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Analysis: Russian Ambassador Leaves Turkmenistan

Like many couples with a complicated history and considerable cause to quarrel, Turkmenistan and Russia prefer to stress the positive in public. For Turkmenistan, Russia is one of few countries to place a premium on engagement with an increasingly isolated partner best known for its mercurial leader's foibles and quirks. For Russia, a long-term contract to buy huge quantities of Turkmen gas allows Gazprom to maintain a high volume of lucrative exports to Europe at a time when the state-controlled gas monopolist faces declining yields from existing fields and lacks the billions of dollars needed to develop new production assets.

The plight of Turkmenistan's Russian minority casts something of a pall over this mutually beneficial partnership. But even as international organizations and Russian newspapers have chronicled violations of Russians' rights in Turkmenistan -- especially after a decree abolished dual citizenship in April 2003 -- official Moscow has limited its objections to the occasional statement and press release from the Foreign Ministry. More tellingly, while state-controlled television regularly fulminates about the latest anti-Russian outrages perpetrated by Baltic nationalists against their Russian minorities, Turkmenistan does not attract similar coverage. In fact, in February, the state-controlled Rossiya television channel pulled a documentary film about Turkmenistan's role as a transit route for Afghan heroin on its way to Russia and other destinations. Producers decided to yank the documentary, which had been timed to coincide with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's 64th birthday, after a behind-the-scenes blitz by the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Turkmen Embassy in Moscow, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported.

This underlying tension in Russian-Turkmen relations imbues diplomacy between the two countries with considerable intrigue and innuendo. Fittingly, the recent departure of Russian Ambassador Andrei Molochkov from Ashgabat set as many tongues wagging as it left questions unanswered.

Though mainstream Russian media outlets would not report it until later, the first news of Molochkov's impending departure came in a 25 June report on an obscure English-language site called NewsCentralAsia ( Registered to a commercial complex in Karachi, Pakistan, the site appears to specialize in reports illustrating the fine state of affairs in Turkmenistan and debunking negative news about the country. (A 28 June article, for example, called recent reports of plague in Turkmenistan "pure and unadulterated terrorism" that "so-called media outlets" are using "to further their obvious plans about Turkmenistan.") On 25 June, NewsCentralAsia wrote that Molochkov had hosted a farewell dinner on 22 June and would be leaving for Moscow "late next week." The report ended, "[Molochkov] is leaving Turkmenistan on medical grounds."

Molochkov himself spoke out on 29 June in an "exclusive interview" with NewsCentralAsia headlined "Russian Envoy Thrashes Misleading Media, Upbeat On Turkmen-Russian Relations." In the interview, Molochkov blamed "irresponsible journalists" for problems in Russian-Turkmen relations (singling out for special mention RFE/RL, Turkmen opposition website Gundogar, and Deutsche Welle). Molochkov parried the charges most frequently leveled against Turkmen authorities, stressing, "[W]e cannot find any proof that people are losing their flats just because they are Russians, not a single proof that people are losing their jobs because of Russian diplomas. We have not a single proof of participation of Turkmen authorities in narcotraffic, not a single proof." Molochkov also expressed the hope that a "second round of consultations" on humanitarian problems would soon take place in Moscow, an apparent reference to a bilateral commission that Russia's Foreign Ministry has been trying to convince Turkmen authorities to reconvene. Finally, Molochkov underscored that his understanding of the situation should not be taken merely as an expression of his personal opinion: "I am fulfilling whatever my president says because we have a presidential foreign policy."

By 1 July, Russian newspapers and Turkmen opposition websites were discussing both the fact of Molochkov's departure and the implications of his parting comments. The opposition site Gundogar optimistically concluded that Moscow was hatching a "new, progressive, and promising conception of relations between Russia and the member states of the CIS." Writing in "Vremya novostei," Arkadii Dubnov disputed some of Ambassador Molochkov's assertions, pointing out a concrete instance of a Russian who lost a two-room apartment in Ashgabat, apparently because of his nationality.

A 1 July article in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" dispensed with diplomatic niceties and baldly stated that Molochkov's return to Moscow owed less to medical difficulties than to the Russian Foreign Ministry's "extreme dissatisfaction" with Molochkov's pro-Niyazov proclivities. The article noted that Molochkov spent three months away from his post when his wife died earlier this year. Upon returning, the ambassador had a tense meeting with President Niyazov, who complained that Russian newspapers were printing too many gloom-and-doom accounts of events in Turkmenistan. Molochkov's efforts to rein in the Russian press proved too much for the Foreign Ministry, which decided to recall the wayward ambassador. The article's author went on to note that under Molochkov, who took up his post in August 2003, "the Russian Embassy consistently absented itself from the resolution of the problems that afflict Turkmenistan's Russian-language population, including Russian citizens."

All of this untoward speculation spurred Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to comment publicly on the matter on 1 July. Lavrov told Russian journalists in Jakarta that Molochkov's departure was occasioned "on the one hand, by a professional situation in terms of staff rotation and, on the other hand, by humanitarian considerations," Interfax reported. Lavrov went on to explain that Molochkov had recently lost his wife and brother, and undergone a difficult operation as well. The minister concluded, "We cannot ignore the firm opinion of doctors."

Molochkov himself confirmed the official end of his tenure as ambassador to Turkmenistan in an interview with RIA-Novosti on 3 July, the date of his actual departure for Moscow. Responding to accusations that he had defended the interests of Turkmenistan's Russian community with insufficient zeal, Molochkov told the news agency, "Of course, there are unresolved issues and problems between our countries, but it's the tradition of Russian diplomacy not to bring complications before the court of public opinion but rather to try to resolve them in a bilateral fashion." Adviser Andrei Krutko will be the acting ambassador until a replacement for Molochkov is selected, the news agency reported.

The brouhaha over the murky circumstances of Molochkov's departure illustrates two key aspects of Russian-Turkmen relations. First, Turkmenistan has a clearer understanding of those relations and a freer hand than its larger and more powerful partner. The clarity of understanding is partly a consequence of a highly centralized political system controlled by an unchallenged leader; but it is also the result of a sober-minded foreign policy based on quid pro quo in matters of business and scrupulous indifference to extraneous concerns. Russia, for its part, must minimize contradictions, attempting to maintain economic cooperation even as Russians face adversity in Turkmenistan, especially since the plight of Russians abroad is still the subject of public discussion in Russia. Second, as long as these contradictions continue to beset Russian-Turkmen relations, Russia's envoy in Ashgabat will occupy uneasy ground, and his actions will telegraph Moscow's approach to its troublesome partner.

Andrei Molochkov represented one set of priorities. The fact of his departure does not indicate that they have changed, but the choice of his predecessor bears watching; for if change is in the offing, he might well be its agent.