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Turkmenistan: New President Modifying Niyazov's Neutrality Policy

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch --> Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Moscow in April (AFP) May 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- While reasserting the policy of neutrality of his predecessor, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has signaled a desire to end Turkmenistan's self-isolation and to repair ties with its Central Asian neighbors. He has also indicated that he is willing to engage more actively with Russia and reach out to the West.

Since Berdymukhammedov officially took over from late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in mid-February, Ashgabat has become a center of intense diplomatic activity as high-ranking visitors from around the world have flocked to the Turkmen capital to meet its new master.

Energy-Filled Agenda

Berdymukhammedov has invited his Russian and Kazakh counterparts, Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbaev, respectively, to take part in three-way talks on May 12 that are to focus on energy cooperation.

"We feel we have the chance to open up an absolutely new chapter in our engagement with Turkmenistan." -- Matthew Bryza

Berdymukhammedov told his cabinet on March 7 that the upcoming summit -- which will take place in the Caspian Sea city port of Turkmenbashi -- is designed "to open a new chapter in the relations of friendship and cooperation that have been existing for centuries among neighbors that are ready to take advantage of new historical conditions and make those relations even more efficient and multivectorial."

All grandiloquence apart, Berdymukhammedov's statement may signal a shift from his predecessor's foreign policy-making, which depended largely on the ties that existed between the Turkmen autocrat and foreign industrial groups such as the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom.

Under Niyazov, Gazprom became Turkmenistan's main economic partner, buying nearly 70 percent of its annual natural gas output and reexporting it to Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Europe at great profit.

Meanwhile, former President Niyazov's insistence on boycotting all Russian-led regional groupings (CIS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Eurasian Economic Community, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization) and his discriminatory policy toward Turkmenistan's 160,000 ethnic Russians led to a cooling of political relations between Ashgabat and Moscow.

Friendly To All

The Moscow-based daily "Vremya Novostei" recently quoted unnamed Kremlin officials as saying they are satisfied with what they believe is "a pro-Russian trend in Turkmenistan's post-Niyazov foreign policy."

Under Niyazov, Ashgabat had progressively isolated itself from all other regional capitals.

Relations with Azerbaijan reached a record low because of an ownership dispute over the Serdar-Kapaz Caspian Sea oil field and ties with Uzbekistan had become frosty amid border tensions and Niyazov's claims that Tashkent was involved in an alleged assassination attempt against him in 2002.

By contrast, Berdymukhammedov has clearly indicated that he is willing to engage neighboring countries.

The presidents of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the prime ministers of Russia and Azerbaijan, and the speaker of the Uzbek parliament were among the many foreign guests who attended his inauguration on February 14.

A number of senior Russian and Kazakh government officials recently visited the Turkmen capital and Berdymukhammedov has extended his Uzbek and Azerbaijani counterparts invitations to visit Ashgabat.

Going Around Russia?

The Turkmen president made a two-day visit to Moscow in April, which he praised as marking "the beginning of a new era in bilateral relations."

If the Turkmen leader is interested in mending ties with his neighbors, the reverse is also true.
The United States supports a project to pump Central Asian natural gas to Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea and on to Georgia, Turkey, and Western markets through the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline.

Following Niyazov's death, Washington renewed calls for Turkmenistan to join the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP) project.

Addressing a recent energy conference in Tbilisi, U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft said that Washington wished "to see Turkmenistan develop its energy reserves and for those reserves to have a market value so that Turkmenistan has several options to export its gas," the Civil Georgia website reported on March 22.

In comments made to the British daily "The Independent" on April 18, Matthew Bryza, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, called on Western countries to "reach out" to the new Turkmen government to circumvent Gazprom's monopoly over Central Asian energy exports.

New Caspian Pipeline?

The Kremlin, which needs to ensure steady flows of Central Asian gas for its export needs, in turn seeks to revive plans to build another pipeline that would run along the Caspian Sea shore and link Turkmenistan to Russia, via Kazakhstan.

Following his talks with Putin last month, Berdymukhammedov said he will instruct Turkmen experts to conduct a new assessment of the project, which had been shelved by Niyazov.

Observers note that Kazakhstan would also benefit from teaming up with Turkmenistan, not least of all because Central Asia's two largest hydrocarbon producers complement each other -- Kazakhstan produces mainly oil, while the bulk of Turkmenistan's output is made of gas -- and could work together to make their export pipeline projects more profitable.

Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov, who was in Ashgabat earlier this month, said after talks with Tachberdy Tagyyev, the Turkmen deputy prime minister in charge of the energy sector, that both countries will now "coordinate" their energy transportation policies and consult each other on all related issues.

Workers on the Atyrau-Samara pipeline in Kazakhstan (file photo)

Also this month, Kazakhstan officially renewed a proposal to host a section of Turkmenistan's planned gas export pipeline to China that Niyazov had pledged would be operational by 2009. Astana also suggested that the future Turkmenistan-China pipeline should run through Uzbekistan.
Just like his Kazakh counterpart, Berdymukhammedov seems unwilling to put all his eggs in one basket.

Last week he invited major U.S. oil company Chevron to take part in the development of Turkmenistan's Caspian Sea shelf and other energy projects.

Oil market analysts believe the proposal could be a signal for other western majors that have thus far been left out of the country's energy projects during Niyazov's tenure.

Additionally, at least three high-ranking U.S. State Department officials have visited Ashgabat since Berdymukhammedov's inauguration, including Ambassador Steven Mann, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs.

Although state media in Ashgabat reported that Mann had come to extend an offer to help Turkmenistan rebuild its depleted health and education systems, the Russian daily "Kommersant" on March 6 cited Mann's background as a senior energy adviser to argue that he likely tried to convince Berdymukhammedov to join the TCGP project.

U.S. officials clearly believe Turkmenistan is at a crossroad.

U.S. Optimism

"We feel we have the chance to open up an absolutely new chapter in our engagement with Turkmenistan," Bryza told "The Independent" in April. "My colleagues who have visited [Ashgabat] since President Niyazov's death have been pleasantly surprised by the degree to which the new president seems to want to open to the West," he added.

Meanwhile, Berdymukhammedov has said he will meet the energy commitments that his predecessor made toward China and Iran.

He has also left open the possibility of Turkmenistan joining the Eurasian Economic Community or reintegrating the CIS as a full-fledged member.

Interestingly enough, he has also left unanswered Putin's recent proposals to renew defense and intelligence ties between the two countries.

In all likelihood, the new Turkmen president has decided to keep all his options open.

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