Turkmenistan: Union busting

Turkmenistan: Union busting
Few see the sense of turning up to football matches in Turkmenistan these days. / Turkmenistan football federation
By Eurasianet August 29, 2023

The romp being enjoyed by Arkadag, a newly created soccer team in Turkmenistan named after the former president, shows no sign of abating.

Twelve games into its first season, the team has suffered no defeats or even a draw. 

As Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan has reported, however, local soccer fans are not amused.

It was bad enough that Arkadag’s squad was built through the raiding of other top teams, essentially converting it into a mirror image of the national side. It appears that referees are helping to put their thumbs on the scale too.

On August 16, Arkadag was poised to endure its first draw of the season in an away match to Shagadam, only for the referee to unjustly award a penalty to the visitors at the last available moment. Didar Durdiyev, a striker for the national team, duly converted in the fourth minute after the end of regular time. 

These shenanigans are hardly a recipe for the kind of sporting excellence that former president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov – popularly known by the honorific Arkadag – has so often claimed to aspire to. Sure enough, Arkadag’s first encounter with a foreign peer, namely, KF Besa Dobërdoll, a team from North Macedonia’s second division, ended in a 1-1 draw.

And none of this augurs well for the aspirations voiced by Fifa president Gianni Infantino, a man never more comfortable than when in the presence of despots, during his visit to Turkmenistan in May.

“We have great projects for Turkmenistan,” Infantino said at the time. “We have to make football grow in this country, Turkmenistan is a football country… it has a great talent for football and… a great passion for football.”

Attendances at local soccer games are already weak, and Arkadag’s artificially maintained dominance will only compound that trend.

Not that this matters to Berdimuhamedov or his successor and son, the current President Serdar Berdimuhamedov. Satiating their megalomania is the overriding imperative. 

On August 26, Berdimuhamedov the elder conducted another inspection of construction works at the new city built in his honour – also called Arkadag, naturally. Among his multiple fastidious little instructions was one to install a Hollywood-style sign bearing the city’s name (and his own, by default) on an overlooking slope.

The sign “should be beautiful, visible from afar and, in general, attract attention,” he said.

What properly attracts attention to Turkmenistan is its natural gas riches, and this month has produced a flurry of interesting business on this front.

On August 20, President Berdimuhamedov travelled to Hungary, where he met Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who was in turn in Ashgabat in June. A day later, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto relayed in a video message that Hungary and Turkmenistan have reached a “political agreement” on gas deliveries.

A “political agreement has been reached. Now it is the turn of companies to continue trade negotiations," Szijjarto was reported as saying.

This apparent breakthrough may well prove illusory though. There is no obvious indication of who is going to come forward to build the costly infrastructure needed to carry the fuel across the Caspian Sea and then to Europe. Szijjarto has something of a track record in making bombastic projections without feeling the need to substantiate them with consideration for practical details.

Orban’s visit in June hinted that something important but more modest might be planned. Berdimuhamedov suggested in his public remarks on that occasion that Turkmenistan might be interested in investigating the technology involved in producing hydrogen out of natural gas. Hungary is a useful partner here, in that it has hinged much of its zero-emissions strategy on expanding the domestic production and storage of hydrogen

Another more compelling and intriguing vector for gas exports emerged on August 24 following a visit to Ashgabat by a delegation of officials from Iraq. Details are scant so far, but the idea is for a swap deal a little like the trilateral arrangement that exists between Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkmenistan.

Reuters news agency quoted Iraqi Deputy Oil Minister for gas affairs Azzat Sabir as saying that Baghdad and Ashgabat had reached a preliminary agreement designed to meet the fuel needs of Iraq’s power plants. 

Sabir said a sales agreement should be signed before the close of the year. He specified no numbers.

This could all be a convenient diplomatic fig-leaf since Iraq has come under sustained pressure from the United States to reduce its reliance on gas from heavily sanctioned Iran. A Turkmen deal would notionally allow it to argue that it is making progress in this respect.

Closer to home, Uzbekistan’s Energy Minister, Zhurabek Mirzamakhmudov, told Turkmen state media on August 24 that his country had agreed a deal to import up to 2bn cubic metres of Turkmen gas annually. Work is ongoing on a new contract envisioning larger volumes and a longer timeframe, the minister said.

This is important news on a number of fronts. Prospects for Turkmen-Uzbek cooperation on gas had looked troubled since a technical snafu over the past winter left Turkmenistan unable to supply Uzbekistan under the terms of an earlier agreement. This incident may have contributed heavily to Russian efforts to shore up its role as Central Asia’s indispensable partner through its promotion of a trilateral “gas union” also comprising Kazakhstan. Moscow’s notion was to supply gas to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in times of peak need. 

By sourcing gas from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan puts itself in a stronger position in its dialogue with Russia.  

Turkmenistan is by and large solidly in the Russian camp, but tensions do occasionally flare around the topic of energy.

On August 12, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry issued a commentary from the deputy head of the state monopoly gas company Turkmengaz, Myrad Archayev, reacting testily to remarks made by a senior Russian diplomat, Dmitry Birichevsky, about the possibility of expanding the scope of the abovementioned gas union. 

Archayev interpreted Birichevsky’s remarks as an attempt by Moscow to somehow fold Turkmenistan into its geopolitical designs, possibly with a convoluted view to finding a new way to export Russian gas to China via the multi-stranded Central Asia-China gas pipeline.

If Turkmenistan were able to ramp up gas deliveries to Uzbekistan by significant amounts, it could stand to derail Russia’s jostling in Central Asia. 

This article originally appeared on Eurasianet here.