Staunton, August 15 – Analysts who rely exclusively on Moscow reporting about the non-Russian countries around it often find themselves reporting what the Russian government wants people to believe about these countries for its own reasons rather than what the facts on the ground suggest is the reality.
No one would dream of reporting in most parts of the world by relying on news and commentaries either from nearby countries which have vested interests in promoting their own interests. As one wit has infamously observed, “you could cover Israel from Damascus but it would be wrong.”
But this mistake occurs frequently in the post-Soviet space where most outside correspondents are based in Moscow and know Russian rather than any other language. And it means that very often the Russian perspective is presented as true even when a closer examination of the situation would show its limitations and errors.
Perhaps nowhere is this problem greater than about Turkmenistan, a country that rivals North Korea in its totalitarian controls and the lack of indigenous independent news sources. (The opposition media is based abroad and relies on sources that are hard to corroborate.) As a result, most writing on that country fall back to a reliance on Russian reporting.
That can lead to errors big and small. Right now, there is a serious danger on this front. Moscow media are pushing the idea that Turkmenistan is “the weak link” in the front line states opposite Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (mk.ru/politics/2021/08/15/na-granice-s-talibami-samym-slabym-zvenom-okazalas-turkmeniya.html).
The reason behind such Russian arguments is that the other countries in the region are all members of the Russian-dominated Organization for the Collective Security Treaty, something that Moscow would like to see Turkmenistan joint as well (jamestown.org/program/taliban-victory-unsettles-geopolitics-in-central-asia/).
Those Russian arguments are often repeated by outside observers without mention of Russia’s self-interest in such reporting or any consideration of the realities, admittedly hard to track, on the ground. (For an example of such repetition of Moscow’s position, see, among others, eadaily.com/ru/news/2021/08/05/stanut-li-islamisty-schitatsya-s-neytralnym-statusom-turkmenii).
But there are at least three reasons why Turkmenistan as a neutral state rather than one closely aligned militarily with the Russian Federation as the others are may in fact be in a better position to deal with Kabul’s new rulers and the threat that turbulence in Afghanistan poses than they and their Russian backers are.
First of all, Turkmenistan faces a much smaller refugee threat than the others not only because there are fewer ethnic Turkmens in Afghanistan than ethnic Tajiks, but Ashgabat has been far more successful in blocking refugee flows than Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan has (eurasia.expert/situatsiya-v-afganistane-grozit-tsentralnoy-azii-migratsionnym-krizisom/, ia-centr.ru/experts/aleksandr-knyazev/esli-kyrgyzstan-i-tadzhikistan-pustyat-k-sebe-bezhentsev-postradaet-ves-region/ and ekhokavkaza.com/a/31416098.html).
Second, the Turkmen military and security apparatus for all its problems including aging weapons and clan conflicts within it has been improving in the last few years and now has greater capacity to respond to challenges than it did earlier (casp-geo.ru/v-turkmenistane-postroen-novyj-korvet-i-otkryty-novye-voennye-obekty-v-kaspijskom-regione/).
And third, and this may be the most important factor of all, the new Taliban government has now declared that it is more than willing to cooperate with neutral Turkmenistan on the construction of the TAPI pipeline, a willingness that likely reflects Kabul’s sense that it will find it easier to deal with a government not closely aligned with a major outside power (centralasia.media/news:1724387).
None of this means that Turkmenistan does not face problems as a result of the Taliban victory. It does and for the same reason the other countries in the region do: They all have domestic Islamist movements that are likely to take courage and become more active now that the Taliban has won. But Turkmenistan is not the uniquely “weak link” that Moscow portrays.