On December 1 Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov announced that construction has begun at the Turkmen-Iranian border city of Bereket on a railroad linking Iran, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. The 900-kilometer (560 miles) railroad, with around 700 kilometers (435 miles) inside Turkmenistan, will provide greater capacity for bilateral trade between Turkmenistan and Iran. Berdimukhamedov explained its economic significance in terms of opening up his country to trade routes along the Persian Gulf coast via Iran, as well as connecting Turkmenistan with European markets through Russia.
“This railroad has been named trans-continental. It will allow us to transit cargoes and passengers from Russia and Europe via the Central Asian region to the Persian Gulf and the southern seas, the Turkmen section is extended, but we’ll end the construction jointly with our partners by December 2011,” Berdimukhamedov affirmed. It is expected to carry three to five million tons of cargo annually, with the aim of gradually increasing this to around 12 million tons (Itar-Tass, December 1).
On October 16, Presidents Berdimukhamedov, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran signed an agreement on the construction of the railroad within the framework of the second Caspian Summit in Tehran. At that time, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin noted that the venture could have positive implications for Moscow, since it links to the existing Russian railroad system and fits with Moscow’s plans to promote bilateral trade with Ashgabat.
As Turkmen railroad workers began laying the foundations of the railroad at Bereket, Ashgabat was reinforcing its political and economic message, as it brings improved transportation connections among Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Iran; all of which have a guaranteed place in Turkmenistan’s economic future. The new trade corridor will be 600 kilometers (373 miles) shorter than the existing corridor via Beynau-Turkmenabat-Serakhs, reducing the length of time involved in transporting cargo by two days.
Indeed, Turkmenistan’s officials in the Ministry of Railroads were keen to stress the exact route of the new railroad. Trains will run from Uzen station in Kazakhstan through Kyzyl-Kay to Bereket station and then to Etrek along western Turkmenistan’s Caspian coast, near its oil and gas fields. In Gurgan, the route will then connect with the Iranian railroad. Equally, unlike the much publicized routes linking Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey to European markets, the “transcontinental route” is less controversial and has been acted on more quickly and with less red tape from the Turkmen government (Turkmenistan.ru, November 26).
On November 29 Berdimukhamedov held cooperation talks with Sauat Mynbayev, Kazakhstan’s minister of energy and mineral resources, and co-chairman of the Turkmen-Kazakh commission for economic cooperation. Both sides agreed to speed up various economic projects, including construction of the Caspian gas pipeline and upgrading the existing interstate gas transportation system. It also served to acknowledge a readiness in both capitals to expand and diversify economic cooperation across a range of sectors, including energy (Turkmenistan.ru, November 29). Kazakhstan’s political and economic confidence, enhanced by securing the chairmanship of the OSCE in 2009, provides a new sense of urgency in projects involving Astana, as it is increasingly taking on the mantle of regional leader.
Iran’s economic interests in Turkmenistan are also growing, as demonstrated by Turkmenistan’s media through its coverage of Iran’s Second Exclusive Fair in Ashgabat. Approximately 80 Iranian companies displayed their products, ranging from agricultural machinery to construction materials, eliciting significant interest from Turkmen businessmen on the last day of the trade fair on November 29. Tehran, conscious of increased Western interest in neighboring Turkmenistan, wants to reaffirm its own links with the country and send a strong political message to the West, based on the Russia-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran transportation link (IRNA, December 1).
Ashgabat also appreciates the need for foreign assistance in expanding and diversifying its energy market. Berdimukhamedov signed a decree on November 30 that will pave the way for gradually establishing trade missions in Turkmenistan’s embassies and consulates abroad. It is a small step, but an important signal of long-term economic aims that will be welcomed in the West.
The International Energy Agency sees Turkmenistan as an extremely promising partner and hopes to develop a constructive dialogue with its leaders. William Ramsay, deputy executive director of the IEA, led a delegation to Ashgabat and met Berdimukhamedov on November 29. Ramsay explained to his host that international interest in Turkmenistan is increasing as a result of the transparency and broad international cooperation pursued by Turkmenistan, particularly in the realization of its vast energy potential. “I have been dealing with issues of energy policy and security for 15 years and I can see that in this regard Turkmenistan is very attractive to foreign partners.” Human rights groups in Turkmenistan do not share Ramsey’s optimism (Turkmenistan.ru, November 30).
Numerous Western energy officials have visited Ashgabat in recent weeks, including a meeting on November 27 between Berdimukhamedov and Robert Murphy, the president of Midland Oil and Gas, on November 27. A brochure presented to the Turkmen leader, entitled “Common goals and outlook” detailed aspects of the partnership between the company and Turkmenistan in the energy sector. Berdimukhamedov confirmed his interest in U.S. energy expertise, focused on advanced technologies for extraction, and noted Midland’s Caspian drilling experience.
These economic developments make it more likely that Ashgabat will develop defense and security assistance programs with Western states, as it is desperately needs to reform these security bodies. However, Turkmenistan is wary of a possible Western confrontation with Iran. No Central Asian country supports the use of force to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but Western energy assets in countries bordering Iran raise the potential for an Iranian attack against such interests in the event of a Western military attack. Equally, a crucial factor will be the precise nature of the unfolding relationship among Putin, Nazarbayev, and Berdimukhamedov and the impact of any further cooling in Moscow’s relations with Washington. These issues will concern Western policymakers, given their lack of deep understanding of the region and the absence of an over-arching Western strategy for engagement in Central Asia.