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Suspected COVID-19 outbreak reported in prison. Amid continued govt denial of COVID-19 cases, independent media RFE/RL 16 Oct reported major disease outbreak, suspected to be COVID-19, in women’s prison in northern Dashoguz region, with several inmates reportedly in critical condition. Pro-govt media outlet 25 Oct praised “effectiveness of the Turkmen model of response to the COVID-19 pandemic”.
Govt continued to deny any COVID-19 cases amid reports of outbreak, while tensions rose in Balkanabat city over cash shortage. Amid govt’s continued denial of COVID-19 outbreak inside country, independent media Radio Free Europe 3 Sept reported hospitals in capital Ashgabat were increasingly overwhelmed by rise of COVID-19 cases. In Balkanabat city (west), public anger rose over authorities’ failure to provide money for cash withdrawal machines and growing queues in front of banks; at least 200 Balkanabat residents 7 Sept reportedly marched to prosecutor’s office and Central Bank in city centre to demand solution to cash shortage; authorities next day introduced cash withdrawal coupons. NGO Human Rights Watch 23 Sept said govt inaction toward economic impact of COVID-19 pandemic has worsened pre-existing food crisis in country, urged govt to “take immediate measures to make sure that people can get adequate food”. Dozens of Turkmen citizens 1 Sept held rally in front of Turkmenistan embassy in Washington DC, U.S., demanding govt cancel plan to amend constitution initiated by President Berdymukhammedov last year. Berdymukhammedov 25 Sept signed constitutional amendment to merge parliament with People’s Council to create two-chamber institution. Human rights groups Turkmen Helsinki Foundation and Russian Memorial 7 Sept said in joint statement that police 5 Sept detained lawyer Pigambergeldy Allaberdiyev near Balkanabat for suspected links with protests abroad; national security ministry first described Allaberdiyev’s arrest as “terrorism case”, but officially arrested him on assault and hooliganism charges.
Despite continued denial of COVID-19 cases inside country, authorities continued to grapple with health concerns. While authorities continued to deny presence of COVID-19 in country, govt 6 Aug ordered civil servants to pay for mandatory COVID-19 tests. After World Health Organization (WHO) mission urged govt to “activate critical measures to prepare for COVID-19 outbreak” during July visit, President Berdymukhamedov 7 Aug agreed to second health mission and reportedly consented to submitting COVID-19 test samples after call with WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus; WHO European director same day confirmed Turkmenistan govt cooperation but raised concerns about national rise in pneumonia cases attributed to COVID-19. In Lebap regional capital Turkmenabat, 120 health workers early Aug reportedly signed letter to regional govt demanding better protective equipment amid worsening health crisis, prompting authorities to threaten prosecution. Following Constitutional Court meeting on 19 Aug, parliament 22 Aug discussed amendments to constitution, reportedly aimed at establishing bicameral parliament; People’s Council to make final decision on amendment in Sept.
Govt took series of unprecedented public health measures amid mounting COVID-19 concerns. After World Health Organization (WHO) mission 6 July arrived in capital Ashgabat for ten-day visit to assess public health situation and help govt prevent COVID-19 outbreak, leader of WHO mission 15 July expressed concerns about reports of pneumonia and urged govt to act “as if coronavirus was circulating”. While govt continued to claim it had not registered any coronavirus cases, it also announced unprecedented public health measures: authorities early July imposed country-wide restrictions until 1 Aug, including closure of restaurants and malls; health ministry 12 July strongly recommended wearing of face masks, citing dust particles in air, and advised public to practice social distancing. Turkish embassy official night of 7-8 July reportedly died of heart failure in hospital in Ashgabat where he was treated for pneumonia. Amid ongoing reports of economic crisis, President Berdymukhammedov 3 July replaced minister of finance and economy in cabinet reshuffle.
Amid ongoing reports of food shortages and rising food prices, govt further tightened food rationing. In sign of further rationing measures, authorities early June reportedly introduced registration books in western Balkan province to track household purchases at state-owned stores that sell goods at subsidised prices. President Berdymukhammedov throughout month visited several provinces after wheat harvesting campaign began 5 June, including Lebap, Mary and Dashoguz. While govt continued to claim it had not registered any COVID-19 cases, authorities mid-June reportedly locked down hospitals in capital Ashgabat and Lebap regional capital Turkmenabat in east as reports surfaced of potential COVID-19 outbreak. Govt late June reportedly approved World Health Organization (WHO) mission scheduled for early July after WHO cancelled visit early May citing no official invitation.
