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Hyperinflation and hunger: Turkmenistan on ‘edge of catastrophe’

Foreign governments and investors must stop courting gas-rich Turkmenistan, “a country teetering on the edge of catastrophe”, according to a new report by the London-based Foreign Policy Centre. Turkmenistan, second to North Korea in the scale of its isolation according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, has long attracted investment from foreign governments. But the…

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Hyperinflation and hunger: Turkmenistan on ‘edge of catastrophe’

Foreign governments and investors must stop courting gas-rich Turkmenistan, “a country teetering on the edge of catastrophe”, according to a new report by the London-based Foreign Policy Centre.

Turkmenistan, second to North Korea in the scale of its isolation according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, has long attracted investment from foreign governments.

But the report, which was launched in Westminster on Monday, said the country has a “Potemkin economy” as respectable official gross domestic product (GDP) figures mask a chaotic, black financial system.

As the UK’s Department of International Trade wrote, “no reliable economic data are published in Turkmenistan”.

Investment risks include “the whims of the president, leading to arbitrary behaviour by a sclerotic bureaucracy”, said the report. 

“While legislation to protect businesses is there, application isn’t. The myriad of risks can’t be exaggerated,” said Eimear O’Casey, a Central Asia researcher at a political risk consulting agency.

Corruption is endemic to Turkmenistan’s economic life, with Transparency International ranking it 161 out 180 countries surveyed.

Relatives of the country’s ruling family have been seen to benefit from state expenditure, the report noted.

Economic crisis

Turkmenistan is facing its worst economic crisis in three decades, which has led to hyperinflation and widespread food shortages, despite the country possessing an estimated 10 percent of all proven natural gas reserves.

Economic turmoil in the hydrocarbon dependent country is driven in part by low gas prices, the suspension of gas exports to Russia between 2016 and 2019 and poor harvests.

Professor Steven Hanke of the Cato Institute, placed the rate of inflation as experienced by consumers outside of the state sector as being as high as 294 percent as of June 2018.

Government resources are strained, which has led to the end of previously free electricity, water and natural gas at the start of 2019.

“At a time when thousands of people are queuing up for basic groceries, the government is spending $2.3bn on a ‘Turkmen Autobahn’ motorway,” said Luca Anceschi, senior lecturer in Central Asian Studies, University of Glasgow.

The eight-lane motorway between Ashgabat and Turkmenabatis is being supported by Austrian technical advisers Vienna Consulting Engineers (VCE).

Worsening rights situation

The current economic woes have seen the personality cult of its leadership and the intrusion into the lives of its citizens intensify as the regime seeks to maintain its grip on society.

The report highlighted the massive use of forced labour, mass repression of media freedom, and “disappeared” activists in prison.

Ruslan Myatiev, founder and editor of Alternative Turkmenistan News, said: “There is no media landscape in Turkmenistan. All newspapers, radio and TV stations repeat the regime’s line. Even in North Korea and war-torn Syria, there is greater press freedom.”

There’s no way of challenging human rights abuses such as the problem of forced labour in cotton harvesting, added Myatiev.

“People have no choice but to submit because there’s no chance of finding another job,” he said.

Push for reform

Adam Hug, director of the Foreign Policy Centre and one of the report’s authors, said governments and businesses should leverage engagement and investment for vital democratic and human rights reform on a “more for more” and “less for less” basis.

Hug echoed previous demands made by a number of human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch.

Last January, HRW said the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development should not expand its lending in Turkmenistan until the government shows concrete progress in improving the humanitarian situation.

However last week, the European Union’s foreign policy representative, Federica Mogherini, was in Ashgabat to announce the opening of a diplomatic mission in the country, and made no mention of human rights issues.

Turning to relations between the United Arab Emirates and Turkmenistan, the report stated that “Dubai has been a focus for Turkmen migrant workers and the close relations enable Ashgabat to put pressure on migrants to return.”

Strong bilateral ties have seen Dragon Oil, owned by the Emirates National Oil Company, became one of the more successful players in the Turkmen energy market.

