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Turkmen Neutrality: 'It Means Everything And Its Opposite At The Same Time'

Vew from the Arch of Neutrality in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat.
Vew from the Arch of Neutrality in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat.

On December 12, there will be massive celebrations across Turkmenistan to mark the 20th anniversary of the day the United Nations officially recognized the country's "permanent neutrality."

What this neutral status means for Turkmenistan is still not clear 20 years later.

The meaning of neutrality as articulated by the late President Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov in 1995 has little resemblance to the neutrality policy Turkmenistan practices today under current President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel to discuss what the neutrality status has done for, and done to Turkmenistan over the last 20 years.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel discussion. Participating in the talk was Luca Anceschi, professor of Central Asian studies at Glasgow University and author of the book Turkmenistan's Foreign Policy: Positive Neutrality and the Consolidation of the Turkmen Regime, and also Ruslan Myatiev, journalist and founder of the Alternative Turkmenistan News website. And me, I've been watching Turkmenistan's neutrality since the start, so I said some things also.

At the start of the discussion Anceschi offered this assessment of Turkmenistan's policy of positive neutrality: "It's a policy with which Turkmenistan has been able to stay at the margins of the international community for 20 years now, but it's also a policy of insulation, a policy that has been used to make sure that external pressures for liberalization, for human rights improvement were never relevant in the domestic arena."

Myatiev said, "When we speak about neutrality I think it's worth differentiating between the concept of neutrality and the Turkmen neutrality."

Niyazov's Vision

The concept of neutrality, as originally envisioned by Niyazov, who died in 2006, was that Turkmenistan would become a neutral venue for talks between feuding parties, a place to come and resolve differences.

In fact, inter-Tajik peace talks between representatives of the two sides in Tajikistan's civil war (1992-1997) had started in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat in early December 1995. With the exception of one round of talks in Islamabad in October-November 1994, previous rounds of Tajik peace talks had been held in Moscow and Tehran, but neither was a particularly auspicious choice since Russia was seen as backing the Tajik government and Iran was perceived as being partial to the Tajik opposition.

The first President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov (1940-2006) was the architect of Turkmenistan's neutrality status.
The first President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov (1940-2006) was the architect of Turkmenistan's neutrality status.

The round of talks in Ashgabat suffered a series of setbacks and postponements but the two Tajik factions continued off and on to meet in Ashgabat until July 1996. It seemed Niyazov's vision was possible, even more so when in March 1999 the warring factions in Afghanistan met for talks in Ashgabat.

But the Tajik civil war ended in mid-1997 and the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan that started in late 2001 ended, at least temporarily, any need for inter-Afghan peace talks. No one else showed interest in coming to Ashgabat to solve their differences, in part because of the Turkmen government's growing reputation as a rights abuser.

The policy of neutrality changed, "it turned into a shield for the government to close the country from the outside world," Myatiev said.

These days, the country is often compared to North Korea and word "isolationist" frequently figures in reports about Turkmenistan.

But inside the country, where media is carefully controlled and manipulated, Myatiev said there is support among Turkmenistan's people for the official policy of neutrality.

"In general the population is very proud of the fact that Turkmenistan is a neutral state," he said -- even if they are not sure what the benefits might be.

Molding Facts

Anceschi elaborated on the Turkmen government's need for its policy of neutrality. "I think it's about legitimacy. They think that neutrality is popular, a unique development especially as it was recognized by the UN…the regime wants the Turkmen people to see that whatever has been done by the regime has been recognized as high up as the UN; it's that kind of legitimacy they want to get."

Anceschi also pointed out that the policy of neutrality is vague. "They use neutrality in such a flexible way that it means everything and its opposite at the same time," Anceschi said.

And Turkmen authorities have been adept at molding facts to fit into Turkmenistan's neutrality policy.

One example given was the current economic crisis, which, according to President Berdymukhammedov, is not a "crisis" inside Turkmenistan, despite the country's heavy dependence on gas exports for revenue (Turkmenistan has the world's fourth largest reserves of gas), but rather is something affecting the rest of the world. Essentially, Turkmenistan is sneezing because the world outside has a cold.

Gas exports and security along the border with Afghanistan are two factors that promise to test the flexibility and limits of neutrality. Anceschi mentioned "neutrality really doesn't touch upon gas, which I always find a very strong contradiction because [exporting gas] requires engagement on the other end."

And, on December 13, foreign leaders will be on hand when construction starts on Turkmenistan's section of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also due to be in Turkmenistan for what many believe will be talks on building a trans-Caspian pipeline to bring Turkmen gas to Turkey via the South Caucasus. Such a project has long faced opposition from two other Caspian countries -- Russia and Iran -- and falling back on a policy of neutrality is not likely to resolve the issue to Turkmenistan's satisfaction.

Fighting just across the border in northern Afghanistan has also been testing Turkmenistan's neutrality. In 2014, armed militants crossed into Turkmenistan and killed three border guards in one incident and three Turkmen soldiers during another incursion. Turkmenistan's untested military has so far not responded, even when militants temporarily occupied an island in the Amu-Darya River, half of which is owned by Turkmenistan and half by Afghanistan, in October.

The panelists agreed it would be unthinkable for Turkmen authorities to request outside help to address this security concern. But Myatiev said, "It all depends on the intensity of events that are developing on the border and my feeling is that, in order to guarantee the survival of this regime, Berdymukhammedov's government would do anything with the status of neutrality even adjusting it slightly."

The discussion delved deeper into these topics and addressed other issues of Turkmenistan's neutrality.

An audio recording of the roundtable can be heard here:

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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.