Turkmenistan’s political model appears far more fragile than the record after twentyfive years of independence might lead one to believe.
In addition to energy, agriculture—mainly wheat and cotton—is an important sector of the Turkmen economy, employing roughly half of the country’s population even though agriculture accounts for only 13 percent of GDP. The World Bank estimates that only 4.1 percent of the country’s territory is arable land. Most agriculture occurs on artificially irrigated land—a problem given regional water shortages and the fact that 95 percent of the country’s water comes from upstream countries.
Turkmenistan is the only Central Asian state that has increased the amount of land under irrigation since independence. Yet, this expansion of irrigation is primarily for agriculture and has done little to close the gap in providing the population with quality drinking water. Poor water management and outdated infrastructure and irrigation technologies prevent 40 percent of the population from accessing potable water from a reliable source. Even in the capital, infrastructure breakdowns create shortages of drinking water, forcing some residents to use buckets to retrieve a daily supply. Water shortages and climate change will also have long-term negative effects on Turkmen agriculture.
Turkmenistan is Eurasia’s second-largest cotton exporter after Uzbekistan, yet the quality of its raw cotton and yield have declined in the post-Soviet era due to poor irrigation and management practices. Forced labor and child labor in cotton fields have led consumer and human rights groups to call for corporate boycotts of Turkmen cotton, and several companies have done so. International clothing retailer H&M has stopped buying Turkmen cotton, and global retailer IKEA has limited its sourcing in Turkmenistan to one supplier, increased training and monitoring of the farms that sell to that supplier, and publicly pledged not to import any product made with Turkmen cotton into the United States or the United Kingdom.
Turkmen agriculture is organized around peasant associations, which farm the vast majority of cultivated land. However, these associations lack the freedom to decide what they can produce. The state instead provides them with orders and requires them to sell their products back to the state. The government has prioritized cotton, wheat, sugar beets, and rice as strategic crops; the latter three are seen as key elements of Turkmenistan’s desire to become food secure and rely less on imports from its neighbors.
However, with inflation at 6 percent and the currency losing 19 percent of its value in 2015, food insecurity plagues the population as subsidies dry up, prices for basic goods skyrocket, and purchasing power declines. In November 2016, the government issued an updated law on food security, calling for the agricultural sector to focus on providing basic foodstuffs. The vague new law is likely a response to growing anger in the country over food shortages, but it remains unclear what impact the legislation will have on improving the country’s food stocks and alleviating hunger.
Although Berdimuhamedov reopened regional hospitals, the country still cannot provide basic human security for its citizens, which is evident in the country’s health statistics. Given food shortages, malnutrition in the country will probably worsen; it likely already contributes to Turkmenistan having the highest child mortality rate in the former Soviet Union. Turkmenistan’s infant mortality rate in 2015 rate was 44 per 1,000 births, and the under-five mortality rate—the probability of dying between birth and age five—was 51 per 1,000 births. By comparison, neighboring Iran and Kazakhstan share a much lower infant mortality rate of 13 per 1,000 births, while their under-five mortality rates were 16 and 14 per 1,000 births respectively. Uzbekistan’s 2015 infant mortality and under-five mortality rates were also better than Turkmenistan’s, at 34 and 39 per 1,000 births.
As with economic figures, the country’s secretive nature raises doubts about the accuracy of available health data. Heart disease, tuberculosis, and diarrheal diseases are among the top causes of death in Turkmenistan, which is also a high-burden country for multiple-drug-resistant tuberculosis. According to official numbers, at least 15 percent of new TB cases and 34 percent of repeat cases are multiple drug resistant. An outbreak of hepatitis A in Turkmen schools was reported in November 2016, but the government lacked adequate stocks of the hepatitis A vaccine. Amid high inflation and a devalued currency, the price of common medicines is skyrocketing, with consumers facing price increases of between 80 and 120 percent in January 2017 alone.
But statistics likely do not tell the whole story, and the public health situation is probably even worse, because Turkmenistan refuses to share recent health and disease statistics—including healthcare expenditure—with the World Health Organization. Turkmenistan rarely reports any new cases of HIV infection, although drug addiction has plagued the country, raising questions about prevalence of the disease. The government has made reducing addiction and combating drug trafficking public priorities. Without verifiable statistics, however, it is unclear whether any of Turkmenistan’s health or antidrug policies are bearing fruit.
