Turkmenistan: Swap stop

Turkmenistan: Swap stop
Turkmenistan Airlines last month came into receipt of its newest Boeing-777-300ER aircraft. / Turkmenistan government website
By Akhal-Teke: A Eurasianet Bulletin January 10, 2024

And just like that, the gas swap arrangement between Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkmenistan has ground to a halt.

Under a November 2021 deal, the three countries are committed to a set-up wherein Turkmenistan delivers gas to Iran, which then pipes the same amount to Azerbaijan.

A government source in Baku has told the Trend news agency that the plan was for Azerbaijan to buy up to three billion cubic metres of gas from Turkmenistan in 2024, but that the sides could not come to an agreement on the commercial terms.

The additional revelation, reported on January 7, that negotiations are ongoing, has come from sources at the National Iranian Gas Company, which is clearly interested in having the matter settled as soon as possible, since cold northeastern Iranian regions are particularly reliant on Turkmen gas.

Only Amsterdam-based outlet Turkmen.news has put some firm figures on the disagreement at the heart of this impasse. The website’s unidentified sources claim that Ashgabat is indignant that Baku is seemingly unwilling to offer rates of more than the giveaway price of $140 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas.

“Azerbaijani oil and gas company SOCAR then resells Turkmen gas [to third parties] at twice the price,” the website’s sources say.

Turkmen.news advances an additional and scarcely believable (and yet somehow credible) possibility: there is a lack of Turkmen gas immediately available for export. The website attributes this state of affairs to corruption and mismanagement at the Turkmengaz state monopoly.

One especially alarming illustration of this was the accident that occurred last winter at the giant Galkynysh field that led to the temporary suspension of deliveries to Uzbekistan. An investigation reportedly later revealed that the incident was caused by technicians using low-quality chemicals that were not up to the job of insulating equipment from the effects of a cold snap.

As Turkmen.news describes the situation, lack of investment in decent infrastructure and poor staffing are a feature at Turkmengaz, not a bug.

Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan has offered a troubling explanation for the latter issue.

In line with presidential edicts to trim outgoings, workers are at present being laid off in numbers at government enterprises and institutions, the website reported on January 5. Turkmengaz, oil company Turkmenneft, and railways employees are in the firing line, as are workers in the construction and healthcare sectors.

But there’s a twist, says Chronicles. Heads of department fire more people than is strictly required, and then solicit bribes from those wanting to fill vacated positions. Since unemployment is so rampant, there is little incentive for workers to step out of line and complain about improper and inefficient practices.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, reported on January 8 on how a growing number of police officers in Mary province are quitting their jobs to try and find work abroad. A law enforcement source told Azatlyk that this trend has been fuelled by poor working conditions and a culture of abusive management.

Every cloud, though. As Azatlyk’s source explains, the exodus is so great that the size of a bribe needed to get a job with the police has apparently now been halved to around 30,000 manat ($8,500 at the official rate, around $1,500 at black market rates).

Also going abroad for money this past week was ex-president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. The so-called National Leader – the de facto co-president – on January 4 embarked on a working visit to the United Arab Emirates to rattle the tin can. A government report on this visit identified investment in trade, finance and the energy sectors as priority areas for cooperation. Turkmenistan is supposedly also greatly interested in the development of green energy – an assertion fully belied by all available evidence.

But the visit ultimately produced almost nothing to hang one's hat on, other than the announcement that regular scheduled flights between Ashgabat to Abu Dhabi were set to resume as of January 5.

Turkmenistan’s air connections are seeing some sign of life again.

An Italian travel website, The Flight Club, has reported that Turkmenistan Airlines will from March 6 start offering the Milan Malpensa to Ashgabat route. This flight is scheduled to enable passengers to then travel onward, again with Turkmenistan Airlines, from Ashgabat to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

The national carrier is in the process of expanding its fleet. It said in a January 5 statement that it took delivery last month of one of the two Boeing-777-300ER 368-seater aircraft it bought recently. The other aircraft is due for imminent delivery. The appeal of these models is that they have a flight range of more than 11,000 kilometres (6,835 miles). While this is far further than any route that the carrier services, it does mean that the plane can be run almost exclusively on cheaper, domestically produced aviation gasoline.

On January 5, Meteozhurnal, a weather-focused Russian website, carried details of a troubling spate of dust storms and other related anomalous meteorological events in Turkmenistan in October and November. In some instances, the phenomena were so sustained that they could be classed as hazardous weather events. Satellite imagery showed that “dust phenomena” were observed almost daily across multiple regions of Turkmenistan in November.

Turkmenistan is only one of many countries having to cope with this worsening problem and has every interest in working with the international community to address the fallout. As Feras Ziadat, technical officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told a UN conference on this subject in November: “Sand and dust storms … have become increasingly frequent and severe, having substantial transboundary impacts.”

“In source areas, they damage crops, affect livestock, and strip topsoil,” Ziadat said.

He then went on to talk, addressing a detail that should be of special concern to Turkmenistan, of the risk that sandstorms pose to “communications, power generation, transport, and supply chains.”

In the here and now, though, Turkmenistan’s authoritarian regime frets more about the dangers of the internet. At a Cabinet meeting on January 6, President Serdar Berdimuhamedov, the son of the former president, issued orders for the country’s cyber-defences to be shored up. He was not specific about what concerns him.

Taking measures to ward off hackers and fraudsters is perfectly sensible, but it seems, judging by previous form, that bolstering internet censorship is top of Berdimuhamedov’s mind. As it is, most of the global internet is closed off to Turkmen netizens, VPNs are next to unusable and connection speeds are dismal.

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

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.