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Is Turkmenistan Being Pulled Into Russia's Orbit?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on the sidelines of a CIS summit in Sochi in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on the sidelines of a CIS summit in Sochi in 2017.

April will mark 10 years since a mysterious explosion at a gas pipeline leading from Turkmenistan to Russia.

It was arguably the low point in already uneasy relations between Ashgabat and Moscow. In the years that followed the blast, Turkmen-Russian ties were maintained at a bare minimum.

There has been a shift since 2016, possibly driven by the Kremlin's concerns about the security situation in northern Afghanistan and the ability of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to contain any such threat from spreading to countries from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The Turkmen-Russian rapprochement is not necessarily the result of any mutual desire to improve relations; it is being initiated almost entirely by a carrot-and-stick approach emanating from Moscow. Turkmenistan is simply in no position to resist at this point. Ashgabat's official policy of neutrality is no longer a shield.

Vulnerable Ashgabat

The weak position Turkmenistan finds itself in today is arguably of the government's own making. On December 12, 1995, the UN General Assembly recognized Turkmenistan's status of permanent neutrality, something of an amorphous distinction. In Ashgabat's view, permanent neutrality legitimized policies that sealed off the country from the outside world.

Revenues from Turkmenistan's sales of natural gas (the country has the world's fourth-largest gas reserves) enabled the government to isolate the country and still provide for domestic needs. Turkmen foreign policy was dominated by trade, specifically its gas exports.

In 2007, with world gas prices on the rise, Russia had promised to pay "European prices" to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan for their gas.

In 2008, Turkmenistan sold gas to two countries: Russia, via Soviet-era pipelines; and Iran, via a pipeline completed in 1997. That year, Turkmenistan sold some 40 billion cubic meters (bcm) to Russia -- and there were negotiations to boost that by another 5-8 bcm -- and 5-6 bcm to Iran. Iran paid by barter, but Russia paid in currency. Russia was paying about $140 per 1,000 cubic meters -- up more than fourfold from $32 per 1,000 cubic meters less than a decade earlier -- for Turkmen gas.

Additionally, construction was well under way on new gas pipelines leading from Turkmenistan to China and Turkmenistan to Iran, respectively.

Gas prices dropped during 2008. The Russian daily Vremya Novostei reported in April 2009 that Gazprom had lost more than $1 billion purchasing Central Asian gas in the first quarter. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan agreed to lower their prices; Turkmenistan did not. And when the explosion hit the gas pipeline on April 9, 2009, Turkmenistan's government complained loudly that it was Russia's fault.

The result was a halt in Turkmen gas exports to Russia. When, in 2011, the two sides finally agreed on a resumption of supplies, and the pipeline was repaired, Russia said it would take no more than 11 bcm per year. By 2015, that had dropped to some 4 bcm; and at the end of that year, Gazprom announced it would not purchase any gas from Turkmenistan. Russia has not bought any Turkmen gas since then.

Gas exports were really Turkmenistan's main link to Russia.

Ashgabat had attempted for years to keep Moscow at arm's length, and that extended to Russian-dominated organizations.

Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, was not an ardent supporter of the CIS. He was already skipping CIS summits in 1992, just one year after its establishment. In August 2005, Niyazov sent a former bodyguard who'd recently been appointed Turkmenistan's deputy prime minister in charge of CIS affairs, Aganiyaz Akyev, to an informal CIS summit in Kazan, Russia, to announce that Turkmenistan was officially reducing its status in the CIS to "associate member."

And part of the Turkmen government's interpretation of permanent neutrality is the avoidance of membership in any military blocs, such as the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that Central Asian neighbors Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are all members of and which Uzbekistan has twice been a member of in the past.

Economic Freefall

At the start of 2017, Turkmenistan suspended supplies of natural gas to Iran, claiming Tehran owed some $1.8 billion for supplies delivered nearly 10 years before. With Russia having canceled its gas deal with Turkmenistan one year earlier, this left Turkmenistan with one gas customer -- China, a country that had loaned Turkmenistan billions of dollars to develop gas fields that would supply China and build the pipelines to carry that gas to China. An unspecified portion of that gas goes toward paying off Turkmen loans from China.

At the start of 2016, China was reportedly paying $185 per 1,000 cubic meters, but the China National Petroleum Corp sent a delegation to Turkmenistan in February 2017 to negotiate a lower price. The results of those talks were never made public, but it seems unlikely Turkmenistan could reject the Chinese request for lower gas prices.

The result of lower gas prices and fewer customers has been an economic freefall in Turkmenistan. Never since the country became independent in late 1991 has the economic situation in Turkmenistan been as bad as it is right now. People wait in line for flour, bread, and other basic goods, all of which are rationed and often require personal-identification documents to purchase.

Long lines of people wait in front of a grocery store in Ashgabat to buy vegetable oil, sugar, and flour in May last year.
Long lines of people wait in front of a grocery store in Ashgabat to buy vegetable oil, sugar, and flour in May last year.

Turkmenistan has security problems, too.

In the late 1990s, when the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan, including areas bordering Central Asia, Turkmenistan was the sole CIS state to engage the Taliban diplomatically. Under President Niyazov, Turkmenistan, referring to its neutral status, managed to establish amiable ties with the Taliban, much to the displeasure of Turkmenistan's Central Asian neighbors and Russia, who all viewed the Taliban as a threat.

After 2001, when the U.S.-led coalition began operations in Afghanistan, the northwestern provinces remained relatively calm. Turkmenistan seemingly had little to worry about from its southern neighbor.

Current President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has not fared as well. By the start of 2014, the situation in northern Afghanistan changed. Three Turkmen border guards were reportedly killed along the Afghan border in late February 2014 and three Turkmen soldiers in May.

Since then, there have been reports of further clashes between Turkmen troops and militants from Afghanistan, but Turkmen authorities have denied, or more usually said nothing, about such incidents, insisting the border with Afghanistan is calm.

As recently as November 28, Naqibullah Faiq, the governor of Afghanistan's Faryab Province, one of the four Afghan provinces bordering Turkmenistan, said 80 percent of his province was under Taliban control. And even if the Taliban might not threaten Turkmenistan, there are hundreds, certainly, of foreign militants in northern Afghanistan, stateless people who pay no heed to state borders.

The Turkmen government has ordered snap military drills and increased defense spending since 2014 without explaining the sudden need for either.

Advantage Russia

Other interested parties see the situation along the Turkmen-Afghan border differently. Russian officials have expressed concerns about developments there. On January 3, 2016, Aleksandr Sternik, the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Third CIS Department, said Moscow was prepared to help Turkmenistan strengthen its border with Afghanistan.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated the offer during a visit to Turkmenistan at the end of that month. Just a few months previously, in October 2015, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev expressed concern about the Turkmen-Afghan border at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry repeatedly claimed there was no problem along its border with Afghanistan, even with Afghan media showing footage of fighting in areas along the Turkmen border.

The Kremlin didn't seem to believe Turkmen authorities' tales of tranquility along the Afghan frontier, which Russian officials with increasing frequency referred to as the "CIS border" with Afghanistan.

On June 9, 2016, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made an unannounced visit to Turkmenistan. Turkmen media was general in its reporting of Shoigu's visit, but Russian media was more to the point: Shoigu was in Ashgabat to "offer" Russia's help in strengthening Turkmenistan's military capabilities, including weapons sales and training.

On November 14, 2018, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported on a CIS border-guard meeting in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan, where officials discussed a "significant deterioration in the situation on the border of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan."

Two days later, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the RIA Novosti report "did not correspond to reality" and calling the report "unfriendly."

'Real Danger'

On November 22, the acting general secretary of the CSTO, Valery Semerikov, said in a statement posted on the CSTO website that there was a "real danger" from IS groups forming in Afghanistan along the borders with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

And on December 25, the acting head of Russia's Central Military District, Yevgeny Ustinov, said Russia's military had renewed joint training with military forces from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Ustinov did not elaborate on this new cooperation with Turkmenistan's armed forces, but it seems evident Russia has forced its military assistance on Turkmenistan whether Ashgabat wants it or not.

Another example of Russian pressure on Turkmenistan happened on December 7. Lavrov raised the issue of people in Turkmenistan who had dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship, saying Russia was waiting for information about them. In 2003, Turkmenistan unilaterally withdrew from a 1993 dual-citizenship agreement it had made with Russia. It took this action following a purported assassination attempt on President Niyazov in November 2002. Several of the suspects subsequently arrested had dual citizenship and had reportedly been traveling between Russia and Turkmenistan prior to the purported attack. Those who had dual citizenship prior to 2003 maintained that status.

"We expect concrete information about this soon," Lavrov said on December 7, adding a mention of Boris Shikhmuradov, Turkmenistan's former foreign minister who was imprisoned after being found guilty of planning the alleged 2002 assassination attempt. International rights groups have been calling on Turkmenistan for years to release information about Shikhmuradov and show him publicly to prove he is still alive. Lavrov's mention of Shikhmuradov therefore raised a sensitive issue for Turkmen authorities.

There has been no public Russian follow-up of Lavrov's December remarks, leading one to wonder if this was a Kremlin reminder of another lever it had at its disposal.

Russia seems to have drawn Turkmenistan closer to the CIS, too. Berdymukhammedov has been no more enthusiastic publicly about the CIS than his predecessor, Niyazov; but as an agreement on the legal status of the Caspian Sea drew closer, something vitally connected to Turkmenistan's gas export future, Berdymukhammedov started showing up at CIS summits. Berdymukhammedov made a memorable appearance at a summit in Sochi in October 2017, when Vladimir Putin received a puppy that the Turkmen leader was literally dangling in front of the Russian president as a gift.

At a September 2018 CIS summit in Dushanbe that Berdymukhammedov did not attend (the Caspian Convention was signed in August 2018), Turkmenistan was given the rotating CIS chairmanship for 2019. Turkmenistan is now preparing to host the 2019 meetings of CIS prime ministers, CIS foreign ministers, and the CIS summit in October.

Russia is also using its economic leverage. Gazprom head Aleksei Miller visited Turkmenistan on October 9 and November 28 to discuss a possible resumption of purchases of Turkmen gas.

Sticking Points?

Turkmen gas exports have always been the ultimate tie that binds the two countries, but the situation now is very different than it was more than 10 years ago when Russia was buying 30-40 bcm of gas from Ashgabat.

Russia has developed several large fields since then and added thousands of kilometers of gas pipelines. Russia and Gazprom did need Turkmen gas in the first decade of this century, but that is arguably no longer true.

So why buy any? To prop up Turkmenistan's cash-strapped government? To dissuade Turkmenistan from moving forward with the Trans-Caspian Pipeline project to ship gas to Europe where Russia already sells its gas and wants to sell more?

Whether the answer is either, both, or something else, Turkmenistan desperately needs to sell more of its gas -- and the sooner, the better.

What Gazprom has to offer Turkmenistan is immediate exports. The pipeline is there; only an agreement is lacking.

Turkmen officials were optimistic a deal would be reached by the end of 2018; but halfway into January there is still no word, so sticking points could still remain.

If or when the two parties reach a deal, volumes are unlikely to exceed 4-5 bcm and the price is unlikely to be as much as Turkmenistan might wish.

But then, Turkmen authorities and President Berdymukhammedov probably wish many things were different about the reality they now face. Turkmenistan has few if any real friends, an abundance of problems, and has left itself open to the intervention of a big power. Ashgabat might not be able to say "no" to Russia at this point.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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