This essay is part of a series by American diplomats sharing their impressions of the dramatic early years of Central Asia's independence from the Soviet Union. These memoirs were written at the invitation of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. We publish these with special thanks to Nargis Kassenova, director of Davis's Program on Central Asia.
To understand Washington’s successes and failures in the early days of Central Asia’s independence, we need to acknowledge the different challenges each new state faced. Much has been written about their initial reluctance to accept the USSR’s dissolution, reluctance based largely on a realistic appraisal of their readiness for the challenges of independence.
The final act in the Russian Empire’s absorption of Central Asia was the conquest of the region that became the Turkmen SSR and then Turkmenistan. By 1868 the Empire had conquered Samarkand and Tashkent, already major cities, but Ashgabat, a Turkmen settlement, did not become a city until the railroad arrived about 20 years later. Until recently, it had always been primarily a Russian town because both the Empire and the USSR forced the indigenous population to live on state/collective farms. In the early 1990s Ashgabat’s population was probably between 50,000 and 100,000. Most Russians lived in Soviet-style high rise apartment buildings; most Turkmen in traditional small compounds that included dwellings, storage and space for small livestock.
Turkmenistan is physically and culturally isolated from the heart of the region – the fertile Ferghana Valley. In the 1990s Tashkent was a two-day drive from Ashgabat. The country’s population centers were scattered around the periphery of the Karakum Desert, close to rivers or canals, and inhabited by several Turkmen tribes that until the Russian conquest were at odds with each other.
The Turkmen SSR, perhaps along with the Tajik SSR, was the least prepared for independence, to a large degree because under both the Empire and communism it was a militarized zone facing two fraught neighbors – Iran and Afghanistan. Its borders, unlike those of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, were not protected by high mountain ranges, but were either low hills or desert. When the Russian military departed, it did so lock, stock and barrel, leaving behind obsolete equipment and abandoned bases.
Not only did the Russian military leave en masse, but so did as many Russian civilians as were able. The new government made it clear that fluency in Turkmen would be required for many jobs, and few ethnic Russians or other minorities had any desire to learn it. It was also clear that Russians were no longer welcome. This disproportionally affected the education and healthcare sectors. The long lines at the Russian Embassy were not unlike those faced by American consular officers at many posts. Russian policy changed by 1997 to allow only those with family ties or job offers to immigrate. The Russians remaining were left with limited opportunities. The cook at our residence, for instance, had a PhD in mathematics.
The other side of that coin was that only a limited number of ethnic Turkmen were fluent in Russian, much less English. Even senior bureaucrats had limited foreign experience or important contacts in Moscow. President Saparmurat Niyazov apparently showed promise as a young man. He studied at Leningrad Polytechnical University, became a trade union official, and rose quickly through the ranks until being named First Secretary of the Turkmen SSR by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985.
It is worth noting that during my tour in Ashgabat Niyazov did not demonstrate the egomania that affected him in later years. Only two major construction projects – a presidential palace and a large mosque at the site of the Turkmens’ 1881 defeat – were made of the white marble that now dominates Ashgabat’s architecture. Signs of the future were evident by 1998 when he began writing the Rukhnama, a multi-volume work of spiritual and political advice, legends, autobiography, short stories, poems, and fabricated Turkmen history.
By 1995, when I arrived, Niyazov was still concerned that Russia might try to reassert control, a fear due in part to nationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s demand that Russia reclaim its former territories. But the Turkmen, along with other Central Asian leaders, were equally concerned that Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov intended to play a dominant role in the region. Niyazov delighted in reminding American visitors that Uzbekistan’s national hero was the conqueror Tamerlane while Turkmenistan’s was its national poet Magtymguly. The Turkmen government did grant accreditation to non-resident ambassadors, but not those based in Tashkent.
Niyazov suffered from an inferiority complex not only in relations with Russians, but also the other Central Asian heads of state, particularly Karimov. His insecurity was on display at every dinner at which former Soviet bloc dignitaries were honored. Generally at state dinners the president was abstemious, limiting himself to a small glass of vodka (some diplomats suggested his bottle actually held water) for toasts, and usually left halfway through the multi-course dinner, a gesture greatly appreciated by the diplomats present. But whenever a senior Russian official was the guest of honor, the president stayed late and drank heavily.
Most of Niyazov’s cabinet took over portfolios previously controlled from ministries in Moscow, but without the staff or resources to manage them. Key ministries like Defense and Foreign Affairs had not existed. Most Turkmen in the Soviet armed forces had been frontline fighters or junior non-commissioned officers; few were officers. At independence there was just one Turkmen flag-rank officer (from the KGB militia) to command the new Turkmen army. The security services fared better as they had been well-staffed by locals at various levels. As his ambassador to the U.S. Niyazov named a Turkish businessman of Turkmen extraction. His foreign minister was Boris Shikhmuradov, a former journalist, and perhaps a KGB officer, with extensive foreign experience who spoke quite fluent English.
