The case of a well-connected Moscow researcher who said last week (July 20) that Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the president of Turkmenistan, had died—only to apologize when it became obvious that he was actually still alive—highlights something far more important than a mere academic mistake. Turkmenistan, perhaps the second-most hermetically sealed country in the world after North Korea, is a place about which even Moscow lacks good information. That may not have been particularly serious when the Kremlin could treat it as a backwater. Now, however, because of Turkmenistan’s serious internal difficulties (including hyperinflation and food shortages), threats to it by Islamist radicals from Afghanistan and the Middle East, and especially plans by the United States to promote this Central Asian republic as a transit corridor bypassing Russia, the country is becoming a serious headache for Moscow.
The way the story about Berdimuhamedow’s death arose says a great deal. The Turkmenistani president went on vacation last Monday (July 15), his press service announced, and, as of Saturday, he had not been seen in public. On that day, the El Murid telegram channel reported Berdimuhamedow had died, citing unnamed sources in Turkmenistan’s opposition, whose own YouTube channel, Svobodny Turkmenistan, first carried the story. As a result of these reports, Aslan Rubayev, the head of the Moscow Center for Monitoring Eurasian Problems and an expert on a country few Russians know much about, called his contacts in Ashgabat, who confirmed to him that Berdimuhamedow had died shortly after going on vacation. He then announced this to the mainstream Moscow media, sparking a firestorm of coverage (Govorit Moskva, July 21).
Immediately, Turkmenistan’s embassy in Moscow denied the story, saying that it was a complete falsehood and that Berdimuhamedow was very much alive (Echo of Moscow, July 22). Government spokespeople in Ashgabat noted that their president was in Germany to visit his sick mother, who is being treated by doctors there (Lenta.ru, July 21)—something entirely consistent with practices extending back to the years of Berdimuhamedow’s predecessor, SapamuratNiyazov. Those reports were sufficient to prompt Rubayev to issue a hurried retraction and apology (Vzglyad, July 22). The speed with which the Russian academic acted casts doubt on speculation that his words were somehow part of a Russian operation intended to push developments in Turkmenistan along. At the same time, however, some in the Russian media are not ready to give up on the death story. One site, for example, suggests that it is “still too soon” to declare that Berdimuhamedow is among the living or fully healthy. It may be, the outlet suggests, that he, not his mother, is seriously ill and even close to death (News-asia.ru, July 22).
Three things have given this story traction. First, there are so few stories about Turkmenistan that almost any claim of this kind will receive attention. Second, the Russian media last week featured reports—again, indirect ones—about Turkmenistan suggesting that the country was close to collapse. And third, and perhaps most importantly, Russia and the US are locked in a battle over transit routes crisscrossing Turkmenistan, with Russia wanting to keep it as part of the north-south route, while the US, the European Union and China seek to make it part of an east-west one.
The swift Russian embrace of the Turkmenistan-as-a-problem-for-Russia narrative highlights just how few sources Moscow has in the Central Asian country in the first place. Last Monday, the London-based Foreign Policy Centre released a 42-page report suggesting that Turkmenistan is “on the edge of catastrophe,” with hyperinflation, hunger and corruption opening the way for the influx of radical elements from Afghanistan and the Middle East (Foreign Policy Centre, July 2019). That report was subsequently picked up by Al Jazeera, and its coverage in turn attracted the attention of two Moscow-based journalists, Ivan Abakumov and Oksana Borisova. The reporters took the lead in the Russian media to proclaim that Turkmenistan seems likely to become “a new hotspot” in the former Soviet space (Al Jazeera, July 15; Vzglyad, July 18).
The two Vzglyad journalists cite Andrey Serenko, a prominent Moscow specialist on Central Asia, to the effect that the basic arguments of the British report are correct and that the situation in Turkmenistan is “close to critical.” Ashgabat is clearly in trouble, they claim, with food shortages even in the capital, hyperinflation becoming ever worse, and Islamist groups increasingly active. As a result, Serenko says, that Central Asian country may well be entering “the most dramatic period of its history,” whose outcome is far from clear but certainly of concern to Moscow, which does not want instability on its southern border or the expansion of outside influence there (Vzglyad, July 18).
According to Serenko, “the existing authorities [in Turkmenistan] have been saved up to now by only one thing: the obvious growth of protest attitudes has still not been transformed into active protests.” This stability is both a reflection of the hyper-cautious political culture of Turkmenistanis as well as of the immensely powerful security structures the authoritarian regime has put in place to defend itself. Now, however, those may not be enough, given the domestic economic problems and the fact that outside actors, ranging from the Islamic State to Western powers, are interested in the country as “one of the international transport corridors.” These outsiders are taking action, Serenko says; and consequently, Russia must as well.
Only a few days earlier, commentators in Moscow’s Segodnya newspaper surveyed and sharply criticized the ways in which the US wants to use Turkmenistan as a transit corridor. They suggested that Washington’s promotion of transit corridors via Turkmenistan represented a threat to Russian interests and needs to be actively opposed (Segodnya, July 10). At a minimum, they argue, Moscow needs to start paying attention. Consequently, stories about “the death of Berdymukkhamedov” and how they have played out may be the first (indirect) indications that the Russian government is going to do just that.