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Is Turkmenistan shifting to the West?

January 16, 2009

©  Reflections on the Ruhnama
By Steve in Wisconsin
Publication date:  January 16, 2009

The following article was published this date on Bishkek’s CA News website:

The new commander of U.S. Central Command visits Turkmenistan
©  Central Asian News Service
16 January 2009, 11:11

CA-NEWS (TM) – Yesterday, 15 January, General David Petraeus began his first official visit to Turkmenistan in the new post of head of the Central Command of the United States, informed the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat.

General Petraeus is planning to meet with representatives of the Government of Turkmenistan to discuss issues of mutual interest in maintaining peace and security throughout the region of Central Asia. General Petraeus arrived in Turkmenistan immediately after the official visit to Kazakhstan.

This is the first visit of General Petraeus to Central Asia, as a part of overall assessment, knowledge and responsibility associated with the new post, informed the General’s press secretary. General Petraeus hopes for constructive meeting with the President of Turkmeniatan.

General Petraeus took a post of commander of U.S. Central Command in October 2008, after serving as Commander of Multi-National Force troops in Iraq for 19 months. U.S. Central Command headquarters are located in Tampa, Florida. U.S. Central Command is responsible for the U.S. Army coordination in the Middle East and Central Asia.

[End full text.]

I titled this post “Is Turkmenistan shifting to the West?” – not because of General Petraeus’ visit to Turkmenistan (which in itself has only limited significance) but in view of this recent visit being another piece of a perceived ‘larger puzzle’.

Prior to Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s illegitimate succession to the presidency there was little doubt about Turkmenistan’s status as a ‘neutral’ country. Gurby’s predecessor, Saparmyrat Turkmenbashy the Great, cherished his country’s neutrality enough to secure United Nation’s recognition for Turkmenistan as the world’s only officially neutral state. He shunned military alliances, entered into business deals with a variety of parties (Russia, China, the West, Iran, etc.) and restricted the use of Turkmen airbases to Western forces operating in Afghanistan to “humanitarian aid” only.

Saparmyrat Turkmenbashy’s suspicious death in December 2006 ultimately led to Berdymukhammedov’s ascension to the presidency after imprisoning the rightful successor, Ovezgeldy Atayev. As mentioned in earlier Reflections’ reports, aside from ‘lip service’ the new president has not demonstrated a sincere commitment to his country’s continued neutrality – even going so far as to direct the dismantling of “Neutrality Arch” (a prominent Ashgabat landmark) and ordering its relocation to the outskirts of the city. Surely the symbolism associated with this directive is not lost on analysts.

In April 2008, President Berdymukhammedov attended the NATO Summit in Bucharest – something unimaginable under Turkmenbashy’s leadership – and this visit also included a personal meeting with U.S. president George W Bush. Russian news agency, RIA Novosti, quoted the Gazeta newspaper in its issue of April 7, 2008 as reporting:

Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has proposed opening NATO training camps and deploying NATO stores and logistics bases in Turkmenistan.
In May 2008 an article published by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty openly speculated on Berdymukhammedov’s pro-Western shift:
Turkmenistan: NATO Finds New Partner In Central Asia
By Bruce Pannier
May 30, 2008

NATO has a new and, some might say, unexpected partner in Central Asia – Turkmenistan. Just two years ago, the country was a reclusive place that few foreigners were allowed to visit, with UN-recognized status as a “neutral” nation.

The country’s strongman leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, used that status as a reason to keep Turkmenistan from participating in any international groupings except those with a purely economic agenda.

Niyazov died in late 2006 and was replaced by Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, whose foreign policy is much more dynamic. But reports of NATO cooperation with Turkmenistan is a huge step away from neutrality, especially given how quickly the new relationship has evolved.

[End excerpt.]

Not surprisingly General Petraeus, during his nomination hearings for reappointment as head of the U.S. Central Command, specifically noted his interest in Central Asia as follows:
“In Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kirghizstan, and Kazakhstan, abundant opportunities exist for building security, political, and economic partnerships, and for pursuing common interests. To varying degrees, we have, in fact, partnered in security efforts in encountering terrorism with these countries in the past, and we will have similar opportunities in the future.

“U.S. partnerships can also help these countries’ efforts to build governmental capacity and continue economic growth, while also reducing the prospects that extremism will gain influence and be exported.”

Gen. David Petraeus,
Statement before the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services
May 22, 2008

The latest ‘spin’ given by the United States and its allies for its interest in Central Asia is establishing an alternate supply route to Afghanistan – one that doesn’t involve Pakistan and its security problems. As Stratfor notes in a recent [members only] analysis:
“With little infrastructure to the east, the Pentagon is forced to go north, into Central Asia. Though some fuel is shipped to Western forces in Afghanistan from Baku across the Caspian Sea, there is little indication that existing shipping on the Caspian could expand meaningfully. Additionally, there would be the challenge of transferring cargo from rail to ship back to rail on top of the ship-rail-truck transfers that are already required in Afghanistan.

“But even if Caspian shipping was not a problem and if there was sufficient excess seaworthy capacity, there remains the problem of Georgia. Though politically amenable at the moment, it is unstable; furthermore, with some 3,700 Russian troops parked in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian military forces are poised to sever the country’s east-west rail links.

These realities will likely drive the logistical pathway farther north, through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and through Kazakhstan to Russia proper (some U.S. transports already utilize Russian airspace).”

[End excerpt. Underlined emphasis added.]

Of course, Turkmenistan’s huge natural gas reserves – and the prospects of an undersea Caspian pipeline to Baku – are important considerations as well. But the bottom line is that all of the ex-Soviet states of Central Asia fall well within Russia’s sphere of influence – and any transit of goods through Russia itself ultimately depends upon Russia’s whims and good graces.

Under the policies of the late president, Turkmenbashy the Great, military and other alliances of the type contemplated under Berdymukhammedov were largely avoided. Turkmenbashy wrote in Ruhnama:

We have no grudge against anybody, and we have no foe burning with a great passion for revenge. So, when the general situation is like that, where is the logic in us entering and founding various political, economic, and military unions?

Ruhnama I, p. 54.

Turkmenistan has been largely unaffected by the troubles in neighboring Afghanistan and Iran, and experienced few problems with Islamic fundamentalism as is increasingly the case in neighboring Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia. This relative peacefulness at home is a result of his predecessor’s foreign policy – which was based on neutrality – including a willingness to engage in dialogue with Afghanistan’s former Taliban government.

As I concluded in an earlier Reflections’ report:

Turkmenistan’s shmoozing with the United States and NATO appears likely to continue. With the U.S. and Western allies battling the Taliban in Afghanistan – combined with American criticism of Uzbekistan’s government and threats against Iran – any Central Asian nation cozying up to America becomes an increasingly likely terrorism target.

Turkmenbashy writes:

We ourselves are forming our history, present and future because Allah gave us mind and will.

Ruhnama I, page 66.

Turkmenbashy is reminding us that today’s actions may carry future consequences.

[End.]

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