agency for Transport and Communications, laid out his country’s stall at the Investors Forum for EU-Central Asia Transport Connectivity.

One headline takeaway from Annayev’s saturninely delivered speech was that Turkmenistan is investing about $6bn in the development of its railway network. That has enabled the upgrading of more than 5,000 kilometres (3,107 miles) of railroad, he said. Overall, some $14bn has been spent on transportation and communications between 2015 and 2021, Annayev told the forum.

Turning to the sales patter section of his speech, Annayev invited major logistics companies from the European Union to develop transport routes and cross-border logistics hubs. He touted the port of Turkmenbashi as particularly promising.

Turkmen officials tacitly concede that their knowledge base is wanting – and, by extension, that it is this, in part, that has made something of a damp squib of their expensively refurbished Turkmenbashi port.

“We are highly interested in exchanging experience in [the use of] transport management infrastructure and in the introduction of digital technologies for transport management flows,” Annayev said.

Ahmet Demirok, Turkey’s new ambassador to Turkmenistan, opened his stint with a wide-ranging interview with local reporters. Once he performed the pleasantries, he offered a panoramic view of the state of economic ties between Ankara and Ashgabat. A laudably detailed rundown on the press opportunity on January 25 was provided by Ashgabat-based News Central Asia.

“[Turkey’s] current trade volume with Turkmenistan has tripled over the past four years to reach $2.1 billion in 2022,” Demirok said. “With the current positive direction of our trade relations … we will easily be able to achieve our common goal of $5 billion [in the near future]”.

To put that in some regional context, bilateral trade with Russia in 2022 amounted to around $1.6bn. It is estimated that Turkmen-Turkish trade turnover in 2023, meanwhile, hit the $2.7bn mark, which is a striking year-on-year jump.

Turkish investments have historically spanned across a diverse array of interests, taking in the power industry, transportation, retail, private education, construction, leisure, manufacturing and healthcare. As Demirok told journalists, Turkish companies have implemented around 1,080 projects with an aggregate value of $50bn in Turkmenistan since 1991.

It was reported in the middle of last year that Batyr Amanov, the deputy prime minister with the portfolio for overseeing the oil and gas industry, had become embroiled in some unseemly intra-elite squabbles. That he has managed to hold onto his high-ranking positions for as long as he has is likely fruit of his marriage into the ruling family.

He had some positive news to deliver at the January 26 Cabinet meeting, however. As he told President Berdimuhamedov, the Turkmenbashi oil refinery has started producing a product called Hydro Plus diesel fuel, which he said can be used by jets in conditions of extreme cold. Another novelty is a motor oil for powerful diesel engines operating at high temperatures.

Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.