Turkmenistan, ten years of living dangerously
- Written by Davide Cancarini
ASHGABAT (TCA) — December 2016 marked an important anniversary for Turkmenistan: ten years since the country’s autocratic ruler Saparmyrat Niyazov passed away in December 2006, giving the way to power to the current president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. During the last decade he has tried to change, at least on a propaganda level, Turkmenistan's place within the international system, but failing to achieve the main objective: diversification of Turkmen gas export routes.
During his 15 years in power Niyazov, on the basis of the recognition in 1995 by the UN of the official “permanent neutrality” status of Turkmenistan, brought forward a strictly isolationist foreign policy, with the exception, at least partially, of the energy sector. The Turkmenbashi, as he was called, opted for the complete exclusion of Turkmenistan by any multilateral organization and for a clear preference of maintaining international relations on a bilateral basis.
Under Niyazov, Ashgabat-Moscow relationships were the main pillar around which the foreign policy of the country was developed. In 2006, just before Niyazov's death, Ashgabat was able to sell to Moscow, through the Central Asia–Centre pipeline (built in Soviet times), more than 40 billion cubic meters of natural gas on the basis of the agreement signed in 2003. In the same year, Iran, at that moment the only other country linked to Turkmenistan through a pipeline (which entered into operation in 1997), imported from the Central Asian republic less than 6 bcm of natural gas. A few months before Niyazov's death, in April 2006, a framework agreement between Turkmenistan and China was signed, eventually bringing to the realization a gas pipeline between the two countries.
All in all, Niyazov's fifteen years in power was characterized by a strict isolationism put in place on the international side, with the exception of the energy sphere. In retrospect, for Niyazov isolationism meant developing new export routes, while for the new President dynamism has meant so far being forced to rely on the only one commercial partner with all the associated strategic risks.
Since December 2006, major changes have been recorded with reference to Turkmen foreign policy: using, as opposed to Niyazov, the status of permanent neutrality as a theoretical justification for the deployment of a dynamic and multi-vector foreign policy, Berdymukhammedov has tried to reduce Turkmenistan's international isolation. The sector in which the multi-vector foreign policy has operated with greater depth is that of energy: indeed, revenues obtained by the sale of natural gas remain the main supporter of the tribal and crony system of power concentrated around the leader. For this reason Berdymukhammedov has sought to increase the natural gas export routes available to the country, limited, on one hand, by a particular ill-fated geographical location and, on the other, by an economic and commercial context completely unable to meet minimum international standards in terms of transparency and accountability.
Despite these limitations, a fundamental infrastructure for Turkmenistan, the Central Asia–China pipeline, began operating in 2009. Expanded in 2010 and 2012, it has allowed Ashgabat to break the Russian monopoly on its energy exports, moreover providing access to the Chinese market. The coming into operation of the pipeline, even as one of the elements of Niyazov's legacy, has been a providential strategic turning point for Turkmenistan, in a time when exports to the Russian Federation began to decline, which, at the beginning of 2016, eventually led to their complete suspension. This decision has left Turkmenistan with only two export routes, to China and Iran (with exports to Iran being halted from 1 January 2017 over a dispute concerning Iran’s debt for previous supplies).
Considering that the sale of natural gas to China is mainly used to repay the substantial loans that Ashgabat has obtained from Beijing so far, it is easy to understand the causes of the serious economic crisis that Turkmenistan is currently facing. Furthermore, the several efforts put in place by the President to increase the export routes available to the country are far from being rewarded: the TAPI pipeline, supposed to deliver natural gas to South Asia through Afghanistan, is officially under construction but the doubts about the feasibility of the pipeline still remain.
The option to deliver gas to Europe is increasingly under the spotlight but, despite the diplomatic efforts, many issues remain unresolved, such as the lack of an international agreement on the status of the Caspian Sea and Turkmenistan's opaque legal context.
Berdymukhammedov, during his first ten years in power, has successfully avoided changing in a democratic way the country’s political, economic, social and legislative context characterized by the complete closure towards the outside.
From an international point of view, during this decade the country has slipped into the Chinese orbit, putting an end, at least at the moment, to the “patron-client” relationship with Moscow after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, but failing completely to diversify its energy routes.
In the coming February 2017 election, we can expect that Berdymukhammedov will obtain a new 7-year mandate, given the recent constitutional amendments. It is not clear, however, whether the economic crisis that is gripping the country will force him to change his management of at least the energy sphere – perhaps by focusing on the pursuit of less lavish and more concrete agreements. What is certain is that the citizens of Turkmenistan will unlikely be able to withstand another decade which promises to be along the same lines as that that began in December 2006.