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“Terra incognito” of Turkmenistan

Even against the backdrop of the other Central Asian countries, many of which are closed and not deeply understood, Turkmenistan is a blank spot for experts, and, needless to say, the general public. However, its actual strategic location and large energy resources make it one of the key countries of the region; the situation in the region can seriously influence the processes far beyond the Post-Soviet Asia. Here we present an interview with Azhdar Kurtov, an analyst for the Russian Institute of Strategic Research, and one of the mostly highly-recognized experts on Central Asia in Russia.

 Yaroslav Razumov

- Turkmenistan is still more or less “terra incognito”, not only for distant countries, but also for its neighbors. After Niyazov’s death, there were many different forecasts, including an expectation of revolution and the opposition taking power. Now it is obvious that nothing like that happened. In our opinion, this offers further evidence that people outside the country understand the processes of Turkmenistan very poorly.
- That is true, there is a serious problem in misunderstanding the processes within Turkmenistan, which leads to biased forecasts and assessments. Maybe this would come as a surprise to many people, but Turkmenistan’s absolutely negative image, which has formed in the societies of many countries, including Central Asian ones, is not always true.
In reply to criticism with respect to some non-civilized actions, people in neighboring countries always used to say, “the situation is worse in Turkmenistan, it’s really bad there”. This notion in some way decreased the criticism partially. True, many things done by Turkmenbashy were eccentricities. However, the criticism towards Turkmenistan that has accumulated over recent years wasn’t always just. For example, he was accused of creating the Ministry of Justice, and people remembered the works of Orwell… But ministries with the same name are present in almost all the countries of the world, their names using the Latin version of the word “justice”… Regarding the zoos with penguins in the hot climate of Turkmenistan – the same was and is done by oil producing Arab countries, yet nobody writes articles denouncing them.

- I suppose we can agree here; however, penguins weren’t the only eccentricities. Anyway, what about the economy? The record of the previous president in this area always received a small share of the meager attention paid in our region to the country. What is the situation in Turkmenistan at this moment of change in the power?
- This aspect deserves a special attention. Turkmenistan has created foundations for the future effective modernization of its economy during Niyazov’s times. Compared to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan has followed a more prudent policy in many areas. For example, major oil and gas extraction in the country is carried out by national rather than foreign companies. Foreign companies extract only one quarter of the total oil production, while the rest is extracted by the Turkmen national company. In my opinion, this is a positive, rather than a negative sign. Second example: it is commonly known that most, if not all, oil producing countries of the CIS export significant volumes of the oil extracted. However, in Turkmenistan two thirds of the oil is refined locally into products with high added value and then delivered to foreign markets in return for a higher profit than if crude oil was sold. By the way, the petrochemical products from Turkmenistan are bought even in the oil producing Arab countries. We know that the CIS countries, which mainly sell crude oil, plan to develop their petrochemical industries. However, such a complex, based on the oil refinery in Turkmenbashy, formerly Krasnovodsk, has successfully been in operation in Turkmenistan for many years. Turkmenistan started to consider the conversion of natural gas into liquefied natural gas for exports earlier than its neighboring counties. Currently several thousand tons of liquefied gas are exported to Iran.
- Have you ever been accused of being an apologist for the Turkmen political regime?
- You can’t miss the obvious, whichever way you think about the dead. Niyazov, although using totalitarian methods, has created the economic infrastructure required for further development. In general, Turkmenistan during Soviet times was one of the least developed republics; the current developed road system, and tens of enterprises that never existed there before – all of it was built during Niyazov’s time. Many villages located close to gas pipelines and electricity transmission facilities didn’t previously have electricity and gas. Turkmenbashy gave all this.
For a complex assessment of his role, the situation and perspectives on the country in general, the following should be taken into account. The current government controls the situation in the country. This shows not only the totalitarian-despotic character of the government, but also that the Turkmen population supports the people in power now. This is not only because of the fear of possible repressions, it is also partially because, in some respects, Niyazov gave the population more than was given to them by the Soviet government. This fact should be recognised. Niyazov’s phenomenon is very complex, and there are no simple judgements.

- Anyway, what are the perspectives of Turkmenistan in the political area? Can a totalitarian state transform itself without any external pressure into a relatively, at least by the standards of the region, liberal system?
- Of course, the political issue is separate and important. In my opinion, the events that happened during recent months show that change is occurring. Although the changes are not revolutionary, nobody forced the Turkmen elite to organize the elections in the form they were arranged. They could have arranged it the way Niyazov used to do – put forward one candidate, who was supposed to replace Niyazov, and vote unanimously for the candidate. And it would have passed…
After Niyazov’s death, some prospects appeared for transformation of the regime in Turkmenistan. The transformation, as you noted, would be on the regional scale…

- Sometimes people speak of the possibility of an internal split among the Turkmen elite or even about Islamic intervention into politics. Do you agree with these possibilities?
- No, I disagree. After all, Turkmens are less religious than their Eastern and Southern neighbors. Islamic religion has its influence, but not in a radical form. The government fully controls the situation, including the religious sphere – they wrote words from Ruhnama in addition to ayats from the Koran on the walls of the main mosques. The situation is typical to Eastern despotism; as long as the authority demonstrates power or a threat to use it, nobody will do anything against it. Something could happen only if the authority lost its power. In general, it is possible, because the current method of power transfer didn’t solve many internal problems within the elite; on the other hand, there couldn’t have been another scenario – Berdymukhamedov is also from the teke tribe, and the teke tribe accounts for about 40% of the population, meaning no other tribe can openly challenge it hoping for a certain victory.

