Turkmenistan - Foreign Relations
Turkmenistan has declared "positive neutrality" and "open doors" to be the two major components of its foreign policy. Positive neutrality is defined as gaining international recognition of the republic's independence, agreeing upon mutual non-interference in internal affairs, and maintaining neutrality in external conflicts. The open- doors policy has been adopted to encourage foreign investment and export trade, especially through the development of a transport infrastructure. Turkmenistan gained membership in the United Nations (UN) in early 1992.
Turkmenistan's declaration of "permanent neutrality" was formally recognized by the United Nations in 1995. Although the Government of Turkmenistan has favored high-profile purchases from the United States like Boeing aircraft, it has significant commercial relationships with Turkey, Russia, and Iran, and increasingly with China. The government worked closely with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan until September 11, 2001, and until that time had a growing cross-border trade with the regime in Afghanistan.
Turkmenistan, citing its “positive neutrality” since independence, has rejected almost all multinational security-cooperation initiatives with the other Central Asian countries and declined to participate in either the peacekeeping mission in Tajikistan or the CENTRASBAT program. Ashgabat loses little by not participating in these efforts as it is the most removed from the primary cross-border challenges.
Turkmenistan's remaining neighbor Afghanistan indirectly contributed to the Caspian republic's relative self-isolation. The main reason lay in the special ties between former Turkmen leader Saparmurad Niyazov and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. When the United States started its war in Afghanistan in the winter of 2001-2002, Turkmenistan fell into complete isolation, as if it did not exist.
The five states of Central Asia wrestle with sharing limited water resources and environmental degradation caused by the shrinking of the Aral Sea. Multilaterally accepted Caspian Sea seabed and maritime boundaries have not yet been established. Up to now, Iran has insisted on dividing the Caspian Sea into five equal sectors while Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia have generally agreed upon equidistant seabed boundaries. Turkmenistan is negotiating bilateral delimitation with Azerbaijan.
The country has yet to emerge from the years of self-imposed isolation it entered during the presidency of Saparmyrat Niyazov. The foreign policy of Turkmenistan is characterized by active participation of the country in the international initiatives aimed at finding ways to maintain the world’s safety and promote a sustainable socio-economic well-being of all the countries and their people. Priorities of Turkmenistan in the area of international relations are defined in the document entitled “The Basic Directions for Realization of Foreign Policy Strategy of Neutral Turkmenistan for 2008-2012? and confirmed by the President of Turkmenistan on March 20th, 2008. Among the important aspects of Turkmen diplomacy are humanitarian and legal components of the state foreign policy. Politico-diplomatic measurement is realized through establishment and development of mutual relations of Turkmenistan with other states and close interaction with the international organizations. As of January 2009, Turkmenistan has established diplomatic relations with 127 countries, and is the full member of more than 40 international organizations. In 2007, the Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy was opened in Ashgabat.
Pervasive historical and geopolitical factors shape Turkmenistan's foreign policy. With the removal of the protective Soviet "umbrella," the foreign policy tasks facing independent Turkmenistan are the establishment of independent national security and economic systems, while coping with the long legacy of existence in the empires of tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. As of 1996, all of Turkmenistan's gas pipelines went north into the Russian Federation or other CIS states, thus subordinating sectors of its economic development to that of relatively poor countries. Because Turkmenistan lacks a strong military, independence depends on establishing military pacts with Russia and on developing balanced diplomatic and economic ties with Russia and neighboring countries (see Role of Russia and CIS, this ch.).
Turkmenistan's geographical location close to conflict-riven Afghanistan and Tajikistan also requires a guarded posture toward the irredentist and Islamic forces at play in those countries. Concern over border security was heightened by an incident in October 1993 when two Afghan jets bombed Turkmen territory, despite recent talks with Afghan officials aimed at ensuring equality and non-interference.
Turkmenistan's status as an Islamic state also affects Turkmenistan's relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Although in need of the foreign aid and developmental opportunities offered by these countries, Turkmenistan's government also endeavors to blunt any perceived threats to its secular status that arise from Muslim activists. The Turkic identity of the bulk of its population thus far has not proven to be a significant factor in foreign affairs because Turkmenistan must compete with other Central Asian Turkic republics for markets and for closer socioeconomic ties with Turkey.
An important historical factor in current policy is that prior to independence the Soviet government conducted Turkmenistan's foreign affairs. The only involvement of republic officials in international relations was in the form of ceremonial contacts aimed at showcasing Soviet nationality policy by presenting Turkmenistan as a developmental model for Third World countries.
