Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Russian Rights Versus Turkmen Gas
As Russian nationals living in Turkmenistan face the final deadline for renouncing their citizenship, analysts say the government in Moscow has lost interest in them because of its overriding interest in buying gas from the republic.
Moscow’s primary concern seems to be to assure its strategic economic interests, even if that comes at the expense of its citizens in Turkmenistan.
Turkmen president Saparmurat Niazov, better known as Turkmenbashi, is sometimes seen as erratic in his dealings with other countries, but he has proved tough if sometimes unreliable in negotiating the terms of his relationship with Russia – and is likely to be well aware of the trade-off of human rights against gas.
For more than a decade, Russians living in Turkmenistan – alone among the Central Asian states – enjoyed the right to dual citizenship, so that they were able to remain living in their newly-independent home without forfeiting the ability to move to Russia should they ever want to.
That arrangement suddenly came to an end in April 2003, when the Turkmen and Russian presidents signed an agreement to end dual citizenship. There was an immediate panic among Turkmenistan’s Russian residents, not helped by a decree issued by Turkmenbashi shortly afterwards giving people with dual passports just two months to decide which one they wanted to keep.
Thousands of people queued up to leave the country amid rumours that opting for Russian citizenship would render them vulnerable to summary deportation and loss of property.
In the event, these worst fears did not materialise – partly because the Russian parliament took up the issue and lobbied strongly for a less punitive approach - and the bulk of the estimated 100,000 Russian passport-holders stayed on.
However, the Russians’ concerns about their future have resurfaced as a new deadline is fast approaching.
The deal ending dual citizenship that Turkmenbashi and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin signed two years ago comes into force on May 18, and the Turkmen authorities say that this time, people really will have to decide.
A nurse at an Ashgabat hospital, who gave her first name as Ludmila, said, “At the beginning of May, all the staff at our hospital were given questionnaires to fill out containing questions on personal details such as whether you have a Russian passport and what the serial number is. I am scared that this an attempt to track down the dual passport holders.”
As always, it is not clear how the rules will be imposed since rumours outnumber facts, but many people believe it is realistic to expect the worst.
“I’m in a panic because I can’t go to Moscow to visit my son who’s studying there,” said a woman in Ashgabat who gave her name as Angela. “We had planned to go there in mid-May, to see him before the summer exams….
“But now they’re saying everyone who leaves the country on a Russian passport before May 18 will have to give up their passports on the border when they return to Turkmenistan. I don’t want to take the risk, so my plans to see my son have been ruined.”
Moscow says that anyone who holds dual citizenship is still free to get their current Russian passport extended as long as they do so before the deadline. The Russian embassy in Ashgabat is not giving out information to local residents on what to do.
Maria, another Ashgabat resident, said, “I don’t know what to do - I probably won’t do anything at all. I’ll just hide my Russian passport. In any case I don’t tell anyone I have dual citizenship, so as to avoid problems at work. A lot of my friends are doing the same.”
She added, “It is pointless going to the [Russian] embassy and asking for an explanation, you’ll just attract the attention of the [Turkmen] secret services.”
Ownership of a Russian passport may originally have been a largely symbolic gesture on the part of people who had no plans to leave Turkmenistan. But in recent years, Russian nationality has increasingly become a lifeline, as educational and travel opportunities have been drastically curtailed. Turkmenistan is the only country in the region to have imposed visa restrictions on all its former Soviet neighbours, but Russian passport-holders are still able to travel unhindered.
Russian-speakers – a broad category which includes Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis and other former Soviet groups as well as ethnic Russians – have been hard hit by the decline in schooling and university teaching. As well as falling educational standards, they have been affected by the closure of all but one school that used Russian as the main teaching medium.
Many people choose to send their children off to university in Russia, even though that effectively means they will not return home to work because Turkmenbashi has outlawed foreign qualifications.
Although the authorities say Russians account for just two per cent of the population, the language is heard very commonly in all urban centres.