- When you think of Turkmenistan you often also think of gas. It is well known that the competition for controlling this resource is becoming more intense, as more strong players are getting involved. What will happen to the projects of the trans-Caspian gas pipeline?
- Do you remember the proverb: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush? Well, at the moment Turkmen authorities have two birds in their hands and only one is in the bush.
The leading trade partner of Turkmenistan is Russia, with a turnover of several billion dollars. The second largest trade partner is Iran, with a turnover of about one billion dollars. 44 to 50 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas are annually exported to Russia, and 10 to 14 bcm of gas are exported to Iran. The first figure stands for the export last year, and the second figure stands for the plans for this year. These profits are the two birds in the hand.
The expected capacity of the trans-Caspian gas pipeline is 30 bcm; hence, it will be smaller than the export to Russia. Besides, we should remember the history of the previous version of the trans-Caspian gas pipeline project, which emerged in the mid-1990s and was abandoned because of the disagreements between Ashgabat and Baku. Then it also had a planned capacity of 30 bcm; however, Geydar Aliev insisted that half of the capacity was supplied by Azerbaijan’s gas, Turkmenbashy didn’t agree and the contract wasn’t signed.  Turkey and the USA were inclined to support Azerbaijan at that time.
The idea of the gas pipeline emerged mainly because of friction between Russia and Turkmenistan regarding the price of the gas. The head of Gazprom at that time didn’t have an amenable attitude towards his partners in Ashgabat, thinking that they could be pressed upon. The current political and business elite have changed their attitude, and Russia was the first among the importers of Turkmen gas to agree to the price raise. Later, the authorities in Ashgabat used this precedent to charge the new price to other partners, including Iran. Hence, now the situation is different, there are possibilities for long-term contracts (the contracts of Turkmenistan with Russia and Iran are long-term contracts, with a duration of 25 years), for price increases and for building additional branches of gas pipelines; all this effectively competes with the idea of a trans-Caspian gas pipeline.
Besides, this planned gas pipeline doesn’t start at the Caspian coastline of Turkmenistan, because currently there are insufficient proved gas reserves there to feed the pipeline. Thus, the project expects to build the gas pipeline the whole way through the Karakum desert to the Eastern gas fields. Because of this, the project competes with the interests of not only Russia and Iran, but also China. In April of last year, Niyazov concluded an agreement with Beijing, stating that by 2009 a gas pipeline will run from the Eastern gas fields of Turkmenistan to China.
Hence, Ashgabat may not exchange the two birds it already has, in the form of contracts with Russia and Iran, for the one bird of the trans-Caspian project. Anyway, one would have to try really hard to bribe the Turkmen elite in order to start this process, or one would have to interfere in the political process and assign one’s own protégé, which might lead to an increase in risk and bring forward security issues in Central Asia.

- What about the future of the gas pipeline to China? It can also, no less than the trans-Caspian gas pipeline, make many changes in Central Asia to things such as: the balance of influential external powers, directions of the supply of strategic volumes of natural resources, and the orientation of the external policy of the elites. Taking into account who stands behind the Eastern project, its long-term influence may become more important than pumping gas through the Caspian Sea.
- The Chinese project’s capacity is also 30 bcm. I suppose that it is not possible to build it by 2009 as planned. Besides, there is another question; what gas will fill the pipeline?
The agreement signed by Niyazov in Beijing has an interesting form. It states that if the gas reserves which are now developed by Chinese companies in Turkmenistan are not sufficient to fill the pipeline, then the government guarantees to provide gas from other sources. The other sources include those that supply the gas to the North, to Russia. The Turkmen government, which has always stated that it is very abundant in natural gas (for example,  last year a new field with reserves of 7 trillion cubic meters was apparently discovered) bluffs to some extent. This wording in the contract with China shows that there might not be enough gas for everyone.

- To some extent, this is reminiscent of the situation with Kazakhstan’s exporting oil pipeline projects.
- In general, that is true. Of course, the competition for Turkmen gas will become more intense, and it is not to the region’s benefit. But Russia has a significant advantage. Firstly, there exists a pipeline to Russia and the pipeline is being modernized. Secondly, the relations between Moscow and Ashgabat are becoming better in other spheres; for example, the educational area. After all, some of pre-election promises of Berdymukhamedov are beginning to materialize. For example, his statement that Turkmens should learn three languages; obviously the second will be Russian, rather than English.

- Is there any chance of realizing another long discussed project – the trans-Afghan oil pipeline?
- The USA are still actively lobbying for this; however, while the starting time has been defined many times, the building has not yet started. The current situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban conduct successful operations and conquer cities, shows that it is unlikely that this project will start soon.

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