Russians know that the fastest way to a Turkmen president’s heart is through his ego.
This explains why Russian President Vladimir Putin does things like award his Turkmenistan counterpart, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, trinkets like the Order of Friendship. According to a decree by Putin issued on May 18, the 40-year-old Turkmen leader, who has only been in office since March, has made a “great contribution to strengthening the strategic partnership between Russia and Turkmenistan”.
And Russia’s ambassador to Ashgabat was understandably in a prominent position when the Turkmen Foreign Ministry held a May 18 presentation for the Russian translation of the latest book by Berdimuhamedov’s father and former president, Gurbanguly. Alexander Blokhin cooed that the translation of “The Meaning of My Life” would allow the “general public of a friendly nation to learn even more about Turkmenistan”.
This flattery works. Although Turkmenistan claims to maintain a balanced multi-vector foreign policy, in the style of Kazakhstan, it is obvious that Russia occupies a special place.
On May 19, Berdimuhamedov the Elder, who still performs official duties as Senate Speaker, traveled to Kazan, the capital of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, to attend the 13th Russian-Islamic World Economic Summit. The former Turkmen leader was by far the most distinguished participant in this remarkably low-wattage event. Neighboring Uzbekistan was represented by its deputy health minister.
It’s not hard to see what the likes of Russia – or Tatarstan in particular in this case – are looking for in Turkmenistan: the chance to land easy contracts. Berdimuhamedov senior was greeted as he exited the plane by the President of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov, and taken to the Kazan EXPO international exhibition center. While there, he was shown locally made electric buses and immediately expressed interest in purchasing some for Turkmenistan, despite being technically allowed to make such acquisitions.
In his speech at the summit, Berdimuhamedov senior spoke in lofty terms about how Turkmenistan “sees its future in friendship, cooperation and mutual understanding with Russia and the states of the Islamic world”, and presumably in that order .
The elder Berdimuhamedov also received his share of the garland when Minnikhanov honored him with a Tatarstan Order of Merit for his services to the Russian republic.
In Turkmenistan, it is not only human beings who receive such attention. Neutral Turkmenistan daily reported on May 23 that Berdimuhamedov the Younger approved the construction of a monument in honor of a horse belonging to his father. Akhan is no ordinary Akhal-Teke horse. In June 2018, the white stallion entered the annals of the Guinness Book of World Records, a beer chronicler of human and animal exploits deeply revered by Turkmen authorities, by walking 10 meters on his hind legs in 4.19 seconds. The statue, which will likely display Akhan in a frantic attitude, is expected to be unveiled in December.
On a more mundane note, President Berdimuhamedov met on May 17 with Igor Bukato, the head of St. Petersburg-based infrastructure giant Vozrozhdenie, which has won its fair share of lucrative contracts in Turkmenistan over the years. The company is still working on the construction of a mudslide diversion structure in Ashgabat. Bukato stayed for a few days. On May 20, he again met with Berdimuhamedov to show him the plan for a highway from the city of Garabogaz along the shores of the Caspian Sea to the border with Kazakhstan – a project that Vozrozhdenie is now about to develop. ‘execute.
It felt like a fortuitous moment. On the same day, Berdimuhamedov met with Kazakhstan’s First Deputy Prime Minister Roman Sklyar for talks in Ashgabat. Kazakh-Turkmen relations seem particularly dynamic at the moment. In Kazakhstan, which hardly lacks its own energy resources, Turkmenistan has found itself, quite surprisingly, a new buyer of natural gas. No details have yet been provided on volumes, lead times or prices.
Kazakhstan is also interested in building a grain storage terminal on Turkmenistan’s border with Afghanistan. This is an enticing possibility as it would see the creation of a facility that would ensure Kazakh wheat exporters easy access to two commercially and diplomatically useful markets.
The North-South axis, Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan, is currently becoming clearer as Kazakhstan explores ways to ease its dependence on transport routes through Russia.
Kazakh Trade Minister Bakhyt Sultanov visited the Iranian capital, Tehran, on May 23 to hold talks with officials on expanding trade relations and “improving transit potential between the two countries “. However, any such initiative would also depend on cooperation from Turkmenistan, as the country stands in the way.
On May 20, in this case, Turkmenulaggozegchilik, the state agency in charge of issuing entry and transit permits, announced that foreign vehicles will again be able to start crossing the Iranian border at the Sarakhs checkpoint from from June 1. were restricted in March 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Other crossing points were already operational, but getting goods across the border usually required tedious unloading and reloading of trucks.
International travel at all levels should become easier in the imminent future.
State-owned carrier Turkmenistan Airlines dropped a big hint on May 23 when it released a series of guidelines passengers must follow to ward off COVID-19. Given that the airline ceased scheduled flights at the start of 2020, it seems very likely that this indicates that routine service will resume. Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news reported on May 6 that a government commission is considering allowing regular flights to restart to Dubai and Frankfurt – two major international air hubs.
Yet it wouldn’t be Turkmenistan if a door didn’t close while a window opened slightly.
Turkmen.news reported on May 23 that the authorities of the city of Dashoguz began, for reasons well known to themselves, to confiscate cars in large numbers. The motivations offered are often trivial, such as the mud flaps being black and not the seemingly required white, the outlet reported, citing locals. The website’s sources claim that more than 1,500 cars have been seized so far on similarly spurious grounds. One theory offered is that the police are trying to ensure there are fewer cars on the roads ahead of a planned visit by the president.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly column of Eurasianet compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.
This column originally appeared on Eurasianet here.