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Turkmenistan: The End Of Isolationism?

Berdymukhammedov has been pursuing good relations with Turkmenistan's neighbors (file photo) (AFP) July 13, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has become personally acquainted with a number of foreign leaders during his six-month presidency, including the heads of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

His latest foreign-relations initiative is a visit to China scheduled for July 16-18, one of many trips the country's new leader has made in recent months.

Some observers say Berdymukhammedov's visit should be viewed in the context of a new foreign policy that ends the era of isolationism imposed on the country by late President Saparmurat Niyazov.

"The geographical selection of the countries he recently visited...virtually coincides with the economic interests of Turkmenistan."

Murad Esenov, the editor in chief of "Central Asia And The Caucasus," a journal based in Sweden, says that Berdymukhammedov has been dismantling the country's old foreign policy and forging a new one.

"The new priorities are already defined," Esenov says. "They are, first of all, the countries of the region, the neighboring countries. The geographic selection of the countries he recently visited is not accidental. It virtually coincides with the economic interests of Turkmenistan."

Multivector Policy

Mehmet Seyfettin Erol of the Gazi University in Ankara, Turkey, agrees. He says that as far as rhetoric goes, Turkmenistan is likely to declare a multivector foreign policy.

But, Erol says, just like its Central Asian neighbors, Ashgabat is bound to have close ties with Moscow -- particularly because Russia's Gazprom monopoly has been Ashgabat's biggest natural-gas partner, buying almost 70 percent of Turkmen gas annually.

Turkmenistan sits on huge natural-gas reserves with most of its resources exported to Russia which, in turn, reexports gas to Europe at great profit.

There have been several projects to build new pipelines that bypass Russia and thus give Ashgabat more flexibility in choosing economic partners. The initiatives for such pipelines have been around for more than a decade, but have remained on paper, due to external reasons as well as Niyazov's whims.

Are those projects more feasible now that Berdymukhammedov has come to power?

Esenov says the new president, unlike his predecessor, is considering the projects more carefully. So, the chances have improved for some of them to be realized, he says.

Two to Tango

Analysts note that it is not only Berdymukhammedov who is opening up his policies. Turkmenistan's actual and potential partners are also trying to benefit from the momentum of the change in leadership and reach new agreements with the country.

Berdymukhammedov (right) in Tehran with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad last month (AFP)

There are expectations in Moscow, Washington, and Beijing as well as other capitals that Berdymukhammedov will be a predictable and reliable partner. Turkmenistan's traditional partners also hope that new opportunities will emerge to realize pipeline projects.

In the past, Niyazov frequently declared increases in gas prices and the Kremlin often sent its emissaries to Ashgabat for talks with the fickle Turkmen leader.

Natural gas is likely to be on the agenda of Berdymukhammedov's talks with officials in Beijing next week. China, a net exporter of energy resources, has increased its gas and oil exports from Central Asia in recent years.

Turkmenistan signed several agreements with China during Niyazov's tenure, including one on a Turkmenistan-China natural-gas pipeline expected to be operational by 2009. Erol says Berdymukhammedov is likely to assure China there will be no breach of previously signed contracts.

Erol also says Berdymukhammedov appears to be a knowledgeable politician, despite his short time as president.

"He is a very experienced leader, as far as I can see. He knows the rules of the game, especially in this region. His steps are in accordance with this reality. But again I want to point [out] that Turkmenistan needs time," he says.

Perceptible change?

Berdymukhammedov seems to be keeping his foreign-policy options open, although, experts say, he is clearly inclined to end the country's isolation. But do ordinary Turkmen see any changes?

In Niyazov's Turkmenistan, citizens faced many obstacles to travel abroad. Ethnic Uzbeks and Turkmen living on both sides of the border were often unable to visit relatives, and some families were separated because of difficult visa regimes.

In recent months, traveling seems to have become easier, as Komil Nurjon, an ethnographer, told RFE/RL from the western Uzbek city of Urganch.

"After the death of Turkmenbashi [President Niyazov], there have been fewer problems regarding traveling between Uzbeks in [Uzbekistan's] Khorazm Province and the neighboring Tashauz [region of Turkmenistan]," Nurjon says. "There have been more mutual visits. There used to be long queues at border checkpoints and customs. Now things are a little better. There are even more visits by singers from both sides."

It is yet to be seen, however, whether traveling home will become easier for Turkmen who had to flee the country due to the political repression of Niyazov's regime. So far, no positive changes have been reported in the area of political freedoms and human rights.

Esenov, who is an ethnic Turkmen himself, says he does not feel safe to travel to Turkmenistan for the time being. "No, I don't think I or anyone else who had problems with the authorities can travel there without trouble in the nearest future. No, I don't think it is possible," he says.

Esenov adds, however, that he is optimistic about Turkmenistan's future, because changes, although slow and perhaps minor, have at least begun to take place.

Thinking Strategically

Thinking Strategically
EU officials discussing enlargement at a meeting in December 2006 (epa)

OVER THE NEXT HURDLE: Bruce Jackson, president of the Project on Transitional Democracies, gave RFE/RL a wide-ranging presentation on issues related to European integration in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, as well as strengthening relations between the West and Central Asia.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 60 minutes):
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