In keeping with its long-standing and, at times, confusing foreign policy status of “permanent positive neutrality,” Turkmenistan pursues participation in global forums such as the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM), a conference dedicated to strengthening global dialogue for peace, security, and human development which President Berdymukhamedov has offered to host in Ashgabat in 2015. The 16th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement was held from 26 to 31 August 2012 in Tehran, Iran, and was attended by leaders of 120 countries, including 24 presidents, 3 kings, 8 prime ministers and 50 foreign ministers. Its agenda primarily consisted of issues pertaining to nuclear disarmament, human rights and regional issues. It also focused on drawing up a new peace resolution to solve the crisis in Syria. At the Tehran summit Iran took over the leadership role in the Non-Aligned Movement from Egypt for the next three years.
Nevertheless, despite the policy of neutrality in foreign affairs, and the pursuit of noble goals such as promoting global dialogues for peace, Turkmenistan is launching its very first military maneuvers on the Caspian Sea. This comes at a time of increased tensions with Azerbaijan over ownership of disputed territories said to be rich in oil and gas. Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have set negotiations on this matter for an October meeting of their deputy foreign ministers.
Peace among Caspian littoral states is critical for Turkmenistan to advance cooperation in the energy sector with new partners and transport its energy to potential European clients. Last week the EU held energy negotiations in Ashgabat, and on September 3 the European Commissioner for Energy, Gunther Oettinger, met with governmental representatives of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan to discuss the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline project. Marlene Holzner, a spokesperson for the EU Energy Commissioner, said the negotiations were successful, adding that there will be further meetings at the ministerial level.
In a throwback to the days of past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, President Berdymukhamedov, whose manner of leadership and governance increasingly resembles Niyazov’s, has ordered for grand scale celebrations of the Ruhnama, the eccentric and bizarre book of folk-y wisdom that Niyazov penned and built his cult of personality around. While Ruhnama is no longer a compulsory subject in secondary schools and universities, as it used to be under Niyazov’s rule, President Berdymukhamedov exercises his influence on the formation of the next generation and cultivates his own cult of personality as well. On September 1, which marks the first day of school and is dubbed “The Day of Knowledge,” Turkmenistan held nation-wide festivities designed to glorify the president, with all of the country’s theaters holding performances entitled, “Let glory be your path, Arkadag,” [Arkadag, literally “protector” is the honorific that the president has given himself], the main concert hall in Ashgabat held a festive meeting called “Happy Youth of the Era of Might and Power Glorifies Arkadag,” and Makhtumkuli University hosted a conference called “Reflection of national education principles in the works of Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.” Turkmen Institute for Human Rights reports on instructions recently issued for the compulsory viewing of the propagandistic state TV channel Watan for university students living in dormitories.
More disturbing, and where we see the education sector suffering even more than it had under Niyazov, is the trend of increasing cultural and educational isolation of the population. Over the past few years, we have seen increasing incidences of Turkmen university students, who have sought to further their education abroad, unable to receive exit visas to leave the country to continue their studies. In a new development this week, the US Peace Corps, after nearly 20 years of working in Turkmenistan, will be phasing out its programs, which since 1993, have brought over 740 American health and English language teacher volunteers to work in Turkmenistan’s regions, providing to many citizens their only window to the outside world, as well as a unique educational experience. The Peace Corps, unable to secure visas or guarantee entry to the country (even with visas) to its volunteers, will allow its current 18 volunteers to close out their service this month, and will close its representative office in Ashgabat by the end of the year.
For breaking news see our blog Sifting the Karakum