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Central Asia In Focus: Turkmenistan’s Former President Back In Charge

Preview Text: Changes to Turkmenistan’s parliament, China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, Taliban’s electricity supply, update on RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, and more.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (R) in Ashgabat.
TURKMENISTAN — Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Ashgabat, October 11, 2019. (Photo by Alexey DRUZHININ / AFP)

What’s Happening in the Region

Turkmenistan’s Former President is Back in Charge

It has not even been a full year yet since Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov stepped down as Turkmenistan’s president and already he is back in charge of the country, with the title “National Leader of the Turkmen People.”

Deputies in Turkmenistan’s bicameral parliament voted on January 21 to bestow the new role upon Berdymukhammedov.

The same parliamentary deputies then voted to reconfirm Berdymukhammedov as head of the Halk Maslahaty (the People’s Council) which had been the upper house of parliament since March 2021.

Since Turkistan’s independence in 1991, its country’s Mejlis (parliament) had been unicameral and after March 2021, the Mejlis became the lower house of parliament.

At the January 21 joint session of parliament, the deputies passed amendments to the constitution abolishing the Halk Maslahaty as the upper house of parliament and transforming it into a separate state entity.

The Halk Maslahaty is now the highest body of power in Turkmenistan. As chairman of Halk Maslahaty, Berdymukhammedov is again the formal head of the country.

The Halk Maslahaty is now responsible for domestic and foreign policy.

Its members will include the chairman of the Halk Maslahaty; the president of Turkmenistan, who currently is Berdymukhammedov’s son Serdar; the chairperson of the Mejlis; the Supreme Court chairman; secretary of the security council; Mejlis deputies; and members of the cabinet of ministers.

The idea came from, you guessed it, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

He proposed the constitutional changes on January 11.

Why It’s Important: I’m tempted to say it is the first time any branch of power except the executive branch, had any real power in Turkmenistan’s governmental system.

But unfortunately, this simply appears to be the former president regaining formal power by reinventing the ever-malleable Halk Maslahaty and putting himself at the top.

Few believed Berdymukhammedov’s son Serdar genuinely was in charge of Turkmenistan after he was elected president.

Now we see Serdar never was and will not be the one calling the shots in Turkmenistan.

Full Steam Ahead for the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway?

On January 18, an office for coordinating construction of the proposed railway linking China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan opened in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.

It was the latest evidence that the project, which has been discussed for more than 25 years, might be realized.

Russia’s war in Ukraine seems to be the catalyst that finally got the wheels rolling.

When European countries imposed sanctions on Russia after the Kremlin launched a full-scale war on Ukraine last February, it complicated trade transit routes through Russia.

That forced Central Asian countries and China to put new efforts into opening alternative routes that avoided Russian territory.

Representatives of the three countries signed agreements on the railway on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand last September.

The technical study of the route is planned to start in April.

The route is less than 190 miles, but it runs through some formidable mountains in Kyrgyzstan and is expected to cost anywhere from $4 billion to $6 billion to build.

On the Chinese side of the border, the railway will connect to Kashgar and from there link with China’s domestic railway network.

On the Central Asian side of the border, the CKU railway line will run to the area near the eastern Uzbek city of Namangan where a railway leading to the Uzbek capital Tashkent, and built with Chinese help, opened in 2016.

Kyrgyzstan is hoping the route will help open up its mining industry at sites near the proposed railway line.

Why It’s Important: The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway had previously been viewed as a project that only benefitted the three countries involved.

But because of reinvigorated work in Central Asia to open new trade routes after Russia launched its war in Ukraine, the CKU railway will be able to connect to railways leading to Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, and routes that lead through Iran and Turkey to Europe.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at Jahonghir Ortikhojaev, who was the mayor of Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, until his unexpected dismissal on January 16.

Officially, Ortikhojaev was sacked for failing to cope with electricity and heating problems in Tashkent, but he is a controversial character and there might be more to his sudden fall from grace.

This week’s guests are Dilmira Matyakubowa, a Ph.D researcher in criminology and co-director of UzInvestigations; Navbahor Imamova, a veteran correspondent for the Uzbek Service at Voice of America; and Sirojiddin Tolibov, managing editor of RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi.

What I’m Following

Taliban Want their Electricity from Uzbekistan

Taliban acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi is calling on Uzbekistan to fulfill its obligations and send electricity to Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan has been exporting electricity to Afghanistan for 15 years, continuing even after the Taliban returned to power in August 2021.

The electricity went off on January 13, causing blackouts in provinces across Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s power company, Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat, said technical problems in Uzbekistan led to the cutoff.

The Asian Development Bank funded construction of power lines from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan now accounts for about 60 percent of Afghanistan’s electricity imports.

Kyrgyz Authorities Move to Shut Down Azattyk

Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Culture has petitioned a Bishkek court to terminate the operations of RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk.

Kyrgyz authorities have blocked Azattyk’s websites since late October, demanding Azattyk remove a video from RFE/RL’s Current Time TV about the September conflict along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly released a statement rejecting Kyrgyz authorities’ “continued unlawful attacks against Radio Azattyk.”

The court date is currently scheduled for February 9.

Fact of the Week

According to the Kyrgyz news outlet, as of January 23, there was only one day since the new year that the air quality in the capital Bishkek was rated clean enough to breathe. The increasing number of automobiles and use of coal for heating has turned Bishkek into one of the worst cities in the world for air pollution.

Thanks for Reading

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See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.

Until next time,