Turkmenistan: What Serdar does in the shadows

Turkmenistan: What Serdar does in the shadows
Hands up if you think you are running Turkmenistan: Former President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, left, standing alongside the incumbent president, his son, Serdar, at a session of the Halk Maslahaty on September 24. / Turkmenistan state media
By Akhal-Teke: A Eurasianet Bulletin September 28, 2023

Perhaps perturbed by the amount of international attention Turkmenistan is getting these days, Russia has resorted to love-bombing.

At least a couple of Russian high officials chose the occasion of President Serdar Berdimuhamedov’s 42nd birthday on September 22 to send notes extending their best wishes and reminding the recipient of the healthy state of relations between their nations.

“I would like in particular to note your personal contribution to the development of friendship and strategic partnership linking Russia and Turkmenistan,” wrote Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.

Valentina Matviyenko, the chair of Russia’s upper house of parliament, joined in, confidently predicting the imperishability of the bilateral friendship. 

“You have earned your reputation as a responsible and skilful leader, a strong-willed person with firm principles and convictions,” she gushed.

Russian wariness is not wholly unfounded. Turkmenistan has been flirtatious on the diplomatic front of late. 

On September 19, Berdimuhamedov attended a Central Asia-United States presidential summit in New York in a landmark event that Washington will hope serves as a clear signal that it is serious about cultivating its ties with the region. Russian pundits had hopefully forecast that US President Joe Biden would use the occasion to patronisingly chide his fellow leaders over their shortcomings in helping enforce the Western-led campaign of economic sanctions against Moscow, and thereby incur their ire. 

In fact, the tone was far more convivial and focused on themes with strong appeal to the visitors. 

“Today, we’re taking our cooperation to new heights. First, we’re strengthening our counterterrorism cooperation, including increased US security funding to Central Asia,” Biden said in remarks after the summit.

Biden added that the “C5+1” nations would form business platforms for the promotion of commercial ties and “discussing the potential for a new critical minerals dialogue to strengthen our energy security and supply chains for years to come.”

These points of emphasis will have been particularly pleasing to Berdimuhamedov, who opened his speech to the United Nations General Assembly that same day by dwelling on the theme of security, warning in typically loose terms of how “the world today faces a number of very serious challenges for many reasons.”

He had a few specific suggestions to make to address these trials: devise a plan for promoting global security on the foundation of principles enshrined in the values of the United Nations and international law; promote dialogue between Central Asia and the UN; hold a conference, in Ashgabat in 2024, with UN assistance, on security in Central Asia and nearby areas. That last point was inescapably framed with Afghanistan in mind. 

Berdimuhamedov then turned to the topic of climate change. Ashgabat’s concern over greenhouse gases is a strongly disingenuous business given how Turkmenistan has allowed mind-boggling amounts of methane to be released into the atmosphere. The international community is nevertheless happy to play along with the act.

The president told the General Assembly that Turkmenistan is working to gradually reduce the negative influence of methane emissions by transitioning to the use of modern technologies in energy, industry and transportation – as vague a pledge to overcoming a low hurdle as has ever been uttered. 

Still, some sort of measurable progress on this issue is happening. 

Speaking at a conference in Ashgabat on September 22, Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov reasserted his government’s pledge to sign up to the Global Methane Initiative, an international collaboration between public and private entities that concentrates efforts on streamlining the harnessing of methane as an energy source.

On September 19, while in New York, Berdimuhamedov sat down for a meeting with the US special envoy on the climate, John Kerry. Turkmen official sources described Kerry as having “highly appreciated the work being carried out by Turkmenistan in [the] important area” of methane emission reduction.

Despite Ashgabat insisting it is being pro-active on methane, it appears that it is the United States that will end up picking up some or much of the bill by providing Turkmenistan with funding and expertise to stem gas leakages from outdated infrastructure.

The Russians were not alone in sending birthday notes. The leaders of Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia did too.

Along with his birthday pleasantries, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan broke the news that he is expecting an imminent visit from Berdimuhamedov. Erdogan offered no details of the agenda for this upcoming trip, but it looks likely that natural gas – namely, what can be done to get Turkmen fuel to buyers in Europe – will feature prominently in talks since this is very much flavour of the month.

Prospects for gas exports was one of many subjects discussed at a convocation of the Halk Maslahaty, or People’s Council, held on September 24. Reprising a now oft-repeated line, Berdimuhamedov described completion of the trans-Afghan TAPI gas pipeline as a “key vector” for development of the oil and gas industry.

The Halk Maslahaty is a perplexing spectacle. In its current format, this platform serves as an opportunity for its chairman, the former president (and father of the incumbent), Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov to perpetuate perceptions that he remains the ultimate arbiter on high-level policies. Since there are rarely any earthshattering departures from the status quo to announce, proceedings are invariably confined to inconclusive vacuities on the need for investments and improvements in some area of public life or, more often, self-congratulatory encomia to things that the authorities have allegedly achieved. 

In his address to the hall, Berdimuhamedov the younger, the current president, spoke of how the government will by the end of this year have spent 545mn manat ($156mn in the highly unreliable official rate) on ongoing construction of the Turkmenbashi-Farab and Ashgabat-Dashoguz highways and the bridge that will serve as the crowning node of a highway running from the city of Garabogaz along the shores of the Caspian Sea to the border of Kazakhstan. All these pieces of infrastructure are essential to Turkmenistan’s aspirations to become a continent-bridging transit hub.

The symbolic highlight of the Halk Maslahaty arrived when Berdimuhamedov the elder, along with the rest of the council, presented Berdimuhamedov the younger with the Hero of Turkmenistan state award for his “enormous personal contribution to strengthening the foundations of the national independence of Turkmenistan, the principles of neutrality, and for his particularly outstanding services to the state and society." Perks include a one-time award of $25,000 and a monthly 50% tax-free bonus on the holder’s salary.

The award is not necessarily just a bauble. In official chronicles, Berdimuhamedov the elder is officially designated Hero-Arkadag, an unwieldy mega-monicker, the significance of which can be conveyed as “heroic patron and protector of the people.” For Berdimuhamedov the younger to be bestowed with hero status implies some degree of growing approximation to his father’s standing. Serdar is still in his father’s shadow, but maybe that shadow is shortening.

Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.

This article was originally published on Eurasianet here.

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