That many more train and trucks laden with goods should be rumbling through Turkmenistan – heading north, south, west and east – is a core tenet of the government’s vision for the economic future of the country.
Projects past and present attest to that.
In December 2014, the leaders of Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan inaugurated a railroad linking their three countries. In January 2019, work began on construction of a 640-kilometer highway running from the border with Uzbekistan to the capital, Ashgabat. This troubled project is part of a broader highways development agenda that is seen as integral to the success of another piece of grand infrastructure-building: the high-tech $1.5 billion Turkmenbashi Sea Port on the Caspian Sea, unveiled in May 2018 in a classic case of horse-before-cart thinking. Another ongoing major work is a highway from the city of Garabogaz along the shores of the Caspian Sea to the border of Kazakhstan. Completion of that stretch of road will in theory lay the ground for large volumes of freight traffic running from Russia to Iran.
The rhetoric around this theme is fittingly grand. Speaking in mid-July at a convocation of the Halk Maslahaty, or People’s Council, former president and now-National Leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov remarked that “the construction of roads, bridges, and buildings has always been considered a noble cause by our people.”
Hardware is only one part of the equation, however. President Serdar Berdymukhamedov (the son of the previous president) as much as conceded this in a speech before his Central Asian peers at a consultative meeting in Tajikistan last week.
“[The proposal is] to consider the possibility of launching a Central Asian transport and logistics platform, the main objective of which could be to … create transportation hubs in the region, form transit corridors and increase the efficiency of existing ones, and optimize and harmonize customs, migration and other procedures along international transport routes going through our states,” he said.
Lack of progress in making some or all of this happen will mark a serious failure for Turkmenistan’s dreams of evolving from a resource-dependent backwater into a strategically weighty transit hub.
At least one axis is already showing signs of success. Speaking in a September 15 interview to the TASS news agency, Dmitry Murev, the general director of Russian Railways Logistics, observed that freight traffic in January-August on the railway network between Russia and Turkmenistan along the eastern route of the North-South Interior Transport Corridor had increased by 57 percent compared to the same period in 2022.
“The volume of railway transport is growing at a particularly rapid pace at border crossings between Turkmenistan and Iran,” Murev said.
Considerable energies are being invested into keeping the momentum going. On September 18, a delegation of officials from Russia’s Federal Customs Service arrived in Ashgabat for two days of meetings focused on how to simplify customs procedures for goods transported between Russia and Turkmenistan.
Nobody can have missed that this development is a clear offshoot of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the concomitant turn away from the West. Placing this purely in the context of Russia’s evolving (mis)fortunes may be reductive, though.
Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev met on September 18 with his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, on the side-lines of the upcoming UN General Assembly in New York to talk transportation, logistics and trade. Tokayev and Raisi alluded to the full exploitation of the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway as key to their mutual trade ambitions. The Kazakh president further used the occasion to remind Raisi of a pledge made by Iran to provide Kazakhstan with 15 hectares of land for the building of a dry terminal at its Bandar Abbas port.
In this optic, the north-south railroad becomes as much an opportunity for Central Asian nations to diversify their logistics solutions away from dependence on Russia as it is a way for Moscow to thwart Western attempts to isolate its economy. The only small kink in this being that the whole plan requires the acquiescence of another Western bogeyman: Iran.
Turkmenistan’s own position is that it can be a friendly and reliable partner to allcomers. In other action in New York on September 18, President Berdymukhamedov sat down for a meeting with European Council president Charles Michel. Turkmen state media cited Berdymukhamedov as saying that “Turkmenistan attaches great importance to strengthening friendly ties and constructive dialogue with the [European Union], which are growing every year and covering new areas of interaction.”
That is as may be, but when Central Asian presidents convened in June in Kyrgyzstan for the Second Meeting of Heads of State of Central Asia and the President of the European Council, Berdymukhamedov snubbed the event, sending a bland minion in his place.
Berdymukhamedov did not only talk about transportation and trade in Dushanbe. The second day of the Dushanbe consultative meeting, on September 15, was devoted to a meeting of heads of state of founder nations of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea.
The Turkmen leader seized on this talking shop to comically recall that his government has proposed establishing a Regional Center for Climate Change Technologies in Central Asia. Given that Turkmenistan has belched such gargantuan volumes of methane into the atmosphere, such initiatives are difficult to take seriously.
In fairness, though, Ashgabat is taking tentative steps toward making up for lost time. Speaking in an interview to Baku-based news agency Trend, Jean-Francois Gauthier, the vice president at Canadian satellite company GHGSat, said he had hopes of tying up with Turkmenistan on projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the near future. Gauthier said he had had positive discussions with Turkmen officials at an investment forum in Dubai in April.
GHGSat is not just any satellite company. It is the very company that picked up on the dizzying quantity of greenhouse gases that were being discharged into atmosphere from pipelines and unlit flares in Turkmenistan.
Another environmental matter discussed at the Dushanbe event was, naturally, given the name of forum, the state of the region’s rivers. This issue has always been political, and has grown only more so against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s efforts to build the giant Qosh Tepa Canal, which is to be filled with large quantities of water from the Amu Darya River.
Berdymukhamedov demurred in grasping the Afghan nettle, however, and spoke mainly, and in vague terms, of bolstering the formal mechanisms for regulating the use of water.
It fell to Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to do the dirty deed of calling out Kabul.
“The commission of [this canal] could radically change the water regime and balance in Central Asia,” he said. “We believe it is imperative to form a joint working group to study all aspects of the construction of the Qosh Tepa Canal and its effect on the water regime of the Amu Darya.”
Mirziyoyev wrapped up this passage by suggesting that representatives of the government in Afghanistan be invited to participate in regional dialogue on the use of water resources.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.