Several hundred people gathered in rare protest mid-May in Lebap regional capital Turkmenabat in east to demand govt help after storms and heavy rains in eastern Lebap and Mary provinces late April-early May reportedly killed at least 30 people, severely damaged property and cut off utilities; protest occurred amid ongoing reports of economic crisis including food shortages and inflation. Govt continued to claim it had not registered any COVID-19 cases, 15 May approved COVID-19 prevention plan and imposed restrictions on mass gatherings. World Health Organization (WHO) early May reportedly cancelled visit to Turkmenistan after it did not receive official invitation; FM Meredov 8 May told reporters country was willing to host WHO delegation. Following ban of foreign currency cash withdrawals in April, state media 18 May announced govt will force local companies to sell all foreign currency proceeds to country’s sovereign fund.
Amid longstanding reports of food shortages, dozens of women held protest near Mary city 3 April; officials reportedly distributed bags of flour in effort to calm protesters. In official speech, President Berdymukhammedov same day referred to COVID-19 for first time publicly; urged cabinet to adopt action to alleviate its impact on economy and criticised several senior officials for mismanagement of food shortage situation. Central Bank 1 April banned withdrawal of cash in foreign currencies in response to concerns over falling global price of natural gas, while authorities in Darganata district (east) early April further reduced limits on daily cash withdrawals. Govt continued to claim it had not registered any COVID-19 cases and throughout month hosted mass public events. Media watchdog NGO Reporters Without Borders mid-April ranked Turkmenistan joint bottom in the world (with North Korea) in its annual review of press freedom.
Govt denied reports of COVID-19 cases at hospital near capital Ashgabat early March, but mid-month sealed off capital and restricted travel; reports of spike in food prices late month.
President Berdymukhammedov 3 Feb confirmed allocation of $1.5bn for import of materials and equipment needed for construction of new city in southern region Ahal. In cabinet reshuffle, Berdymukhammedov appointed his son Serdar to head Ministry of Industry and Construction; other changes included new national security minister, finance minister and deputy PM. Govt 24 Feb published draft bill on constitutional reforms amid speculation about Berdymukhammedov’s health and succession plans; amendment would create second chamber of parliament, reserving seats for former presidents in new upper chamber. RFE/RL’s Turkmen service Radio Azatlyk 10 Feb reported shepherds in eastern Turkmenistan frequently witnessing armed militants crossing from Afghanistan. U.S. Sec State Pompeo and all five Central Asian FMs met in Uzbekistan 3 Feb (see Uzbekistan).
Former interior minister Isgender Mulikov (fired by President in Oct) and ex-chief of migration service Meilis Nobatov 3 Dec made televised confessions of their involvement in corruption case. Court charged Mulikov with abuse of power and fraud, reportedly sentenced him to 20-25 years in prison. President Berdymukhammedov 13 Dec signed new anti-corruption law excluding prisoners convicted of corruption from state amnesties and pardons.
President Berdymukhammedov 1 Oct fired Interior Minister Isgender Mulikov, who had been accused of corruption and abuse of power.
Reports emerged that Turkmen border patrols in Lebap province along country’s border with Afghanistan were regularly being bombarded from Afghanistan’s Jowzjan province, where Afghan troops are fighting Taliban (see Afghanistan).
President Berdymukhamedov 12 Aug made speech at Caspian Economic Forum; his first public appearance since 5 July dispelled rumours that he had died.
After rumours emerged of President Berdymukhamedov’s death late July, govt denied his death and 24 July reported that he had spoken with his Uzbek counterpart on occasion of latter’s birthday. Soon after, state television showed new clips of Berdymukhamedov, although date of their filming was not provided.
Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom 15 April said it had resumed imports of natural gas from Turkmenistan following three-year gap.
Along with Azerbaijan, Georgia and Romania, govt 4 March established new trade route to Romania, Black Sea-Caspian Sea International Transport Corridor. Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders March urged Turkmenistan to stop harassment of journalists following arrest of journalist Soltan Achilova 11 March. Amid signs of increasing economic difficulties, reports emerged late Feb that authorities were restricting internal travel from regions to capital Ashgabat.
