What Is Behind Former Turkmenistani President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s New Title?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 43

Former President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (Source: Open Democracy)

On January 21, Turkmenistani President Serdar Berdymukhamedov issued decrees giving his predecessor and father Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov the title of “National Leader” (Милли лидер) and appointing him chairman of the reformed People’s Council (Halk Maslahaty), restructuring the country’s parliament from a bicameral to unicameral legislative entity (Eurasianet, January 24). The decrees have triggered intense international speculation; some observers see them as an attempt by Berdymukhamedov to reassume some executive power, less than a year after he handed over the presidency to Serdar. A second potential motive for Berdymukhamedov’s action may be his awareness of earlier events in neighboring Kazakhstan, where former President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s similar succession arrangement to retain some behind-the-scenes executive power after he stepped down in 2019 floundered after only three years.

Of the post-Soviet Central Asian states, Turkmenistan is the most opaque on all issues, from politics to the economy. Since the December 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union, the country has had only three leaders: beginning with Saparmurat Niyazov (1991–2006), who was succeeded by his handpicked successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (Daly, “The Curious Death of Turkmenbashi,” January 2007). Since the snap presidential elections on March 12, 2022, Berdymukhamedov’s son Serdar, who garnered 72.97 percent of the vote in an election the international community deemed to have been rigged, succeeded his father (TASS, March 15, 2022)

This family dynastic succession is a first for post-Soviet Central Asia. Questions remain as to how much actual power Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the self-styled “Hero-Protector” (Герой-Аркадаг), has relinquished in reality. Economic issues involving Turkmenistan’s natural gas exports increasingly predominate the country’s geopolitics, intensifying relentless government efforts to locate more foreign direct investment (FDI) to strengthen the country’s moribund hydrocarbon sector (Eurasianet, March 14). The effort to balance the competing interests of current customers China, Russia and Iran against the potential future markets of India, Pakistan and Europe is a complex endeavor in which Berdymukhamedov, after his 15-year tenure as president, obviously has far more experience than his son.

The Achilles’ heel of the Turkmenistani economy has always been its heavy reliance on revenue from its natural gas exports, rendering it particularly vulnerable to global energy market fluctuations. Given the country’s geographical isolation, currently, one of Ashgabat’s highest priorities is a determined search for additional export markets beyond China, which now purchases the majority of Turkmenistan’s hydrocarbon exports. Bilateral trade is surging; according to the Chinese General Administration of Customs, in 2022, trade between China and Turkmenistan grew by 53.4 percent (China Daily, September 13, 2022). While neither Turkmenistan nor China have given specific price details on the contracts, they are believed to be far below world market prices and were a major topic of discussion when Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on February 5, 2022 (Neftegaz.ru, February 7, 2022)

Natural gas, accordingly, forms the foundation for bilateral Turkmenistani-Chinese relations, illustrated in September 2022 when Xi discussed bolstering cooperation with President Serdar Berdymukhamedov in energy relations and other areas on the sidelines of the 22nd meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. In this, Xi stressed that “[both] sides are interested in increasing the scale of cooperation … in the areas of natural gas [production] and non-commodities. Such projects will give a new impetus to the development of bilateral economic cooperation,” particularly the building of a fourth natural gas pipeline (Orient.tm, September 15, 2022)

In October 2022, former President Berdymukhamedov announced Ashgabat’s intention to double its natural gas exports to China to 65 billion cubic meters per year by building this fourth pipeline. To this, the former Turkmenistani leader remarked, “Today, we are working on increasing the supply of Turkmenistani natural gas by taking into account the Chinese economy’s growing demand and Turkmenistan’s resources. In this regard, we are ready to discuss in detail the possibility of building a fourth pipeline route from Turkmenistan to China” (Orient.tm, October 14, 2022).

Turkmenistan’s natural gas sales are increasingly crucial to both countries’ prosperity; from January to November 2022, Turkmenistani natural gas sales to China generated $9.28 billion in revenue for Ashgabat (Orient.tm, October 14, 2022).

Beyond diversifying export options, the Turkmenistani government is also seeking more equitable prices, such as those paid in Europe. Both Russia and Iran are also beginning once again to purchase Turkmenistani gas but at a fraction of China’s consumption. Moscow’s interests in Ashgabat’s gas supplies are twofold: to replace the loss of Gazprom’s highly profitable European exports, devastated by the Western sanctions regime implemented following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ill-advised war against Ukraine, and to preclude Turkmenistan’s exports from the possible construction of a new subsea Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) network not under Gazprom’s control. The Russian energy company’s sudden renewed interest was highlighted during a visit to Ashgabat by Gazprom head Alexei Miller on February 15, during which he reportedly warned Serdar against participating in any such TCP proposals (T.me/Vzoreast, February 15).

The most interesting and underreported item from Serdar’s two January 21 decrees was the provision of “On the National Leader of the Turkmen People,” which grants blanket immunity to his own father and family, as well as for his personal property and that of family members (Kun.uz, January 23).

While Ashgabat has not provided the rationale behind former President Berdymukhamedov’s recent emergence from quasi-retirement, it could well be that he is seeking to add political and diplomatic heft to his son’s policies. Serdar is only 41 years old, younger than many of his political peers in Asia, a region of the world that traditionally respects age as conferring wisdom.

As the one-year anniversary of Serdar’s presidential term on March 15 approaches, perhaps the best word to describe his 12 months in power would be “lackluster.” With Turkmenistan’s state media continuing to refer to former President Berdymukhamedov as “Hero-Protector,” the cult of personality that he so assiduously cultivated during his time in office continues, deepening the mystery of how much behind-the-scenes power he retains and exercises during his son’s fairly mediocre presidency. Yet, whether the Hero-Protector’s prestige translates into securing sufficient FDI to improve the country’s aging hydrocarbons sector and diversify to more profitable export markets is another matter entirely.