Turkmenistan kept it under wraps until the last possible moment, but in the end, President Serdar Berdymukhamedov did acquiesce to attending Victory Day celebrations in Moscow on May 9.
Accepting such invitations from Vladimir Putin carries a particular charge these days now that the Russian leader is no run-of-the-mill global pariah. Since March, Putin has been the object of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court.
Willingness to be seen in public with Putin indicates at least some degree of solidarity with a figure whose actions have caused death and destruction on an unimaginable scale in Ukraine. Berdymukhamedov was not alone, however. All four fellow Central Asian leaders, along with Armenia’s Prime Minister and the Belarusian president, turned up too.
While some of those leaders are attending more out of submissiveness than respect, Russo-Turkmen ties are legitimately solid. Russian dignitaries pass through Ashgabat on a highly frequent basis.
On May 4, it was the turn of deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin, who met his opposite party, the acting Foreign Minister Vepa Khadzhiyev, who is currently backstopping for his vacationing boss. The sheer tedium of their stated agenda – described vaguely in an official statement as a discussion on political, trade, economic, cultural, and humanitarian cooperation – is a useful illustration of how intimate this relationship has become. Diplomatic watch-synchronizing has become so customary between these partners that no special reasons are required for a high-level consultation. Reading between the lines, though, it seems likely that plans for Berdymukhamedov’s trip to Moscow featured heavily in the conversation.
Moscow looks eager, moreover, to edge out any rival contenders to the title of security guarantor to Turkmenistan. In a Victory Day note to Berdymukhamedov that was published in the daily Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper, Putin expressed his hope that the “traditions of martial brotherhood and mutual assistance toughened through severe military tests over the years will continue to contribute to the fruitful development of [our] friendship and in-depth strategic partnership.”
What historic “severe military tests” Putin had in mind is not clear. Turkmenistan loudly proclaims its neutrality at every opportunity it gets and has never publicly admitted to engaging in joint military operations with any partner, including Russia.
It is eminently possible that security chiefs in Moscow were discomfited to see the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, passing through Turkmenistan late last month, when he met with the aforementioned Khadzhiyev, who tends to take the lead of Afghan affairs, as well as Defense Minister Begench Gundogdyev and the Chief of the General Staff, Akmurat Anemetov.
“We respect Turkmenistan’s doctrine of ‘positive neutrality’ and are united in support of the territorial integrity and stability of the Central Asian states,” Kurilla said.
There may have been more sting to these remarks than seems obvious at first glance. As the Wall Street Journal reported in late April, Russia is believed to have, over a six-month period, shipped in more than 300,000 artillery shells from Iran across the Caspian Sea to maintain its often-indiscriminate bombing campaign in Ukraine. Such arms-laden ships can only make this voyage with the consent of Caspian littoral nations like Turkmenistan.
As the WSJ article also noted, the head of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, who is described by the paper as having “spearheaded multinational efforts to stop illegal shipments of weapons and drugs from Iran in the Persian Gulf,” made an unscheduled visit to Turkmenistan in April. It is probably safe to assume the subject of Iranian arms shipments to Russia dominated whatever talks he had. It is hardly credible for Turkmenistan to talk about the positivity of its neutrality, or to boast of its championing of peace and diplomacy, when it is enabling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Turkmenistan tries to assert its multi-vector credentials by positioning itself as a transportation hub in service to the entire Eurasian land mass. That was certainly the theme at a two-day international transport forum held on May 3-4 in Ashgabat, where companies from all around the world, including Russian Railways, Airbus, Boeing, General Electric, Lufthansa, Fly Dubai, and Turkish Airlines, among others, were in attendance.
Russian transportation officials are disobligingly souring this ecumenical mood, however. Speaking at the conference, the first Deputy General Director of Russian Railways, Sergei Pavlov, described how Turkmenistan had served an important role in pivoting regional cargo flows from the West to the East.
“The fact we are here today attests to the real steps taken to increase trade not just with Turkmenistan, but to increase trade with third countries. We are emerging through Turkmenistan into the Persian Gulf and trading with India. Some trains have already been sent,” he said.
The numbers appear to back up Pavlov’s optimism. In the first quarter of 2023, Russian Railways increased its volume of cargo deliveries to Turkmenistan by 73 percent as compared to the same period in 2022.
“And if we talk about transit traffic through Turkmenistan, then it is 3 1/2 times more,” Pavlov said. “I am sure these figures will only increase.”
Lest anybody imagine Turkmenistan only pays heed to ceremonial goings-on in Russia, Berdymukhamedov last week also paid a visit to the United Kingdom to attend the coronation of King Charles III. With perhaps a smidgen of residual irritation at the routine mockery of Turkmenistan’s own ruler-for-life, Berdymukhamedov’s father and predecessor, Gurbanguly, who now goes by the title National Leader, the Turkmen state government website reminded readers that “Great Britain remains the only European country where the monarch is still crowned.”
“An important role in the ceremony is played by the traditional royal regalia: the crown, the orb and scepters, each of which symbolizes a special aspect of the role and obligations of the king,” it continued, as if to suggest that Turkmenistan’s little eccentricities pale in comparison with the brash pageantry that the British ruling classes routinely serve their public.
Ashgabat, meanwhile, played host to another widely disliked but seemingly unshakeable figurehead, the head of soccer ruling body FIFA, Gianni Infantino. The shiny-pated Swiss-Italian soccer boss was in Turkmenistan as part of a tour that took him to every single country in Central Asia. In Ashgabat, he delivered the usual rote pleasantries about the supposedly wonderful job that local sports officials were doing to improve soccer’s fortunes.
The timing is a little unfortunate, though.
Turkmenistan’s pretense to having a competitive soccer league has been dealt a severe blow this year by the appearance of a new team, Arkadag – so-called after the newly built city that has in turn been thus named in honor of the National Leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov AKA Arkadag, the patron and protector.
To assemble Arkadag’s squad, all the best players from the other teams in the league were raided. Sure enough, Arkadag last week romped to their fourth straight win, 4-2 against Ashgabat. Good luck to whatever team decides it is confident enough to beat a rival named after the country’s de facto leader.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.