Meeting in Ashgabat, President Berdymukhamedov and Afghan President Ghani 21 Feb signed strategic partnership; Berdymukhamedov reportedly offered to help bring Taliban negotiators and Afghan officials together for peace talks. Opposition news website 8 Feb alleged that govt figures on 2018 cotton and wheat harvests were highly inflated, with real figures less than half those reported.
President Berdymukhammedov 2 Jan appointed son Serdar deputy governor of south-central region of Ahal. Defence ministry source 14 Jan told media conscriptions commissions were instructed to register males younger than 50, reportedly linked to tense situation along border with Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch annual report 17 Jan noted negative trends in human rights in Turkmenistan in 2018 with more repressive policies.
Reports continued of bread shortages and growing concern among population over end of free natural gas, water and electricity starting in Jan 2019, declared by President Berdymukhammedov in Sept.
Amid ongoing reports of economic crisis and food shortages, Russia’s Gazprom announced it would resume purchasing natural gas from Turkmenistan in Jan 2019 after three year gap.
President Berdymukhamedov 12 Aug signed new convention on legal status of Caspian Sea with heads of all Caspian littoral states (see Kazakhstan), offered to host follow-up talks. Berdymukhamedov 15 Aug travelled to Sochi, Russia to discuss bilateral relations with President Putin. Berdymukhamedov 24 Aug hosted counterparts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in western city Turkmenbashi for meeting of International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea; Turkmenistan reportedly to draft joint action plan on basis of agreements.
President’s son and Deputy FM Serdar Berdymukhamedov re-elected in parliamentary elections 25 March to represent Dushak, Akhal district; turnout reported at 91%. As increasing numbers attempted to leave country to flee economic crisis, reports emerged from Ashgabat airport that authorities prevented some people from boarding planes.
Increasingly acute food shortages and rationing led to further small-scale protests and violence. Flour shortages continued in Dashoguz with videos surfacing of people scrambling for animal food to consume themselves. Violent protests spread to south-eastern province Mary by early March, where protesters blocked roads and beat up local govt officials before breaking into govt-run food store and distributing flour. Reports suggest food shortages have hit capital Ashgabat as well, where long queues to state food shops are now normal; shortages also reported in Akhal provinces and Gokdepe. Other measures also suggest country is in severe economic crisis, including Turkmen banks mid-Feb suspending operations of Visa cards, and restrictions on international wire transfers. President’s son Serdar Berdymukhammedov appointed deputy foreign minister 30 March.
Radio Azatlyk reported police harassment of men going to mosque 15 Feb in Dashoguz province. Dashoguz residents also protested against severe shortages of flour and restrictions on trade in it.
Report of NGO International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) published 19 Jan illustrated dire economic and social situation, including rampant unemployment, price hikes and food shortages; described how govt limits information flow to country and oppresses local journalists.
Foreign ministry 6 Dec hosted EU delegation; discussed country’s macroeconomic and humanitarian situation, reforms of state apparatus, and potential diversification of EU energy deliveries by Turkmen gas supplies. Talks came as country’s economic crisis reportedly leading to food shortages in recent weeks. At meeting of Joint Uzbek-Turkmen Intergovernmental Commission on Delimitation and Demarcation of State Border working group in northern Turkmenistan 1-6 Dec, parties agreed to intensify demarcation work.
President Berdymukhammedov signed thirteen cooperation documents including on trade, energy and transport with Tajik govt during 2-3 Nov visit to Dushanbe. Ashgabat 14-15 Nov hosted Seventh Regional Conference on Economic Partnership on Afghanistan; president lobbied for Turkmenistan’s gas pipeline projects and opening of railroad connection with Tajikistan though Afghanistan, while Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov said country ready to host Afghan peace talks and promised development aid. Foreign ministers of five Central Asian states 10 Nov signed Program on Mutual Cooperation for 2018-2019 outlining joint efforts on security, trade and economic cooperation during EU-Central Asia summit in Uzbekistan.
Russian President Putin 2 Oct made first official visit to Ashgabat in five years, signed new strategic partnership document.
