At a summit meeting in Moscow on December 23, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov were cordial but did not sign any agreements or make any announcements. The two leaders have not met formally in more than a year, although they have had some informal conversations on the margins of meetings such as the anniversary summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Dushanbe in September 2011. Turkmenistan is assuming the chairmanship of the CIS in 2012, although it is only an associate member, and has given no sign of interest in joining the customs union or free trade agreement promoted by Russia, already joined by Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Berdymukhamedov also met with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who said trade turnover between the two countries had grown by 33 percent, according to a report in the state daily Neitral’nyi Turkmenistan, and reached a level of more than $2.1 billion ($1.5 billion dollars plus the dollar equivalent of euros and rubles). A rare note of sincerity may have sounded when the two leaders wished each other success in forthcoming elections – each would likely prefer the stability of having a known quantity in their energy competitor.
On the eve of the summit, the Russian media speculated on the agenda, which wasn’t disclosed in substance, citing sources in the Russian government. First, there was Moscow’s hope to finally learn Ashgabat’s real intentions regarding the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) – a desire shared by the European Union, staking its hopes on the TCP for lessening dependence on Russia. Ashgabat has made positive but non-specific pronouncements about cooperation with the EU on the TCP, but has put off further discussions to a working commission. Nothing was said publicly after the meeting, but according to a report from the business daily Kommersant, Moscow is hoping to deflect Ashgabat’s move toward the TCP by increasing its purchase of Turkmen gas.
While before the global recession, Russia’s gas monopolist Gazprom was planning to buy more than 50 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year, after disputes following the April 2009 gas line explosion in Turkmenistan, the purchase order dropped to only 10.5 bcm. The hard calculus of reduced European consumption and greater Chinese capacity to invest in infrastructure means Russia is seemingly outmaneuvered – Beijing more than doubled its order to 65 billion cubic meters (bcm) during Berdymukhamedov’s trip last month. China shares with Russia the desire to thwart the TCP, as higher European prices for Turkmen gas could upset its own arrangements with Ashgabat.
Yet Kommersant’s source in the Russian government claimed that Moscow was prepared to order 80-90 bcm, although at a lower price than previously discussed, in order to keep Ashgabat away from the TCP. No indication of Turkmenistan’s response has been made yet.
Also on the agenda was the fate of some 120,000-180,000 Russians and Russian-speakers in Turkmenistan with dual passports. Here, too, according to a source in the Russian government cited by Moscow News (MN),
Russia was prepared to open up talks with Turkmenistan and provide legal consultation to those affected by the new Turkmen policy. Yet evidently Ashgabat rejected the offer and nothing was said publicly. The Turkmen Foreign Ministry had earlier denounced MN’s report that Russians would find themselves forced to leave Turkmenistan if they refused to give up their Russian passports. They could also be compelled to take Turkmen citizenship and face the prospect of getting stuck in Turkmenistan. The Turkmen government has misrepresented past agreements that recognize dual citizenship, claiming they were intended merely to help Russians leave Turkmenistan.
Soon after Berdymukhamedov’s trip to Moscow, Vladimir Gubanov, editor-in-chief of the Russian-language daily Neitral’nyi Turkmenistan, was dismissed from the newspaper and also his position as head of the Mejlis (parliamentary) committee on science and culture. The reason was not stated, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary in the usual menu of state-controlled propaganda. The Turkmen leader has been chronically unhappy with the media, yet the dismissal so soon after the trip to Russia invites speculation that the move may be related to a worsening relationship to the Russian community.
With less than two months before the presidential elections February 12, at least 14 alternative candidates have appeared on the scene, all of them previously unknown, mainly provincial government or industrial leaders who appear to have exemplary records of loyalty to the incumbent and his ambitious programs. None of them seem to be a serious rival, and it’s not clear why so many are needed in this entirely manipulated simulation of democracy. But as with the rubber-stamp parliament and obsequious elders’ council, the election candidacies appear to be about giving some people a chance to talk about local issues and feel involved.
Yet they can’t talk too much – the experience of an unexpected outspoken critic recently lets us know the limitations. Geldimurat Nurmuhammedov, former minister of culture, gave an interview to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty earlier this month in which he criticized Turkmenistan’s lack of democracy. Within a few days, his brother’s construction company was raided by tax police, forced to close, and he was summoned to the Ministry of National Security. The Turkmen government has long had a system of persecuting the relatives of critics to place pressure on them.
Unsurprisingly, Turkmenistan scraped the bottom of the annual democracy index produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit, at no. 165 out of 167, only above Chad and North Korea. But with the death of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and now North Korea's Kim Jong-il, there’s room for Berdymukhamedov to shine on Parade’s Top 10 Dictators list, at number 6, still beat by his neighbor in Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov, at no. 3.
Be sure to check out Turkmenistan: the Marble Metropolis, a special photojournalist report from Nick Hannes, part of our 20-year retrospective on the anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and Caspian Basin: As Energy Prices Head North, Democratization Goes South, a report by Steve Levine which includes Turkmenistan.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Turkmenistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Sifting the Karakum blog.