September 21 – None of the former Soviet republics has isolated itself so thoroughly from the outside world as Turkmenistan, a policy that has reflected the calculation of Ashgabat that any expansion in contacts could become the basis for a threat to its extremely authoritarian regime.
But now there are growing indications that Turkmenistan is about to open up at least somewhat as it pursues its goals of becoming a major energy supplier and pipeline route, a shift that one Russian journalist suggests may call into question Ashgabat’s domestic policies and its longstanding strict neutrality abroad.
In the current issue of Moscow’s “Pravda,” Sergey Kozhemyakin, that paper’s Central Asian correspondent notes that Turkmenistan “has remained the most closed [country] on the post-Soviet space” (gazeta-pravda.ru/index.php/item/2236-%D0%BE%D1%82-%D0%B8%D0%B7%D0%BE%D0%BB%D1%8F%D1%86%D0%B8%D0%B8-%D0%BA-%D0%B8%D0%BD%D1%82%D0%B5%D0%B3%D1%80%D0%B0%D1%86%D0%B8%D0%B8).
Not only does that protect the regime from challenges, but it also means that Ashgabat has been able to pursue a policy of strict neutrality, a status that was confirmed by a special resolution of the United Nations in 1995 but that may be called into question if Turkmenistan gets involved in more international trade and other activities.
The last few months, Kozhemyakin says, have seen developments which point in that direction. In July, Turkmenistan completed construction of a railway line connecting Iran with Kazakhstan and Russia, and it is continuing to work on another that will connect it with Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Ashgabat is driven by the following imbalance: it has the fourth largest proved reserves o of natural gas in the world, but it ranks only 13th in their export. Changing that would bring the Turkmenistan government a great deal of income, although that income could cause it to change its policies.
Most of its gas imports are going to China – Turkmenistan is now the largest supplier of gas to Beijing, Kozhemyakin points out, and in exchange, China has become the largest investor in the oil and gas sector of Turkmenistan, having already spent some four billion US dollars there.
In addition, Ashgabat is sending gas to Iran and may send it to Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and even Pakistan and India in the future. Talks about those possibilities are already taking place, the “Pravda” journalist says. And the Turkmenistan authorities are also interested in exporting electric power to neighboring states as well.
In this way, he says, “Ashgabat, having transformed itself into an important economic center of the region in fact has rejected the policy of self-isolation” that its leaders continue to proclaim. But “sooner or later,” it will have to form an alliance with someone because small, energy-rich countries have no choice but to do so if it wants to survive.