Since gaining independence in 1991, Turkmenistan has attracted only sporadic attention due to its extreme level of isolation from the outside world, which rivals that of North Korea. As a result of this posturing, developments within the country fly under most radars. Ashgabat remains resolute in this position as it faces high levels of poverty and the threat of an Islamist insurgency from Afghanistan, which serve to spark fears that almost any change in the system might destabilize the situation. This is most likely because of Ashgabat’s much-ballyhooed policy of strict neutrality, a principle enshrined in that Central Asian country’s constitution that has kept it from joining either Moscow-led organizations, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), or Ankara-led ones, such as the Organization of Turkic States (OTS). But now all this seem likely to change, as Turkmenistan is becoming the object of intense geopolitical competition between outside powers, East and West, which want the country to become more closely linked to them, and Moscow, which hopes to maintain Turkmenistan’s neutrality to block that from happening. With a new president this year—Serdar Berdimuhamedov replaced his father Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov in March 2022—Turkmenistan itself has become more active internationally. In part, of course, this reflects what some see as the new leader’s efforts to build his own authority and escape, in part, his father’s shadow. But a more important motivating factor comes from abroad, the result of efforts by powers ranging from China and Iran to Turkey and the European Union to draw Ashgabat into their orbits. China, Iran and Afghanistan have all made inroads in Ashgabat, with Beijing being especially successful, while Tehran and Kabul are making strides as well (see EDM, December 17, 2021; July 19, 2021; February 10, 2021). But the more consequential moves on this geopolitical chessboard have been those of the EU and Turkey—and Moscow’s efforts to counter their approaches.
These moves have come with dizzying speed in recent days. On December 6 and 7, Turkmenistani Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, who stressed that Moscow views Ashgabat as “our closest friend and strategic partner,” words that Meredov reciprocated. But in an indication that Moscow did not make much progress on its hopes to include Turkmenistan in the CSTO or the Eurasian Economic Community, the meeting ended with agreements only on marginal issues, including student exchanges and the opening of representation for the national railway agencies of each country in the other (Mfa.gov.tm, December 6; Minobrnauki.gov.ru, December 6; Turkmenportal.com, December 9).
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Then, on December 11, Terhi Hakala, the Finnish diplomat who serves as the EU’s special representative for Central Asia, traveled to Ashgabat to take part in celebrations of the International Day of Neutrality, marking the 27th anniversary of Turkmenistan’s declaration of that status. While there, as Ashgabat highlighted, Hakala discussed with her Turkmenistani hosts a wide variety of issues all centered on the expansion of ties between Turkmenistan and the EU, thereby redefining the nature of neutrality while celebrating it, an approach that directly contradicts Moscow’s method (Mfa.gov.tm, December 11; Casp-geo.ru, December 15).
On December 14, President Berdimuhamedov together with his father, the former president, hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev at a resort on the shores of the Caspian. That summit, which was originally scheduled more than a year ago but was delayed, has worried Moscow, which feared that it would become an occasion for Turkey to gain a more established foothold in Central Asia at Russia’s expense. Moscow is concerned both by the possibility that Turkey secures Ashgabat’s agreement to join the OTS and the potential expansion of the flow of Turkmenistan’s gas across the Caspian to Turkey—rather than southward across Iran as the Kremlin prefers (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 13; Casp-geo.ru, December 15).
During the event, Turkey and Azerbaijan did not achieve everything they wanted. Turkmenistan refrained from committing to joining the OTS, leading to jubilation in Moscow (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 14). Yet, despite efforts by Russian commentators to play down the importance of the session, the three did agree to expand earlier efforts to ship more Turkmenistani gas westward across the Caspian, thus bypassing Russia and helping Turkey expand its influence across the region (see EDM, January 27, 2021). And while Moscow observers suggested that Ashgabat had organized the meeting to directly correspond with the Day of Neutrality and thus reaffirm its independence, where the meeting took place may have been more important than when.
Symbolically, the meeting on the Caspian shows that Ashgabat is looking westward rather than northward to Russia, or southward to Iran; and practically, this location calls special attention to both the resolution of disputes over offshore oil and gas facilities between Baku and Ashgabat and the growing strength of the Turkmenistani navy in the South Caucasus, where it is growing powerful enough to potentially challenge Russia’s long-dominant Caspian Flotilla (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 9). Taken together, this means that, geopolitically, Turkmenistan today is more in play than it has ever been before.
That must be a matter of concern for Moscow, which has long backed Turkmenistan’s neutrality as the keystone of its efforts to block any expansion of Turkish influence into Central Asia. After all, if Ashgabat does not join Turkish projects, it will be far more difficult for Ankara to project power in the region while making it easier for the Kremlin to continue to implement its traditional divide-and-rule approach there.
In the wake of the three meetings its leaders have taken part in over the past 10 days, Turkmenistan appears likely to continue to insist it is neutral lest it outrage Moscow. Yet, Ashgabat is sure to increasingly redefine that position to mean that it will look beyond the Kremlin for partners. That would be acceptable in most capitals, but it will not be in Moscow, which not only wants Turkmenistan to remain neutral but also to do so in the way that Russia prefers. That this may no longer be possible sets the stage for potentially dramatic moves in the near future, moves that will compel the world to pay attention to Turkmenistan far more closely than it has in the past.
By the Jamestown Foundation
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