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Turkmenistan: Analysis From Washington -- A Diplomatic Signal

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 31 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's decision to dismiss his longtime foreign minister suggests that Ashgabat may have decided to turn away from the West and back to Moscow.

On 28 July Niyazov fired Boris Shikhmuradov, who had been his foreign minister since 1993. The Turkmen president gave no reason for the firing, although a few days earlier he had criticized Shikhmuradov, who is half Armenian, for a weak knowledge of the country's national language.

But few observers believe that Shikhmuradov's linguistic competence dictated his fate, and instead many are seeing his departure as a diplomatic signal of a fundamental shift in Turkmenistan's foreign policy rather than a simple change of leadership in the Foreign Ministry there.

There are three reasons for drawing that conclusion. First, Shikhmuradov himself had been a survivor. In a government marked by frequent and often inexplicable changes in ministerial portfolios, he had retained his position longer than anyone else.

His ability to survive for so long in a regime where envy and suspicion play such an enormous role in the entourage of Niyazov suggests that he was removed less for personal or domestic policy reasons than for foreign policy ones.

Second, Shikhmuradov's successor is almost as different a diplomat as could be imagined. Shikhmuradov, 50, is an urbane English speaker with extensive ties to Europe and the United States and someone who has promoted the idea of a trans-Caspian pipeline to export Turkmenistan's natural gas to the West.

His replacement, on the other hand, is a career diplomat with much closer ties to Moscow and to Tehran abroad, and to the pro-Iran faction within the Turkmen political elite. Indeed, despite his position as first deputy to Shikhmuradov, Batyr Berdyev has played only a marginal role in pipeline talks.

Consequently, Berdyev's appointment gives Niyazov even greater freedom of movement in the coming months, allowing him to blame Shikhmuradov for past policies and offering the chance to present a new face in talks with governments which viewed Shikhmuradov as too pro-Western.

And third, Shikhmuradov's departure comes at a time when Niyazov has appeared to be ever less happy with Western countries and ever more interested in pursuing ties with Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing.

Niyazov has been increasingly upset by American and European criticism of Turkmenistan's human rights record and his own dictatorial rule. He has indicated that he expected greater Western "understanding" of his approach because of Islamist threats and because of his country's enormous gas reserves.

And he has been even more upset about what he sees as the West's failure to deliver on pipeline plans. Despite many promises, no Western company has built a single meter of pipeline to carry Turkmen gas to European markets. And many Western firms which had come to Ashgabat are now leaving.

At the same time, Niyazov has found a greater understanding for his less than democratic approach from governments in Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing and a greater willingness in all three places to purchase Turkmenistan's natural gas and thus provide him with the earnings he needs to keep his government in place.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Central Asia a few weeks ago, for example, he expressed his understanding of what he said was the tough approach the Central Asian regimes had taken to combat Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.

Other Central Asian leaders quickly indicated their support for Putin's approach, thus tilting away from the West and toward Moscow. Now, Turkmenistan has done the same thing, not only sacking a pro-Western official but restarting gas deliveries to the Russian Federation as well.

And in recent months, Ashgabat has also stepped up its diplomatic and economic contacts with Iran and China, yet another indication of Niyazov's unhappiness with the West and his willingness to cooperate with regimes that his earlier foreign policy approach had precluded.

That shift in Ashgabat appears to have cost Shikhmuradov his job. But because his dismissal is part of a broader sea change across the Central Asian region, his departure now may be a diplomatic signal pointing to changes far beyond the borders of Turkmenistan.