Several examples suffice to demonstrate the consequences of having inexperienced people responsible for important decisions:
- By 1995 various government ministries had sold the country’s cotton crop several times over. The result was a series of lawsuits brought by the buyers in Swiss courts, as stipulated in the contracts.
- In the early years the sole outlet for Turkmenistan’s natural gas was via the Russian pipeline system. It did not take the Russians long to realize they could separate the stream, at least theoretically, and ship Russian gas to Western Europe for payment in dollars or euros. They shipped Turkmen gas to Ukraine and Georgia, neither of which were able to pay. As I was preparing to arrive at my post in late 1995, the Turkmen government was surprised to receive an invitation as a creditor to a Paris Club meeting to address Ukraine’s debt. Turkmenistan’s share came to $1 billion. In the end, probably due to unfamiliarity with the Paris Club process or poor negotiating skills, Turkmenistan accepted a barter arrangement for payment. That meant receiving Ukrainian industrial products that were unsaleable on the world market.
- In 1993 Bridas, a small Argentine company, signed contracts with the government’s state oil company to exploit gas fields in southeastern Turkmenistan. In 1995 UNOCAL signed similar contracts, some for the same fields, with the same state company. The main interest of both foreign operators was to construct a gas pipeline to Pakistan and potentially India via Afghanistan (TAPI). The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 1998 ended that prospect, at least for the time being. But UNOCAL and Bridas soon found themselves sued and countersued along with the government in Swiss and U.S. courts. Ultimately UNOCAL won judgments against Bridas, but withdrew from Turkmenistan.
- The first effort to develop a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline failed when Niyazov adamantly refused to accept anything less than the then-world price for gas, ignoring the need to consider capital costs and transit fees from the calculation.
I include these examples to make the point that Turkmenistan’s early difficulties stemmed from much more than Niyazov’s insistence on managing all aspects of life in the country. The truth is that neither he nor the officials surrounding him were equipped to manage a modern state. The lack of confidence and inability to compete in a non-Soviet world is a principle factor that led the government to restrict access to the outside.
It was perhaps its fear of domination by Moscow or a neighbor that led to Turkmenistan achieving one notable foreign policy victory during my tour as ambassador: UN General Assembly recognition of its “Permanent Neutrality.” Foreign Minister Shikhmuradov may have had the idea, but Niyazov quickly bought into it. Government officials said they based the idea on Switzerland’s success in using neutrality to insulate itself from Europe’s many conflicts. Initially, the State Department didn’t take it seriously, but the UNGA approved it without a vote, so we didn’t object. Citing that policy Turkmenistan has refused to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and any other multilateral military organizations. It also was the basis for the country’s very limited support for the 2001 campaign to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan. And it remains the keystone of Turkmenistan’s foreign policy to this day. Turkmen note with pride that the success of its neutrality policy is demonstrated by the fact that the country is still independent.
The most important factor to understand in doing business in Turkmenistan was that all decisions were made by the president. My staff could meet with ministers and lower-level officials, but none of those would make even small decisions. Ultimately every issue landed on my desk and required a call on the president. He would listen politely, make no commitments, and eventually what we wanted either went ahead or simply died.
By 1995 it was clear that Niyazov would not welcome our primary policy initiatives in the region – democratization, legal reform, human rights, and transformation to a market economy. The State Department had clearly decided that the likelihood of changing these policies or Niyazov’s governing style was limited. Thus Ashgabat was allocated fewer human and financial resources to promote those initiatives than the other newly independent states. For instance, assistance and public diplomacy programs were managed from Almaty and Washington, respectively. Although we did receive one early visit from a large delegation of representatives from multiple U.S. government agencies, including the National Security Council, Washington’s lack of interest in promoting policy goals was reflected by the fact that Ashgabat received fewer visits from State officials and congressional delegations, most of which were short visits by delegations en route from Baku to Tashkent. One exception was Ambassador Roz Ridgeway who was an overnight guest while in town with an Atlantic Council fact-finding mission.
Most of our policy initiatives in Turkmenistan were carried out by American consultants on short-term contracts who had limited understanding of the culture. Our focus on land reform and privatization proved unrealistic. Can 10,000-acre cotton plantations be converted into small individual farms, or can state farm workers trained to repair tractors or drive trucks become wheat farmers practically overnight? And what is the potential for private or cooperative farms to succeed when access to inputs and marketing remains under state control? American advisors tasked with trying to modernize Turkmenistan’s Soviet legal system along our lines competed with European officials trying install modern Napoleonic legal codes.
