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Putin will visit the new president of Turkmenistan for the first time

In what areas cooperation between Moscow and Ashgabat is possible The President of Russia will visit Turkmenistan this week for the first time after Serdar Berdimuhamedov's victory in the presidential elections in the republic. How the country has changed under him and what to expect from the visit – RBC figured out alt=”Putin will visit the new president of Turkmenistan for the first time” />

Vladimir Putin (right) and Serdar Berdimuhamedov

On Wednesday, June 29, Ashgabat will host the sixth Caspian Summit, which will be attended by the heads of the Caspian states. In addition to Turkmenistan, these are Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Russia. The event will be the first major international forum since Serdar Berdimuhamedov, formerly a deputy prime minister, became president of Turkmenistan. As president, he succeeded his father, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. The summit and the visit of the Russian President coincided with two important dates for the country— birthday of Berdimuhamedov Sr. and 100 days that his 40-year-old son Serdar (translated from Turkmen « leader») spent as head of state.

According to the program of the Russian leader's stay in Ashgabat, the first thing he will do is congratulate the former president on his 65th birthday. To do this, Vladimir Putin will visit the apparatus of the upper house of the Turkmen parliament, chaired by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. He played “an important personal role in establishing the current form of cooperation between the Caspian countries,” “always played a big role in shaping Russian-Turkmen cooperation,” Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters at a briefing. After that, Putin will meet with the new president. This will be their second meeting; the first was less than three weeks ago— Serdar Berdimuhamedov visited Moscow on June 10.

How Turkmenistan has changed under the new president

Turkmenistan is one of the Central Asian countries with low information transparency, it is the second most closed country after the DPRK— due to the lack of objective information about the state of affairs and difficulties with the entry of foreigners into it, according to the rating of the American Freedom House. Even the exact population is unknown— the United Nations, the World Bank and the US State Department estimate that this figure is around 5.5-6 million people, while opposition media published abroad, citing unnamed government sources, speak of 2.8 million inhabitants. The last time a population census in Turkmenistan was conducted in 2012, but its results were never made public, which became a reason for speculation.

There are no signs that the situation may change under a new president. Turkmenistan— fourth from the bottom in the Reporters Without Borders Media Freedom Index, — below Iran, North Korea and Eritrea. In 2019, the country was completely on the last line of the rating. In addition to the media, the state fully controls the sphere of culture— this is done by a special commission. During the coronavirus pandemic, Turkmenistan and the DPRK were the only countries that denied the presence of a pandemic in the country, despite the fact that then North Korea did admit that the “fever” was raging in the country. Since the start of the pandemic, foreign media reports on Turkmenistan have periodically referred to famine in the country and shortages of basic foodstuffs, including bread. Officially, the country's authorities did not declare problems with food supply. The UK government report on the country suggests that the problem of hunger existed even before the coronavirus pandemic. The document describes long queues for food items such as flour, butter, milk and bread. The report also mentions a ration card system. The authors of the report cite hyperinflation, state regulation of the market, discrepancy between the state and market exchange rates, and an extremely high level of corruption as the reasons for the shortage of products. The report also refers to massive violations of human rights.

In this area, the situation even worsened with the coming to power of Serdar Berdimuhamedov. According to The Diplomat, in April 2022, the country's authorities announced a ban on cosmetic procedures for women. In particular, they cannot dye their hair, build nails and eyelashes, get a tattoo, use Botox, or resort to a breast augmentation procedure. It is also forbidden to wear “sex clothes”. According to the publication, “educational conversations” were held with women at universities and workplaces, as a result of which they had to write receipts stating that they voluntarily refuse these services, and also undertake to wear national clothes. In May, it became known about the ban for women to ride in the front seat in a taxi and be in the same car with men who are not members of their family. This was not officially announced, but the taxi drivers were given appropriate orders. Rights in Turkmenistan were no longer issued to women back in 2018. Valid rights do not renew.

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There is no reason to count on any kind of modernization of social and political life under Berdymukhammedov Jr., Arkady Dubnov, an expert on Central Asian countries, believes: “It seems that his form of government will reproduce the image of a family tyrant, he will scale of a large Turkmen family.

Photo: Vyacheslav Sargsyan/Reuters

In what areas is economic cooperation possible

The Kremlin expects that the summit will pay special attention to economic cooperation, as the region has potential in terms of minerals, marine living resources, transport and transit opportunities.

Moscow and Ashgabat are interested in deepening economic integration, says economist, program director of the Valdai Club Yaroslav Lisovolik. According to him, “we are entering the stage when countries will go beyond their traditional limits,” because for all thirty years of independence, Turkmenistan has kept aloof from regional integration projects such as the EAEU, the SCO and others. It may be interesting for Russia to discuss the creation of new logistics corridors, given that under the conditions of sanctions, the north direction becomes attractive for Moscow. south (international transport corridor from India through Iran and Russia to the Baltic countries), and not just east— west, indicates Lisovolik. In addition, since Turkmenistan— a notable player in the Caspian region, Moscow may be interested in cooperating with Ashgabat in order to coordinate actions on foreign markets in the fuel and energy sector, Lissovolik adds.

According to the World Bank, Russia was until recently the largest importer of gas from Turkmenistan, however, after the conclusion of a new bilateral agreement in 2019, the volume of supplies decreased significantly. This allowed China to become the largest energy importer from Turkmenistan. The country is also one of the participants in the TAPI gas pipeline construction project, through which Turkmenistan will supply gas to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Unlike Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan is not suitable for the role of a country that helped Moscow to circumvent Western sanctions, Dubnov said. “As in the Soviet years, Turkmenistan is important in terms of gas resources, so that they do not go in the direction of enemies,” — Dubnov is convinced. Russia in the 2000s made a lot of efforts to ensure that there was no trans-Caspian gas pipeline, closing the export of Turkmen gas to itself. But now the topic of “possible export of Turkmen gas in addition to Azerbaijani gas to Europe” back on the agenda, he continues. “Moscow, given that it uses gas as an effective economic weapon, does not need competitors” so that they don’t dump, they can’t make up for the shortage of Russian gas in Europe,»,— the expert explains his point of view.

In general, it is important for Russia that Turkmenistan “do not run far under a new leader,” Dubnov said. “Serdar Berdimuhamedov gives the impression of such a gloomy house builder, but it can be deceptive, — Dubnov continues.— So it's important to understand what's really on his mind about foreign policy. Dubnov also calls attempts to draw Turkmenistan into the EAEU a constantly topical topic. “Success in this direction is not yet expected, but efforts are unlikely to be abandoned,” — he summarizes.

Turkmenistan has a vast territory, but a significant part of it is unsuitable for habitation due to the sharply continental climate— the country has over 250 hot days a year. Such climatic conditions put Turkmenistan in a dependent position— the country is in a zone of risky farming and is forced to export agricultural products. The exception is the cultivation of cotton. At the same time, the national economy largely relies on energy exports: Turkmenistan is in fourth place in terms of world natural gas reserves with an indicator of 10%.

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