Turkmenistan’s foreign policy discernibly tilted toward Russia in the days following the death of the country’s president on December 21, 2006. Russia sees the continuation and improvement of commercial and diplomatic relations with Turkmenistan as vital for a number of reasons. Russia has become dependent upon the re-sale of Turkmenistan gas that it transports to European markets. When Russian President Vladimir Putin used his New Year’s address to Turkmenistan to announce that Russia “is and will remain a dependable friend of Turkmenistan,” he was appealing to Turkmenistan’s new political leadership to continue to observe recent agreements for commercial relations, most notably the 25-year gas export agreement signed in 2003 that gave Russia the right to market the bulk of Turkmenistan’s gas exports (www.turkmenistan.gov.tm/politika/pol&ofic.htm).
Perhaps even more important, there are political dimensions to Russia’s posture toward Turkmenistan. Russia views Turkmenistan’s geographical position as providing a strategically critical buffer with the countries of South Central Asia. Russia has put a great deal of effort into spearheading the economic reintegration of the Soviet successor states in order to recreate a sphere of Russian influence throughout Eurasia. Turkmenistan’s reluctance to join the other Central Asia states in economic integration has been a continuing obstacle to Russia’s strategic designs.
Upon assuming power Turkmenistan’s new leaders were quick to indicate their intention to continue policies and honor commercial contracts with Russian firms. Turkmenistan’s new leaders were the innermost members of President Saparmurat Niyazov’s entourage and, understandably, are themselves heavily invested in the success and continuation of his policies. The most notable characteristic of the succession was the adulation and praise of the departed leader coupled with expressions of the intention to continue his policies.
The political succession was conducted in such a way that there was little question that the new leadership intended to carry through on promises of continuity. Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, who was identified with the first official announcement of Niyazov’s death as a deputy chair of the Cabinet of Ministers and the supreme high commander of the armed forces, quickly stepped into the position of “Temporary Acting President.” Even before the first public announcement was made, Berdimukhamedov had maneuvered the presumed constitutional successor, the chairman of the Halk Maslahaty, Ovezgeldy Atayev, out of power. Atayev was expeditiously indicted for criminal prosecution and was relieved from his post as a deputy of the Mejlis.
Berdimukhamedov then took the most visible position in organizing Turkmenbashi’s funeral service, an important event in a Muslim country. The funeral gave Berdimukhamedov the opportunity to represent Turkmenistan to visiting foreign dignitaries. Heads of state including Emomali Rakhmonov from Tajikistan and Nursultan Nazarbayev from Kazakhstan were present, although Islam Karimov from neighboring Uzbekistan was notably not in attendance. Positions of distinction in the funeral procession, however, appeared to go not to heads of state but heads of government. Prime Ministers from Russia and Ukraine, Mikhail Fradkov and Viktor Yanukovych, the two men who hold the key positions in Turkmenistan’s foreign gas sales, were accorded a role in the funeral ceremonies that amply illustrated Berdimukhamedov’s sympathies with these countries’ business partners.
Following the funeral, Berdimukhamedov’s initial steps demonstrated his early consolidation of power. Within a week of Turkmenbashi’s death, Berdimukhamedov convened a special meeting of the Halk Maslahaty. The 2,466 members of the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council) unanimously endorsed the appointment of Berdimukhamedov as acting president to serve until formal presidential elections, scheduled for February 11, 2007. The Halk Maslahaty also approved a constitutional amendment to sanctify this unanticipated sequence of events. The Halk Maslahaty then proceeded to approve a list of six nominees for the election, with Berdimukhamedov among them (www.turkmenistan.ru, December 29).
While there is virtually no indication that the outcome of the election is in doubt, there is also no reason to exclude the possibility of surprises. Turkmenistan’s murky chancellery politics is suffused with conflicting family and clan undercurrents. And the stakes are obviously big. There is no clear assessment of how much gas Turkmenistan actually possesses, with estimates ranging from BP’s conservative estimate of 2.9 trillion cubic meters to more adventuresome estimates of more than 20 trillion cubic meters, based on hints contained in Niyazov’s off hand public comments (Quantifying Energy: BP Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2006, p. 22. at www.bp.com).
The big stakes are giving rise to considerable speculation about how the Berdimukhamedov group came to power in the first place and how it intends to govern in the absence of a democratic mandate. Some press observers have even given currency to the rumor that Berdimukhamedov is actually a previously unacknowledged child of Niyazov. Niyazov’s official biography has him joining the Communist Party in 1962. Given Muslim traditions in Turkmenistan and communist party strictures at the time, it would have been very hard to conceal a child born out of wedlock. It would be equally unnecessary for Niyazov, once he had become the “father of all Turkmen,” to continue the charade. But this rumor may somehow give Berdimukhamedov an aura of legitimacy.
Berdimukhamedov certainly appears to be in a position to be capable of continuing Turkmenbashi’s policies. His accession to power may well be viewed in the Kremlin as consistent with Russian interests. But if Berdimukhamedov continues this tilt toward Russian policy goals it will be a continuation of only the most recent changes in Turkmenbashi’s foreign policy orientation. For several years Niyazov made an art of fence-sitting in foreign relations, attempting to use his potential natural gas exports as a trump card in all diplomatic and commercial relations.
In 1994 Niyazov introduced the idea of “positive neutrality” as a doctrinal breakthrough in Turkmenistan foreign policy. Positive neutrality meant that Turkmenistan would maintain good relations with all countries while remaining aloof from political alliances or binding economic commitments. In reality this was not a grand strategy but merely a specific posture that was designed to address the key challenge of Turkmenistan’s foreign policy — the relationship with Russia. Niyazov wanted to break free from Russia’s monopolistic stranglehold over Turkmenistan’s gas exports. Turkmenistan possessed sizable gas reserves but these would nevertheless require substantial investment in prospecting, drilling, processing, and transporting in order to produce the gas and get it to market. If Turkmenistan could develop its own export capacity across the Caspian and through Iran and Afghanistan, it could break free of Russia’s monopolistic tendencies.
Turkmenbashi’s gambit to circumvent Russia’s influence was unsuccessful. Turkmenistan’s gas revenues fell to a critical level in 1998, convincing Niyazov to reinvent “positive neutrality” so as to rely on Russian marketing of its gas sales. Since 2000 the amount of gas being transported through Russian pipelines has increased every year. When the accounts are in, Turkmenistan’s production in 2006 will probably be about 80 billion cubic meters of gas with about 40 billion having gone to Naftohaz Ukraine through Russian intermediaries.
Turkmenistan’s political succession has now opened a new window for Russian influence in Central Asia. Russian planners want to double their share of Turkmenistan’s gas output in the next few years. They can be expected to try to do that in a way that will assure the continuity of Turkmenistan’s tilt toward Russia. Russia’s strategic planners can be expected to do all they can to help them in this regard.