Last week Turkmen’s authoritarian president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov received Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, a country which has often been labeled “the last dictatorship in Europe,”and whose president told Reuters in an interview last year, "I am the last and only dictator in Europe. Indeed there are none anywhere else in the world.”. The two leaders seem to share a common philosophy, noting “the lack of political disagreements between the two states and a common view on foreign policy.” Both have pursued a series of policies that place both countries at the bottom of country rankings, such as the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal’s 2012 Economic Freedom Index which ranked Turkmenistan at 169 and Belarus at 154 out of 177 countries. Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 Press Freedom Index ranked Turkmenistan at 177 and Belarus at 157 out of 179 countries. And Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World survey, both countries ranked as “not free” with low scores in terms of political rights and civil liberties.
There are, however, notable differences between the two countries. Berdymukhamedov rules over a country rich with resources, while Belarus has no such wealth. Berdymukhamedov enjoys overtures of European leaders interested in securing energy resources, while Lukashenko is banned from travelling to Europe. Perhaps the need to demonstrate a façade of good intentions to the West prompted the Turkmen dictator to call for “open and transparent” parliamentary elections; Lukashenko, on the other hand, has no incentive to hide his true colors from the West and ignores human rights openly and blatantly.
Some observers wondered what brought Lukashenko to Turkmenistan and suggested that it may be mere “political tourism.” It was officially announced that the talks finished with the signing of a Joint statement on deepening friendship and partnership between Turkmenistan and Belarus and a number of other cooperation agreements. In a strange turn of events, speaking to journalists on November 4 in Ashgabat after talks with Berdymukhamedov, Lukashenko said Minsk would soon dispatch aviation specialists to Turkmenistan to build aerial drones. Lukashenko said Ashgabat needs unmanned aerial vehicles "to monitor its territory, borders, and for drug trafficking." Official Turkmenistan was silent on the matter.
Others speculated that Lukashenko came to ask Turkmenistan for a bailout for Belarus’ poorly-performing economy. Turkmenistan may not, however, have the cash to help out, as the revenue from China’s gas purchases may not be as high as Berdymukhamedov’s government calculated. China considers its loans assistance in the pipeline construction as part of the payment for Turkmenistan’s gas, says political observer Roman Iacovlevskiy in an interview with Charter97 published by the Turkmen oppositional web-site gundogar.org.
Still, the situation may improve for Turkmenistan, as China’s gas needs are growing. China National Petroleum Corp has ramped up production at its gas fields in Turkmenistan in anticipation of higher winter demand in China, the company said on November 12. Dragon Oil (United Arab Emirates, Great Britain), which conducts its main work in the Turkmen section of the Caspian Sea, also increased its average daily oil production by 7 percent in the first three quarters of 2013, the company said. Turkmenistan is China’s largest foreign gas supplier; it delivered over half of Chinese gas imports, or 21.4 bcm in 2012, and is now developing two new gas fields, Galkynysh and Bagtyyarlyk. Starting this year Petro Gas LLP company (United Kingdom) will participate in the development of the infrastructure on Bagtyyarlyk field.
The Turkmen government announced plans to renew almost 60 kilometers of streets in Ashgabat. Berdymukhamedov signed a decree entrusting the Ashgabat city administration to sign a contract with Turkey’s NataInşaat Turizm Taşymajylyk Tijaret we SanaýiA.Ş. for the design and construction of 18 bridges, 39 underground passages, and 15 elevated pedestrian crossings, including landscaping of adjacent areas, as well as dismantling of the existing objects and construction of new networks in the streets. It promises to be a very expensive and probably unnecessary project in Ashgabat, where billions of dollars have already been spent on infrastructure, especially given the fact that in Turkmenistan, according to Index Mundi, 30% of the population lives below the poverty line.