Turkmenistan’s ambassador to Belgium last week presented his credentials to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and exchanged some pleasantries on the state of relations between Ashgabat and the Brussels-based alliance.
According to the Turkmen Foreign Ministry, Stoltenberg “noted the importance of Turkmenistan’s role as a key partner in Central Asia, in particular on matters of regional stability and security.” Sapar Palvanov, meanwhile, talked during the September 7 ceremony about ongoing plans to cooperate on addressing biological, radiological and nuclear threats, cybersecurity, counterterrorism, and the illegal drug trade, among other things.
What such engagement means in practical terms is invariably shrouded in mystery. Turkmenistan is known to have provided logistical assistance to the U.S.-led military alliance engaged in operations in Afghanistan over a number of years.
Latterly, however, Turkmenistan has developed what appears like a viable working relationship with the Taliban regime in Kabul, which complicates any simplistic attempt at analysis. Then again, Stoltenberg reportedly made a point of speaking in his conversation with Palvanov of the humanitarian assistance that Turkmenistan has provided Afghanistan, suggesting that NATO is content to put its Taliban concerns on the backburner for the time being.
The more obvious specter looming in the background of such conversations is Russia. And there is not much that the West as a whole, or NATO specifically, looks positioned to do to cool the perennially warm state of relations between Ashgabat and Moscow.
Turkmenistan’s most recent visitor from the north was the Governor of St. Petersburg, Alexander Beglov, who arrived in Ashgabat on September 10 for a trip that was one part business and one part cultivation of political-cultural-historic affinities.
The standard-bearer of what St. Petersburg-based investors have been able to do in Turkmenistan is Vozrozhdenie, a company that has reportedly completed 25 items of major infrastructure in the country over the years. The one that is mentioned most often is a mudslide barrier in Ashgabat.
Beglov’s press service said in a statement that a joint working group has been set up to explore the possibility of St. Petersburg-based Siloviye Mashiny (Power Machines) getting involved in the refurbishment of a thermal power plant in Turkmenbashi and a hydroelectric plant in Mary.
In addition to the investment proposals, Beglov came bearing history textbooks. This looks like a downright provocative move since, if they are new editions, the 11th-grade textbooks in question, which are to be gifted to the A.S. Pushkin Russian-Turkmen school in Ashgabat, are the same new ones that feature a contentious section on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As independent Russian news website Meduza has reported, the pages devoted to what is euphemistically described as the “special military operation” dwells on the Western world’s alleged “rehabilitation of Nazism” and the West’s obsession with “destabilizing the situation within Russia.” In this perplexing reading of recent history, the war in Ukraine and subsequent annexations of Ukrainian territory were initiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin to advance purely humanitarian goals.
It is yet to be seen whether and how the Turkmen authorities will respond to this transparent attempt to propagandize a very partial reading of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Inaction will at best suggest that Ashgabat is relaxed with a pedagogical approach that equates its Western partners to Nazi sympathizers.
Latent fascism notwithstanding, Turkmenistan still entertains regular exchanges with the West on prospects of economic cooperation. A delegation led by Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov traveled to France on September 4-5 to talk with French businessman about opportunities for all manner of commercial tie-ups. The “dozens of business meetings” involved names familiar to Turkmenistan-watchers, such as technology giant Thales Alenia Space, infrastructure developer VINCI Construction, and construction company Bouygues, along with a number of companies involved in finance, energy, healthcare, and agriculture. If such jaw-jawing produces even the sliver of any concrete deal-making, it would not be unreasonable to expect a visit to France from President Serdar Berdymukhamedov.
There is a reasonably firm expectation Berdymukhamedov will be in Europe later this month. Vienna-based news outlet Chronicles of Turkmenistan has reported that the president is to visit Germany on September 29 at the invitation of Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The website adds that the presidents of the other four countries of Central Asia will also be present in Berlin.
Easier to predict was how the authorities would announce the start to the cotton harvesting season. News website Turkmenportal reported on September 9, citing a report on state television, that the target this year is to gather 1.25 million tons of cotton from across 580,000 hectares of land. Officials have stopped trying to pretend this is not an invented figure. That projection is exactly and implausibly identical to cotton quotas for 2021 and 2022. Given how reliably and unerringly these quotas are always met, in the telling of official chronicles, it seems odd that President Berdymukhamedov saw the need to remind officials at a government meeting on September 11 how it was it was necessary to maintain “constant control” over the “organization of the cotton harvest.”
Chronicles shone light in a September 6 report on what that organization will entail. In addition to the standard press-ganging of government workers into the laborious work of picking cotton, the authorities are also enlisting migrant workers returning from Turkey for the job. As the website reported, recruits among the several hundred people being held at a quarantine facility near the eastern town of Farab are sent into the fields and offered certificates falsely attesting to having done the necessary 26 days of quarantine in return for doing 10 days of picking (if they hit their daily quotas).
To make matters worse, cotton-harvesting is impinging on people’s ability to party. Chronicles reported on September 7 on how officials in villages in the Dashoguz province have forbidden the holding of feasts to mark weddings, birthdays, and circumcisions before 7 p.m. during harvest season to avoid any distraction from the pressing business of picking cotton. The owners of the kinds of establishments that normally host these kinds of parties have reportedly been summoned for briefings from officials and been warned that any rule-breaking will lead to their closure.
These local mandarins are not entirely heartless though. People will be permitted to mourn the newly departed without any time restrictions, Chronicles notes.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.