STRAINS IN TURKMEN-RUSSIAN RELATIONS.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 10

Citing Turkmenistan’s policy of permanent neutrality, President Saparmurat Niazov has rejected Berlin’s request to allow German warplanes to use Turkmen airfields. Germany had sought the permission as a major participant in ISAF’s (International Security Assistance Force) upcoming operations in Afghanistan.

Niazov’s decision and its justification probably aim to fend off Russian proposals to Turkmenistan to modify the neutrality policy in Russia’s favor. Invited to pay a “working visit” to Moscow in the coming days, Niazov can expect difficulties on three fronts.

The first is partly of Niazov’s own making. He has frozen, and quite possibly doomed, the westbound Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline Project through his outlandish demands, such as a prepayment of up to US$400 million from the U.S.-British consortium. Niazov’s stance has not only pleased Moscow and Tehran, but also left an ungrateful Russia in control of the sole major gas export pipeline out of Turkmenistan, with the leverage to manipulate the latter’s export prices and volumes, or even resell Turkmen gas to Russia’s customers with a markup.

Meanwhile, the Russian companies Gazprom and Itera handle Turkmenistan’s gas exports to Ukraine–currently Turkmenistan’s largest customer by far–in transit via Russia. The volumes and terms of Turkmen gas transit constitute the main bone of contention and, from Ashgabat’s standpoint, the top priority issue in bilateral relations. Moscow, however, is now seeking to push political issues to the top of the agenda.

The latest contentious issue involves Moscow’s suggestions aimed at eroding Ashgabat’s neutrality. On January 8-9, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov paid a visit to Ashgabat en route to Moscow from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting. Ivanov singled out for stopovers the two countries whose policies irritated Moscow in connection with SCO’s meeting: the lone holdout Turkmenistan, and now Uzbekistan, which–after abandoning the CIS Collective Security Treaty–has preventively refused to participate in any military, security or “bloc-like” activities of the SCO.

In Ashgabat, Ivanov proposed that Turkmenistan join the SCO as a member. With Niazov taking cover behind the UN-ratified status of Turkmenistan as a neutral country, Ivanov contended that UN antiterrorism documents would justify a decision by Turkmenistan to join the SCO. Niazov countered that the UN has not come up with a commonly agreed definition of terrorism, and that each Central Asian country bears primary responsibility for preventing the emergence of terrorist groups on its national territory. Part of this debate took the form of repartees between Niazov and Ivanov in front of television cameras. Niazov had the last word with his refusal to join the SCO.

According to Ivanov, President Vladimir Putin expects to sign with Niazov in Moscow a set of documents on closer bilateral relations. Ivanov called for the signing of a “clear-cut” political document; Niazov, for a “flexible” one. Ashgabat evidently expects an attempt at whittling down its neutrality. In the run up to the visit, Niazov and his Foreign Affairs Minister Rashid Meredov are describing the neutral status as an inviolable commitment that Turkmenistan undertook “to the entire international community.”

On that basis, Ashgabat maintains that its own contribution to the antiterrorism efforts in Afghanistan must be confined to the humanitarian sphere. Turkmenistan has in fact provided extensive overflight rights, landing facilities and secure storage sites for relief supplies to Afghanistan from the countries of the U.S.-led coalition. Countries in the antiterrorism coalition as well as international relief agencies–including those of the U.S. government–have expressed satisfaction with Turkmenistan’s cooperation on that score.

Russia’s Defense Ministry newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, in a survey of current developments in Central Asia, also signified approval of Turkmenistan’s position, against the backdrop of the other countries offering bases to the U.S. and other Western countries. This Russian military view would seem to diverge from the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s apparent inclination to tinker with Turkmenistan’s neutrality.

The third contentious issue–one looming in the background for the time being–is that of Russia harboring Boris Shikhmuradov, former foreign affairs minister of Turkmenistan, who has recently launched an anti-Niazov campaign out of Moscow. Of all the Turkmen officials, former and present, Shikhmuradov has had the greatest experience and longevity in government, and is the best known internationally. He defected to Moscow in October 2001 and announced on January 4, 2002, the formation of a Provisional Executive Committee of the National Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan. In its inaugural document, the committee condemned Niazov for having isolated Turkmenistan internationally, instituted his personality cult, ruling through repression and presiding over a corrupt system. The committee is urging Niazov to resign voluntarily and without delay, failing which the committee says it will call for Niazov’s ouster.

While proposing to introduce democracy and the rule of law in Turkmenistan, the committee and Shikhmuradov personally have a credibility problem. The group includes former officials who themselves served Niazov loyally for many years, and some of whom absconded with the wealth acquired while in government service. Partly for those reasons, some other Turkmen ex-officials residing in various European countries have declined to join Shikhmuradov’s group. Shikhmuradov himself has felt compelled to issue an almost apologetic statement to explain why it took him so many years to see the light about Niazov.

The Russian authorities are hardly likely to subscribe to such goals as eliminating corruption from Turkmenistan or democratizing the country. The Kremlin almost certainly would prefer to deal with a more supine Niazov. The Shikhmuradov committee adds to Moscow’s leverage in dealing with the incumbent Turkmen president (Turkmen Television, Turkmenistan.ru, Interfax, Krasnaya Zvezda, January 9-10; see the Monitor, September 18, 26, October 2, 23, November 5, 27, 2001, January 9, 2002).

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