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    Central Asia
     Mar 8, 2012


Turkey is top priority for Berdimuhamedow
By Robert M Cutler

MONTREAL - Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow accomplished a two-day trip to Ankara last week that arguably increased the level of relations between his country and the host Turkey. Even if his re-election four weeks ago with 97% of the vote (improving upon his 89% total in 2007) was regarded skeptically by most of the international community, the fact that Turkey was the sole destination of Berdimuhamedow's first overseas trip since re-inauguration is significant.

While in Ankara, Berdimuhamedow signed seven agreements, covering the fields of banking, communications, construction, energy, textiles, tourism, and transportation. Since 2009, when Ashgabat and Moscow argued without resolution over the responsibility for an explosion of a principal natural gas pipeline

 

between the two, Turkey has replaced Russia as Turkmenistan's first trading partner (if the European Union is disaggregated to its member-states and not treated as a single unit), according to the Turkish newspaper Zaman.

It is worth mentioning that this newspaper, generally considered to be oriented towards the ruling party AKP, has even deeper ties to the "brotherhood" of Islamic preacher Fethullah Guelen. Last month, it even participated in a campaign against the authority of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the question of the legal responsibility of the present and former chiefs of Turkey's National Intelligence Agency for acts allegedly committed in their official capacity.

The total trade turnover (imports plus exports) between Turkmenistan and Turkey reached the value of US$1.5 billion in 2010, Zaman wrote, presumably based upon Turkish state statistics. If accurate that would represent, following other statistics from the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD, World Bank), 10% of Turkmenistan's total trade turnover for the year, but only 0.5% of Turkey's.

In the early 1990s, immediately following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, then-Turkish president Turgut Oezal had the opportunity, before his death from a heart attack regarded by some as suspicious, to deploy his strategic vision of a pan-Turkic community. The newly independent Central Asian republics responded with interest at the time, but they soon discovered that Turkey did not dispose of the large amounts of investment capital and advanced industrial technologies for which they were looking.

Over the past decade and a half, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) from Turkey have tried to make inroads in Central Asia, with varying success depending upon the sector and the country. In view of Turkmenistan's greater relative isolation from foreign direct investment outside the energy sector, compared to other Central Asian countries, and given the idiosyncratic structure of its national economy, SMEs from Turkey have had relatively greater success there. Other investors have hesitated to take the risks, and Turkish SMEs, happy to have a relatively uncompetitive business environment, pose no challenge to the domestic political economy of the patrimonial state.

In all the diplomatic formulations surrounding the visit, perhaps the most interesting "discourse event" was Berdimuhamedow's repeated use of the "two states, one nation" formula to refer to Turkey and Turkmenistan. It could not have been lost on anyone in the region that this is the formula long employed between Turkey and Azerbaijan, which both linguistically and geographically is much closer to Turkey proper than is Turkmenistan.

If Turkmenistan and Turkey are said to be "two states, one nation" just as Azerbaijan and Turkey are said to be, then would it not follow that Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are likewise "two states, one nation"? This would underline Ashgabat's rapprochement with Baku, particularly over the question of constructing an undersea Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP) for natural gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan. It takes place just as bilateral discussions facilitated by the European Union appear to be making progress at least on the practical level, although some diplomatic and economic details may remain as sticking-points.

Turkey specifically endorsed the TCGP project during Berdimuhamedow's visit, this following by a few months its agreement with Azerbaijan to build the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline to take natural gas from the Caspian Sea basin into Europe. That endorsement is significant insofar as Ankara had heretofore given rhetorical pride of place to its own idea for an overland Turkmenistan-Iran-Turkey gas pipeline.

Turkey also expressed its support for increasing Turkmenistan's electricity supply to Afghanistan and different transport infrastructure projects in support of similar initiatives. Ethnic Turkmens are estimated to comprise 3% of Afghanistan's population and are concentrated in the north and northwest in regions immediately over the border from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

All this suggests that with Turkey losing "strategic depth" as its "Zero Problems" doctrine goes up in flames in its own neighborhood, it has decided to take a leaf from out of former president Oezal's geopolitical book, seeking to increase its prestige at relatively little cost, by turning further east again to the Turkic states and peoples further flung beyond the Caspian Sea.

Dr Robert M Cutler (http://www.robertcutler.org), educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The University of Michigan, has researched and taught at universities in the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, and Russia. Now senior research fellow in the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Carleton University, Canada, he also consults privately in a variety of fields.

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