27.04.05 17:41


The foreign policy agenda of the President of Turkmenistan in the last two months was marked by a number of events that included Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko’s official visit to Ashgabat, Saparmurat Niyazov’s meeting with his Iranian counterpart Seyed Mohammad Khatami and the final resolution of the Turkmen gas supply issues with Russian “Gazprom” Chairman, Alexei Miller. These events make it possible to say that Ashgabat has its own clear vision of the international economic partnership aimed at the strategic perspective. As it has turned out, this vision is not subject to ideological coloring in relations with Ukraine, to international situation in relations with Iran and to excitement of rivalry in relations with Russia. Pragmatism and continuity still remain the fundamental criteria of Turkmenistan’s multidirectional policy in and outside the region.

Ashgabat –Kiev: a step toward each other

Victor Yushchenko’s visit to Ashgabat, as noticed by many observers, was the second trip abroad (after Germany), although there were enough invitations to the new President of Ukraine from other capitals. (Having no intention to draw comparisons, it may be appropriate to recall that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s second foreign visit after his election in 2000 was also to Turkmenistan). Certainly, it is not an accidental event or the whim of protocol services. For dozens of years Kiev has been the biggest trade and economic partner of Ashgabat. In turn, Turkmenistan is the second important supplier of energy resources to Ukraine after Russia. A lot of things unite the two countries in foreign political preferences - non-acceptance of blocs, reserved attitude to different supranational structures within the CIS, attaching a priority to bilateral relations. All these factors, contributing to objective rapprochement of Ashgabat and Kiev since early 1990’s, have been naturally continued into the XXI century. Therefore, after the power change in Ukraine, which was, by the way, accepted most adequately in Ashgabat, the meeting of the two countries’ leaders looked quite logical. It was necessary to review the status of cooperation, to get to know each other better, to assess the degree of readiness to continue the bilateral cooperation in the changed political configuration on the post-Soviet area after “the orange revolution”.

The Ashgabat Summit has shown that both Niyazov and Yushchenko have constructive and realistic intentions in this regard. Therefore, there was no hidden “conflict of ideologies” so anticipated by some analysts. Both leaders, having a clear understanding of the objective domestic and external geopolitical realities of their countries, didn’t want to impose their own vision of ways of internal development and understanding of democratic values on each other.

As far as the main topic of talks is concerned, the cooperation in the fuel-energy sphere, mutual vision of its prospects appeared to be much broader and greater than a “sell and buy” scheme. At the meeting, Presidents Niyazov and Yushchenko supported initialization of a much bigger, strategic project – construction of a new pipeline to transport Turkmen gas along the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea via Kazakhstan and Russia to Ukraine. In this connection, the two leaders proposed to create a multilateral Eurasian consortium with participation of Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia and possible inclusion of European countries in the future.

On the whole, Yushchenko’s visit to Ashgabat proved that pragmatism and continuity remain the distinctive features of the Turkmen-Ukrainian relations. Therefore, the outcome of talks can be rated as successful. The presidents demonstrated the mutual will and aspiration to build-up cooperation in future, gave specific instructions to executive bodies of their countries to start realization of this cooperation in specific spheres. Finally, it is no lees important that the two politicians and leaders have established the direct contact, a certain algorithm of normal, human interrelations enabling the presidents to develop them on the basis of confidence and openness in future, not fearing of discussions of “uncomfortable” issues and the necessity to smooth things over. According to independent analysts, the Ashgabat summit was a dialog of partners – the realists who respect the choice and views of each other, clearly realizing the interests of their countries but at the same time convinced in their compatibility and combination. Given the changed and still changing conditions of the post-Soviet political realities, making the first step towards each other in relations of Ashgabat and Kiev was important. It has been made.

The Turkmen gambit

The “gas” issue has occupied a special place and played a peculiar role in relations between Turkmenistan and Russia since the first day of independent development. It is natural. The two countries are the biggest holders and suppliers of the “blue fuel” in the post-Soviet area and the world. Both of them strive to diversify their exports and look for new markets of gas exports. Under these circumstances Ashgabat and Moscow could build only two types of relations in this sphere – either to compete or cooperate. The first and the simplest option by definition presupposed strong rivalry, blocking of alternative projects, price blackmailing, PR-campaigning, etc., in a word, the entire “set of instruments” in the style of so familiar “sort-outs” of oligarchs. The second, more complicated and laborious one, deals with the search for mutual compromises, determination of spheres of application of joint efforts and using the mutual potential for the mutual benefit.

Fortunately, after several short-lived periods of “misunderstandings” that fell on mid and late 1990-s, and following President Vladimir Putin’s coming to the Kremlin, the Russian “Gazprom”, its new leadership were able to overcome the corporate instinct of receiving the momentary benefit and began to build their relations with Turkmenistan on truly state approaches. After Vladimir Putin’s visit in 2000 that had given the powerful impetus to the complex Turkmen-Russian cooperation, the two countries signed a number of agreements including those relating to the fuel-energy complex. Among them is Russian participation in the joint development of fields on the Turkmen shelf of the Caspian Sea, in reconstruction of the Seidi Oil Refinery, readiness to participate in construction of certain segments of the trans-Afghan pipeline, etc. The partnership relations were consolidated by signing a 25-year agreement on Turkmen natural gas supplies in April 2003 that provided the strategic nature to the cooperation in this sphere.

