Turkmenistan’s isolationist strategy eases, to a point

While I hang out in Russia, here’s another Oxford Analytica brief. This one was written right after a quick trip to Ashgabat, back in early December 2010.

SUBJECT: The shift from an isolationist foreign policy towards selective engagement.

SIGNIFICANCE: Since President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov took office four years ago, Turkmenistan has started to shift away from the isolationism that characterized its international relations under former President Saparmurat Niyazov. However, its willingness to engage in international cooperation remains highly selective and largely limited to the economic sphere.

ANALYSIS: Since becoming independent in 1991, Turkmenistan has largely pursued an isolationist foreign policy, as symbolized by its declaration of permanent neutrality, which was recognized by a vote of the UN General Assembly in 1995. Since then, Turkmenistan refused to join any regional alliances or organizations that have military components, though it has participated as an invited guest in meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It is also a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, having joined in 1994 prior to the neutrality declaration.

Regime Preservation. The over-arching goal of Ashgabat’s foreign policy is to preserve and stabilize the ruling regime. Although the tenure of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has led to greater openness in principle towards international cooperation, Turkmenistan remains mostly isolationist in its foreign policy, using its neutrality as a shield to avoid unwanted international entanglements. Neutrality continues to play more or less the same role under the new regime as it did under President Saparmurat Niyazov:

  • Masking weakness. It is an excuse that the country’s leaders use to mask their state’s fundamental weakness. Neutrality allows them to reject any cooperation that they fear may lead to excessive dependency on a single outside power. While Russia presents the greatest threat for them in this regard, the authorities are also concerned about the potential designs of the United States, Iran and, increasingly, China.
  • Resisting critics. Neutrality also helps Ashgabat resist criticism about domestic repression from international organizations. Calls by the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for improvements in human rights have resulted in government declarations that these are efforts to interfere in the internal affairs of a neutral state.
  • Non-compliance. Likewise, neutrality is often used as justification for not complying with the demands of various international organizations or foreign states critical of the domestic political situation.

These rationales have not changed since Berdymukhamedov’s succession. While the new president is somewhat more open to the outside world than his predecessor, he remains focused on using his country’s neutrality to strengthen his hold on power in what is by many measures a weak state.

Economic engagement. At the same time, Turkmenistan has always been more open to international cooperation on economic matters. Its preference was for bilateral cooperation over participation in multinational organizations or projects, and it continues to focus on bilateral engagement. This is especially important for its economic development, as Turkmenistan lacks sufficient domestic expertise in key economic sectors. The bulk of international investment in Turkmenistan has been confined to the energy and construction industries:

  • Construction. The gleaming white marble palaces (and equally gleaming apartment buildings) that dominate Ashgabat have been built by Turkish construction companies. Foreign contractors have also been brought in to build major showpiece projects, such as the work by a French company to refurbish Ashgabat’s international  airport. Firms from Turkey, France, and Russia have been involved in the construction of facilities and infrastructure at the new Avaza resort on the Caspian Sea.
  • Oil and gas. In energy, Turkmenistan does not have the expertise for offshore oil and natural gas exploration, and has leased sectors in the Caspian to companies from a number of countries, including the United Arab Emirates, the United States, Russia, China, and Germany. Most export pipelines for Turkmen natural gas are also constructed by foreign partners. Indeed, in private, officials state that they will fill any pipeline built to their proverbial doorstep. China and Iran have recently taken advantage of this informal policy by building new pipelines to import Turkmen natural gas.

Nabucco implications. If a consortium of some kind were to build a trans-Caspian gas pipeline to connect to the Nabucco project, Turkmenistan would almost certainly sign a contract to export natural gas through it. At the same time, because of their fears of negative reactions from Russia and Iran, officials are very unlikely to take any proactive measures to join such a consortium prior to the start of construction.

This cautious approach is not limited to Nabucco; in general, Turkmenistan remains quite reluctant to participate in multinational economic projects, especially if there is a realistic chance that its participation might antagonize one of its neighbors or a regional power such as Russia or China.

Security isolationism. As for security issues, Turkmenistan’s foreign policy remains virtually unchanged from the Niyazov era. Neutrality is still the dominant paradigm, and the calculus behind this approach is largely unchanged. The authorities recognize that their country is one of the weakest states in the region: it has virtually no real capacity to defend itself in military terms, and continues to depend on its neighbors for the transit of natural gas, its main source of revenue.

This dependence was brought home to Turkmenistan’s leaders by the nine-month cut-off of exports through Russia in the aftermath of a pricing dispute in 2009. Though the opening of alternative pipelines to Iran and China has decreased Turkmenistan’s dependence on Russia, its leaders nonetheless want to ensure that no foreign power has reason to feel that Turkmenistan is turning away from it.

Limited re-engagement. At the same time, it has undertaken some bilateral initiatives that were unimaginable under Niyazov, especially in permitting overflights to supply the US war effort in Afghanistan and in accepting foreign assistance to build its maritime forces. However, these initiatives are organized through informal means and are never publicized, allowing Ashgabat to maintain at least an appearance of plausible deniability. The authorities consistently leave open the possibility that an initiative might be canceled if the international situation changes or if the government comes under criticism from more powerful neighbors.

Caspian Sea security is the one realm where Turkmenistan seems willing to participate in multilateral initiatives, albeit only on a limited basis. It has always participated in summits of the Caspian littoral states and has indicated that it would be willing to sign an agreement on maritime border delimitation as long as all five states agree to it. At the same time, Turkmenistan has consistently refused to join multinational security initiatives , such as the Russian-sponsored CASFOR and the US-sponsored Caspian Guard. Given the likelihood that joining any such organization would create problems with unaffiliated states, this stance reinforces the focus of Turkmenistan’s leaders on using foreign policy to ensure that they can maintain power.

CONCLUSION: Though Turkmenistan under Berdymukhamedov is somewhat more open to the outside world, its engagement is focused on economic projects and sectors where it lacks domestic expertise. On security issues, Ashgabat remains highly insular, using its permanent neutrality as a shield to maintain distance from more powerful neighbors out of fear that it might be turned into a satellite state.

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