O’Casey said Turkmenistan so far has not shown any concern for maintaining a positive image on the international stage. “And without this concern, there is no impetus for reform,” she said.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan remained isolated from the rest of the world under the brutal rule of former president Saparmurat Niyazov.

Little has changed since current President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow came to power in 2006 following Niyazov’s death.

“The government has to re-think its economic policy. How long can we keep going? For now, I only expect to see the population poorer, and the regime more authoritarian,” Anceschi said.

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Polish court allows stricter abortion law, sparking outcry

Chief justice says existing legislation that allowed abortion of malformed fetuses was ‘incompatible’ with the constitution.Poland’s constitutional court has struck down a provision of the country’s abortion law allowing Europe’s most strict legislation to be further tightened and provoking an outcry from rights groups. Chief justice Julia Przylebska said in a ruling on Thursday existing…

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Polish court allows stricter abortion law, sparking outcry

Chief justice says existing legislation that allowed abortion of malformed fetuses was ‘incompatible’ with the constitution.Poland’s constitutional court has struck down a provision of the country’s abortion law allowing Europe’s most strict legislation to be further tightened and provoking an outcry from rights groups.
Chief justice Julia Przylebska said in a ruling on Thursday existing legislation, which allows for the abortion of malformed fetuses, was “incompatible” with the constitution.
The verdict, which is final and cannot be appealed, drew immediate condemnation from the Council of Europe, whose Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic called it “a sad day for #WomensRights”.

Removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in #Poland amounts to a ban & violates #HumanRights. Today’s ruling of the Constitutional Court means underground/abroad abortions for those who can afford & even greater ordeal for all others. A sad day for #WomensRights.
— Commissioner for Human Rights (@CommissionerHR) October 22, 2020

“Removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in #Poland amounts to a ban & violates #HumanRights,” Mijatovic tweeted.
“Today’s ruling … means underground/abroad abortions for those who can afford & even greater ordeal for all others.”
Since 1993, Poland has only allowed abortions in case of rape or incest, a threat to the mother’s life or a deformed fetus.
Now the court ruling could pave the way for legislators from the governing right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party to approve draft legislation that would ban pregnancy terminations in the case of fetuses with congenital birth defects.
Many Polish women bridled when PiS backed the bill originating as a popular petition earlier this year, prompting conservative legislators to refer the matter to the constitutional court.
The tribunal, whose main role is to ensure any law complies with the constitution, underwent government reforms in 2016 that led critics to contend it is stacked with PiS allies.
Police separate pro-choice activists, right, carrying a poster saying ‘We are not incubators’ from anti-abortion rights protesters, left, in front of Poland’s constitutional court in Warsaw [Wojtek Radwanski/AFP]‘Blood on your hands’
Former liberal Polish Prime Minister and PiS critic Donald Tusk called the timing of the abortion issue “political wickedness”.
“Throwing the topic of abortion and a ruling by a pseudo-court into the middle of a raging pandemic is more than cynical,” the head of the European People’s Party tweeted.
The NGO Action Democracy, which had gathered more than 210,000 signatures against the stricter law, issued a statement saying the court delivered “a shameful, political verdict dictated by right-wing fundamentalists”.
Leftist legislator Barbara Nowacka blamed the devoutly Catholic country’s bishops, telling them at a news conference in parliament: “You have blood on your hands.”
PiS-allied President Andrzej Duda has said if approved by the parliament he would sign the draft legislation into law.
On Thursday, his spokesman Blazej Spychalski said “the president’s views on this matter are well-known and haven’t changed. We’re satisfied that the constitutional court sided with life”, he was quoted by the Polish news agency PAP as saying.
The country of 38 million people sees fewer than 2,000 legal abortions a year, but women’s groups estimate up to 200,000 procedures are performed illegally or abroad.
An attempt by the PiS government to tighten the abortion law in 2016 was scrapped following nationwide protests by tens of thousands of women dressed in black.

