Turkmenistan is a strategic nation in the region, with deep influence over Russian expansionism in the region, stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and energy security worldwide. Is this sustainable and what's at risk?
The president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, recently made headlines when a video surfaced of him lifting a weightlifting barbell (without weights) during a cabinet meeting to the applause of his ministers.
While those not familiar with the reclusive country of Turkmenistan may have been confused by his actions, for those following events in Central Asia this was simply another eccentric act by one of the world’s more peculiar leaders.
While many may find Berdymukhammedov’s antics to be amusing, the situation in Turkmenistan is no joking matter. Since gaining independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkmenistan has been on a downward spiral. There is little civil society to speak of.
Even though the country is blessed with an abundance of energy resources, there are breadlines popping up around the country.
The security situation in nearby Afghanistan only makes the situation more perilous. Russia is constantly breathing down Turkmenistan’s neck. Beijing is never far away, ready to offer Ashgabat a deal it probably cannot afford.
Last year President Berdymukhammedov was “elected” to a third five-year term with 97 percent of the vote. He tightly controls the judiciary, the legislature, the economy, social services, and the mass media. The government tends toward isolationism and self-described “permanent neutrality."
The cocktail of political and economic mismanagement by Turkmenistan’s elites has left the country in a crisis.
Currency depreciation, autarkic policies, and limited spending on public services have led to economic stagnation. Since there is little money to go around, next year the government will stop providing free electricity, gas, drinking water and salt to the people.
While this is something that might sound crazy to the outside world, it is something that many Turkmens have taken for granted for years.
Lines for basic goods are now common place—especially in the regions outside Ashgabat. Even so, billions of dollars have been wasted on frivolous projects with little or no economic value.
The dubious plan to construct a massive man-made lake in the middle of a desolate desert is expected to cost billions. Ashgabat holds the record for the highest density of white marble-clad buildings anywhere in the world. According to the entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, “if the marble was laid out flat, there would be one square meter of marble for every 4.87 m² of land.”
Those international investors that could enter the country are reluctant to do so because little has been done to improve the business climate, privatise state-owned industries, or combat rampant corruption.
Rigid labour regulations and the nearly complete absence of property rights further limit private-sector activity. Like other countries with economies linked to Russia, Turkmenistan has felt the negative effects of Russia’s poor economic performance and economic sanctions.
The greatest potential for Turkmenistan to turnaround its dire economic situation is with its natural gas resources. Berdymukhammedov has encouraged some foreign investment in the energy sector, but not enough to make a meaningful difference.
Turkmenistan holds some of the world’s largest natural gas reserves, but has only a few options for exporting these resources to the rest of the world.
Currently, Turkmenistan’s gas exports rely solely heavily on China. A pricing dispute stopped exports to Iran, and new US sanctions against Tehran would make things difficult for Ashgabat even if the pricing dispute was resolved.
It was announced last month that Russia would resume importing Turkmen gas in 2019 after stopping imports in 2016. The details of how much gas Russia will import are unknown so it is impossible to see if this will help the economic situation in any significant way.
The agreement in August regarding the legal status of the Caspian Sea has given a green light to construct a Trans-Caspian Pipeline that could connect Turkmenistan to European markets. Even so, there is a lack of political will in Ashgabat to get the project off the ground. Other projects that could help diversify Turkmen gas exports, like the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline (TAPI) are also many years away before becoming a reality.
Also exacerbating the dire economic situation is the security situation on the Turkmen-Afghan border. As Taliban and other Central Asian militants have been pushed away from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region many have found their way to northern Afghanistan.
Since early 2015 there have been an increasing number of security incidents involving Taliban militants and Turkmen border guards resulting in the deaths of dozens of Turkmen conscripts. In response, the authorities in Turkmenistan have attempted to seal its border with Afghanistan using fences, ditches and various means of surveillance.
Russia is increasingly expanding its influence across the former Soviet Union and Turkmenistan is no exception. Ashgabat has tried keeping Moscow at arm’s length and has even refrained from joining Russian backed Alliances like the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization However, the security situation across the border in northern Afghanistan is challenging this.
Russian officials have visited Turkmenistan to offer Russian weaponry and training to help Turkmenistan to secure its border. No doubt, Moscow sees the situation as another opportunity to gain another strategic foothold in the region.
As the economic, security, and political situation in Turkmenistan continues to deteriorate, the world should be watching. Instead, the world has chosen to either ignore the situation or is ignorant of it.
Considering that Turkmenistan sits in the heart of the Eurasian landmass, has the world’s 6th largest proven natural gas reserves and shares a 1,150km border with Iran and an 800 km border with Afghanistan, one would think that what is happening there would be of interest to policymakers. Sadly, it is not.
Too much could be at stake to continue down this blind path.
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