Iran and Turkmenistan are looking very cozy these days.
Late last month, they and Azerbaijan reached a deal on an intriguing, three-way natural gas swap deal that generated a few headlines. The volumes in question are small, but the arrangement carries some notable symbolic weight.
Tehran is eager to further cultivate this goodwill with Ashgabat. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on December 13 called his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, to discuss how to further promote economic and trade ties.
As is customary for such conversations, the exchange was largely limited to generalities, although Raisi did allude approvingly to the swap deal. Still, given that Turkmenistan and Iran were until recently at loggerheads over Tehran’s unpaid gas bills, this high-level communication is of note.
The foreign ministers of the two countries got on a follow-up phone call on December 14. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said he hoped Berdymukhamedov might come to visit in 2022.
Turkmenistan is busily engaging with neighbors on multiple fronts at the moment. Russia was very much the flavor of this past week.
The Kremlin’s economic contacts with Ashgabat are channeled predominantly through two Russian regions – the republic of Tatarstan and the region of Astrakhan, which lies on the northern shores of the Caspian. Tatarstan’s President Rustam Minnikhanov last dropped by to see Berdymukhamedov in late September and came away with a Garashsyzlyk honorary title for his troubles.
On December 9, Astrakhan governor Igor Babushkin arrived on a working visit. His meeting with Berdymukhamedov produced some exciting news for travelers in search of unusual routes. As the daily Neutral Turkmenistan noted, great enthusiasm was expressed (not clear by whom) over the prospect of ferries regularly plying their way from the Astrakhan port of Olya to Turkmenbashi, the $1.5 billion high-tech seaport that Turkmenistan built before checking if there was much demand for it. Babushkin said that building work on a cruise ship called Peter the Great is nearing competition and that Awaza – a white elephant tourist resort just south of Turkmenbashi – had every chance of becoming “a pearl on the Caspian route.”
Trade turnover between the Astrakhan region and Turkmenistan reached almost $200 million in the first three quarters of this year, but Babushkin said he sees that volume increasing. Companies in Astrakhan stand ready to supply grain, timber, pipes, nets, fish feed and agricultural products to Turkmenistan, the governor’s office said. In return, it would import textiles, fruit and vegetables, raw cotton, plastics, and other goods.
To make that happen, Babushkin proposed siting a logistics center for Turkmen goods within a special economic zone in the port of Olya. “From there, Turkmen goods can get to the regions of Russia via the shortest route, as well as to markets in Europe,” he said.
There was yet more encouraging news from Russia on December 9, when Rosselkhoznadzor, Moscow’s agriculture watchdog, announced it was giving the green light to the resumption of imports of tomatoes from 88 Turkmen growers. The regulator in March warned that it had started talks with Turkmen agriculture officials over concerns that tomato imports were found to be infected with the brown rugose fruit virus. In April, Rosselkhoznadzor halted the import of tomatoes and even bell peppers from several Turkmen regions.
Turkmenistan nevertheless somehow managed to export 32,000 tons of greenhouse-reared tomatoes to Russia in the first eight months of this year, almost doubling the volume sent in 2020. That is only a small part of the 142,000-ton annual growing capacity that the Russian-approved greenhouses possess, however.
Seeing how economically important Russia and China are to Turkmenistan, it was no surprise that Berdymukhamedov took time during the December 10 Cabinet meeting to remind his ministers, as well as all the attending ambassadors, that he considers those countries to be Ashgabat’s strategic partners.
The sequence in which countries get namechecked by Berdymukhamedov may be read as an indicator of the degree of emphasis he believes diplomatic outreach with those respective partners warrant. The near abroad comes after Russia and Turkmenistan.
“We will pay maximum attention in the future to strengthening good-neighborly and friendly ties with Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and India, with whom we are cooperating in the building of a number of significant infrastructure facilities in energy, transport and communications," he said.
After that, Berdymukhamedov described his ambition to progressively foster more political and economic dialogue with the Asia-Pacific region. Finally, the European Union and the United States got a mention.
As if in preemptive confirmation of the president’s Sinophile sentiments, state gas company Turkmengaz on December 8 announced that new gas wells have come online at the Agarguyi field, which is located near the Malai field in the Lebap province. More than 300,000 cubic meters of gas are being fed from Agarguyi into the Central Asia-China pipeline, the company said.
A three-way summit between the presidents of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Turkmenistan is, meanwhile, being pushed back to 2022. There had been some talk of it happening this year, possibly on the sidelines of the Economic Cooperation Organization gathering that took place last month in Awaza. But no dice. An earlier appointed August date was cancelled after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was otherwise distracted tackling the forest fires ravaging his country.
On the domestic front, thoughts are turning to the festive season. Neutrality Day, marked on December 12, is a little pre-taster. For the event, Berdymukhamedov brought together representatives of the diplomatic community, who dutifully danced for him like trained bears as a band belted out Karakum, a Soviet-vintage pop song much beloved of the president.
Possibly to memorialize the holiday, Berdymukhamedov summoned the muses for the pacifist verses that appeared in Neutral Turkmenistan on December 14 under the title “Long live peaceful life!” The poem concludes with these stirring lines:
Let anybody instigating evil,
Turn away from this path,
While there is still time!
Peace is built on trust!
All nations are of one tribe!
Long live peaceful life!
Speaking of turning away from paths, a British-registered company controlled by a young man called Shamyrat Rejepov, a nephew of Berdymukhamedov, is currently being liquidated, Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news reported this week. As a consortium of investigate reporting outlets revealed in October, the company, Delanore, was involved in exporting petroleum and chemical products made by state-run companies in Turkmenistan. Liquidation of the company suggests a sudden shyness has overcome Rejepov and his associates.
The scheme by which these types of entities profit from intimate connections to autocratic regimes are a familiar sight across the post-Soviet world. A well-placed broker acquires commodities from a state concern at knockdown prices, and then it sells them off at a profit. Even stealing candy from a baby requires a higher degree of cunning.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.