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New Daesh leader was informant for US, says counter terrorism report

NEW YORK: The man widely believed to be the new leader of Daesh was once an informant for the US, according to a new report from the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), a research body at the US military academy of West Point in New York. “Stepping Out from the Shadows: The Interrogation of the Islamic State’s…

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New Daesh leader was informant for US, says counter terrorism report

NEW YORK: The man widely believed to be the new leader of Daesh was once an informant for the US, according to a new report from the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), a research body at the US military academy of West Point in New York.

“Stepping Out from the Shadows: The Interrogation of the Islamic State’s Future Caliph” is based on Tactical Interrogation Reports (TIRs) — the paper trail the US military creates when enemy fighters are detained and interrogated — from Al-Mawla’s time in captivity in the late 2000s.

Before his release in 2009, Al-Mawla named 88 extremists involved in terrorist activities, and the information he divulged during his interrogations led US forces in the region to successfully capture or kill dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters, the report claims.

The CTC said it is “highly confident” Al-Mawla became the new leader of Daesh after the previous leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was killed in a US air raid in Syria in October 2019.

Although Daesh announced that a man called Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurashi was Baghdadi’s successor, US officials have also stated that Al-Qurashi’s true identity is actually Al-Mawla — also known as Hajj Abdullah.

Before joining Daesh, Al-Mawla is believed to have been the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda.

While details about the operation resulting in his capture are scarce, the TRIs reveal that he was captured on January 6, 2008.

The following day, US Central Command announced the capture of a wanted individual who “previously served as a judge of an illegal court system involved in ordering and approving abductions and executions.”

In his interrogations, Al-Mawla offered up details of terrorist plots to his interrogators, while minimizing his own involvement. He identified many jihadists by name and offered descriptions of their roles in the terrorist organization and details of their involvement in attacks on US-led coalition forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Al-Mawla — a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s army and once Baghdadi’s speechwriter — emerges from the TIRs as a mysterious personality with a vague past, whose ethnicity could not be determined with certainty. The statements in the reports are rife with contradictory elements and open to a wide range of interpretations. As the authors point out in their introduction: “It is incredibly difficult to ascertain whether what Al-Mawla divulges regarding himself or ISI (the forerunner of Daesh) as an organization is true.”

Details of the specific demographics of Al Mawla’s birthplace of Al-Muhalabiyyah in Iraq’s Tal Afar district are sketchy, but it is generally accepted to have a predominantly Turkmen population. The authors of the report point out that some sources have suggested “this could pose legitimacy problems for him because (Daesh) mostly has Arabs in its senior leadership echelons,” but add that at least two other senior members of the group were reported to have been Turkmen.

Al-Mawla also claimed to have avoided pledging allegiance to ISI because he was a Sufi. The report’s authors cast doubt on that claim, given his quick rise to prominence in the terrorist group and the fact that ISI and Daesh branded Sufism as heresy.

But the authors do believe the TRIs give some valuable insights into Al-Mawla’s personality.

“The fact that he detailed activities and gave testimony against (fellow jihadists) suggests a willingness to offer up fellow members of the group to suit his own ends,” they wrote. “The amount of detail and seeming willingness to share information about fellow organization members suggests either a degree of nonchalance, strategic calculation, or resignation on the part of Al-Mawla regarding operational security.

“He appears to have named individuals in some capacity across all levels of the organization, while describing some individuals in some detail,” they continued.

The US Department of Justice has offered a $10million reward for information about Al-Mawla’s identification or location.

