21 Feb 2022

IMEMO Senior Research Fellow Stanislav Pritchin: No changes should be expected in Turkmenistan

Stanislav Pritchin

Stanislav Pritchin
Courtesy photo

Many Russian and western observers have described Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow’s decision to hand over presidential powers to his son Serdar as a step ‘taken in the wake of the events in Kazakhstan’. Stanislav Pritchin, Senior Research Fellow of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), who has devoted many years to the problems of Central Asian countries, has given an interview to Interfax Special Correspondent Vyacheslav Terekhov in which he discusses possible staff reshuffles in Turkmenistan.

Question: Although elections in Turkmenistan are slated for March 12, no one doubts that Serdar Berdimuhamedow, 40, will be voted in almost unanimously as the next president. According to the Turkmen constitution, a person can be elected president at this age. But what does this mean? Is this a consequence of the events in Kazakhstan? Is it possible to say that the son has already been authorized in advance to carry out staff reshuffles?

Answer: I don’t’ think so. Any staff reshuffles assume there is a new team to replace the current one. The main candidate seems to have no such team. Serdar is still being molded as a manager. His career progression has been fairly sheltered. He has been climbing the career ladder in totally different sectors, including the oil and gas sector, the Foreign Ministry, the Ahal region, and then the Industry Ministry. It should be noted that since the system is closed it is hard to say how successful he has been in these positions. In any case the fact that he is the son of the president and possibly his successor has helped him in each of the positions. It seems his independent travels abroad for negotiations with Turkmenistan's key partners in the region, as well as players outside the region are all that indicates he is ready to become the new leader.

Going back to staff reshuffles, in order to make them Serdar, after he becomes president, will have to form this team and to have and promote his vision of the country's development, of how to rebuild the political and economic systems. The question is whether he has this vision or whether he will be pursuing the course set by his father. The second scenario is more likely. But we cannot rule out some tactical changes and new developments. Serdar can bring about some innovations because his educational background is more diverse than his father's. He studied at the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, and before that he graduated from the Turkmen Agriculture University. At least his range of vision and world view are broader. But again, the Turkmen reality dictates style of conduct and managerial model for any administrator. We all clearly remember 2006, when the incumbent president came to power. Innovations and, crucially, a more open approach to governing the state were widely anticipated, but nothing of the kind happened. The political system remained closed.

Q.: This resembles the young North Korean leader. He also came from Geneva and everyone expected that he would bring in something new.

A.: Wherever you are, it’s all about the political system, and in general it is hard to change it. It is impossible to replace the top figure with another one with a more open approach and more democratic and liberal opinions. He will not be able to work because there is a rigid vertical of power. Colossal effort is needed to change it.

Q.: It seems to me that the president moved his son from one position to another to make him familiar with the country's administrative structure.

A.: This is an interesting issue. We have already noted that from the point of view of education the new president is better prepared for the post of the head of state than his father who, although he had higher education, had worked all his life in medicine. Clearly, despite being highly educated, his son has had a somewhat sheltered development career-wise. He wasn't appointed to tricky posts which hypothetically require the ability to solve dilemmas of some sort urgently. His main task was to become familiar with how certain sectors operate. Let me reiterate that it is hard to gain an impression of real results and achievements given the current system in the country. We can only make guesses.

It is rumored that Serdar has treated subordinates and journalists rather harshly. Clearly, his career was built mainly with the help of his father's authority. So, he was perceived everywhere firstly as the president's son and a possible successor. In such conditions the pattern of relations in a team is doomed. There is no working atmosphere, there is the utmost deference and respect. So, it is hard to expect that Serdar, having flitted through all these posts, gained any real managerial experience or experience of resolving the tasks facing the economy.

Q.: If we speak about the lessons of Kazakhstan, is there the question of the role played by members of presidential family take part in businesses?

A.: Again, given that this a closed country, we only have assumptions of various kinds to work on. According to assessments by observers and international NGOs which investigate corruption cases, the president's family is the key factor in Turkmenistan's economic life. The sisters of the incumbent president, his nephews, his daughters and sons-in-law have a very strong presence in economic life and control key sectors of the economy. In this respect, they are key economic players in the country unlike Saparmurat Niyazov, who was raised in an orphanage. He didn't have a large family and this means he didn't have such an influence on various economic sectors.

The development of the oil and gas sector provides for increased international cooperation. At the same time, the country is not showing has not been showing any geopolitical ambitions, while the expansion of transit routes requires broad contacts, at least with neighbors. The question arises what Serdar will inherit in the international arena, in his relations with China, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkey - although it's not a neighbor it is still influential.

