As Turkmenistan has been closed off from the rest of the world for most of the period since 1991 and as Ashgabat’s commitment to neutrality has meant that it is not a participant in many multilateral forums, Turkmenistan frequently has been ignored in discussions about Central Asia. But that is changing and changing fast. On the one hand, the Turkmenistani government itself has been increasingly active diplomatically as the country’s leadership has undergone generational change; and on the other, both it and the international community have become ever-more aware that Turkmenistan’s geographic location makes it one of the most important transportation routes in the region both north-south—Russia’s favored route—and east-west, which China and the West prefer. As a result, ever-more countries, including Russia, China, Iran, India and the United States are becoming involved in Turkmenistan—a development that is sparking intensified competition among these states first and foremost regarding the development of transportation routes there (see EDM, December 17, 2021; July 29, 2021; December 15, 2022).
Ashgabat continues to seek to maintain its neutrality and independence by encouraging ever-more countries to become involved in the development of these routes, confident that, the more countries that are involved, the better chance Turkmenistan will have to develop its own economy and polity. That may be so, but, increasingly, the radically different agendas of the countries involved have sparked competition among them for influence in Ashgabat; and it is far from certain that their involvement will not lead to more serious competition. The Turkmenistani government may welcome this competition on one level, given that many of these governments may seek to advance their interests by means of additional aid; however, it may fear this on another, especially if these states seek to make their aid and investment dependent on Turkmenistan’s geopolitical positions. At the very least, some outside countries will play up that possibility as a way of pressuring Ashgabat to go their way rather than in any other. Indeed, there are signs that this is already happening (see EDM, March 21, 2019, December 15, 2020; Fondsk.ru, May 10).
Nowhere has this competition become greater than with Ashgabat’s railroads, including who will develop them and which routes they will follow. Turkmenistan currently has just under 4,000 miles of rail line but is on track, with foreign assistance, to increase that to more than 6,000 over the next two years. Most routes are single track, none are yet electrified and all are Soviet-Russian standard width rather than international standard or mixed. Moreover, they are concentrated in two bands along the northern and southern borders of Turkmenistan, though plans call for building more lines that will link these two bands and open the way for more north-south traffic. In the past decade, China, Russia and Iran have been the most active in the expansion of Turkmenistan’s railways, but regional players, including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, are also present, as increasingly are investors and governments from further afield, such as India and the United States (see EDM, March 21, 2019, December 15, 2020, February 10, 2021; Casp-geo.ru, May 7; Centralasia.news, May 10, 11).
Just how much Turkmenistan has become a cockpit of conflict as far as railways are concerned was highlighted on May 4 when Ashgabat hosted an international conference on transport corridors, a meeting that attracted more than 400 representatives from 40 foreign countries and international aid organizations (Tdh.gov.tm, May 3). Turkmenistani President Serdar Berdymukhamedov declared at the meeting that “thanks to its favorable geographic position, our sovereign Fatherland has been transformed into one of the main centers at the intersection of trans-continental routes” north-south and east-west, and, now, it has the potential to become even-more influential in that regard especially on rail lines linking Russia to the Indian Ocean, China and Europe. Given that, Berdymukhamedov added that Ashgabat plans to take the lead in helping forge a more united, interconnected and stable world. (He and other speakers did not ignore either Turkmenistan’s shipping via the Caspian or its highway system, but they made clear that, for the immediate future, railways will be the most important tool for Ashgabat.) (Tdh.gov.tm, December 31, 2022 , ).
At present, and with their competing goals, China and Russia are the most important players in this competition (see EDM, July 29, 2021; Izvestiya, April 11; TASS, May 4). But Iran, both in cooperation with Russia and given its own interests in accessing Turkmenistan’s petroleum reserves, is becoming ever-more active and may have an advantage over China due to Tehran’s interest in Turkmenistan’s hydrocarbons (Casp-geo.ru, May 7). Not surprisingly, both Iran’s expansive role and Russia’s use of this railway route southward to end-run Western sanctions over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has alarmed the West and especially the United States. At the end of April 2023, for example, Washington hosted Turkmenistan’s foreign minister and signaled to him its concerns about Ashgabat’s development of Iranian and Russian connections and US readiness to provide more support to Turkmenistan to develop its transportation routes in a more positive direction (Fondsk.ru, May 10). That message was underlined by the first-ever US Agency for International Development investment conference in Turkmenistan, which took place on the eve of the Washington meeting (Usaid.gov, April 13).
Not surprisingly, some Moscow commentators are now saying that the US moves concerning Turkmenistan were directed primarily against Russia and are warning that Washington is quite prepared to harm Ashgabat to get at Russia. According to these writers, the US might impose sanctions on Ashgabat or even organize “a color revolution” in Turkmenistan unless Ashgabat follows the line the Americans want—language intended to make the Turkmenistani government skeptical of further cooperation with Washington (Fondsk.ru, May 10).
Such language is an indication of how serious some in Moscow see the control of rail lines in Turkmenistan, and they are a sign that Turkmenistan, so long ignored in Western discussions of Central Asia, is about to assume a much more central and important role, one that it was always fated to have by virtue of its geographic location. Governments around the world are recognizing that reality; it is long past time for those writing about Central Asia to do the same.