President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is scheduled to travel to Moscow on December 23 to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the State News Agency of Turkmenistan (TDH) reported. His trip will follow an informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) December 19-20 which he won't be attending, sending instead Turkmen Vice Premier Nazarguly Shagulyyev.
Turkmenistan will chair the CIS next year, where it only has “associate member” status in keeping with its stated policy of neutrality, yet it is not clear whether Ashgabat will join the free-trade agreement that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has pushed in conjunction with the Eurasian Economic Union of former Soviet states, already joined by Kazakhstan and Belarus (with possibly Kyrgyzstan in the future). Shagulyyev is the same official who attended an October meeting about the economic union in Moscow, who said then that only the president could sign documents.
In anticipation of the Turkmen president’s meetings at the Kremlin, the Turkmen ambassador to Moscow, Halinazar Agahanov, tried to smooth over months of acrimonious relations by expressing confidence in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Russia and Turkmenistan would pursue their strategic partnership. Ashgabat’s grievances still shine through the interview, however, as Agahanov recalls the period in the 1990s when Russia’s state monopoly Gazprom shut off the pipeline from Turkmenistan, and also denounced Russian analysts who have recently published doubts about the real size of Turkmenistan’s gas reserves. He discounted “provocateurs” who claimed war was brewing in the Caspian, saying regardless of their differences, an agreement would be found.
Yet the only assurance the Turkmen diplomat gave was a statement signed last year by the five Caspian littoral states pledging to keep the Caspian “a sea of peace.” Since that time, they've all built up their arsenals.. Meanwhile, when the Caspian states met last week in Astana, Kazakhstan, they failed once again to finalize the legal status of the sea, and couldn’t even agree on sturgeon-fishing regulation, Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor reported. Russia sided with Iran to insist on all Caspian issues being resolved multilaterally; Azerbaijan demanded that undersea pipelines between states were in the jurisdiction only of those countries.
Soon after the Turkmen ambassador’s interview, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry came out with another blast, accusing the Russian press of distorting the issue of dual passports. In fact, the statement only fuels concerns about how Turkmenistan will treat its Russian minority, as it indicates Ashgabat will not recognize dual passports and is sticking to its 2003 agreement with Russia under which Russian citizens were only given two months to choose a citizenship. Turkmenistan keeps insisting that its law establishing the recognition of Turkmen citizenship only, incorporated into the constitution in 2003, should have retroactive force, instead of grandfathering the previous recognition of dual citizenship. Moscow has not called Ashgabat on this injustice.
The Foreign Ministry makes vague references to "a number of initiatives" to discuss and regulate travel for those with both passports, but nothing specific is said about the de-facto cut-off of freedom of movement for holders of Russian passports, which are no longer recognized. According to Russian correspondent Arkady Dubnov, writing for Moscow News, Russians in Turkmenistan are beginning to panic about being stuck in the country when new Turkmen passports come into effect in a year. Already many have sold their homes and fled to Russia, reportedly driving the price of apartments down. Some 120,000 Russian passport-holders are said to remain in Turkmenistan. The Russian government has not commented on the issue.
Turkmenistan’s energy diversification policy, part of an “open doors” policy for all potential customers, has been oriented more toward Asia in recent months. Following up on his Chinese trip’s success, where he brought home an order for additional gas, bringing the total sold to China to 65 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year, President Berdymukhamedov headed off to Malayasia, also a big investor in Turkmenistan and long-time partner, where he was treated to lavish ceremonies and a banquet. Malaysia’s Petronas has invested $4.5 billion in offshore and land infrastructure in the last 15 years, Turkmen state media reported earlier this year. China Economic Net reported that during Berdymukhamedov's meeting with Prime Minister Najib Razak, Petronas’ “investment of $5.6 billion” was mentioned; it’s not clear if this is a statement about Petronas’ current level of investment (with a notable $1.1 billion difference) or something new. Plans for an offshore gas-drilling platform were also discussed.
Turkmenistan celebrated “Neutrality Day” last week with the usual elaborate shows and dances with adults and children in native costumes who likely rehearsed for weeks. About 750 prisoners were released in an amnesty, but none of them were known political prisoners. Regrettably, for those looking for a break with the past, Berdymukhamedov included in the festivities an unveiling of a refurbished Arch of Neutrality monument, which topped by a gold statue of past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov.
At a ceremony with the state-controlled Democratic Party and labor, women, youth and veterans’ organizations, President Berdymukhamedov essentially nominated himself for the forthcoming presidential elections February 12, 2012. No other alternative candidates have yet to appear, although the Turkmen leader said that elections “will take place with several candidates, openly, publicly, on an authentic competitive and democratic basis." Curiously, the president took the occasion to announce that Galkynish, the national social movement that essentially contains all the other organizations, had “fulfilled its mission” and would now be disbanded, presumably because Turkmenistan no longer needed such all-purpose state conveyor-belt to the people. The other government-organized civic organizations will now supposedly become more independent. But no law on parties has been passed to legalize both the Democratic Party itself and any rivals, and the law on associations has not been reformed.
The limits of the elections became readily apparent. Former Culture and Tourism Minister Geldimurat Nurmuhammedov criticized the lack of democracy in Turkmenistan in Ashgabat and the existence of only one party. This was a surprisingly bold move, as generally critics speak only anonymously or from exile abroad. The consequences were immediate: Nurmuhammedov’s family construction business was immediately visited by security agencies and closed for supposed violations of the law and his brother was summoned for interrogation.