The political transition in Turkmenistan offers the United States an opportunity to recoup some of its recent geopolitical losses in Central Asia.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov -- the former minister of health and vice premier, a dentist by profession and a rumored close relative of the late dictator Saparmurat Niyazov seems assured of winning Turkmenistan's special presidential election in early February. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Berdymukhammedov has vowed to continue Niyazov's general political line, which nominally emphasized the country's isolation and neutrality, but in fact featured a close economic relationship with Russia, centering on a comprehensive natural gas export agreement. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In its domestic policy, Niyazov's regime was among the most repressive on earth. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Despite the vow of continuity, Berdymukhammedov has indicated that he might open the country's socio-political system somewhat. In early January, he pledged to expand citizens' access to the Internet, and to improve the quality of the country's educational system. At the same time, he is no democrat. He has prevented exiled opposition political leaders from returning to the country, and has discouraged a genuinely competitive presidential election.
Russia seems to be comfortable with Berdymukhammedov. Officials in Moscow have declared in unison that the terms of Turkmenistan's pricing agreement with the Russian energy giant Gazprom will remain intact, at least until 2009, when it expires. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Besides Russia, two regional powers are closely watching developments in Ashgabat: China, which would like to gain access to Turkmen gas, and neighboring Iran, which would like to prevent Ashgabat from becoming pro-American. Unlike Russia, however, Beijing's and Tehran's policy options are limited. Other neighbors -- such as Uzbekistan, which does not enjoy the best of relations with Turkmenistan, and which may stumble into its own presidential transition soon -- are also following the events with great interest.
In addition, the political transition in Turkmenistan has not escaped the attention of the United States. Over the last 18 months, Washington's position in Central Asia has weakened, due mainly to the rupture of US-Uzbek relations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Berdymukhammedov's rise to power in Ashgabat offers US diplomacy a fresh opening that could help swing the geopolitical momentum in Central Asia back in Washington's favor.
For starters, the United States should try to convince Turkmenistan's new leadership that Ashgabat's interests would be best served by energy-export diversity. Presently, Turkmenistan sells its gas relatively cheaply to Gazprom, which, in turn, either resells the Turkmen gas to Russian customers, allowing Russian gas to be shipped to Western Europe, or resells it to Ukraine under a murky financial scheme. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A more rational strategy for Turkmenistan would be to expand its export options, thus terminating Gazprom's effective pipeline monopoly. There are several possibilities, including the construction of an export route across the Caspian Sea, connecting Central Asia to Turkey and, potentially, beyond to Western Europe. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Another route would carry Turkmen gas to China, via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The third pipeline route would link Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India via still-volatile Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Berdymukhammedov's stated desire to implement some reforms offers hope that his administration might respond favorably to US efforts to secure a larger role in the ongoing development of the Turkmen energy sector. A key player in the coming weeks stands to be the US Department of Energy, which should aggressively promote the potential of American and Western European energy and infrastructure companies to improve Turkmenistan's economic performance. No country possesses a greater ability to assist Turkmenistan in achieving energy diversification than the United States.
American interests in Central Asia can be summarized in three words: security, energy and democracy. Washington can't pursue one aspect without keeping the other two in mind. Thus, any effort to strengthen bilateral ties through stronger economic ties should require a concurrent commitment by Ashgabat to forge a prosperous and modern state, based on popular participation in governance. US officials should urge that Turkmen opposition leaders be allowed to return and participate in political life, and that political prisoners held in Turkmen jails be freed. In addition, Washington should encourage Turkmenistan's new leaders to guarantee press freedom and other basic civil rights.
The strengthening of economic ties, especially in the energy sector, would have to be accompanied by Ashgabat's commitment to more robust anti-corruption and transparency policies. Niyazov, the dead dictator, reportedly diverted millions of dollars in energy revenue generated by the state into his own personal slush funds. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. To put an enhanced US-Turkmen bilateral relationship on solid footing, the new leadership in Ashgabat could build trust by cooperating in efforts to unearth Niyazov's ill-gotten gains and re-direct them into programs designed to benefit Turkmenistan's public sector.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Heritage Foundation.