Turkmenistan is one of the keystones of Central Asian geopolitics, third in importance after Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The post-Turkmenbashi transition can be used by the United States (and the European Union) to open the doors of this reclusive nation for its reintegration into the region and the world, in turn, helping to strengthen the U.S. position in Central Asia.
Cruel and Bizarre
The life and times of Niyazov aka Turkmenbashi vacillated between the greyscale reality of communist party nomenklatura to Duck Soup political farce, but always remained deadly serious when it came to the business of dictatorship.
With billions of dollars in gas revenues bankrolling his regime, he presided over the arrest, torture, and exile of his opposition, while rendering his subjects increasingly impoverished and miserable. Under his rule, the Russian-speaking population of Turkmenistan was either pushed out or ran, decreasing by a factor of five. He banned political parties and went on purge sprees, firing and jailing his ministers with dizzying regularity. He even reportedly ordered that his arrested opponent, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, be injected with heroin.
Turkmenbashi banned not only his political opposition, but opera and ballet as well. He eliminated pensions for the poorest, shut down regional hospitals and libraries, and cut public education from 10 years to 9. He banned gold teeth and trips abroad for many. He also heaped benefits on the population, providing electricity, water, natural gas and even salt for free, and other commodities, such as gasoline, at deeply discounted prices.
A chronically insecure orphan, he promoted a Stalinist cult of personality, naming the month of January after himself, depicting the Goddess of Justice with the face of his mother, installing his own statues in every city of the country, and naming the main port on the Caspian sea after himself. Giant gilded statues of the dictator adorn the capital city of Ashgabat-one of them, atop the Arch of Neutrality, is winged and rotates to follow the sun. In a region of tough authoritarian rulers, Turkmenbashi stood out, a bizarre monstrosity, something straight out of an Austin Powers movie - or from Pyongyang.
Situated along Iran's northern border, abutting Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, bordering Kazakhstan and, across the Caspian, Azerbaijan, the country is the third most important in Central Asia as far as Washington is concerned. Only oil-rich and expansive Kazakhstan, and heavily-populatedUzbekistan are more important.
If the U.S. were ever to undertake a military operation against the Iranian nuclear program, or re-supply Afghanistan, a military air base in Turkmenistan could be of crucial importance for the US military.
Turkmenistan is even more important for Russia than for the U.S. It a major source of natural gas to the gigantic Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, which is supplying 40 percent of Europe's gas and over 80 percent of Central and Eastern Europe's gas. This gives Moscow a tremendous leverage in its relationship with its neighbors to the West.
Turkmenistan sells its gas cheaply to Gazprom, in turn, Gazprom either sells the Turkmen gas to Russian customers, allowing Russian gas to be shipped to Western Europe, or resells it to Ukraine in murky financial schemes administered by the notorious and mysterious RosUkrEnergo. Turkmen gas is the commodity that is making the Russian and Ukrainian shareholders of RosUkrEnergo filthy rich.
(For more about Russia's gas sales to Ukraine and Tukrmenbashi's hidden treasures see two reports by the London-based NGO Global Witness:1) "It's a Gas. Funny Business in the Turkmen-Ukraine Gas Trade" 2) "Turkmenistan's gas billions after Niyazov's death"
A more rational strategy for Turkmenistan would be to diversify its gas pipelines, terminating the Gazprom monopoly. This could be done by building a pipeline across the Caspian into Turkey, Georgia and further to Ukraine and Western Europe. Or it could be done by building pipelines to China - across Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and to Pakistan and India - across Afghanistan -- something that Turmenbashi reportedly was interested in doing.
Whether the interim boss of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, the former Minister of Health and Vice Premier, a dentist by profession and a rumored close relative of the late dictator - will be pursuing this profit-maximizing strategy, remains to be seen.
Thus far, Berdymuhammedov has played his cards close to his chest, hinting on some liberalization, but refusing to let the opposition back into the country, and keeping Shikhmuradov in jail. Berdymuhammedov seems enjoy the support of the commander of the powerful Presidential guard, Akmurad Rejepov, who conducted the arrest of the Speaker of the Parliament. Russian officials have declared in unison that the terms of Turkmenistan's agreement with Gazprom will remain intact, at least until 2009, when it expires.
The new leader so far expressed most tentative intentions of taking Turkmenistan is a more pluralistic direction. While he promised to allow the Internet; return to 10-year secondary education; and revisit the issue of pensions, he is maintaining the Turmenbashi cult of personality and refused to allow opposition to return from abroad, or let multiple parties to compete in the forthcoming elections.
Russia seems to be comfortable with Berdymuhammedov, who already seems to have violated the Turkmenistani constitution twice - first, when he arrested the Chairman of the Parliament, Turkmenbashi's legal successor, and second, when the constitution was changed to allow the president pro-tem to run in presidential elections.
Besides Russia, two powers are watching developments in Ashgabat like hawks: China, which would like to gain access to Turkmen gas, and neighboring Iran, which would like to prevent the country from becoming pro-American (and a base for future intervention). Unlike Russia, however, their policy options in the country are limited. Other neighbors, such as Uzbekistan, which does not enjoy the best of relations with Turkmenistan and may stumble into its own presidential transition soon, are also following the events with great interest. If Turkmenistan reverts to dictatorship or falls apart, American interests in the region will suffer.
US Interests at Stake
U.S. interests in Central Asia can be summarized in three words: security, energy and democracy. The European Union's interest in diversifying its sources of natural gas theoretically is close to that of the U.S. The Turkmenistani transition provides unique and time-limited opportunities in all three areas. However, after February 11, the day of presidential "elections," the window for change will close, and the new oligarchy will take over. Turkmenistan's new rulers will want security for their one-party state and regime, while maximizing profits from gas for the benefit of their country's development.
The United States can play it safe, by declaring that it wants to cooperate with the new leaders, or it can put conditions on recognition and cooperation. The U.S. holds some important levers, including challenging access of the new rulers to Turkmenbashi's stolen billions stashed abroad, and the offer of a security relationship different from that Moscow can provide.
Specifically, the U.S. has announced its willingness to work with the new leaders to develop Turkmenistan. However, Washington should qualify it by agreeing upon common goals of having Turkmenistan as a prosperous and modern state, based on popular participation in governance.
The Pentagon is likely to explore creation of a military base (so-called "lily pad" ) to handle contingency in the region, in particular, Afghanistan, and offer counter-narcotics cooperation.
U.S. Department of Energy and State Department will call for a "level playing field" in the economic development of the country, including allowing access to Western energy and infrastructure companies to energy, natural resources, and infrastructure development projects.
U.S. should demand that as a part of anti-corruption and transparency policy, the new government cooperate in unearthing Turkmenbashi's ill-gotten gains around the world and directing the funds from these accounts to the benefit of the citizens of Turkmenistan, especially in the fields of education and healthcare, long-neglected under the dictatorship. Simultaneously, the U.S. and the European Union should move to arrest all known accounts of Turkmenbashi until the issue is resolved.
Finally, Washington should request that the opposition leaders be allowed to return and participate in political life; political opponents be released from jails; and freedom of the press and association be guaranteed.
Turkmenistan is in the most important period of its political existence since independence. The way its future develops will influence not just Central Asia, but Europe's energy security and US relationship with Iran as well. U.S. policy towards this transition should be based on its security, energy and democracy priorities which will enhance American interests in the region.
Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the author of "Kazakhstan: Energy Cooperation with Russia -Oil, Gas and Beyond" (BMG Publishers, London, 2006).
First appeared on FrontPageMagazine.com