Fighting in Afghanistan moved closer to Turkmen border during month, with three-way clashes between Taliban, Islamic State-Khorasan and Afghan army reported in Darzab district. Media 27 July reported four Islamic State (ISIS) members captured inside Turkmen territory.
President Berdymukhamedov cancelled range of social benefits including free utilities, citing need to move to more market economy; observers pointed to worsening economic crisis. Media 19 June reported security services source saying Turkey warned govt of possible attacks by Islamic State (ISIS). UN Secretary-General Guterres concluded regional tour in Ashgabat, underscored link between rights abuses and violent extremism.
President Berdymukhamedov early May sacked or arrested several high-ranking officials for alleged corruption: 4 May fired general prosecutor for not addressing corruption; 50 high-level officials from prosecutor’s office detained and subjected to show trials broadcast on state media 12 May.
President Berdymukhamedov re-elected to third seven-year term 12 Feb with 97.69% of vote: turnout reported at 97.28%. Eight other candidates received less than 3% of vote between them. Amid worsening economic situation and shortages, reports emerged ahead of vote of officials forcing traders in Ashgabat to reduce prices. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders 10 Feb spoke out against “unprecedented crackdown” on independent journalists in country. OSCE sent first ever limited election observation mission.
Govt early Jan suspended gas exports to Iran over payment dispute; now exporting to a single customer, China, which pays sub-market price.
President Berdymukhamedov met with Russian President Putin in Sochi 1 Nov, marking his first visit to Russia since 2011. According to official reports they discussed broad agenda of cooperation, Berdymukhamedov described Russian foreign policy as “peace loving”. Some observers speculated that Turkmen President was seeking to negotiate new loans from Russia in face of struggling economy, evinced by shortages of basic goods. Turkmengaz and Gazprom 7 Nov resolved months-long dispute over pricing; details of agreement unknown. President’s only son Serdar Berdymukhamedov became member of parliament 20 Nov.
Presidential elections scheduled for 12 Feb 2017, first to be held under newly-introduced constitutional amendments which raised term limit to seven years and scrapped upper age limit for presidency. Amid ongoing concerns over security along Afghan border, Afghan first VP 16 Oct reported over 7,000 Islamic State fighters trying to make their way to Afghanistan’s northern provinces near border with Turkmenistan for next fighting season in 2017.
Ahead of presidential elections in 2017 which President Berdymukhamedov has called to be competitive, constitutional amendments adopted 14 Sept increasing presidential term from five to seven years, scrapping upper age limit of 70 years.
Amid shortage of foreign currency, Central Bank 25 July introduced tight restrictions on currency conversion; independent Turkmen media outlets (reporting from outside country) report citizens stockpiling food. Five Central Asian FMs met with U.S. Sec State Kerry in Washington DC 3 Aug under multilateral C5+1 format (see Kazakhstan). President Berdymukhamedov visited Germany 29 Aug, first visit since 2008; said country was working on constitution reform, will introduce human rights ombudsman; is looking into new gas export routes.
State media 2 July reported President Berdymukhammedov pardoned 612 prisoners ahead of Eid al-Fitr celebrations. Govt mid-month closed border with Kazakhstan for five days amid increased security measures.
President Berdymukhammedov met with visiting Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu 8 June in Ashgabat to discuss regional security risks and increase military cooperation. Independent Turkmen media 8 June reported 27 conscripts died on Turkmen-Afghan border early May in unclear circumstances.
Fighting reported 19 April between 300-400 Taliban and Afghan govt forces less than a kilometre from Turkmen border.
Late-Jan offer by visiting Russian FM Lavrov to assist with protecting Turkmen-Afghan border reportedly rebuffed amid ongoing spat over gas and concerns about Caspian Sea. Govt reported to be considering constitutional changes that would allow President Berdymukhamedov to rule for life. Amnesty International annual report criticised repression, continuing torture and rights violations.
Russia’s Gazprom 4 Jan stopped buying gas from Turkmengaz, switching to Uzbekistan for gas supplies, in move analysts believe intended to pressure Turkmenistan into military cooperation with Russia. Media reported banks 12 Jan banned sale of dollars indefinitely. Twelve governors sacked by presidential decree 4 Jan, eleven for failing to meet harvest quota, twelfth on ill-health grounds; followed 31 Dec brawl between residents of Dashoguz province’s Tagta district and police.
