ABADAN BLASTS TO HAVE REPERCUSSIONS FOR TURKMENISTAN’S POLITICAL LANDSCAPE
Last July, two significant events stirred the waters of the otherwise apparently still Turkmenistan politics. First, large-scale explosions of ammunition at arms depots swept over Abadan, a satellite town of the capital Ashkhabad, leaving dozens dead and wreaking havoc with the town infrastructure. The emergency was eventually followed by a statement of President Berdimuhammedov, inviting exile opposition leaders to return to Turkmenistan and run in the upcoming presidential election to be held in early 2012. While the statement was given considerable coverage in both local and international media, the explosions initially passed relatively unnoticed.
BACKGROUND: A series of blasts were reported from outside the capital Ashkhabad on Thursday, July 7, during peak afternoon hours. The blasts occurred at about 4.40 pm and lasted until late night. For reasons that are yet to be clarified, the explosions hit a weaponry storage in Abadan, located some 20 kilometers west of Ashkhabad and the released ordnance, including several Grad and Smerch multiple rocket systems and high-explosive artillery shells, triggered a chain of detonations leading to heavy devastation in the town and adjacent villages. Aside from the military base itself, hundreds of buildings were reportedly burned down and damaged during the accident, among them the town’s maternity hospital, school, kindergarten, carpet factory, and a few blocks of public housing. The Abadan hydro power plant also stopped operating in the wake of the explosions, causing electricity blackouts in parts of Ashkhabad.
The evacuation of Abadan began shortly, covering the entire town of some 50,000 residents. An improvised evacuation camp was set up in the town’s sports stadium providing first medical aid and coordinating the rescue operations on spot. Ambulances shuttled between Abadan and Ashkhabad taking the injured to hospitals across Turkmenistan’s capital, accompanied by military personnel and police sent to the disaster site to prevent looting. Meanwhile, unexploded missiles were reported to be scattered around by the uncontrolled detonations and hindered the evacuation of those unable or unwilling to leave. Telephone lines connecting Abadan with other parts of the country were cut within minutes after the first blasts became known to Turkmenistan’s authorities, and no hot line was established with either of the relevant government agencies, which added to the panic during the chaotic evacuation from the destroyed town.
The government maintained a low profile throughout the entire aftermath of the accident, providing little information to the public. With the situation escalating in Abadan, the national TV and radio continued broadcasting standard entertainment programs offering no news coverage from the spot while only a sparse mention of an “emergency situation in conjunction with the ignition of firework pyrotechnics” was made available by the authorities late at night through the Internet, to which the majority of Turkmens have no access anyway. The numerous press releases that were subsequently issued by Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry mainly protested against “slanderous reports” about significant numbers of victims and damage featured by the Russian media, rather than being specific about what actually happened in Abadan. Special units were reportedly set up under the national security ministry to search and detain those seeking to record the disaster on mobile phones or cameras and transmit eye-witness accounts to the outside world through independent channels.
The death toll varies from source to source and is subject to continuous reexamination. The bottom end is fifteen dead, including both civilians and soldiers as ultimately admitted by the Turkmenistani government after three days of denying any casualties. Independent sources, in turn, claim several hundreds were killed or wounded as a result of the accident. For instance, the eventually hacked émigré website Turkmenistan Chronicle, run by prominent human rights activist Farid Tukhbatullin and relying on a wide network of stringers, put the number of victims at as high as 1382, of which about one third were reportedly children. However, these numbers are difficult to verify since in many instances the authorities reportedly refused to hand over the dead bodies to the relatives for burial, preferring to bury the dead in mass graves.
IMPLICATIONS: Hiding, distorting or otherwise manipulating information about the true extent of disasters which happen from time to time is nothing new for the post-Soviet region in general and for Turkmenistan in particular. However, the government’s latest tenacious denying of the undeniable, coupled with gross mismanagement which was probably at the core of the disaster itself and when coping with its consequences, is a serious blow to the painfully created reform image of President Berdimuhammedov both domestically and abroad, posing the single most striking challenge to his rule ever since his successful takeover following the death of his eccentric predecessor Saparmurat Turkmenbashi five years ago. Berdimuhammedov’s largely perceived indecisiveness, failure to take action in a critical moment, and ostentatious disrespect for symbolically important aspects of Turkmen life, such as sponsoring a national mourning for the dead, is topped by his announced leave for holiday and has already provoked manifestations of displeasure among the traditionally conservative Turkmen society in Berdimuhammedov’s native province of Ahal, a region that forms the president’s power base and is key to maintaining the inter-clan balance nationwide based on the Ahal predominance. For the first time since Berdimuhammedov’s ascent to power in late 2006, water cannons were reportedly deployed around the president’s palace in Ashkhabad and country residence as perhaps the most visible part of the tightening security measures indicating the degree of insecurity that might in the meantime have prevailed on the part of ruling elites vis-a-vis possible unrest in light of the Abadan tragedy.
Moreover, the emergency in Abadan once again raised questions regarding Turkmenistan’s defense capabilities and its very ability to act independently in such a complex geopolitical and security environment as Central Asia. Based on eye-witness accounts there are credible reports that foreign military sappers, sent to Turkmenistan from Iran and subsequently replaced by specialists from Russia’s Ministry for Emergency Situations, operated on the spot from the very first days following the disaster and were engaged, in particular, in clearing undetonated ammunition – a fact likely pointing to a critical lack within Turkmenistan’s Armed Forces of competent combat engineering cadres capable of performing basic military tasks and duties such as running armament systems at the army’s disposal. While asking for international assistance is under normal circumstances perfectly natural in case of an emergency, none of the parties involved yet confirmed provision of such assistance to Turkmenistan, and there are coincidences that need clarification particularly as regards Russia’s possibly extending its military presence over Turkmenistan given the past troubled relationship between Moscow and Ashkhabad.
CONCLUSIONS: Against this backdrop, President Berdimuhammedov’s latest initiatives such as his televised invitation to the leaders of the Turkmen opposition in exile the day after the devastating blasts in Abadan to return to Turkmenistan and take part in the upcoming presidential elections seem like little more than hollow lip service aimed at shifting the attention of the public away from what may turn out to be the beginning of an usually hot summer in the wake of nationwide celebrations of the twentieth anniversary of Turkmenistan’s independence. There are no indications as yet that the latest tragedy in Abadan could initiate spreading revolutionary riots to remote Central Asia in line with an Arab Spring scenario, given the social peculiarities of the countries in this post-Soviet region. That said, breaking the unofficially imposed embargo on information about what appears to have been the most serious emergency in Turkmenistan over the past decade is indicative of the government gradually losing its grip over the society and is a factor making such a wind of change eventually possible.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Jan Šír is a Research Fellow with Institute of International Studies at Charles University in Prague. He is co-author of the Silk Road Paper Dismantling Totalitarianism? Turkmenistan under Berdimuhamedow (Washington, DC: Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, 2009).