There is no keeping the Russians away from Turkmenistan at the moment.
On January 19, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin travelled to Ashgabat for a two-day visit that culminated in much effusive talk of future cooperation.
Ten days after that, it was the turn of the speaker of the Russian State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, to do the same.
Volodin was ostensibly in town on some intra-parliamentary business. Since the Turkmen legislature is an institution of no actual significance, though, this aspect of the agenda was for show.
And it wasn’t much of a show either. Photo handouts of Volodin addressing the 125-member Mejlis revealed that the chamber was far from full. And many of the seat-warmers were people from the Russian delegation.
Moscow’s real intent with these insistent overtures is to assure Ashgabat of its seriousness in cultivating ties. Russia is reviled by the West, treated with transactional wariness by the likes of China and India and relied upon as a potentially useful ally only by outcast nations, such as Syria, Iran and North Korea. Turkmenistan looks intent on gaining honorary membership in that last group.
In Ashgabat, Volodin spoke with President Serdar Berdimuhamedov about the prospects for building on a joint declaration committing to deepening Russia and Turkmenistan’s status as strategic partners that was signed during the latter’s visit to Moscow in June 2022. The strategic partnership arrangement was brought into being in October 2017.
“There is a Turkmen proverb that states: ‘The finest robe is a new one, the best friend is an old one.’ We have been through many trials together. And today, relations between Russia and Turkmenistan, which are strategic in nature, are founded on the principles of equality, good-neighbourliness and respect," Volodin told reporters.
Beyond the flattery, Russia is counting on developing Turkmenistan as a transit hub for delivering goods to South Asia. Mishustin returned home to Moscow having overseen the signing of eight intergovernmental agreements covering such areas as migration control and the coordination of customs administration and phytosanitary standards. The blueprint for all that and more was laid out in the June 2022 declaration.
Russia is also intent on becoming a cultural-educational touchstone for Turkmenistan. Volodin impressed on the Turkmen lawmakers who bothered to turn up that around 30,000 Turkmen nationals are studying in Russia. He continued by remarking with approval that the teaching of Russian persists in more than 70 Turkmen schools.
In its feverish currying of favour, Moscow has to spread its blandishments more widely these days, now that Turkmenistan boasts an awkward tandem rule. Earlier this month, Berdimuhamedov found himself essentially demoted to co-president when his father, Gurbanguly, the former president, decided to have the Turkmen upper house of parliament scrapped and himself anointed with the bespoke title of National Leader.
On January 30, Valentina Matviyenko, the chairwoman of Russia’s upper house of parliament, wrote to Berdimuhamedov the elder to congratulate him on this coup. “Being a wise politician and far-sighted statesman with invaluable experience, you deservedly won the true love and recognition of your people,” she gushed. Mishustin wrote a note along similar lines.
Perhaps to compensate for Berdimuhamedov the younger’s patent humiliation, the Mejlis on January 26 elected to assign him with the military rank of general. He has little legitimate claim to such a lofty post. According to the president’s reported biography, he performed his obligatory two-year military service at his father’s insistence in the early 2000s, but that may well, like much of what the Turkmen propaganda machine churns out, be a lie.
Russia isn’t Turkmenistan’s only strategic partner, as Tajikistan’s president strived to remind everybody on January 27. In a note dispatched to Ashgabat to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between their nations, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon talked up the patterns of “mutually beneficial cooperation” and invited President Berdimuhamedov (the younger) to visit Dushanbe.
There is obviously great hope in these countries, which are now physically separated by some very tricky geography and politics, of one day being drawn closer. Dushanbe-based news outlet Asia-Plus reported on January 12, citing a press release from Tajikistan’s Transport Ministry, that the South Korean government may, for reasons very difficult to divine, be interested in investing money into financing the Tajik section of a planned Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan, or TAT, railway line. Preliminary estimates put cost of construction of this section at around $128mn, Asia-Plus cited officials as having said.
Claims that the Koreans are chomping at the bit to spend their money on this undertaking are almost certainly crude misrepresentations of reality by Tajik officials.
Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry announced in June that it had resumed work on installing a small segment of railroad linking their country to Afghanistan. No mention was made of Tajikistan, but that did not stop media in Dushanbe from framing this as the resumption of the TAT project.
Uzbekistan too is intent on leaning more heavily on Turkmenistan. This winter it has been relying on its neighbour to the south for gas and electricity supplies. On January 25, state-owned oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz said it plans this year to buy oil from the Turkmen subsidiary of Malaysian energy company Petronas. No projections have yet been offered as to how much oil Uzbekistan might wish to source in this way.
For all that it likes to talk up its commitment to green energy, Turkmenistan has earned itself an unfortunate reputation as a polluter on a colossal scale. Data published by Nasa late last year revealed that the country chugs out plumes of more than 50 tonnes of harmful methane gas every single hour. Scientists at Nasa’s Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation team put that in alarming context.
“The Turkmenistan sources together have a similar flow rate to the 2015 Aliso Canyon gas leak, which exceeded 110,000 pounds (50,000 kilograms) per hour at times. The Los Angeles-area disaster was among the largest methane releases in US history,” they said.
The United Nations Environment Program is hopefully trying to get Turkmenistan to clean up its act. In a training session carried out last week, UN experts pointed out that half of Turkmenistan's methane emissions could be reduced at no net cost. And the numbers are simply mind-boggling. The roughly 5mn tonnes of methane emitted by Turkmenistan in 2021 could have been converted into 77bn kilowatt hours of electricity, the UN experts said. By comparison, over the entirety of 2021, neighbouring Afghanistan used 5.5bn kilowatt hours of electricity, according to US Energy Information Administration data.
The dream is for Turkmenistan to turn this around, but it is not like the Berdimuhamedovs to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.
This article originally appeared on Eurasianet here.