This year Turkmenistan positioned itself as a hub for celebrations of Novruz Bairam, the spring holiday celebrated by much of the Turkic world and Iran, hosting an impressive array of heads of state from these countries that included Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Pakistan’s Asif Ali Zardari, Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, the President of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhamov, Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations Organization, Kasymjomart Tokayev, Turkey’s Energy Minister, Taner Yildiz and members of delegations from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. The festivities, which included concerts, traditional performance, and equestrian shows from the countries represented, took place in the sub-mountain valley of Akhal.
Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov had one-on-one meetings with all of the visiting leaders, with the local media reporting only sparing details on the content of these meetings that focused on “ development of cooperation,” “strengthening ties,” or “diversifying partnership.” However, a tripartite meeting between President Berdymukhamedov and his Tajik and Afghan counterparts, lead to the signature of a Memorandum of Understanding for a railway connecting the three countries, and an appeal to Asian financial institutions to fund its construction. This railway project, estimated at between $1.5 billion and $2.0 billion, is particularly important for Tajikistan, which is currently dependent on neighboring Uzbekistan, with which it has frigid relations, for railway transportation, and will be able to transport oil and gas.
The US seems to be optimistic of warming relations with Turkmenistan: at the third annual Turkic American Alliance meeting held in Washington on March 12 – 13, entitled “Energy, Trade and Development,” US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake said that ”relations between the United States and Turkmenistan have never been stronger.” Noting that that annual bilateral consultations with the Government of Turkmenistan, which started in 2010, will continue with the next round later this year in Ashgabat, Blake stressed that he “had very productive meetings with President Berdymukhamedov and other senior Turkmen officials in Ashgabat” and announced that later this month Foreign Minister Meredov will come to Washington to meet with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Blake noted the importance of the Turkmenistan – Afghanistan – Pakistan – Iran (TAPI) pipeline project and Turkmenistan’s intent to become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), adding that the US “will provide technical assistance to Turkmenistan as it embarks on the journey to WTO membership.” He expressed optimism “about the future of our relationship with Turkmenistan and Turkmenistan’s growing engagement with its neighbors.”
At the same time, Turkmenistan’s relations with Russia seem to be suffering, in particular over the issue of dual Turkmen-Russian citizens, a long-standing problem which the two countries have been trying to resolve since 2003, when Turkmenistan unilaterally withdrew from the dual citizenship agreement signed in 1993, much to the dismay of the Russian government and the population of ethnic Russians still living in Turkmenistan. Following a phone conversation between the Presidents of Russia and Turkmenistan, during which, according to mass media reports, the two leaders “paid particular attention to the situation of dual citizenship holders in Turkmenistan,” Turkmen authorities began to take practical steps to terminate dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship. Reports have come in that they are repeatedly harassing dual citizenship holders in their homes by asking which citizenship they intend to keep. Additionally, the Turkmen Airline agency in Moscow refuses to sell tickets from Russia to Turkmenistan to dual passport holders without a Turkmen entry visa. As July 10 approaches, the date set for which current Turkmen passports will be replaced with biometric passports, dual citizenship holders will have to make a decision on which citizenship to keep – a choice between the right to travel freely between the two countries, or having to leave Turkmenistan altogether.
This week, The Economist Intelligence Unit published its annual Democracy Index 2012, which measures the state of democracy in 167 countries and categorizes countries as belonging to one of four regime types: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes. In 2012, Turkmenistan was ranked as 6th from the bottom with a score of 1.70 (out of 10), to be followed only by Saudi Arabia, Syria, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, and North Korea.