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Russia Flexes Its Muscles In Turkmenistan

  • Bruce Pannier

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (right) meets with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Ashgabat on June 9.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (right) meets with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Ashgabat on June 9.

Judging by recent events it appears that Turkmenistan and Russia are experiencing a thaw in their relationship. Top officials from the two countries have been meeting face-to-face in recent days.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu flew to Ashgabat to meet with Turkmen officials on June 9.The same day the speaker of Turkmenistan's parliament was in Moscow meeting with State Duma chairman Sergei Naryshkin.

To a great degree, media reports are portraying this as simply discussions between partners. But at the start of this year, Russia sent signals to Turkmen authorities that something in their relationship needed to change, and it was Turkmenistan that would have to make those changes.

Barely two weeks before these friendly meetings on June 9, Russian state gas company Gazprom indirectly repeated that message to Turkmenistan, via the Russian TASS and Interfax news agencies, hinting at the one-sided nature of this rapprochement.

The purpose of Shoigu's visit was clear before he arrived. Russia has been increasingly concerned at the growth of violence in the four northwestern Afghan provinces along Turkmenistan's border, and equally frustrated at Ashgabat's insistence that the situation along the border is under control and Turkmenistan requires no assistance keeping watch along the frontier.

Russian officials have several times publicly offered to assist Turkmenistan with whatever help Turkmen authorities feel might be required to ensure border security. Most recently Aleksandr Sternik, the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Third CIS Department, made just such an offer on January 3, 2016, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated the proposal during a visit to Ashgabat at the end of January.

Irresponsible Behavior?

Some Russian officials even implied that, since this was technically the southern border of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Turkmenistan was behaving irresponsibly by not allowing its friends and allies to help with security along the Afghan frontier.

In October 2015, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev, after a meeting with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin, expressed concern about the volatile Turkmen-Afghan border area drawing an immediate rebuke from Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry.

Fighting in northwestern Afghanistan has grown worse with the start of this year's spring offensives.It is difficult to say how many Afghan districts along Turkmenistan's border are under government control and how many are under militant control. Turkmen authorities might now feel less confident about being able to control the border.

Shoigu's visit by itself indicates something has changed. Russian media noted it was the first time since Turkmenistan became independent that a Russian defense minister has visited the country.

Shoigu spoke with his Turkmen counterpart Yaylym Berdiev and with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. Russian media made it clear that Russian cooperation in strengthening Turkmenistan's military capabilities was the main topic of conversation, including weapons sales and training, mixed in with a more general discussion on fighting international terrorism.

Essentially, Turkmenistan agreed to accept at least some of the help the Kremlin has long been pressing Ashgabat to take.

Moscow Visit Barely Registers

Turkmen parliamentary speaker Akja Nurberdieva's visit to Moscow the same day as Shoigu's to Ashgabat went by almost unnoticed. If Nurberdieva had not mentioned that amendments would be made to Turkmenistan's constitution before the end of this year there might not have been any reports about her trip at all.

While it's safe to say Nurberdieva does not receive anywhere near the attention President Berdymukhammedov or even Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov get, it's worth noting that, as speaker of parliament she is, according to the constitution, next in line to assume power should the Turkmen president be unable to perform his duties.

Her visit should have elicited a bit more interest than it apparently did. This is especially true since, according to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service (known locally as Azatlyk), it was the first visit by a speaker of Turkmenistan's parliament to Moscow. Nurberdieva's brief publicized remarks mentioned only a loose timeframe for making amendments to Turkmenistan's constitution. It was not totally apparent what she was there to discuss with her Russian counterpart and other Russian officials.

Turkmen parliamentary speaker Akja Nurberdieva's recent visit to Russia received scant media attention. (file photo)

Turkmen parliamentary speaker Akja Nurberdieva's recent visit to Russia received scant media attention. (file photo)

What Turkmenistan would really like from Russia is for Gazprom to renew imports of Turkmen gas. The Russian company suspended purchases of Turkmen gas entirely at the start of 2016. That came after Gazprom had reduced the amount of Turkmen gas it bought from more than 40 billion cubic meters [bcm] in 2008 to some 3.1 bcm in 2015.

Gazprom's announcement of a total suspension of imports from Turkmenistan came the day after Russian Foreign Ministry official Aleksandr Sternik made his offer of security assistance for Turkmenistan.

Gazprom announced on January 4, 2016 that, rather than purchasing Turkmen gas, the company would instead buy 3.1 bcm of gas from Turkmenistan's neighbor, Uzbekistan.

On May 25, TASS and Interfax cited "material" from Gazprom announcing new deals had been reached for gas imports from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan at a lower price than was previously paid.TASS did not provide the new price. Neither did Interfax, but that news agency did report Gazprom paid Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan an average of $180.39 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas in 2015, down from $259.22 in 2014.

Mysterious Explosion

The price of gas has been the major sticking point in Russian-Turkmen ties since the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. In 2007, Gazprom attempted to corner the Central Asian gas market by offering to pay Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan "European prices" for their gas. There were even plans for a new pipeline along the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea to bring extra Central Asian gas to Russia.

"European prices" went down shortly after that offer and Gazprom felt the price of gas from Central Asia should decrease commensurately. Turkmenistan did not feel that way and insisted on the 2007 price of European gas. The major pipeline connecting the two countries mysteriously blew up in 2009 amid heated disputes over price. When it was finally repaired, Gazprom reduced the amount of Turkmen gas it would purchase by nearly 75 percent.

Of the 173 words in a TASS article titled "Gazprom Reaches Agreement On A Lower Price For Gas From Uzbekistan And Kazakhstan," 33 are devoted to the Gazprom-Kazakh-Uzbek deal. The remaining 140 words recall the recent problems Gazprom has had with Turkmenistan.

As a gas exporter, Turkmenistan is not only feeling the bite of lower world prices but is also on the edge of losing Iran as a gas customer after already losing Russia. Even the gas pipeline to its only remaining customer, China, which can now be seen as Turkmenistan's only hope of propping up its exports, is having problems. Delays were recently announced to line "D" of the network, which will be the biggest of the four pipelines leading from Turkmenistan to China.

It is difficult to get news out of Turkmenistan but even such information that does make its way out indicates the country is facing huge economic challenges.

Only Option

Turkmenistan desperately needs to sell gas to someone besides China and, as it stands now, selling to Russia, even on unfavorable terms, is the only gas export option open to Ashgabat and it might remain so for another decade, at least.

During Lavrov's January visit to Turkmenistan, President Berdymukhammedov extended an invitation for Russian President Vladimir Putin to make an official trip to the country and this visit is expected to happen later this year. The state of Russian-Turkmen ties should be clearer after this visit.

But it seems Ashgabat is increasingly at the Kremlin's mercy due to Turkmenistan's problematic security and economic situation. Look for a lot more Russian influence in Turkmenistan in the months to come.

One last note: of all the information contained above, the only topic Turkmen state media covered was the Shoigu visit. And even then, the report on the government website focuses on "the partnership which has an equal, strategic and fruitful character" or "developing constructive interstate dialogue," and a lot of talk about Turkmenistan's policy of "neutrality." There is no mention of Afghanistan, problems along Turkmenistan's border with that country, or the impending Russian help in strengthening Turkmenistan's armed forces.

RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Muhammad Tahir contributed to this report

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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