The Limits Of Turkmen Foreign Policy
An outlier in Central Asia, Turkmenistan has long resisted the regional trend of pursuing a multivector foreign policy that balances between Russia, China, and the West. Ashgabat instead chose the path of permanent neutrality, a status the UN endorsed in 1995. The goal of this policy was to help the country resist pressure from outside powers, but it also allowed Turkmenistan to justify its relationship in the 1990s and 2000s with Taliban and Afghan drug traffickers. From this period to today, some Turkmen government officials have reportedly been complicit in trafficking drugs and other illicit goods.
Permanent neutrality has helped Ashgabat avoid membership in Russian-sponsored integration projects such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization or the Eurasian Economic Union. Turkmenistan is the only Central Asian state that is not a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Although Ashgabat did sign up for NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994, its ties to the alliance have mostly been symbolic, particularly during the Niyazov era. By keeping its distance from both Russia and the West, Turkmenistan has prevented itself from becoming an object in any geopolitical tussle between the two. But the stance also means Ashgabat has few defenders in Moscow, Washington, or Brussels, and has little to offer the outside world except its gas.
The end result of Turkmenistan’s position has been the perpetuation of an isolated regime that is only partly integrated—through China—into the global economy and international system. The country’s reticence to join regional bodies also hampers its ability to deal with transnational issues. This could become a bigger problem as many of the greatest threats to the country’s stability—drug trafficking, violent extremism, water shortages, and regional instability—require transnational approaches.
Ashgabat’s relationship with Moscow since independence has been strained by frictions over gas pricing and the mistreatment of ethnic Russians in Turkmenistan. Until the Chinese-financed Central Asia–China pipeline opened in December 2009, Turkmenistan’s gas exports were highly vulnerable to Russian pressure, with Russian energy giant Gazprom controlling the only pipeline built in the Soviet era to transport natural gas from Central Asia to markets. This made Russia the primary destination for the majority of Turkmenistan’s gas exports. As both a producer of natural gas and a pipeline operator, Gazprom, with Kremlin support, long favored exporting its own gas to lucrative markets in Europe. In doing so, the company relegated Turkmenistan to being a gas provider to countries in the former Soviet space—many of which defaulted on payments in the 1990s and early 2000s. Gas-pricing disputes between Ashgabat-based Turkmengas and Gazprom have vexed the Turkmen-Russian relationship ever since.
Russia was once the main export market for Turkmen gas, but a pipeline explosion in April 2009 stopped the transportation of Turkmen gas to Russia for the remainder of the year. Gas exports resumed in 2010, and the two countries agreed that Gazprom would buy Turkmen gas at USD 240 per 1,000 cubic meters and either resell it or use it domestically in Russia. Gas prices, however, have since fallen, prompting Gazprom to seek to renegotiate the terms, including through international arbitration. Under pressure from cheaper suppliers of gas, Gazprom drastically reduced the volume of gas purchased from Turkmenistan from 10.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2014 to 4 bcm in 2015.
In January 2016, Gazprom announced it had stopped importing Turkmen gas altogether and would seek USD 5 billion in reimbursements through arbitration for having overpaid for inflated Turkmen gas supplies. Until these issues are settled, Gazprom is unlikely to resume imports of Turkmen gas; it has made that clear by launching talks with Uzbekneftegaz about increasing imports from neighboring Uzbekistan—probably a Russian attempt to court new Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and pull Tashkent closer to Moscow.
Russia is now trying to increase its role and presence in the region. To this end, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Ashgabat in June 2016 for talks on weapons sales, security cooperation, Afghan instability, and the threat of the Islamic State moving to the region. Russian government officials and the Russian media often amplify external terrorist threats to Turkmenistan and its neighbors in an attempt to bolster security ties with Central Asian states and justify a greater role for Russia in the region.
Ashgabat has frosty relations with the West. Its relationship with NATO lacked substance until Berdimuhamedov’s presidency. However, Turkmenistan’s cooperation with the alliance toward the end of the U.S. presidency of George W. Bush and at the start of that of Barack Obama was facilitated by common concerns over instability emanating from Afghanistan and Turkmenistan’s desire to diversify its energy exports through its neighbor to densely populated South Asia. Under Berdimuhamedov, Turkmenistan participated in training programs to improve border security and combat drug and other illicit trafficking from Afghanistan. Turkmenistan had limited participation in the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), through which NATO supplied its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Ashgabat’s participation in the NDN was not all altruistic, as the network was lucrative for elites across Eurasia, including the Turkmen regime.