Despite its substantial means, Turkmenistan’s isolationist policies leave it in a particularly difficult situation. Like President Niyazov, President Berdimuhamedov emphasized "neutrality" as the hallmark of the country's foreign policy. Nevertheless, he put an unprecedented emphasis on foreign affairs to repair Turkmenistan's international and regional relations and to become a respected player on the international stage. Trips by President Berdimuhamedov late last in 2008 to Germany and Austria and in 2009 to Uzbekistan, Iran and Russia were opportunities for the Turkmen to reaffirm their multi-directional foreign policy.
Turkmenistan has world-class natural gas reserves, but Russia's near monopoly of the country energy export routes made it overly beholden to Russia. The disadvantage of this situation was been driven home to the Turkmen following the April 2009 pipeline explosion and subsequent dispute, which halted gas exports to Russia and forced the Turkmen to shut down a large part of its gas production. Pipeline diversification would not only enhance Turkmenistan's economic and political sovereignty, but also help fuel new levels of prosperity throughout the region. In July 2009, Turkmenistan reached an agreement with Iran for increased gas sales. Construction of a new pipeline to Iran was scheduled for completion by the end of 2009. The gas pipeline to China began shipping a limited quantity of gas later in 2009. Of all the Central Asian countries, Turkmenistan has the closest commercial ties with Iran, mostly thanks to large gas exports. The presidents of both countries opened a new gas pipeline in January 2010, increasing the gas supplies to Iran’s northeast provinces.
Under President Berdimuhamedov's leadership, Turkmenistan reached out to participate actively in regional organizations. He has met with all the leaders in the region, as well as with those of other countries of importance to Turkmenistan. China has a strong and growing commercial presence in Turkmenistan, and continues to court the president through a series of high-level commercial and political visits. Presidents Berdimuhamedov and Gul (Turkey) have exchanged visits, but bilateral relations continue to be colored more by the image of Turkey's lucrative trade and construction contracts that are eating up large amounts of money from the national budget.
Accompanying President Berdimuhamedov's focus on reaching out to Turkmenistan's near and more distant neighbors was an increased effort to participate in and cooperate with regional fora. During President Berdimuhamedov's tenure, Turkmenistan has become an increasingly active player in a number of regional fora, including the (counter-narcotics) Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Center, the Central Asian Trade Investment Framework Agreement mechanism (TIFA), and the European Union's Central Asian Troika process. While cognizant of its neutral status, it bolstered its previous participation in meetings of the Commonwealth of Independent States and in its participation -- as an observer -- in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as in NATO with the status of a Partnership-for-Peace country.
Turkmenistan participated in regional reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and sponsored a number of Afghan students at its universities and pedagogical institutes. In early April 2009, the Turkmen government agreed to bolster by 2010 the electricity it was already selling to Afghanistan by an additional 300 megawatts. President Berdimuhamedov also agreed to extend the current price at which Turkmenistan is selling electricity to Afghanistan -- 2 cents per kilowatt hour -- to 2010. Concerning Afghanistan, Turkmenistan sees the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan as linked, and that they cannot be solved simply by military means. Turkmenistan donates humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, particularly in the northern part of the country, constructing schools, hospitals and other projects.
Although Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have made progress in resolving many of the issues that had troubled their relationship, delimitation of their boundary in the Caspian remains unresolved, with implications for the feasibility of a Trans-Caspian pipeline. Turkmen leaders seem to believe that they have shown the most flexibility and are looking for reciprocity from the Azeris. Following a round of bilateral boundary talks in July 2009, Berdimuhamedov announced that Turkmenistan would seek international arbitration of the dispute, indicating that Turkmenistan was not satisfied with the progress in resolving this issue.
A freight container train was sent from China’s Yinchuan city 29 December 2017 along the route through Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to Iran. On 30 December 2017, another freight container train was sent along the same route from the north-western Chinese city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province. On 28 December 2017, a test container train was sent to Iran from China’s Changsha city through Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The route runs through the Khorgos border crossing, the Altynkol-Bolashak (Kazakhstan) and Serhetyaka-Akyayla (Turkmenistan) railway lines to Tehran.
The length of the Changsha-Tehran route is more than 10,297 kilometers, the travel time is 14 days, which is much less than by sea (from 25 to 30 days). The freight train has more than fifty containers with consumer goods. Development of container transportation along the route will contribute to its attractiveness, building up of Turkmen transit potential and growth of its competitiveness.
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