Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Will Turkmenistan Rejoin Central Asia?

Uzbeks, Kazaks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz all have something to gain from a warmer relationship with post-Niazov Turkmenistan.
By IWPR staff
Turkmenistan’s Central Asian neighbours are hoping their relationships with Ashgabat will improve under the new president, Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, after years of isolation within the region.



Even before Berdymuhammedov was elected on February 11, he had flagged up policy changes in a number of areas while pledging to honour the country’s international and commercial commitments.



Following his February 14 inauguration, Berdymuhammedov met Russian prime minister Mikhail Fradkov to assure him that gas exports – the bulk of which go to Russia – would be unaffected by the leadership change.



Governments and members of the public in other Central Asian countries – particularly Uzbekistan and Kazakstan, which have common borders with Turkmenistan – will now be watching to see whether Ashgabat wants to move towards a friendlier relationship.



The late president Saparmurat Niazov, who died of heart failure in December, distanced his country from the rest of Central Asia as part of his declared policy of neutrality. In practice, that meant Turkmenistan opted out of regional attempts at consolidation such as the Eurasian Economic Community, making it hard to coordinate on practical matters such as water management and customs controls, let alone foster economic cooperation. Turkmenistan even introduced a visa requirement for visitors from all its neighbours, the only Central Asian state to do so.



Askar Nursha of the Strategic Studies Institute, which operates under the Kazak president’s office, notes that this tendency was underlined last August when Niazov announced he was downgrading his country’s membership of the Commonwealth of Independent States – the broadest and oldest of the various Russian-led regional groupings – to associate status.



Nursha is convinced that despite Berdymuhammedov’s pledge to uphold his predecessor’s non-alignment policy, he is likely to seek better relations with the neighbouring Central Asian states.



“There will be a window of opportunity for bilateral cooperation to get back to normal,” he said.



For Kazakstan, there are obvious benefits in teaming up with the region’s other great energy producer. They are not direct competitors – the Kazaks mainly produce oil while Turkmen resources are mostly natural gas – and working together would make export pipeline projects much more commercially viable.



As part of a strategy of diversifying its gas export routes, Turkmenistan has penned agreements to supply natural gas to China. This will require the construction of an eastward route through Kazakstan, perhaps using stretches of existing pipeline.



Better Kazak-Turkmen relations will also enhance the chances of building the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline, TCGP – a project which would involve an underwater route taking gas to Azerbaijan and on to Turkey and European markets. After years in which it seemed an unlikely prospect, that project now looks set to take on a new lease of life, and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov was in Astana this week to discuss options for the TCGP.



In both cases, Kazakstan’s clout as an energy producer could help Turkmenistan break free of geographical and political constraints. But as Gulnur Rahmatullina of Kazakstan’s Strategic Studies Institute pointed out, having Turkmen support will benefit Astana, too.



A plan to export Kazak oil south via Turkmen territory to Iran has had expressions of interest from Japanese and French firms, despite the obvious problem that the United States – an important player in the Kazak energy sector - would react with hostility.



“It’s very important for Kazakstan to solve the problem of diversifying its energy exports, so there are several points of contact with Turkmenistan including the Kazak-Turkmen-Iranian oil pipeline and the TCGP,” said Rahmatullina.



Nursha said the Kazak government is also hoping the change of leadership in Kazakstan will help unblock the long-running dispute over how to divide up the Caspian Sea. Ministers from the five littoral states met in the Iranian capital Tehran on February 27-28 in an effort to bring the negotiations closer to a conclusion.



Energy will also be an important factor in any future Turkmen rapprochement with Uzbekistan, itself a major gas producer. In this case, the Turkmen need Tashkent’s assent for gas to transit Uzbek territory to reach Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan’s hopes of buying Turkmen gas to supplement purchases from Uzbekistan were high on the agenda when President Imomali Rahmonov met Berdymuhammedov in Ashgabat on February 14.



Khodi Abdujabbor, a political analyst in Dushanbe, said Tajikistan would be a ready market for Turkmen gas, but he acknowledged that Uzbekistan’s agreement was crucial. This is likely to take time – RFE/RL reported that a Tajik mission to Tashkent this week failed to secure a breakthrough on the issue.



Aside from energy questions, many Uzbeks living along the long border with Turkmenistan are eagerly awaiting a thaw in relations between the two governments, which have been frosty since Niazov accused Tashkent of assisting an assassination attempt against him in November 2002.



People on either side of the border – many of whom have relations on the other side and earn a living from cross-border trade as well as smuggling – have found life increasingly difficult as the Turkmen authorities tried to seal off the frontier. Turkmen border guards have shot and killed alleged smugglers in a number of incidents.



“My daughter is married to a Turkmen man and lives in Turkmenistan, which makes it very difficult for us to see her,” said a 70-year-old woman from Karakul, a town in western Uzbekistan. “Under the laws of the two countries, she can only spend five days a month here. She can make a second visit within the month only to attend a wedding or funeral.



According to an Uzbek analyst who did not want to be named, cross-border traders are looking forward to an easing of the regulations. “They know that [at least] things won’t deteriorate further, and are hoping for a boom in border trade,” he said.



This analyst believes Berdymuhammedov’s pledges to reform certain domestic policies could soon be extended to its foreign relationships, too.



“The country will benefit internationally by showing that it has good relations with its neighbours,” he said. “The new president is slowly beginning to do a lot of positive things, and this inspires confidence in him.”



For the moment, leaders in Tashkent and Ashgabat have yet to make conciliatory noises in public. Unlike Kazakstan’s Nursultan Nazarbaev, President Islam Karimov did not attend Berdymuhammedov’s inauguration, sending the speaker of parliament instead.



But as an Uzbekistan-based commentator said, “If Karimov treats Berdymuhammedov with more respect [than he had for Niazov], the situation will change very rapidly for the better.”



Like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan is hoping that the wind of change will make it possible to discuss energy imports from Turkmenistan.



“Cooperation on energy would benefit Kyrgyzstan, with deliveries of oil and gas from Turkmenistan,” said Nurdin Abdyldaev, a member of the Kyrgyz parliament. “We could export [in return] Kyrgyz glass, agricultural equipment, and manufacturing products.”



Meeting Kyrgyz State Secretary Adakhan Madumarov at the inauguration ceremony, Berdymuhammadov opened the door to cooperation on education. President Niazov made it increasingly difficult for Turkmen citizens to study abroad, but his successor has indicated that this policy will be quietly reversed.



“The Turkmen president said he would like school-leavers to [be able to] study at Kyrgyz universities, which enjoy quite a high reputation in the region,” said Asein Isaev, director of CIS affairs at the Kyrgyz foreign ministry.



“We are similar Turkic-speaking peoples, we have a shared history, and it would be good to maintain this.”