However, NATO’s drawdown from Afghanistan since January 2015 has led to rising instability there, particularly in the Afghan-Turkmen frontier zone in the north of the country. In Afghanistan’s Faryab province, which borders Turkmenistan, Afghan security forces struggled in 2015 and 2016 to cope with an uptick of Taliban militants, foreign fighters, and paramilitary forces. The Taliban has also been increasingly active in Afghanistan’s Jowzjan, Badghis, and Herat provinces—all of which also border Turkmenistan.
Turkmen security forces have been forced to engage militants, not always successfully, along the 460-mile border. Turkmen border guards have been killed and even reportedly refused to fight back when militants pushed over the frontier, raising questions about the skill level and ability of these forces to protect the state from outside threats. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, among others, has highlighted this border as one of Central Asia’s weak points, and Russia pledged military assistance after twenty-seven Turkmen soldiers allegedly died in a border skirmish in May 2016.
Turkmenistan’s poor military readiness and need for more capable leadership in the armed forces likely played into Berdimuhamedov’s October 2015 decisions to appoint the head of the country’s security service as minister of defense and to call up reservists to serve in border regions. The government has also launched a rearmament program to modernize its military capabilities.
The West has little leverage to push its agenda in Turkmenistan. The country’s bizarre personality-focused political system, dismal democracy deficit, and poor investor climate limit Western economic interest and involvement there. International criticism of the Turkmen government has done little to improve its behavior, in part because the leadership is wary of any attempts by outsiders to meddle in its internal affairs. A decade ago, Washington and Brussels hoped that Turkmenistan could become the easternmost flank of the European Union’s Southern Gas Corridor to reduce European states’ dependence on Russian energy. Instead, Turkmen gas has found a market in China.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict and reinvigorated EU efforts to find alternative supplies of gas have led to renewed talk of a trans-Caspian pipeline to transport gas under the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and beyond to Turkey and southern Europe. While such a route would help diversify Turkmenistan’s gas exports and Europe’s suppliers, there have long been numerous political, financial, and environmental hurdles. The difficult relationship between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan has improved in recent years, but the two countries have traditionally had acrimonious relations due to a long-standing maritime border dispute, with both countries claiming the same lucrative gas and oil field in the Caspian Sea.
Maritime disputes in the Caspian Sea, fluctuating gas prices, objections from other Caspian littoral states, and the technical difficulties and costs of constructing a trans-Caspian pipeline remain impediments to its realization. Russia, in particular, strongly objects to any pipeline across the Caspian Sea, as it would provide an alternative to the Russian pipeline infrastructure to transport Central Asian gas to Europe. Neither Ashgabat nor Baku appears willing to test Russia on the trans-Caspian pipeline, nor do they have more than the West’s rhetorical backing to do so. Russia’s aggressive defense of what it sees as its vital interests in the region, which clearly includes the Caspian Sea, make realizing the pipeline highly unlikely.
Until Turkmenistan halted gas supplies to Iran on January 1, 2017, in a payment dispute for gas delivered between 2007 and 2008, Tehran was the only other importer of Turkmen natural gas, which was delivered through two pipelines—one built in 1997 and the other in 2010. Turkmenistan, however, has received little revenue for these exports. Due to international sanctions against Iran, Tehran paid Turkmenistan through a gas-for-goods barter arrangement—a problem for cash-starved Turkmenistan, given that it was expecting to export USD 30 billion worth of gas to Iran over the next ten years. The 2014 international deal on Iran’s nuclear program has the potential to transform the trade relationship if the removal of sanctions on Iran eventually allows for direct payments for gas.
