The election of Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov as Turkmenistan’s new president, widely expected since he became acting president after the death of Saparmurat Niyazov in December, has already witnessed diplomatic overtures by a number of countries keen to develop closer ties with Turkmenistan. Russian President Vladimir Putin, sensitive to the possibility that bilateral relations could suffer as a result of intense Western overtures, has invited Berdimukhamedov to Moscow for talks. The speed of Russian moves toward the new regime signals that the Kremlin is seeking to engage Turkmenistan before any serious Western engagement unfolds.
The heads of state and representatives from more than 30 countries attended Berdimukhamedov’s inauguration on February 14 (see EDM, February 16). Many presidents from within the Commonwealth of Independent States attended, including Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who offered to continue the development of “friendly relations,” while Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko suggested that bilateral ties should deepen and build on existing military and technical assistance. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, visiting Turkmenistan for the first time, discussed the prospects for mutually beneficial cooperation. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov conveyed a message from Putin that interestingly referred to Turkmenistan as a “strategic partner” (Turkmen TV Alton Asar, February 14).
Putin’s congratulatory message to Berdimukhamedov appealed to the Turkmen leader on the basis of trade, economic, and energy issues: “The Russian Federation has always been and will remain Turkmenistan’s reliable friend. We highly appreciate partnership relations between our countries based on the principles of equality and mutual benefit. This partnership is based not only on trade and economic relations, including relations in the energy sphere. I am confident that further expanding Russian-Turkmen relations will serve toward meeting the interests of our countries as well as maintaining peace and stability in the Central Asian region. It will also promote further expanding multi-level relations,” said Putin. The expansion of bilateral relations in Putin’s mind appears geared toward security and is predicated upon the question of how far Ashgabat may be willing to strengthen such ties without compromising its continued neutrality. This was also related in press statements by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which suggested that the partnership should be aimed at the “peace and stability of Central Asia” (Itar-Tass, February 14).
Oleg Morozov, first deputy speaker of the Russian Duma, highlighted the sense of uncertainty that pervades Russian security thinking on Turkmenistan. “Any rapid, sharp changes in Turkmenistan could lead to unpredictable consequences. It is understandable that the election and its results were anticipated, that Berdimukhamedov is the man who will pursue the Turkmenbashi line, and it is good because any explosive changes would have severe consequences, including for relations between Russian and Turkmenistan,” Morozov said. Moscow will be wary of any sudden or rapid attempts to introduce reform, and will keep a watchful eye on Ashgabat’s search for improved relations with its neighbors. But the real anxiety is about the future course of relations between Moscow and Ashgabat. “As for relations with Russia, I am sure they will not worsen. I do not know whether they will improve, but it is more important at this stage that they do not develop in the reverse direction and deteriorate. That is why on the whole I have an optimistic view about the election and prospects for the development of Turkmen-Russian relations,” Morozov explained (Tatar-Inform News Agency, Moscow, Kazan, February 14).
Moscow’s security fears are rooted in its anxiety surrounding Western inroads into the Caspian littoral states to promote their own capabilities to protect their energy infrastructure in the Caspian. To date, the U.S.-led “Caspian Program” has not been as successful as Washington originally planned, aimed at promoting security cooperation in the Caspian between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Russia responded to this program by proposing the creation of “CasFor,” a Russian led Naval force in which the Caspian littoral states could participate. With the United States fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Moscow could conceivably feel free to strengthen its security influence within the region without too much opposition from Washington; but there is one complicating factor, which introduces some doubt in Kremlin planners. Berdimukhamedov has already intimated that he would like to strengthen ties with Iran, and this coupled with what may be considered a window of opportunity for the United States to increase its influence within Turkmenistan, may drive Russian planners to pursue closer ties with Ashgabat in order to keep the United States out.
Turkmenistan itself is well used to a sense of denying reality in the interests of the ruling regime, a habit that reappeared on Army Day on January 27, with Turkmen television broadcasting a more-than-optimistic view of the present capabilities of Turkmenistan’s armed forces. It centered upon the idea that its navy is one of the strongest in the region, and expressed confidence that its air defense forces and anti-aircraft weaponry can offer security against modern threats. Whatever the reality of the morale, training, and combat readiness of Turkmenistan’s armed forces, its equipment is Russian and even given the country’s neutral stance, the new leaders seem most likely to want close security links with Russia to beef up the potential to protect vital economic interests in the Caspian. (Turkmen TV Altyn Asyr, February 14). Putin’s pursuit of a security partnership with Turkmenistan may signal a level of nervousness in the Kremlin over the unpredictability of the new regime.