Monday, October 31, 2005

Pomegranates and the Turkmenbashi

This month's Orion has an article, No Two Alike, about an an agricultural research station in Turkmenistan called Garrygala. The forests and orchards of Garrygala once contained some 1,100 varieties of pomegranates and were tended by a Soviet researcher named Dr. Levin. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant an end to funding for Dr. Levin and Garrygala. Of course the Turkmenbashi had better things to do with his natural gas wealth, like erecting statues of himself, than to support the research station. As a result the facility has fallen into disrepair.

The article starts with the author, Barbara L, Baer, first hearing about Garrygala on a public-radio program. Interested in the plight of the facility, she progressed from fund raising efforts to an eventual depressing trip to Ashgabat. Ultimately, the bizarre politics of Turkmenistan prevented her from ever reaching Garrygala.

As I've said before, my interest in this obscure Central Asian Rebublic is partly the strange personality of its leader, the Turkemnbashi, and partly because it is precisely the sort of place that deeply challenges the Bush Doctrine. In the lead up to the war to oust the Taliban, Turkmenistan provided a needed entry point into northern Afghanistan. As a result, the US entered into an alliance of sorts with Turkmenistan.

I mention all of this because of one line in the linked article, "Despite massive infusions of dollars for rights to natural gas and oil paid by U.S. and international corporations, the national bank is insolvent, university degrees are no longer accredited abroad, official unemployment is listed at 25 percent but is more likely 50, and most recently, the school year has been shortened to stem budget deficits." The emphasis added is mine.

First, the claim so casually made that implies the US is a major investor in Turkmenistan is patently false. Russia, the Ukraine and Germany are the primary investers in Turkmenistan. In fact, Russia is the principal buyer of Turkmenistan's plentiful natural gas, with a pipeline being built to connect the two countires. Secondly, in spite of its needs to access Afghanistan, the US has led pressure against the Human Rights abuses, particularily concerning freedom of the press and religion, of the Turkmenistan government.

The Turkmenbashi leads a brutally repressive regime. It is difficult to believe that the winds of democracy blowing in the region won't eventually lead to eruption in Turkmenistan. When that happens, as the line quoted above hints, the realpolitiks of the needs of access to Afghanistan will blow back on the US. The US needs to be firm, and public, as they hold other country's feet to the fire in their dealings with Turkmenistan. At the same time the regime of the Turkmenbashi is an issue that needs to be addressed, and again in a public manner, before the eventual street demonstrations.

I fear the State Department is juggling the balls in this arena, and the black eye of hypocrisy is not what the US needs as it promotes the Bush Doctrine in the region.


RogerA said...

Geez, Ambi--where in the world do you get this stuff? Turkemnbashbi? Pomegranates? This HAS to be the first post I have ever seen on this part of the world--
you have to give Al Gore credit--the internet is a wonderful thing.

terrye said...

Back when I used to listen to NPR there was a story on the Stans. It seems that Stalin deliberately split up the region for fear that if they were one large country they would resist Russian dominance.

ambisinistral said...


I've ranted amd raved about the Turkmenbashi for some time now. Do a search on him and see some of the loony things he's done.

He's renamed the months and day of the week, had a scheme to pump water from the Caspian Sea into the desert to grow rice, wanted to build an Ice Palace in the same desert, is trying to build and artificial river for his capital because all great cities have rivers, fired his country's medical staff and replaced them with conscript soldiers -- and in the process closed all hospitals outside of the capital, and on, and on.

The man is arguably the most insane dictator on the planet... and that's saying something.

Sadly the US had to get involved with him over access to Afghanistan. We really need to do something about that relationship before it blows up in our face.

Rick Ballard said...


With Dr. Rice's apparently successful negotiation of basing rights at Bishkek in Kyrgystan the value of Turkmenistan has slipped slightly. It does share a long border with Iran and also has a fair share of coastline on the Caspian which would be handy for slipping SF teams into Iran but we have access through Iraq too.

I wonder what the theoretical downside to shaking things up there might be?

chuck said...

With Dr. Rice's apparently successful negotiation of basing rights at Bishkek in Kyrgystan the value of Turkmenistan has slipped slightly.

I thought we were moving out. There were a couple of threads over at Michael Totten's place on this. Let's see: here's an article on the Russian gas deal, here's Michael at TCS, and here is Michael at his blog. There is some good stuff on the comment thread of the latter. Nathan Hamm at registan is another source. BTW, Barbara's article pointing to massive investment by US corporations is one of those things that lead me to think that all Liberals (Leftists) are complete idiots. Overgeneralization? Sure. I just can't think of any exceptions at the moment.