Friday, January 29, 2016

Is Moscow about to Win Over Turkmenistan?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 29 – Following a two-day visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, relations between Moscow and Ashgabat appear to be warming, especially now that Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has invited Vladimir Putin to make an official visit to his capital.

            Faced with threats from neighboring Afghanistan, Turkmenistan has been casting about for assistance and Russia is quite prepared to provide it, especially because if Ashgabat shifts away from its policy of strict neutrality, that could open the way for discussions of pipelines and other transportation routes out of Central Asia that pass through Turkmenistan.

            And in that event, what happens in Ashgabat as far as its relationship with Moscow is concerned could have a dramatic impact on the position in Central Asia as a whole of other outside powers such as Turkey, China and the United States and on developments in Afghanistan and the possible expansion of ISIS.

            For the last two decades, Ashgabat had pursued a policy of strict non-alignment, a position that precludes the kind of cooperation Moscow would like to see. But as Stanislav Tarasov points out in a Regnum commentary today, the situation may be changing and changing fast (

            The Russian commentator notes that a foreign ministry spokesman has referred to Turkmenistan in recent days as “a strategic partner.”  That term does not have a specific meaning, but it would appear to presage a different relationship between Turkmenistan and Russia in the future.

            As part of its “non-block policy,” Ashgabat had been seeking to “break out of the post-Soviet geopolitical system” by establishing ties not only with Moscow but with Turkey, China, the US and others. But now it has fewer choices: It is part of the Caspian basin in which many countries are interested and it faces threats from Afghanistan.

            Aleksandr Blokhin, Russia’s ambassador to Ashgabat, made a “curious” statement recently, Tarasov says. The diplomat said that “today, Turkmenistan is stable and we are interested in having it remain so and will do everything necessary to ensure that that is the case.” According to Blokhin, Ashgabat must rely on Russia, Iran, China “and other countries.

            At the end of November, Berdymukhamedov met Putin in Tehran; and their exchange then, Tarasov says, show just how complicated the situation is. It also showed why Russia is so interested in improving ties with Turkmenistan and drawing that Central Asian country back into its orbit.

            On the one hand, the two discussed Russia’s launch of cruise missiles from the Caspian, an action that the Turkmenistan leader said was of concern to Kazakhstan.  And on the other, they talked about Russia’s campaign in Syria and its attacks on the Turkomans (or Turkmens) of that country.

            Ethnographers say that the Turkomans of Syria have no relationship to the population of contemporary Turkmenistan, but they add that there are nonetheless more genuinely ethnic Turkmens abroad than in Turkmenistan, including in Turkey and “almost all the countries” of the Middle East. 

            That is one of the reasons Ankara has been so interested in developing ties with Ashgabat, ties that have taken on a different meaning now that Russia and Turkey are in more or less open conflict and that also involve issues of pipelines like TANAP, rail lines, and the transit of gas, oil, and various industrial products.

            If Turkmenistan were to move closer to Moscow, that would be a real loss for Turkey and it would limit the options of other countries in Central Asia and further afield. But it is entirely possible that Ashgabat is now so worried about threats emanating from Afghanistan that it is prepared to turn to anyone who can provide it with protection.


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