Ceremony marking start of Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline construction held 13 Dec.
President Berdymukhamedov 12 Nov met Chinese counterpart in Beijing to discuss security cooperation. U.S. Deputy Asst Sec State for Central Asia Daniel Rosenblum 18 Nov said Turkmen govt assured him it could guarantee security on Afghan border without assistance.
President Berdymukhamedov appointed Guichgeldy Hojaberdiyev Minister for National Security 5 Oct, replacing Yaylym Berdiyev, who was re-appointed defence minister, having previously held post 2009-2011. Re-shuffle comes amid concern for border security especially near Afghanistan’s Faryab and Jowzjan provinces, where fighting between Afghan govt and Taliban escalated. Independent media 4 Oct reported some 70% of Turkmenistan’s army has been moved south to protect border. Govt mid Oct rebuffed comments from Kazakh President Nazarbayev about recent incidents on its border with Afghanistan. Japanese PM Abe signed package of energy and infrastructure deals worth over $18bn during late Oct visit, part of Central Asia tour.
Amid falling oil prices, Council of Elders advisory body 10 Sept proposed to scale back welfare system, abolish subsidies of electricity, cooking gas and water. Military drills to practice defence against Afghan militants took place in strategic Serhetabat and gas-producing Yoloten areas late Aug.
Relations with Moscow strained amid dispute over price Russia’s Gazprom pays for Turkmen gas.
Registration of candidates underway 27 June-22 July for 16 Aug parliamentary elections and local administration polls. Opposition media 2 July reported increase in arrests near Iranian border of people linked to Afghan militant groups; 400 people reportedly detained since Feb, 300 still being held. Arrested reportedly include six officials from defence ministry, nine police, several officials from prosecutor’s office. Media 6 July asserted coffins containing four officers and eight draftees arrived in Ashgabat, all served in Tagtabazar district in Mary province near Afghan border. No official explanation provided for deaths; Russian media 8 July reported servicemen killed by IS reconnaissance group that crossed border.
Opposition media reported govt is mobilising local population in Lebap province to build defensive infrastructure against Taliban near Amu-Darya river by Afghan border, and conducting secret military exercises with foreign trainers in area. Conscription of school leaders also reported to be gathering pace. President Berdymukhammedov 27 May met special representative of Afghan president to discuss Turkmen role in inter-Afghan peace dialogue, agreement to continue Turkmen electricity exports to Afghanistan until 2027, security. Russian Central Bank reported 57% drop in remittances to Turkmenistan in first quarter of 2015.
Media reports suggested military exercises being conducted in southern Lebap province on Afghan border. Following reported discussion with Austrian President Fischer on rights abuses during Vienna visit, President Berdymukhammedov 16 May granted amnesty to 1,200 prisoners. Parliament reportedly considering scrapping age limit for president; state media reported parliament speaker 29 May saying constitutional commission considering extending presidential term from five to seven years.
Reports of renewed attacks on border village Marchak by Taliban in Afghanistan’s Faryab province mid-April. Head of U.S. Central Command 26 March told U.S. Congress Turkmenistan has requested military aid to strengthen border with Afghanistan. Unconfirmed media reports late March that Russian and Uzbek military experts were sighted on Turkmen-Afghan border.
Nine people arrested 8 March for allegedly planning terror attacks; suspects reported to have links with Afghanistan insurgents. Ethnic Turkmens living in Afghanistan claim Turkmen security services abducted three people during standoff over land rights 15 March. At least four ethnic Turkmen Afghans shot by Afghan police 16 March while protesting in Qarqeen, Afghanistan. Head of Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) Bordyuzha 16 March said regrettable that neither Turkmenistan not Uzbekistan will accept CSTO assistance to strengthen borders. New law passed allowing peaceful protest, dismissed by observers as window dressing.
Army and border service reservists being called up since Jan for three months’ training; students graduating secondary school who want to attend university to serve two-year military service following recent changes to conscription law. Russian and opposition media report extensive call-up is due to reports of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIL) operation in Afghanistan close to Turkmen border.
Concerns after Khamyab district in Afghanistan’s Jowzan province adjacent to border fell under Taliban control 14 Dec. Also in Jowzan province, villagers 17 Dec threatened to attack Turkmen border guards who they claimed were moving border posts and depriving them of grazing pastures.