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Hudson Senior Fellow Zeyno Baran, Director of Center for Eurasian Policy comments on the impact of the death of the Turkmen President
After Turkmenbashi-What Now?
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov died on 21 December from cardiac arrest. Though there were previous rumors that the president had a heart condition, Niyazov's death came as a surprise due to a lack of reliable information coming out of the country. Given that he did not prepare a successor, and that there is currently no one with sufficient popularity or experience to succeed him, it is likely that there will be a period of uncertainty.
Niyazov's iron-fisted rule ensured that Turkmenistan remained stable; however, it is widely assumed that this stability was based more on a fragile, easily-destroyed “house of cards” rather than a solid foundation.
It is too early to suggest who might become Turkmenistan's next president. Some analysts have speculated that Niyazov's son Murad, who has recently become active in government affairs, might want the job. As for the opposition, it is currently in a weakened state as many of the leaders have been jailed, while others live in exile. The most likely scenario for now is a period of clan-based infighting among government officials striving for the top post.
The US and the EU have kept Niyazov at arm's length due to his shortcomings in the areas of democracy and human rights. The US government even excluded Turkmenistan from its new South and Central Asia regional development strategy, believing that there would be little possibility of meaningful cooperation so long as Niyazov remained in power. Now that he is out of the picture, there is a possible opening—assuming the US moves quickly.
For its part, the EU has finally begun paying attention to Central Asia as an important source of oil and gas; but again, due to the nature of the Niyazov's regime, Europe has been reluctant to work too closely with Turkmenistan. Germany, which will hold the EU and the G-8 presidencies starting January 1, 2007, has already identified Central Asia as a key region of attention during its term in office. With Niyazov gone, Germany will be in a position to devise a much more meaningful EU strategy toward this strategic country.
However, Russia is best positioned to take advantage of this new opening. For over a decade, access to Turkmenistan’s rich gas volumes has been a key priority for Moscow. With the Kremlin’s widely-publicized use of gas as a “political weapon,” this focus has increased over the last several years. It is worth noting that President Vladimir Putin is directly engaged in this issue, whereas the US has consigned the Central Asian portfolio—especially Turkmenistan—to the Assistant Secretary level. Moreover, since Russia is geographically much closer to Turkmenistan and shares a similar culture, it can play inter-clan games much better than either the US or the EU. In fact, it would not be a surprise to see Putin himself attending Niyazov's funeral, accompanied by a top Gazprom representative—in contrast to the fairly low-level delegations sent from the West.
China and Iran, two of Turkmenistan's geopolitically significant neighbors, are also likely to send top government representatives to the funeral; however, these two are not likely to play a major role in the machinations of the succession process. The same holds true for Turkmenistan's other neighbors: Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The Role of Moscow: Policy Instruments and Goals
Few in the West realize that Niyazov was not “Russia's man.” In fact, Niyazov wanted to move away from the grip of the Kremlin (and its foreign policy instrument Gazprom), but was unable to do so given the West's reluctance to work with him. In this respect, Niyazov resembled Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka, commonly known in the West as “Europe's last dictator.” He too is not a friend of Russia, but has moved closer to Moscow in the absence of any such possibilities with the West. It is an open secret that Moscow would love to see Lukashenka go, but will keep backing him as long as the West continues to oppose him. Lukashenka's reluctance to conclude gas deals with Russia has further heightened tensions with Moscow—as did Niyazov’s own recalcitrance within the framework of Turkmen-Russian bilateral ties.
After Vice President Dick Cheney traveled to Kazakhstan in May to advocate a trans-Caspian gas pipeline that would allow Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to ship their gas directly to European markets (as opposed to exporting reserves via the Gazprom network and receiving very little in the way of compensation), Niyazov negotiated a much more favorable deal. The negotiations lasted months and frustrated Gazprom and Kremlin officials—even more so when they could only secure a three-year deal rather than a long-term commitment that would effectively kill the prospects of a trans-Caspian gas pipeline.
Niyazov may have been many things, but he was not a Russian puppet. Moscow wants to see a more malleable next president of Turkmenistan, one willing to bow to Russian wishes, particularly on gas issues. Given that the next president will inevitably be weak, Russian-Turkmen relations will depend on whether Niyazov's successor decides to rely on Russian backing to consolidate his position, or attempts to keep a healthy distance from Moscow.
It would be naïve to expect a democrat or a reformer to assume the presidency, as such figures are simply not present in Turkmenistan. One does not need to look far to see what may be possible: In Kyrgyzstan, some analysts initially expressed optimism that the ouster of former president Askar Akaev would usher in a new era of democracy. Instead, Kyrgyzstan has sunk into infighting, instability, and crime (notable drug smuggling); in fact today the country is no better off than it was in the last days of President Akaev, who was touted for many years as “Central Asia's poster child” for his democratic development. With a starting position significantly further back than that of Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan's best case scenario is to find a leader who will:
Enjoy the support of enough domestic power brokers to keep the country from falling apart and thus becoming an even more attractive environment for drug and arms smugglers, as well as regional Islamists and terrorists;
- Work with the international community to ensure that economic and political liberalization is conducted gradually and in keeping with local conditions (e.g. dealing with popular expectations to continue to be supplied with free gas, electricity, etc.) to ensure there is no economic, political, or social chaos;
- Receive sufficient top-level attention from the US and the EU, so he will not have to rely on Russia as his sole backer.