Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov's death opens a new era for Turkmenistan and, quite possibly, stands to shake up the political order throughout the Caspian Basin. Niyazov's funeral, scheduled for December 24, is sure to attract officials from surrounding countries to pay their respects and to glean clues of what to expect from Turkmenistan after Turkmenbashi.
Internally, Turkmenistan's new rulers may well defer discussions about the country's future until they decide how to handle the country's past. In the decade and a half since independence, Niyazov built what certainly is one of the world's most bizarre, brutal and corrupt dictatorships on earth.
Niyazov's underlings are now in position to assert themselves in what many Turkmenistan watchers believe could prove a tumultuous struggle for power. Every one of them is very much a product of the Turkmenbashi era. Every one has witnessed how government officials who fell out of favor were rebuked, banished, fined, jailed, tortured and even sent to their death. Every one of them helped build the cult of personality that surrounded Niyazov through their sycophantic adulation of the now-departed "Great Leader." Yet each of them is invested in the continuation of the country's present political course. Niyazov's cronies can't stride comfortably toward the future before taking steps to evade the revenge of the past.
The formal announcement of Niyazov's death was issued jointly by the National Security Council, the Cabinet of Ministers and the deputies of the Majlis, or parliament. The announcement reported that Niyazov died at 1:10 am on December 21 from heart failure. There is little doubt that Turkmenistan's local "siloviki"-insiders in the security apparatus-are at the helm now. They have already made it clear that they are protagonists of the continuation of Niyazov's policies. The initial announcement of Turkmenbashi's death referred to the importance of carrying on Niyazov's work by maintaining the country's current domestic and foreign policies. In particular, it also pledged that Turkmenistan would hold firm to the policy of "neutrality," based on neighborliness, mutual respect, equal rights and mutually beneficial cooperation with all countries of the world, faithfully fulfilling international obligations and commitments.
But the joint statement omits more than it includes. There is no reference to the succession issue, no mention of elections, no identification of an acting authority or interim leadership. Reference to the "policy of neutrality" seems to suggest continuity, but neglects any mention of Turkmenistan's often heralded concept of "positive neutrality." Niyazov introduced this concept of "positive neutrality" as a doctrinal breakthrough in foreign policy in 1994. He claimed that Turkmenistan would maintain good relations with all countries, while remaining aloof from political alliances or binding economic commitments that might limit Turkmenistan's foreign policy alternatives. In other words, Niyazov was rhetorically claiming that Turkmenistan was everyone's friend, thereby keeping his options open to exploit the country's pivotal position as one of the word's major natural gas exporters.
Initially "positive neutrality" was not a grand strategy, but a specific posture designed to address the key challenge of Turkmenistan's foreign policy-Ashgabat's relationship with Russia. Turkmenbashi saw positive neutrality as a way to break free from Russia's stranglehold over Turkmenistan's gas exports. Turkmenistan had sizable gas reserves but needed substantial investment in production and shipment facilities in order to produce the gas and get it to market. Turkmenistan according vigorously explored alternative export options --across the Caspian Sea, via Iran and/or Afghanistan.
Ultimately, Niyazov couldn't find a way to break the country's dependency on Russia's pipeline network. The trans-Caspian gas pipeline faltered and other export alternatives stalled. Turkmenistan gas revenues fell to a critical level in 1998, convincing Turkmenbashi to reinvent "positive neutrality" so that it meant striking a new arrangement with Russia. In 2003, Niyazov shifted back to the Russian option, signing a 25-year marketing agreement with Gazprom in order to ship gas through Russia to Ukraine and Europe.
It has never been clear just how much gas Turkmenistan can export. Assessments of the country's reserves vary widely, ranging from 3 trillion to 6 trillion cubic meters. In 2002, the Asian Development Bank began assisting Turkmenistan in conducting an independent gas assessment. The ADB additionally financed an independent audit in 2005. While the audit results were not made public, Turkmenistan government sources soon began referring to the conclusion that the Dovletabat gas field alone contained some 4.5 trillion cubic meters and that the country's total reserves exceeded 6 trillion cubic meters.
In 2006, Turkmenistan exported about 55 billion cubic meters and announced plans to increase exports in 2007 to 100 billion cubic meters. Turkmenistan renegotiated gas price rising from $40 per thousand cubic meters in 2005 to $100 per thousand cubic meters beginning 2007. However, the situation changed dramatically in October 2006, when Niyazov announced the discovery of new and unanticipated reserves in the Yolotan gas field containing 7 trillion cubic meters alone. The passing of Niyazov may signify a business opportunity that none of the countries interested in Caspian Basin energy resources can afford to ignore.
The secretive and capricious rule of Niyazov continued to undermine Turkmenistan's business environment. The unwillingness of the Turkmen government to adopt standard statistical reporting, generally accepted accounted practices, internationally accepted banking standards, and sound public administration greatly increased risk in the country. The country's new leaders may seek to improve the presently unpredictable business environment, but any changes will likely take time. Thus, Turkmenistan's political and economic environment promises to be volatile in the coming months, and possibly years.
Gregory Gleason is Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico.