Books on Turkmenistan
Update No: 314 - (23/02/07)
Turkmenistan had become synonymous with the personal rule of
one man, Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenbashi. But not even totalitarian dictators
can escape the fell retribution of the Grim Reaper. He died on December 21st of
a heart attack.
Triumphant election for the dentist president
For most countries, a 98.65 percent voter turnout in an election would be
amazing. That is not necessarily the case for Turkmenistan, where official
turnout at the last presidential election - in 1992 - was 99.8 percent.
But the official overwhelming turnout in this presidential election is at odds
with reports from RFE/RL correspondents, who reported sparse attendance at
several voting centres, both in the capital, Ashgabat, and in the eastern Labap
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, acting president since December 21st, won 89.2% of
the vote, eclipsing five other candidates completely. He is a dentist by
training and rumoured to be the natural son of the Turkmembashi himself.
Officials here do not contest the view of observers from the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe that the Turkmenistan election was neither
free nor fair. But they say fact that the energy-rich country had a contested
election for the first time since its independence in 1991, and that Mr.
Berdymukhamedov's stated vote margin was smaller than those claimed by his
predecessor, are signs of possible progress after years of stifling one-man
This is rather like clutching at straws. The new president made it clear that he
would faithfully follow the policies of his predecessor, although, admittedly,
he had little choice but to do so.
The United States expressed cautious hope that this election in Turkmenistan
will be a step toward democracy. A senior U.S. diplomat attended the
inauguration ceremonies in Ashgabat.
The world pays court to the successor
At the inauguration ceremony in the grandiose Palace of Spirituality, which was
attended by high-ranking officials from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, the US,
China and other countries, Gurbungali Berdymukhamedov - in appearance, a younger
version of the late Turkmenbashi - was sworn in as Turkmenistan's new leader on
February 14th. He pledged continuity, but some say change may result in some
uncomfortable diversity as the new dictator may seek less of an anchor to Russia
and begin courting China in the long term.
Officially, Berdymukhamedov - who represents the most powerful of the clans in
the retinue of late dictator Saparmurat Niyazov - competed with five other
candidates for the post of Turkmen president. But in reality, Berdymukhamedov's
rivals were in the race largely to lend legitimacy to the elections.
The fact that neither Western countries nor international organizations refused
to recognize the elections also lent legitimacy to the new leader who
essentially violated the constitution by becoming an acting president in
December. He had been Niyazov's deputy in the government and was made interim
president after the dictator's death. The move was in apparent violation of the
country's constitution, which stipulates that the parliamentary speaker is to
take over until elections are held.
"The new leadership has violated the constitution - and lacks legal
credibility, which elections help to acquire," Skhokhrat Kadyrov, renowned
Turkmen historian, told ISN Security Watch.
Both Kadyrov and other experts interviewed said they expected Berdymukhamedov to
implement limited domestic reforms, but stay the course in terms of foreign
policy, in essence neutrality, at least in the short-term. They said they did
not expect the diversification of exports of gas, which continues to flow
through Russian pipes to the West, for the time being.
"It is the previous president who called all shots in energy policy and the
new president will most likely do the same, at least initially," Valery
Nesterov, oil and gas analyst at Troika Dialogue investment bank in Moscow, told
ISN Security Watch.
A senior Western diplomat agreed that the new leader would continue the same
policy. "Turkmenbashi's policy of 'non-alignment' is most likely to stay in
force at least in the beginning, while the new leadership takes stock of the
situation," the diplomat, who requested anonymity, told ISN Security Watch.
Niyazov - who ruled Turkmenistan with an iron hand for 21 years - essentially
set the course of the country's energy policy by signing a deal with Russian gas
giant Gazprom in 2003 to export the bulk of gas through Russia for the next 25
Given this agreement and the new president's ties to Moscow - not to mention
ties between Moscow and Akmurad Redzhepov, the all-powerful chief of Niyazov's
security detail - Berdymukhamedov has little options for foreign policy
diversification in the short-term, experts agreed.
Moreover, Russia may use its influence to attempt to cement these ties further
by convincing Turkmenistan to join one of its integration projects, the Eurasian
Economic Community, according to Arkady Dubnov, one of Russia's most prominent
Central Asia experts.
Kadyrov - who works at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs in Oslo
- concurred. "The republic's national sovereignty will be even more
limited, but it might be a positive development since Russia's involvement would
not allow things to go stale and [would] facilitate modernization," Kadyrov
Eventually, however, as Berdymukhamedov and his clan gain strength they may
attempt to decrease dependence on Russia for energy exports and on other issues
and diversify export routes, if not foreign policy, the experts said.
"It will depend on what line Turkmenistan takes in the longer-term - either
it will continue to give priority to Russia or pursue independent development of
new export routes. Eventually, it is in their interest as it is in any country
to diversify," Nesterov of the Troika Dialogue investment bank said.
However, he said, as for the 25-year agreement with Gazprom, "[….] there
have been examples when such agreements were nullified" in what would free
Turkmenistan 's hands in building new export routes.
Turkmenistan, which sells it gas to Gazprom at US$100 per 1,000 cubic meters,
has already had experience in arguing with Russia over energy. The country cut
exports to Russia by 13 times in 1998 during a gas export dispute, according to
Adzhar Kurtov, an expert with the Azia Analitika Foundation. Turkmenistan has
1.6 percent of world's proven gas reserves, according to Nesterov. No
international audit has been done to verify Niyazov's claims that the country
has 3 trillion cubic meters of gas.
According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, Turkmenistan has 2.9
trillion cubic meters of gas reserves. According to Niyazov's own estimates,
however, the country has total hydrocarbon resources equivalent to 45.44
trillion cubic meters.
It is Turkmenistan's vast resources that Russian experts say have helped the
republic avoid being included in US President George W Bush's list of countries
in the "axis of evil" and have mitigated Western criticism of
Niyazov's regime in general.
Though Western officials' assessments of the recent election were critical, they
were also reserved, and the courting process has long been underway.
"What we don't see is people being told to vote for Berdymukhamedov,"
a Western diplomat told Reuters on 13 February. "They've got a long way to
go, but it's a big step for them."
The vote was "absolutely not free and fair," Portuguese
parliamentarian Joao Soares said on Sunday. "But […] the fact that they
are at least trying to do something that resembles a free election is a step
forward," Reuters reported.
US has already made overtures to the new leader. Evan Feigenbaum, deputy
assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, met with
Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov and others during a four-day visit that
ended in late January, discussing issues including trade, democracy, human
rights and security cooperation.
The EU has also expressed interest. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter
Steinmeier whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency - said
after touring the region in December that Central Asia had an "urgent
desire" for a EU role.
The EU will engage the new regime even though elections would fall short of
democratic standards and be held without observers, a senior Western diplomat
told ISN Security Watch. "The current German presidency is very keen to
increase the EU focus on Central Asia," said the diplomat, who asked not to
China, the US and the EU are keen on seeing Turkmenistan diversify its exports
by building pipelines via Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea, respectively, but so
far no progress has been made to those ends. A trans-Caspian pipeline would cost
more than US$4 billion, which Turkmenistan could not afford on its own, experts
say. The project would also be hindered by the ongoing disputes over ownership
of Caspian Sea oilfields.
In one sign of how keen major powers are to anchor Turkmenistan, Assistant
Secretary of State Richard Boucher and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov
attended the 14 February inauguration ceremony.
However, the Western diplomat said, "Russia is by far the strongest and the
EU the weakest - the European Commission doesn't even have a representation in
Russia has at least two years to continue engaging Turkmenistan before
energy-hungry external players, such as China, will have any meaningful
influence there, Arkady Dubnov, one of Russia's best known experts on Central
Asia, told a recent roundtable on Turkmen elections in Moscow.
While contemplating no immediate change in the foreign policy, the new leader
has already promised certain domestic reforms. Among other things, the interim
president has vowed to undo Niyazov's pension and educational reforms.
Turkmenbashi had revoked the pensions of some 100,000 elderly Turkmen and cut
the length of mandatory schooling and restricted enrolment at universities and
banned students from studying abroad. He also prohibited the use of the
internet, prohibited foreign papers and even banned Russian television channels.
Berdymukhamedov has also promised to lift restrictions on internet access, and
has vowed agricultural reform and support for private businesses.
"Reforms are necessary in order to prevent the gradual collapse of the
state on account of Turkmenbashi's experiments in the past.
While those reforms are welcome, the Western diplomat warns that real change
might never manifest itself. "[…] power has a tendency to corrupt and, as
the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely," he said.
The country also needs economic reforms and foreign investment into the gas
sector if only to keep up with its contractual obligations to export gas,
Turkmenistan has been producing less than 64 billion cubic meters annually since
2001, while it has already signed contracts under Niyazov to export 60-70
billion cubic meters to Russia and another 30 billion to China, starting from
While cautiously implementing social and economic reforms, Berdymukhamedov has
also turned a blind eye to appeals by foreign NGOs to release political
prisoners and initiate democratic reform and will probably continue this. Any
meaningful democratisation may irk the conservative wing of the ruling elite,
which supported Niyazov's authoritarian style, and Berdymukhamedov would like to
avoid confrontations with clans until he gains strength, according to Kadyrov.
The powerful clans in the ruling elite are not interested in allowing
Berdymukhamedov to become a second Turkmenbashi, and he will probably not become
one at least in the short-term, experts said.
The clan of power ministers led by Redzhepov will continue to dominate, the
experts said. "And this is probably not a good development for the country,
" Zeyno Baran, a Central Asia expert at the Hudson Institute, a US-based
think-tank, told ISN Security Watch.
Eventually, however, the competition between clans may be aggravated to the
point that it would allow the exiled opposition to weigh in, Aleksei Malashenko
of the Carnegie Moscow Centre told ISN Security Watch.
Ashgabat, Moscow to develop constructive partnership
Russia and Turkmenistan want to build a constructive partnership and develop
close cooperation. The heads of the Russian and Turkmen foreign ministries,
Sergei Lavrov and Rashid Meredov, respectively, had a telephone conversation on
January 17, says a statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry and received
by Interfax. "During the conversation it was stressed that Russia and
Turkmenistan are still keen on building a constructive partnership, developing
close cooperation on the basis of equal rights and mutual benefit and will
strictly abide by all existing legal documents and agreements," says the
document. The Russian Foreign Ministry says that the officials also discussed
issues in Russian-Turkmen relations, with a focus on the humanitarian sphere.
Lavrov said in a subsequent statement that both sides wish to develop a
"constructive partnership" and "close cooperation." He also
says all bilateral agreements signed during the tenure of late President
Saparmurat Niyazov will be honoured. It is unclear whether Lavrov and Meredov
discussed the fate of environmentalist Andrei Zatoka. A Russian-Turkmen citizen,
Zatoka was detained in Dashhowuz on December 17 and reportedly charged with
illegally possessing a weapon and poisonous substances. His arrest took place
four days before news of Niyazov's death was made public.
Ashgabat, Beijing ink contract for carbamide plant
Turkmenistan and China signed on January 27 a contract for the construction of a
carbamide plant with the capacity of 400,000 tonnes in the town of Mary and for
reconstruction of existing production units at Maryazot plant. A high-ranking
business delegation of China arrived in Ashgabat for this occasion,
The agreement was signed in the ministry of energy and industry of Turkmenistan.
The contract worth US$266 million was concluded within the framework of the
intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the sphere of chemical industry
signed by two countries earlier. Chinese company CITIC GROUP will implement the
According to the contract, 90 percent of works will be funded by a soft loan
issued by the Chinese government with the remaining 10 percent covered by the
customer, Turkmendokun joint-stock company. During the talks, the Turkmen side
invited CITIC GROUP to take part in an international tender for construction of
industrial facilities near the village of Garlyk in Lebap province where vast
reserves of potassium salt were discovered.