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Central Asia: RFE/RL Analyst Looks At Turkmen-Kazakh Meeting

RFE/RL Central Asia analyst Daniel Kimmage (RFE/RL) Ahead of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's trip to Kazakhstan on May 28-29, Kazakh media termed it "a historic visit" and reported that several agreements aimed at boosting mutual cooperation will be signed. RFE/RL's Central Newsroom asked the radio's Central Asia analyst, Daniel Kimmage, whether he regards the trip as in line with Berdymukhammedov's energy policies.

RFE/RL: Turkmenistan was isolated under [the late President Nursultan Niyazov,] Turkmenbashi, but Berdymukhammedov has been pursuing a more active foreign policy. How does the visit to Kazakhstan fit in with this?

Daniel Kimmage: This visit to Kazakhstan is a logical continuation of the foreign policy he's been pursuing since he became president as he is consolidating his powers as the president -- which is to reach out to along the lines of energy initiatives. Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia recently signed an agreement to build a new pipeline along the shore of the Caspian [Sea], so the visit makes sense in that context. And it's part of a more active attempt to reach out from Turkmenistan -- for now, primarily to regional countries. Berdymukhammedov has been also to Moscow; he isn't going to be in Paris and Washington any time soon, but he is certainly been reaching out much more than his predecessor did. His predecessor essentially ignored regional organizations and very rarely visited neighbors. Berdymukhammedov is integrating Turkmenistan more into the region, but for now primarily along the lines of cooperation in the energy sector.

RFE/RL: The visit comes as Berdymukhammedov appears to be consolidating power in Turkmenistan, and Nazarbaev gained the right to run for president against in 2012. Is there any connection?

Kimmage: I'm not sure there is a direct logical connection. On the other hand, these are both reflective of some important trends in the region: the first, looking at Berdymukhammedov's consolidation of power, where he became president -- he was the active president after Niyazov died in late December 2006 and he won the presidential election essentially with no real alternatives in February this year. There were numerous predictions, speculation, unease that there might be a power struggle in Turkmenistan. But for now he seems to be consolidating power fairly effectively. The lesson, I think, we should draw from this is that some of these superpresidential systems -- Turkmenistan, of course, had the most super presidential system in Central Asia -- are fairly long-lasting or robust in that there is continuity and there is -- once power has been transferred -- someone who can stay in control. So you see that in Turkmenistan. And in Kazakhstan, it's a slightly different situation, of course; it's a different political system. But Nazarbaev, in the course of a number of recent political reforms that are intended to expand the power of parliament -- and you can argue about how meaningful that is, given the presidential parties dominate parliament -- but one of the recent amendments to the constitution that was passed removes term limits for the first president. Nazarbaev, if he chooses, can run again in 2012; essentially he can continue to rule as long as possible. Broadly what we see is that is a trend toward the deepening and consolidation of the existing political systems. I'm not sure there is a direct logical connection between Berdymukhammedov's consolidation of power and Nazarbaev's gaining the right to run in 2012, but I'd say they're broadly indicative of this trend.

RFE/RL: Turkmenistan is Central Asia's most repressive and isolated country, while Kazakhstan is its most progressive. Does this create any difficulties in relations between the two countries?

Kimmage: Given the type of cooperation that is now serving as the basis for the relationship -- and the advance press for Berdymukhammedov's visit to Kazakhstan focuses on energy cooperation -- differences between most and least progressive [and] most and least repressive don't seem to be a huge obstacle on the level of energy cooperation, in terms of building pipelines and signing agreements on energy transit and transport. But there certainly are differences that are creating difficulties. If they were to really step up the level of cooperation -- and we have to remember that Turkmenistan was very closed under Niyazov -- there might be areas in which Kazakhstan's more liberal environment than Turkmenistan's could create some disparities in the way the countries interact -- where in Turkmenistan the media is completely subordinate to the state, completely controlled; and Kazakhstan, while it's not a free press by Western standards, there's certainly more wiggle room and more leeway. The disparities are there, but with the current format for cooperation -- which really looks like it's going to be energy -- those sorts of disparities are a bit less important.

RFE/RL: Many analysts see Central Asia as a place where the so-called great powers have competed for influence since the "Great Game" of the 19th century. Do visits by Central Asian leaders within Central Asia matter? And where do Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan stand today in relation to the great powers?

Kimmage: The situation is different today than it was during the 19th century. There is great-power involvement in Central Asia; there is Russian involvement; there is U.S. involvement; EU involvement; Chinese involvement. But these are sovereign nations, and they often have things that the world wants a great deal -- which is certainly true in the case of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and their oil and gas. So it gives them leverage in their dealings with the great powers. So I would argue yes, that these visits matter -- and this one in particular, because Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan do have the largest resources that the outside world wants. Recently, only two or three weeks ago, there was this agreement with Russia to build a new pipeline along the Caspian that will feed into the Russian pipeline and expand also the existing natural-gas-pipeline system that runs through Uzbekistan to Russia. So it will be interesting to see whether there are any agreements or statements coming from this visit that underscore that Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan want to diversify the export routes for their resources and not be entirely dependent on Russia.

They could send either a powerful signal or perhaps even unveil a new agreement. There is an agreement between Turkmenistan and China to build a natural-gas pipeline -- supposedly by 2009 -- for exports of Turkmen natural gas to China. And potentially you could have an announcement that Kazakhstan will be the transit country for that, we don't know. But these visits do matter in that Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan can send a strong signal about how they are going to interact with great powers. For one, there are more great powers involved -- there are other regional powers, such as Pakistan, that are increasingly involved in Central Asia. And the Central Asia countries themselves do have leeway and leverage, so I think these visits do matter and it will be interesting to see what comes out of the visit on May 28.

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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