At a political level, Moscow has remained strangely silent about the latest deadline – in contrast to the furore raised by human rights groups and elected politicians when the issue first came to the fore in 2003.
Analysts say the reason why the Russian leadership is apparently turning a blind eye to the rights of its nationals in Turkmenistan is that these concerns are far outweighed by the economics of gas.
Presidents Putin and Turkmenbashi sighed a landmark deal in 2003, which gave the Russian industrial giant Gazprom the right to monopoly purchases of Turkmen gas over a 25-year period.
It was no coincidence that this took place at the same meeting where Putin signed away the rights of Russian passport-holders.
Two years on, the gas question continues to squeeze out human rights issues, perhaps more so than ever, since Turkmenistan has introduced an element of uncertainty by attempting to renegotiate the terms of contract.
Earlier this year, Gazprom and the Turkmen authorities rowed over pricing, which the latter wanted to increase 30 per cent from the contracted figure.
When the dispute was resolved in mid-April, Turkmenistan appeared to have lost since the price stayed as it was, but in fact it won a significant advantage since the Russian media reported that the whole sum will now be payable in cash, rather than half in bartered goods as the original deal stated.
The dispute has been seen as a sign that Turkmenistan will continue trying to extract concessions at every turn.
In another sign of this approach, the Russians are still waiting to be given the results of an audit of its gas fields carried out by two United States companies. The assessment is of crucial important since the Turkmen government has always made hugely ambitious – and widely reported – claims about the potential reserves of gas sitting under the ground, yet accurate estimates are difficult to obtain.
“Turkmenbashi will continue to delay handing over this data, and may even find a reason to break the contract with Gazprom,” said an official at the Turkmen economy ministry who spoke on condition of anonymity.
This official believes Turkmen leaders are being less than open with Russia because easily accessible reserves of gas are running out and there is no new investment.
“It is already quite clear that there is no cheap gas left in Turkmenistan, and colossal investments would be needed to diversify production and undertake sulphur removal [to purify gas]. Turkmenbashi does not have such funds to hand – they have gone on building fountains and grandiose buildings. The industry is in decline, everyone knows it, but Turkmenbashi continues putting a brave face on a poor situation.”
One of the political analysts interviewed by IWPR said Turkmenbashi would inevitably concede points to the Russians, “but it will be interesting to see what he wants in return. It will probably involve Russia agreeing not to discuss the situation of…. its citizens, who after May 18 will be effectively deprived of the right to go to Russia on Russian passports”.
Some observers believe Russia will let Turkmenbashi do more or less as he likes politically, as long as he abides by the financial terms set by Gazprom. In any case, Moscow has its eye on bigger international issues.
“The Kremlin is not yet prepared to embark on serious sanctions or complications with Niazov,” said a Turkmen analyst now living in Moscow. “Russia is looking for a new identity and is worried about economic problems and geopolitics. Human rights are an area of Kremlin policy, but far from the most important one.”
Whatever Russian leaders think of the Central Asian leader in private, they may believe he could be worse.
According to one Moscow-based analyst, “The Kremlin sees the situation in Turkmenistan as relatively stable and favourable for Russian geopolitical interests. The United States does not have a military presence in Turkmenistan, and Niyazov doesn’t seem to have any plans to change his position on this.
“Niazov is not [Georgian president Mikheil] Saakashvili, and won’t turn disagreements with Moscow into matters of principle - he prefers to make small concessions while holding onto his power. For all the despotism and extravagance of his regime, Niazov will not allow himself to quarrel openly with Moscow…. He prefers to pursue the cautious tactic of quietly pushing out the Russian-speaking minority.”
Looking back on what Moscow has gained and lost, a former diplomat who served at the Russian embassy in Ashgabat, said regretfully, “Our problem is our one-sidedness – in the race for mythical profits from gas-sector cooperation, we forgot to support the Russian culture and diaspora, and to protect some of our citizens from abuse by the [Turkmen] authorities.
“We built a brick wall to shut ourselves off from our own nationals.”
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