Moscow Calling Ashgabat
Unsurprisingly, Russia is the first international actor to shift its gears into engaging with the new Turkmen elite. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday conveyed the interim President Kurbanguly Berdymuhammedov his best wishes for the New Year.
According to a Kremlin press release, Putin noted that:
“Russia has always been and will always be friend to your country.”
“We note with satisfaction that in these days, the people of Turkmenistan are going through this difficult phase with great dignity. The passing of a president who has led his country for so long is a challenging moment for any country.”
“The merit for this lies undoubtedly with the current leadership of Turkmenistan.”
This fulsome praise will come as welcome relief to the Berdymuhammedov government, which has now come out fighting against the rash of speculative news reports coming out of Russia. In a statement from the Turkmen Foreign Ministry:
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan has issued a statement for mass media. It says that “slanderous statements and reports about the so-called military coup in Turkmenistan and on the illegitimate transference of power in the country, contributed by the so-called “political experts”, have appeared in the Russian media.
These insinuations are in fact aimed at drawing a false picture for the world community on the true situation and events in Turkmenistan.
As on other occasions when the international community and media have come out against dubious developments in the former Soviet space, Russia is apparently determined to back a dubious regime. Wanting to adopt a sympathetic line, one could argue that Putin is unwilling to countenance a source of political instability in a country on its Caspian border. While the United States can urge commitment to democratic values to its heart content, it knows it is not position to either set the agenda or make demands. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan and Russia genuinely have shared short- to mid-term interests, which is why Putin’s statements cannot help but come as a relief to Berdymuhammedov’s already discredited government.
More importantly, for those reading the runes on Turkmenistan’s future, Putin’s comments indicate a specific commitment to the current direction taking form in Ashgabat, a nominal continuation of Saparmurat Niyazov’s policies.
These could mean any number of things when it comes to domestic policy, a scene that will become clear in the months to come, but in the diplomatic sphere this inference is more understandable. Engagement with the outside world has been manifested primarily through energy dialogue, which has recently favoured Ashgabat’s intransigent line over gas price discussions. Crucially for Russia, for the medium-term Turkmenistan is content to perform its duty as Gazprom’s reserve fund. The only serious long-term alternative on the cards is supply to China, a plan that requires overwhelming any number of logistical and diplomatic stumbling blocks, as Moscow well knows. In essence, this arrangement is the standard deal that Russia’s vassal states concede to in exchange for political patronage. In Turkmenistan’s case, this has involved turning a blind eye to the Niyazov order’s rampant corruption and despotism.
Yet, looking at the history of Russian-Turkmen relations over the post-independence period raises more questions about what Putin could possibly mean by his ingratiating remarks. The relationship between the two partners has been far from smooth over the last decade and a half. Aside from the ungracious and well-publicised tussle over gas prices, which incidentally have served to undermine Moscow in its threat to cut off Ukraine’s supplies, there was the overtly anti-Russian presidential decree banning dual citizenship in 2003, which effectively forced thousands of Russians to leave the country. The minute ethnic Russian population left behind remains hopeful that a resurgent Kremlin may some day come through in protecting their status. Berdymuhammedov’s need for Moscow’s support may provide some breathing space for the country’s Russian minorities in the near future.
Another concern for the West, which will be concerned to see more of the Central Asia space from its potential sphere of interest, is that Turkmenistan’s much-vaunted neutrality will shift into a anti-Western Eurasian mode. The next year will tell more definitively, as a pro-Kremlin south Central Asian area may coalesce, leaving the West’s presence in Afghanistan more geographically stranded than it has ever been to date. In this distressing scenario, Turkmenistan would profit from becoming a genuinely isolated state, further exacerbating a dynamic initiated by Niyazov. The West’s only way into Turkmenistan, not to speak of Central Asia in general, would thus lie with Turkey, which is learning to cope with being spurned with Europe.
On a less negative note, dialogue in the energy will presumably become more, not less, arbitrary and irrational from this moment forwards. Wherever genuine authority now lies (and there is not shortage of theories on this front), the wild card of Niyazov’s own mercurial character has been removed from the equation. To do full justice to this implication, however, one should put forth some considerations on the possible channels of decision in the past and the future.
The most obvious, but simplistic, explanation for how policy has been formed unequivocally puts Niyazov at the apex of a pyramid of power, in which his word was the be all and end all. A variation of this theme has numerous grey cardinals at his ears; most credibly, head of the presidential guard Akmurad Redjepov and Turkish businessman Ahmet Çalik.
Just to give some idea about the latter figure, who features prominently in the Turkmen section Martha Brill Oclott’s most recent regional study, his company became the second company to take part in the development of the allegedly gigantic Iolotan fields. Meanwhile, the Turkish business community unconvincingly professed serenity about the death of a leader whose country they have plough $10 billion worth of investment into, covering the textiles, energy, food, retail, fertiliser, paper and construction industries.
In one sense, this reading leaves the observer open to the interpretation that Niyazov was really a weak puppet of a corrupt alliance of business and military strength. And if that was ever the case, the future will hold more of the same in the view of RIA-Novosti analyst Andrei Grozin:
“Local power ministers will play a very important role during interregnum. They are backed by real power. There are three power centers – a 60 year-old Defense Minister Agageldy Mamedgeldyyev (the oldest from Niyazov’s entourage, and, hence most likely to head the Halk Maslahaty), who was previously the director of a military health resort, and deputy defence minister for logistics support. Judging by all, the defence minister is acting together with the number one security official – Akhmurad Redjepov, the head of the Presidential Guards.
The Minister of the Interior and Niyazov’s confidant Akmamed Rakhmanov heads the second group, while Security Minister Geldy Ashirmukhamedov is in charge of the third one. The latter is a seasoned security veteran with a Soviet training. He is well connected in the Turkmen army – for several years he was the commander of the ground forces before he was appointed to his current position.
Power ministers have the strongest positions in the Turkmen elites. Civilian politicians can only claim compromise, rubber-stamp positions. Acting President and Deputy Prime Minister in charge of healthcare Kurbangeldy Berdymuhammedov, or Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov may well become the formal leaders of the country, but will not have any real levers of power.
The same is true of the Halk Malakhaty nominees. One of them is deputy head of the Turkmengeologiya State Corporation, and Minister of the Oil and Gas Industry and Mineral Resources Ishankuli Nuryyev.”
This is as detailed an attempt of reading the power struggle as has appeared in English to date. This is not to say it is reliable, as so much Russian commentary (as helpfully suggested by the Turkmen Ministry of Foreign Affairs) tends to sensationalism over actual substance. Indeed, the basic premise here is that Berdymuhammedov is a helplessly unqualified civilian out of his depth among military authorities. However, he has an edge over his potential in a marginally greater international visibility. Even the United States would prefer to see a Niyazov stooge come to power than an unknown and militarily inclined quantity, which, on top of Kremlin support, may tell in the long-term.
And while in the bogus political science realm of Turkmenology, there is also the respectable possibility, as the government itself is at pains to stress, that there is some kind of consensus governance operating in the post-Niyazov scenario. Reports of Niyazov-style Cabinet sessions do not make this particularly likely, but it could explain why the oft-predicted power struggle bloodbath has failed to materialise.