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The poisoning of Alexey Navalny: Five key things to know

What happened on the day Navalny fell ill? On August 20, a Thursday, Alexey Navalny, Russia’s leading Kremlin critic, had finished up campaigning for opposition politicians in Siberia for local elections, which were taking place from September 11 to 13.  He left Xander Hotel and headed for the Tomsk Bogashevo airport. There, he drank a…

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The poisoning of Alexey Navalny: Five key things to know

What happened on the day Navalny fell ill?
On August 20, a Thursday, Alexey Navalny, Russia’s leading Kremlin critic, had finished up campaigning for opposition politicians in Siberia for local elections, which were taking place from September 11 to 13. 
He left Xander Hotel and headed for the Tomsk Bogashevo airport. There, he drank a cup of tea. He was on the way to Moscow.
In the first half-hour of the flight, he fell ill and witnesses said he screamed in pain. He was later in a coma.
He was airlifted to Germany’s capital, a six-hour flight, to the Berlin Charite hospital.The plane made an emergency landing at Omsk. He received treatment in the Russian city, where doctors said he was too unwell to be moved, but two days later on August 22, a Saturday, they said his life was not in danger.
Was he poisoned? 
Navalny’s team believes he was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, a claim several European countries support.
A laboratory in Germany said it had confirmation on September 2, followed by laboratories in France and Sweden on September 14.
Samples from Navalny have also been sent to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague for testing.
Russia says there is no evidence to prove Navalny was poisoned, while its ally Belarus has also doubted the claim. The doctors in Omsk said they had not detected poisonous substances in Navalny’s body. 
US President Donald Trump has been criticised for towing Russia’s line, saying on September 4 – two days after Germany’s claim to have “unequivocal evidence” – that “we have not had any proof yet”.
How is Navalny’s condition now?
On September 7, more than two weeks after falling ill on the plane, Navalny’s doctors in Germany said he was out of a coma and that his condition was improving. His spokeswoman said, “Gradually, he will be switched off from a ventilator.”
On September 15, Navalny posted on Instagram that he was breathing alone. He has said he plans to return to Russia. 
If he was poisoned, who may have poisoned him and where?
Navalny’s team believes he was poisoned at the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin – a claim the Kremlin has strongly denied. 
Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh had initially said she believed Navalny’s tea at the airport was poisoned, but on September 17, his team said the nerve agent was detected on an empty water bottle from his hotel room in the Tomsk, suggesting he was poisoned there and not at the airport. 
What effect has the alleged poisoning had?
The alleged attack has widened a rift between Europe and Russia, with Germany and France leading calls for a full investigation but stopping short of outrightly blaming the Russian government. 
MEPs have called for sanctions against Russia, saying on September 17, “The poison used, belonging to the ‘Novichok group’, can only be developed in state-owned military laboratories and cannot be acquired by private individuals, which strongly implies that Russian authorities were behind the attack.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has summoned Germany’s ambassador to Moscow, while the United Kingdom has summoned the Russian envoy over the incident.
For its part, Moscow rejects what it called the politicisation of the issue.
Significantly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is under pressure to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which transfers Russian gas to Germany. Once again, the Kremlin has warned not to involve the Navalny case in any discussion about the pipeline, with Dmitry Peskov saying on September 16, “It should stop being mentioned in the context of any politicisation.”
 
A timeline of events surrounding the alleged poisoning attack on Navalny: 
August 20 – Navalny falls ill on flight; plane makes emergency landing in Omsk; his spokeswoman says he was poisoned, perhaps by the tea he drank at the airport
August 22 – Navalny airlifted to Berlin Charite hospital 
September 2 – Germany says it has ‘unequivocal evidence’ Navalny was poisoned, Russia responds by saying the claim is not backed by evidence
September 4 – US President Donald Trump says ‘we do not have any proof yet’
September 6 – Heiko Maas, German foreign minister, threatens action over gas pipeline project, saying, ‘I hope the Russians don’t force us to change our position on Nord Stream 2’
September 7 – German doctors say Navalny is out of an artificial coma
September 11-13 – Russia holds local elections; Navalny’s allies make gains in Siberian cities
September 15 – Navalny posts on Instagram that he is breathing alone
September 16 – Kremlin spokesman warns against politicising Navalny issue in discussions over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project with Germany
September 17 – Navalny’s team now suspects he was poisoned in his hotel room, not the airport, citing traces of nerve agent on an empty water bottle
September 17 – MEPs call for sanctions against Russia 

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