Turkmenistan is playing host to many important regional guests these days. What’s up?
On April 29, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev traveled to Ashgabat for no obviously urgent purpose. An Uzbek government press release on the visit focused mainly on the informal niceties, such as Mirziyoyev expressing his condolences on the recent passing of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s 89-year-old father, Malikguly.
The Uzbek leader then congratulated Berdymukhamedov with his recent installation as chairman of the newly formed Senate – a position that a president is not supposed to hold. As is typical for such visits, a large and fresh figure on bilateral trade was produced – $530 million in 2021, according to the Uzbek presidential office.
Somehow, the more significant-looking aspect of the trip was the extra-official rite. After getting some boilerplate economic cooperation talk out of the way, the two presidents visited the mausoleum complex housing the remains of the late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. Beneath a mosque cupola sacrilegiously inscribed on its interior with lines from Niyazov’s cod historical-mystic book, the Rukhnama, the leaders read surahs from the Koran. With that done, Mirziyoyev headed for the airport.
Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev may be next in line for this routine. The foreign ministers of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan were on the phone on May 3 discussing some pre-visit preliminaries. Again, the agenda looks distinctly humdrum.
This flurry of oddly unfocused diplomacy will do nothing to temper suspicions that Berdymukhamedov may be on the cusp of undertaking an important step in the succession process. Not that there is any way of knowing, but if a handover were planned, this is how it might look.
Berdymukhamedov has lined up his son, Serdar, as his successor-designate by appointing him, over a number of years, to ever more consequential roles. With Serdar’s ascendancy to a primus inter pares deputy prime minister role in February – there is no prime minister in Turkmenistan – he has no more obvious rungs to climb.
The dauphin is already in effect performing as a proxy for this father. In late March, he headed on a lengthy four-day trip to Moscow. And he returned to Russia again on April 29, to attend as a guest star in a summit of heads of government of Eurasian Economic Union, or EAEU, member states.
Serdar even delivered a soporific speech on April 30, talking up Ashgabat’s readiness to cooperate with organizations like the EAEU and pitching his country’s logistical appeal. Doing his salesman patter, he spoke about how the Turkmenbashi seaport, which opened in May 2018, is able to process 25 million tons of cargo annually, about the fiber optic and high-voltage power lines crossing the country and about Turkmenistan’s new highways, bridges and interchanges. Listeners must have been enthralled.
Later, Serdar met with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin as if to hammer home the notion of his effectively serving as a head of government.
In a recent appearance on the RFE/RL podcast Majlis, Ruslan Myatiev, the editor of Amsterdam-based website Turkmen.news, suggested another potential dynamic to the frantic reaching out to regional leaders. He pointed to the curious request from Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the second half of April to initiate a one-on-one phone exchange with Turkmenistan’s president. This conversation has yet to happen, and public statements are circumspect about what exactly the leaders would be focusing their attention upon. But that the initiative for the call should come from Beijing indicates it might be a matter of some considerable importance to Ashgabat.
For all this, it is no exaggeration to state that the only thing that Berdymukhamedov appears prepared to devote his full concentration to these days are the upcoming twin celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of independence and the 140th anniversary of the founding of Ashgabat.
In that spirit, at the president’s weekly virtual meeting with regional leaders, who include the mayor of the capital, the first item of business was the final touches being put to the new buildings that have gone up in time for Ashgabat city day on May 25. The party is going to be a blowout. Berdymukhamedov even suggested earlier this year that the first boy born on that date should be called Ashgabat – advice that no parent is going to be able to resist.
None of this joy is being felt especially by those most desperately in need, it should go without saying.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, reported on April 28 on how authorities in the Lebap province have begun borrowing a leaf from Ashgabat’s book by enlisting police to ensure there are no unsightly, mood-sapping lines outside state-run grocery stores. People go to those shops because goods are affordable, although basic staples are typically rationed and in short supply. Azatlyk had earlier reported, citing a source in the Trade Ministry, that the instruction to clear queues came from Serdar himself.
"Serdar Berdymukhamedov demanded of the Trade Minister that citizens not gather around or in front of the shops, because the crowds of people are spoiling the image of his father-president,” the source is reported to have said.
It is to no avail, however. Turkmen.news reported on April 26 that lines may actually be growing and that many people have taken to sleeping outside shops for good measure.
The website reports that there has been a sharp spike in prices, even in state stores, for groceries since the start of 2021. Government shops are still vastly preferable, however, since prices are anywhere between five and 10 times less expensive than at their commercial peers, Turkmen.news stated.
One other, especially cynical, queue-busting measure mentioned by Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan in a May 3 article, is for state stores to simply charge private sector prices upon opening in the morning. That quickly dampens the spirits.
It is evident that Berdymukhamedov is aware of some of these problems on some vague level since, for example, he reprised a regular theme at the April 30 cabinet meeting when he urged more efficiency in producing meat, eggs, confectionery, vegetable oil, bread, vegetables, dairy and all sorts of other goods in order to “fully provide the domestic market with food.” This peremptory method of production-boosting is not known to have worked before, however, and it is not clear why it should perform better now.
Still, the president may soon have a new toy to distract him, if reports are to be believed.
The eagle-eyed plane-watchers at Turkmen.news noted that a Turkmenistan Airlines plane embarked on a strange flight on April 24, to and from the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. When the plane returned, it was not to the city of Turkmenabat, where most flights have been rerouted since the COVID-19 crisis began, but to the Caspian coast city of Turkmenbashi, just up the road from the absurd white elephant seaside resort town of Awaza.
So, what was in the plane? Live sharks, according to two sources who spoke to Turkmen.news. The fish are intended for Berdymukhamedov’s private aquarium it seems.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.