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Eurasianet

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EU and Turkmenistan Eye New Energy Partnerships

  • Turkmenistan's Foreign Minister, Rashid Meredov, recently embarked on a five-day trip to Belgium and Italy, where he met with high-level EU officials and signed a significant protocol for cooperation.
  • The European Union intends to send representatives to Turkmenistan on a regular basis to collaborate on energy cooperation and other frameworks.
  • Turkmenistan seeks European expertise and investment for its hydrogen energy development, methane mitigation efforts, and natural gas processing, aiming to enhance marketability.
Pipeline

A lot of Europeans will be passing through Turkmenistan this year.

So says Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov.

Meredov last week embarked on a five-day trip that took in Belgium and Italy.

In Brussels, he met with an array of important euro-panjandrums, including European Commission vice presidents Valdis Dombrovskis and Margaritis Schinas, the European Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, and Simon Mordue, the chief foreign policy advisor to European Council’s president.

The end result of all this business was the signing on March 18 of a protocol to the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between Turkmenistan and the EU. A press release from the European Union’s diplomatic service described this as a “significant milestone” no less.

Back in Ashgabat, Meredov briefed President Serdar Berdymukhamedov at the March 23 Cabinet meeting that there are plans for EU representatives to visit Turkmenistan “on a regular and systematic basis this year.” One key purpose of such dialogue is to create a framework agreement on energy cooperation. This is the bureaucratic groundwork that will have to precede any long-term natural gas delivery deals.

But there are other strands to this cooperation, as Meredov outlined in a Brussels roundtable on private sector partnerships between Turkmenistan and the European Union. Turkmenistan is eager to tap European expertise and investment to develop its hydrogen energy potential, continue addressing its methane emission problems, and process natural gas in ways that will make the commodity more broadly marketable.

Another speaker at the roundtable, Grégory Lecomte, head of the Central Asia unit at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, had some complimentary things to say about the work Turkmenistan has done to improve access to information on the legislative framework for investment.

“This may sound like a detail, but it’s important for potential foreign investors,” he said.

On the negative side of the ledger, Lecomte cited complaints of investors about the justice system. When contracts go wrong, a foreign company has little realistic legal recourse within Turkmenistan.

“We suggest the government look at building a stronger and efficient judiciary for alternative dispute resolution for foreign investors,” he said.

A likely possible outcome of such recommendations may be Turkmenistan exploring the creation of an analogue of the Astana International Financial Center court in Kazakhstan, a ring-fenced legal playpen in which foreigners can hash out their disputes.

Regular Turkmen citizens, meanwhile, must make do with good old-fashioned injustice.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom drew attention in a statement issued on March 25 to how the Turkmen government has been trampling the rights of Muslims, most notably those “who deviate from the state’s preferred interpretation of Islam,” during the holy month of Ramadan.

Officials charged with enforcing the rules do not seem to know if they’re coming or going. RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatylk, has reported that pupils in secondary schools and higher educational institutions in some parts of the country are being prevented from observing the fast by being forced to drink water. Meanwhile, management at state bodies in the Lebap province are telling staff that they should fast so as to follow the example set by the former president and now-National Leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (the father of the current president).

Drinkers are having a hard time of it too. Police officers in the Mary province were reportedly going around confiscating liquor from stores at the start of Ramadan and will presumably be holding onto it for safekeeping until it is permitted to indulge again. There is no law banning the sale of alcohol during Ramadan.

The second part of Meredov’s European tour took him to Rome, where he met with deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, whose portfolio includes transportation and infrastructure. Conversations in the Italian capital culminated with the signing of a memorandum of cooperation between the ports of Turkmenbashi and Naples.

Quite what shape this cooperation will take was not stated, but it can be assumed management at the former port is eager to draw expertise from the latter. Turkmenbashi is designed to handle up to 17 million tons of cargo per year. The Naples port system, which is constituted of three ports, last year handled 31 tons of cargo, so the scales are very roughly similar.

Interest in Turkmenbashi stems from the perceived need among boosters of the so-called Middle Corridor route to expand capacity everywhere possible. The Turkmen port is currently operating at a fraction of its potential. The mold of what could be happening here was set by a test initiative in December 2022, when a train pulling 46 carriages loaded with copper concentrate was dispatched from eastern Uzbekistan, across to Turkmenbashi, where it was rolled onto a ferry, through to Azerbaijan and Georgia, where it was loaded onto another ferry and then finally unloaded in Burgas, Bulgaria. The entire point of Turkmenistan shelling out $1.5 billion on turning Turkmenbashi into a bells-and-whistles “intermodal transshipment port” was to facilitate this very kind of traffic, but the results so far have been disappointing. The Europeans look eager to give this initiative another heave.

On March 20, farmers in four of the country’s five provinces were assembled to participate in the ritual start to the cotton-sowing season. A fifth province, Dashoguz, starts on March 27.

Fully 600,000 hectares have been set aside for cotton cultivation this year. That is up from the 580,000 hectares of 2023. This is a striking choice given how thirsty a crop cotton is and seeing how water security is looking a little dicey these dayas in light of Afghanistan pushing ahead with its Qosh-Tepa Canal, which is drawing its reserves from the same Amu Darya River upon which Turkmenistan relies so heavily.

The government has not spelled it out, but it appears like last year’s cotton harvest was not a great success. The downstream consequence has been felt by the likes of the Bayramaly oil-manufacturing plant in Mary province, which has had to lay off 70 employees, according to Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan. Workers still in a job are being offered pay in kind since cash is tight.

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The website’s sources say the factory ran into financial trouble because of declining yields of cotton, which is pressed to make cooking oil. Exports are weak as Turkmen oil is perceived as being low in quality. What is sold domestically retails at subsidized rates and does not turn a profit.

Similar layoffs are expected at factories elsewhere in the country, Chronicles said.

Meanwhile, Berdymukhamedov the elder, the National Leader and de facto co-president, has his mind on far more important matters. On March 23, he was busy inspecting his pet project, the new city of Arkadag, which was named in his honor. In trademark fashion, he checked on the appearance of lampposts, gazebos and window frames to ensure they matched his tastes.

“Window frames installed [at buildings in Arkadag] must comply with international standards,” he insisted.

Aerial shots of the city, which was inaugurated in June 2023, showed it to be entirely empty.

By Eurasianet.org

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