Just next to the western coastal city of Turkmenbashi, the Turkmenbashi State Oil Refinery is a massive, sprawling complex said to be larger than the city itself. It's surrounded by three-meter-high walls topped with barbed wire; every 100 meters or so, stands a guard tower to detect potential intruders. It looks more like a military base than a production facility, and it goes without saying that it's strictly forbidden to take photos.
Next to the refinery there is a new billboard, put up in connection with the May summit in Turkmenbashi between the presidents of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Russia. At that meeting, participants agreed to expand a pipeline, known as the Prikaspiisky route, to ship natural gas from Turkmenistan northward. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The billboard has photos of the presidents of the three countries and a quote by Turkmenistan's president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov: "Turkmenistan will widen its cooperation in all fields with its time-tested and reliable partners."
Hardly lofty prose, but it does seem to be an accurate expression of Turkmenistan's foreign policy under Berdymukhammedov. So far, his most significant move has been to agree on the pipeline project with Russia, which already transits the bulk of Turkmenistan's natural gas. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The pipeline expansion, provided it actually comes into being, could deal a substantial blow to western interests in Turkmenistan. In particular, it has the potential to deter a long-held goal of the United States construction of a Trans-Caspian Pipeline that would carry Central Asian energy to Azerbaijan, where it would be distributed to the West. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
As one Pentagon official said prior to the announcement of the Russian-Turkmen pipeline agreement: "If there is a new Great Game being played in Central Asia, the most important part is Turkmenistan."
Western officials in Turkmenistan, however, deny that they have "lost" anything to Russia. "We don't see it as a zero-sum game, as Russia and other countries in the region do," said one Western diplomat.
But the diplomat acknowledges that Russia has an advantage in dealing with Turkmenistan; that Moscow doesn't make the same demands on human rights and democratization as do Washington and Brussels. "We would love to know the real reason [that Russia was awarded the pipeline deal], but that seems to be the logical explanation," the diplomat said.
Another Western diplomat said a major factor was connected to the fact that Russia devotes more high level attention to Turkmenistan than does the United States or European countries. "When Berdymukhammedov calls the Kremlin, it's [Russian President Vladimir] Putin who picks up the phone; when he calls Washington it's a deputy assistant secretary of state. And the presidential level is where you get things done," the diplomat said.
The pipeline deal does appear to be part of a Turkmen tilt toward Russia. Former Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov, while generally cooperative on economic matters, such as natural gas exports, pursued a de-Russification policy inside Turkmenistan. He discouraged the teaching of Russian in schools, mandated that Turkmen be written in the Latin rather than the Cyrillic alphabet and oversaw a government that widely discriminated against Russians. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
There are early signs that Berdymukhammedov is rolling back such policies. One of his first stated priorities was to conduct reforms in the education system, and he has enlisted the Russian Ministry of Education and Moscow State University to help implement the changes. Shortly before the pipeline agreement was reached, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov broke ground on a new Russian high school in Ashgabat and announced new cultural exchanges between the two countries. Even Berdymukhammedov's quote on the billboard in Turkmenbashi is in Russian Niyazov's public statements were nearly always in Turkmen.
"Anyone taking power after Niyazov had to realize that there's a real disadvantage to cutting all ties to Russia," the diplomat said. The Turkmen language is weak in technical matters, and the body of literature in Russian is far greater than that in Turkmen.
"There's definitely a trend to softening the anti-Russian activities," the diplomat added. "The use of Russian in schools is back, people who lost jobs because they didn't speak Turkmen have been brought back."
Russian is widely spoken in Turkmenistan, especially in Ashgabat, and even many ethnic Turkmen speak better Russian than Turkmen. One ethnic Russian resident of Ashgabat says that ordinary Turkmen never discriminated against her because of her ethnicity, but added that the government had done so. She applied for a professional program to go abroad that needed approval from the government, and was turned down. "I asked the director of the program why I didn't get it and he said it was because I had a Russian last name," she said. "He told me I should marry a Turkmen so I'd have a Turkmen name. I said,