Several weeks ago, during the talks of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi with “Gazprom” Chairman Alexei Miller an important “tactical” breakthrough was made. The parties agreed to refuse from the barter part in payments for Turkmen gas supplies to Russia and replace it with 100 per cent hard currency payments. It was a gambit for “Gazprom”, using the chess terminology, sacrificing the barter, which is a trifle thing that did not exceed US $ 100 million a year, for the sake of preserving the much bigger thing, namely the long-term source of “blue fuel” supplies from the Karakum desert, enabling “Gazprom” to secure fulfillment of all its domestic and international obligations and also to have Turkmenistan as a reliable long-term partner.

In turn, Turkmenistan gets the opportunity to get rid of a burdensome and old-fashioned barter formula (applicable, possibly, in relations with insolvent countries, but not with Russia) and have additional hard currency revenues. And all rumors about who has won and who has lost as a result of recent Ashgabat agreements are no more than sheer propagandistic rubbish. Both sides and countries have won, and not only from the financial point of view. It has become a political victory which is a very important factor for their reputation. As one Moscow newspaper rightly stressed, the “master-class” negotiation skills demonstrated by Niyazov and Miller have finally solved all gas-related issues in the bilateral relations and set a vivid example of how the policy of taking into account the mutual interests, compromised approaches and solutions can be productive and bring good results.

The Iranian factor

This factor has always existed, exists and will do so as well as determine the stability of situation and balance of multilateral interests in the Central Asian geopolitics. At the same time, unfortunately, the nature of relations with Iran is often artificially presented as a criterion in assessing this or other country leadership’s foreign policy priorities and even domestic vision. In other words, if you are a friend of Iran you are not a “democrat”, you are anti-western oriented. If you are not on friendly terms with this country, you are good. Such a simplified approach that demonizes the Iranian establishment, presenting a 60-million people strong economy and a dynamically developing regional power with the richest, centuries-old culture as a “pariah” of the modern civilization, assessing relations with it through the Procrustean bed of ideological frames, is the classic example of recurrence of “cold war” times. It ignores the fact that Iran’s integration into international political and economic processes, establishment of mutually respectful and equal relations of cooperation and partnership is conditioned by the objective regional and world trends, the logic of common sense and pragmatism meeting the interests of Iran and its neighbor countries.

We found it appropriate to make this small digression not for the purpose of making more convincing apologetics of Teheran’s policy. We wanted to illustrate on the example of Turkmen-Iranian relations how the two countries with different size of territories, historical backgrounds and current social and political structure can build a harmonious and dynamically developing model of partnership and mutual benefit, having overcome historical, political, ethno-religious contradictions and phobias that marred the neighborhood of the Turkmen and Iranians in the past.

On April 12, on the border of Turkmenistan and Iran, Presidents Saparmurat Turkmenbashi and Seyed Mohammad Khatami took part in the opening ceremony of the joint Turkmen-Iranian hydro-technical facility on the Tejen (Gerirud) River serving as the border between the countries. The 80-meter high dam blocked the river and connected two river banks by a 655-meter long automobile bridge. The artificial lake is set to accumulate the flood waters and prevent flooding of villages in proximity. The water reservoir will feed the river bed during hot summer time and make it possible to irrigate up to 25 thousand hectares of land on both sides of the border. The population of the nearest cities, Iranian Mashhad and Turkmen Serakhs, has received the additional source of drinking water.

This project is the fourth biggest joint undertaking realized by Turkmenistan and Iran. One of the previous three, the Tejen-Serakhs-Mashhad railway built several years ago by the Turkmen and Iranian specialists, has become the project of continental importance, having linked independently operating railway systems of South Asia with Central Asian, Russian and European transport systems opening the direct freights transportation along the South-North-West axis.

In addition to the purely economic expediency, implementation of the present Turkmen-Iranian project, building of a dam and a water reservoir, has powerful political and psychological importance. It is a well-known fact that peoples in Central Asia have always valued water. Unfortunately, in recent historical past, wars and violence determined the outcome of struggle for the right to control it. The problem of fair distribution of water resources and their preservation is vital today, and therefore it plays a significant role in developing relations among the regional countries. In this respect, the hydro-technical facility built jointly by Turkmenistan and Iran may serve as a wonderful example for other Central Asian states and promote strengthening of the regional security and stability. Ultimately, taking into account the geopolitical location of Central Asia and its huge human and resource potential, it meets the interests of the whole world community.

In this article, we have touched upon only three recent important political events. In general, the constructivism, good will, sound pragmatism in relations with Russia, Ukraine and Iran demonstrated by Turkmenistan throughout the whole period of independent development fully is also pursued in relations with other countries – far and close, big and small. Turkmenistan doesn’t look for “ideological” allies all over the world, doesn’t integrate into political blocks and groups and doesn’t adjust itself to changes of the uncertain external political situation. Turkmenistan acts with dignity and independently in the regional and international arena, being convinced that to remain free in the contemporary world you have first of all to be yourself.


“TURKMENISTAN” magazine (Moscow), № 3, 2005

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