By the end of my tour our most successful programs were of a narrower scope: Creation of an American “library” that was very popular with university and secondary students and an outstanding Peace Corps program. With many fits and starts we maintained a program to send Turkmen secondary and university students for one-year programs at American schools. Unfortunately, upon their return most of the university students found few employment opportunities other than with international agencies because the security services feared contamination from Western ideas.
Another of our most popular economic initiatives was the small business loan program modeled on a success in Poland. Unfortunately it ended abruptly when Congress failed to appropriate funds for a second tranche. We also had some success with municipal reform initiatives as long as we described them as promoting efficiency rather than democracy.
A number of American companies made exploratory visits to the country, often with the assistance of Turkish intermediaries. Besides UNOCAL, Mobil Oil considered taking over existing fields in western Turkmenistan, believing it could access deep deposits that Soviet technology could not. Its approach failed when the government insisted Mobil also accept responsibility for remediation of the fields left badly polluted by Soviet-era exploitation.
One U.S. firm specializing in irrigation spent time analyzing potential modernization of the existing irrigation systems on both the Turkmen and Uzbek sides of the Amu Darya River. It concluded that a significant reduction of water wastage was possible, but only with a multi-billion dollar investment.
An interesting investment proposal was brought to me by two U.S.-based companies competing for a contract to exploit brine shrimp deposits on the Garabogazköl, a highly saline depression in the northwestern corner of the country. Depending on the water level of the Caspian Sea, which varies periodically, Garabogazköl can be dry or be filled with water. Brine shrimp are aquatic crustaceans that produce dormant eggs, known as cysts, that may be stored indefinitely and hatched on demand to provide a convenient form of live feed for larval fish and crustaceans. They are also sold as novelty gifts marketed as “sea-monkeys.” The main source of brine shrimp is the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Although both companies were subsidiaries of Belgian corporations, they each sought my support in obtaining licenses to exploit brine shrimp cysts in the Garabogazköl. After one of the companies harvested, stored and shipped some shrimp, Turkmen officials decided they could do the same without the help of a foreign company. Unfortunately they ignored the fact that they would need to market the product. With the market dominated by a very few international companies, the Turkmen were unable to sell theirs and the harvested and stored cysts ended up rotting on the beach.
A small number of U.S. companies did succeed in gaining access, most notably John Deere and Case, both of which sold tractors and cotton-harvesting equipment for use by farm cooperatives. Given the history of mechanized agricultural equipment under the USSR, which often failed due to lack of regular maintenance, Deere and Case understood that success in Turkmenistan with their expensive equipment would require a way to ensure regular maintenance. They succeeded by monitoring its use via satellite link and sending out company technicians to service the equipment at required times.
Much of the limited progress in modernizing Turkmenistan during this period was the result of coordinated efforts among the Western embassies and international agencies, such as the World Bank, IMF and UN.
After three years in Ashgabat, I came away with perhaps a unique perspective on our early political and developmental effort in Turkmenistan and in the Central Asian republics generally. Unsurprisingly, when the USSR dissolved the Washington establishment was used to seeing the region from a Eurocentric perspective. Lack of Central Asian expertise at the State Department was understandable, but led to erroneous assumptions:
- We thought the Central Asian republics could be treated like the Slavic SSRs. Unlike those areas, however, the Central Asians had been viewed and treated by the Center as colonies, their contribution to the Center largely in their extractive resources.
- Second, distance from the Center played a role in the degree of development it had allowed. Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan received much less in terms of financial resources as well as education and access to training and promotion in Moscow than did Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In good part that was because the first three were border areas facing potential adversaries. As a result, much Soviet investment was in the form of military and intelligence resources
- Third, Central Asia was much less developed politically than the Slavic SSRs. None of the republics had a history as distinct political entities; all had belonged to earlier, non-European regional entities. The limited success of the enormous effort by the U.S. and the EU in incorporating them into the OSCE framework is one example of how our assumptions failed us on the ground.
- And last, though most Central Asians were, at least culturally, Muslim, we did not understand important shades of religious meaning. The residents of the republics whose population centers were in the Ferghana Valley were more fervent in their practices, compared to the largely nomadic areas whose people were primarily culturally Muslim. From the beginning our focus on preventing Iran from radicalizing the region’s Muslims led us to turn a blind eye to the fact that they were primarily Sunni.
Those last points are not to suggest that, given the State Department’s organizational structure at the time, the situation could realistically have been evaluated differently. Hindsight is 20/20, and just three years after I left Ashgabat, 9/11 changed the world dramatically. That said, the fact that my colleagues in Tashkent and Dushanbe and I were invited to chief of mission conferences in New Delhi and Dhaka in 1997 and 1998 indicate that even then the South Asia Bureau saw a connection with the ‘Stans.
Michael Cotter, a career diplomat, served as U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan from 1995 to 1998.