Turkmenistan's Place in the Global Community
The alleged assassination attempt of November 25, 2002 has led to the increased isolation of Turkmenistan. However, this isolation is more the product of restrictions introduced by the government on its own citizens than of the international community's censure of the government's actions.
Turkmenistan's relations with Russia and Uzbekistan have deteriorated over the past year, but given the somewhat erratic behavior of president Saparmurat Niyazov it is always difficult to determine cause and effect in Turkmen foreign policy. The increasing ill-treatment of local Russians and the tightening of border controls on the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan border may have been retaliation for Tashkent's possible role in events surrounding the November 25, 2002 assassination attempt. Immediately following the episode, Niyazov assailed Uzbekistan authorities for their alleged support for former Turkmen foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov-- the accused mastermind of the assassination plot. At the same time, tension along the frontier may have occurred regardless of domestic political developments in Ashgabat.
If Uzbekistani authorities did in fact assist Shikhmuradov, as alleged, it was likely because of the steady deterioration of relations between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in recent years. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Uzbekistani government was upset by changes in Turkmenistan's water usage patterns, difficulties encountered by Uzbekistani citizens entering Turkmenistan, and discrimination against ethnic Uzbeks living in Turkmenistan. Given these increasing border problems, it is not surprising that Niyazov would perceive Uzbekistani leader Islam Karimov to be plotting against him.
Similarly, Niyazov's relationships with other Central Asian leaders appear to have grown more strained over the past year, due to the general disdain with which he is held and the respect that Shikhmuradov enjoys from his colleagues in the region. This does not mean that the Central Asian leaders conspired to overthrow Niyazov or that all were comfortable with Shikhmuradov's political strategy. Yet, in private conversations, senior officials in the region have expressed concern that Niyazov's "excesses" since the coup attempt have brought unwanted international scrutiny not just to Turkmenistan but to the region more generally.
Over the past year the European Union and the OSCE have in fact stepped up criticism of Turkmenistan for its treatment of political prisoners and their families, and the ultimatum issued to Russian citizens living in Turkmenistan which revoked their dual citizenship provisions. Russians who opted to leave were unable to do so because of newly imposed exit restrictions. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The United States government also has expressed concern but there has been no weight behind these criticisms.
However, this has not been the case with the Russian response, where the status of Russian "compatriots" living in Turkmenistan has become a political issue with resonance in parliament and in the Russian press. Subsequently Moscow has grappled with the challenge of trying to modify Turkmen government behavior without threatening to cut off the trade in Turkmen gas.
This raises the question of why Niyazov turned on the local Russian population. As with the local Uzbeks, the Russian population has been made to feel increasingly unwelcome in Turkmenistan in recent years, and the role of Russian language in public life has been sharply curtailed.
Niyazov appeared angry about support for Shikhmuradov that he believed came from parts of the Russian political establishment. But it was also in character for Niyazov to turn on the local Russian population shortly after signing a 25-year gas deal with Russia, under which Turkmen gas would be sold at disadvantageous terms for Ashgabat for at least three years. With this agreement, Niyazov was effectively saying that while he had been forced to continue to sell Turkmen gas under a partial barter arrangement with no control over the terms for the barter, he still had the power to make Russia unhappy in other ways-- namely through his arbitrary treatment of the local Russian population.
Although the Russian government complained about this treatment, it continued to buy Turkmenistan's gas, underscoring the real state of bilateral relations. Access to Turkmenistan's gas proved to be more important to Moscow than how Niyazov treated ethnic Russians and Russian citizens living in Turkmenistan.
Energy politics have also dominated Turkmenistan's relationships with Iran and Pakistan. Tehran's desire for increased cooperation with Turkmenistan, both as a source of additional gas to serve Iran's industrial north, and as a potential ally on questions of Caspian Sea delineation, has been more important than the increasingly closed nature of the Turkmen border.
Pakistan, meanwhile, is keen to retain Turkmen support for the construction of a Trans-Afghan pipeline, a project for which the Asian Development Bank has completed a favorable feasibility study. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. By contrast, the US government has had few expectations - even prior to November 2002 - that Turkmenistan would be an important partner in the energy development sphere. Niyazov had already made it very clear that the idea of a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline, Washington's pet project, held no real interest for him. In addition, after the departure of Unocal, no major American firms have shown interest in developing Turkmenistan's oil and gas. ExxonMobil has withdrawn from the country, while other U.S. firms remain active in the service sector but regard Turkmenistan as just one of many foreign customers.
For Washington, the most important factor in determining relations has been Ashgabat's level of support for the Bush administration's position in the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases Turkmenistan has been a willing partner, particularly in Afghanistan, where it has helped facilitate the flow of humanitarian goods. "Neutral" Turkmenistan has also granted Washington over-flight rights for coalition missions in Afghanistan, and reportedly in Iraq as well.
If this is true, it would explain much about Washington's reluctance to take action against Niyazov's regime. While official displeasure is regularly voiced, the consequences of this displeasure have been relatively inconsequential. Washington withstood pressure to name Turkmenistan as a country of "particular concern" with regard to religious freedom. Turkmenistan was again granted a waiver of Jackson-Vanik Amendment restrictions, which are explicitly designed to cover states that restrict the free exit of their citizens.
In an era in which American foreign policy is supposedly focused on building democratic states in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the Middle East more generally, the states of Central Asia have effectively been given a pass- at least for the moment- because of their strategic location. Internal affairs in Turkmenistan have not been considered of sufficient magnitude to modify this strategy.
While the Bush administration went to war in 2003 to oust one tyrannical ruler, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Washington has been willing to turn at least a partially blind eye to Saparmurat Niyazov's despotic rule in Turkmenistan.
Dr. Martha Brill Olcott is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C. She codirects the Carnegie Moscow Center Project on Ethnicity and Politics in the former Soviet Union and is professor emerita at Colgate University. She also served for five years as a director of the Central Asian American Enterprise Fund. Professor Olcott specializes in the problems of transitions in Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as the security challenges in the Caspian region more generally. She has followed interethnic relations in Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union for more than 25 years and has traveled extensively in these countries and in South Asia. Her latest book is Kazakhstan: Unfulfilled Promise.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter. Support Eurasianet: Help keep our journalism open to all, and influenced by none.