While Western powers compete to entice Turkmenistan’s new leadership to share access to the country’s munificent hydrocarbon resources, Moscow is pursing a longer-term goal by attempting to modify the country’s long-standing neutrality stance.
The Kremlin apparently hopes to enmesh Turkmenistan in existing post-Soviet defense pacts long before the West can exert any significant influence.
Turkmenistan’s late “President for Life” Saparmurat Niyazov prided himself on establishing his country as a zone of neutrality, neither east nor west. But if current blandishments are anything to go by, Ashgabat’s position may be shifting under new President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov.
Sergei Naryshkin, Russian deputy prime minister and co-chair of the joint Russian-Turkmen commission for trade and economic cooperation, is upbeat about the possibility of increased cooperation between Ashgabat and Moscow, telling reporters after a meeting with Berdimukhamedov, “The president and I have discussed issues related to the summits of CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] and EurAsEc [Eurasian Economic Community] to be held in Dushanbe on 5-6 October. The summits will discuss a concept for the further development of the CIS and an action plan for its implementation. Our two states have similar stances: everything good which has been created during the past years within the CIS should be preserved and developed, and the CIS space should be used for various projects both in the economic and political spheres” (Itar-Tass, October 3).
What Naryshkin conveniently omitted from his remarks was that this weekend’s CIS and EurAsEc summit in Dushanbe also includes meetings of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (Itar-Tass, October 3).
Following the collapse of communism in the USSR in 1991, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan initialed the CIS Collective Security Treaty (CST) in May 1992. Azerbaijan acceded to the accord the following year, along with Georgia and Belarus. The pact committed members to abstain from using force, as well as prohibiting signatories from joining other military alliances, while observing a collective security principle similar to that of NATO, i.e., that aggression against one signatory is an attack against all, requiring a suitable response. Despite various travails such as Georgia withdrawing in 1999, the membership has remained largely intact and. The group’s changed its name to Collective Security Treaty Organization five years ago. Uzbekistan, which also withdrew, rejoined in 2006. In 2005 the embryonic alliance undertook some joint military exercises.
Last June Kyrgyzstan took over the rotating CSTO presidency. The grouping has international status, being an observer organization at the United Nations General Assembly. Turkmen accession to the pact would be a great diplomatic coup for Moscow, as it would provide military coverage of Russia’s southern Caspian frontier.
Moscow’s is not Turkmenistan’s only suitor. Kazakhstan has moved as swiftly as Russia to better relations since Niyazov’s death. In September Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev made an official two-day state visit to Turkmenistan, signing a number of bilateral documents (Turkmenistan.ru, September 11). These included agreements on a potential trans-Caspian gas pipeline and the establishment of a North-South transport corridor, perhaps the most important steps for ending Turkmenistan’s isolation (Kazakhstan Today, September 11).
Bigger strategic shifts in Turkmen foreign policy beyond energy policy may be coming. Aside from possible CSTO membership, during a “Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Sino-Russian Strategic Rapprochement” roundtable last month in London, International Institute of Strategic Studies senior analyst Oksana Antonenko said that Turkmenistan’s new regime could abandon its nationalist neutrality and even join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in the near future (Associated Press of Pakistan, September 27).
Founded in 2001, the SCO currently includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, and China as full members, with Iran, India, Pakistan, and Mongolia as observers. Under Niyazov Turkmenistan distanced itself from the organization, but analysts believe that that could change.
Turkmen membership in the SCO would be extremely significant, as the organization is increasingly moving beyond its original economic agenda to joint military exercises. The SCO initially focused on economic integration, such as overseeing the construction of new road networks to connect China, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and India with the rest of the Central Asian and Caspian region. Larger SCO ambitions include plans for a north-south road and energy grid corridor to link Russia to South Asia via Iran, but Western analysts also note that the August “Peace Mission 2007” SCO military drill was the SCO’s largest joint exercise in its six-year history, combining contingents from China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Nearly 6,500 troops took part in the exercise, based in Chelyabinsk and Urumqi, a pointed reminder to the West that NATO is not the only military alliance in Eurasia.
Since Niyazov’s death last December the new Turkmen administration has reached out to the world, with Berdimukhamedov last month addressing the United Nations General Assembly and visiting Washington for high-level talks. For all of the talk of change however, it seems likely that Turkmenistan will carefully consider first the defense “umbrella” so generously offered by its neighbors before considering Western enticements.