However, Iran has enormous gas reserves of its own for its domestic use and export. It has begun tapping these reserves and building up infrastructure to supply northern parts of the country that have depended on Turkmen gas imports with domestic sources, which will eventually negate the need for Turkmen gas in Iran. Given this reality, the collapse of the negotiations on reaching a settlement of the long-standing payment dispute—in which Ashgabat claims Tehran owes it the equivalent of USD 1.8 billion in arrears—jeopardizes future gas trading relationships between the two countries. In coming years, Iran aims to become a competitor to Turkmenistan in global gas markets, and its geographic location—between Europe and South Asia, with access to the Persian Gulf—provides it with easier access than Turkmenistan to key markets.
Certainly Not A Regional Centre
The Turkmen government has aspirations to transform the country into a regional hub, connecting Central Asia to the Caucasus via the Caspian, to the Persian Gulf via Iran, and to markets in South Asia via Afghanistan. However, unlike other Eurasian states that border Iran and enjoy extensive trading ties with that country, there is little tourism or shuttle trade between Turkmenistan and Iran, due to the Turkmen government’s efforts to keep the country closed to outside influences.
At the same time, Turkmenistan is constructing its leg of the Turkmen-Afghan-Tajik railroad and selling electricity to Afghanistan. In late 2014, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan inaugurated a railroad link connecting Central Asia to the Persian Gulf. However, Turkmenistan has limited trading ties with its neighbors and faces competition from them in its endeavor to become a regional hub: all Central Asian states see themselves as central nodes in a future regional transportation and distribution network and are eager to attract Chinese investment to develop those projects.
Ashgabat is particularly eager to see the construction of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) pipeline, a 1,118-mile pipeline capable of transporting 33 bcm of gas per year. Costing an estimated USD 10 billion, the proposed pipeline has an uncertain future due to financing difficulties, the deteriorating security environment in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a lack of interest from major international energy companies. These corporations are hesitant to invest in Turkmenistan because of its poor investment climate and unwillingness to allow them to hold equity stakes in Turkmen gas fields.
The TAPI pipeline’s current estimated cost is four times greater than what the Asian Development Bank (ADB) forecast in 2002. The ADB and the Islamic Development Bank have promised to help with financing, but it remains unclear from where the additional funds will come for a pipeline that runs through one of the world’s most unstable regions. Parts of the proposed pipeline would go through areas under Taliban control or traverse Pakistan’s volatile Balochistan region. That increases doubts about whether construction will proceed and whether the pipeline can ultimately serve as a viable and reliable means to deliver gas to South Asia, particularly as more LNG—including from Qatar—comes online.
Turkmenistan has tried to minimize its ties to many of its Central Asian neighbors, although its desire to be a regional hub has created opportunities for increased trade and transportation linkages. Turkmenistan cooperated with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the Central Asia–China pipeline, and Turkmen gas now transits both states on its way to China. The promise of a lucrative windfall to all three states from that pipeline has led to improved relations with both. In big regional arguments—such as water shortages—Turkmenistan has clashed with upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over their plans to increase hydroelectricity output and construct dams.
A Bleak Future
Turkmenistan’s bizarre system of governance has left the country isolated economically, politically, and culturally. It has been the most stagnant state in the former Soviet space for the past twenty-five years. The Turkmen government continues to isolate its citizens from all outside influences, but the costs of this isolation are high. Turkmenistan faces multiple external threats and has limited capacity to manage them. Those threats include water shortages and climate change, food security, rising instability in Afghanistan, a Russia that is willing and able to intervene in neighboring states to defend its interests, and a West that shows less and less interest in the country. Deeply in debt to China, Turkmenistan is in a subservient position to Beijing as a supplier of gas at a steep discount to the world’s second-largest economy. Ties with Iran are tense, and relations with the region’s other important players— Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan—appear stable but are far from warm.
Turkmenistan’s economic situation will most likely continue to decline due to a prolonged lull in hydrocarbon prices, growing competition in global gas markets, and an irrational fear of opening up to the outside world. Turkmenistan’s elite has mismanaged and squandered much of the country’s resources, leaving it cash starved. The Turkmen government can no longer afford to placate the population with generous subsidies, and the social safety net has collapsed, raising questions about basic human security.
Niyazov’s dismantling of the Soviet education system and his frequent purges of the government and political elites have lowered the skill level of the country’s technocrats, leading to a shortage of qualified workers capable of managing Turkmenistan’s growing internal and external problems. It is a sad legacy that endangers the country’s long-term stability and will plague its future for years to come.
This material is based on work supported by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.