It seems that the oil and primarily gas sectors should be the main drivers of the country's economy. But things are by no means good. Turkmenistan exports limited volumes of gas. China, the main buyer of Turkmen gas, imported 34 billion cubic meters last year. Given that Turkmenistan has the world's fourth largest reserves, which BP estimates at 13 trillion cubic meters, these of course are absolutely negligible volumes.

There are several reasons for these modest export figures. They include geopolitical problems, the country's complicated geographic location and the political regime. On the one hand, many global players are interested in supplies of Turkmen gas but geographically, Turkmenistan is a long way from the main markets. Moreover, since it is located inside Eurasia and lacks access to the world’s oceans and seas it doesn't have the opportunity to produce liquefied natural gas, as Qatar does, in order to supply it to any market. On the other hand, pipeline projects are the main thing for Turkmenistan but it's very expensive to build them.

China built a pipeline thousands of kilometers long in order to secure natural gas supplies from Turkmenistan and Central Asia in general. Three lines of the Turkmenistan - Uzbekistan - Kazakhstan - China pipeline were built in 2009. The pipelines were built jointly and an additional pipeline was built in China, so that gas could get to industrially developed regions rather than the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, through which the pipeline goes.

Q.: Has China taken all this gas to prevent it from being supplied to Europe?

A.: The European Union and western countries have considered projects to build a trans-Caspian gas pipeline which would allow gas to be supplied to the European market. But economics, geopolitics, and the system got in the way. No western country put building a pipeline into practice, since the status of the Caspian Sea has not helped this, there has been certain friction between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan and the construction would have cost too much. While China has been hypothetically prepared to carry out a geopolitically motivated project, western countries have been unable to do so as they weigh up to what extent investments in the project are profitable or not.

In the case of Turkmenistan, especially at the current stage, this isn't profitable because a pipeline from the main fields to the Caspian Sea needs to be laid, and this is about 700 kilometers in Turkmenistan, in addition to an underwater pipeline, which must go through a rather deep part of the Caspian Sea with seismic activity. Then the infrastructure of the Southern Gas Corridor, which Azerbaijan and its partners are implementing, needs to be expanded. Gas supplies would ultimately cost the price of gold for the European Union. That is why this project cannot be implemented now.

Q.: The Turkmenistan - Afghanistan - Pakistan - India project was discussed back under Niyazov. What happened to that?

A.: Yes, the so-called TAPI project. Despite the fact that the pipeline was completed on the Turkmen side up to the border with Afghanistan, there has been no further movement. Geopolitically, it would be reckless to build any multibillion project through Afghanistan from the security point of view. No one can guarantee its security at the construction stage, let alone the operating stage.

Another export opportunity for Turkmenistan is Iran, but the trade deals were concluded mainly on barter terms because of price disputes and sanctions against Iran. And there have regularly been problems regarding the price of the supplied gas. Eventually, these disputes forced both countries to wind up cooperation in the gas sphere.

Q.: Russia remains. Recently, demand for Turkmen gas has fallen in Russia considerably. What is the reason?

A.: If we speak about Russian-Turkmen relations, Russia was the main buyer of Turkmen gas before Turkmenistan started to supply it to China.

Q.: Does this mean that China disrupted supplies to Russia rather than to Europe?

A.: Not quite. The parties switched to market pricing, and according to the agreement, Russia was to buy gas at the border with Turkmenistan, and then transport it at its own expense based on the new price - this is the key factor - through the Central Asia - Center system via its territory to the border with European Union. This was absolutely unprofitable in new conditions.

Attempts to somehow revise the agreement have been futile. Now Russia is buying only token volumes of gas from Turkmenistan. Here is the main difficulty in bilateral relations in the gas sphere. Let me stress that it was profitable before because the price was absolutely different. According to that pricing, it was profitable for Russia to buy Turkmen gas and ship it to Europe through existing infrastructure. Now it's not.

Another issue that doesn't not facilitate intensification is that Turkmenistan doesn't grant Gazprom access to its biggest onshore gas fields. Russian companies are offered the opportunity to develop primarily offshore oil and gas fields. Obviously this is much more expensive and the volumes of gas produced are much lower than at offshore fields. Turkmenistan had only admitted China to its onshore projects.

Q.: And Turkey? Did it really play an important role in resolving difficult gas relations between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan?

A.: If we speak about Turkey, in general Turkey always wanted to play a big role given that the main southern gas corridor from Azerbaijan goes through Turkey. Turkey is seeking at the political level to give all possible support to any Turkmen-Azerbaijani cooperation projects.

Last year, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan reached an agreement on a border field, which they call Dostluk. It had long been a stumbling block between the two states because they disputed each other's share. In the end, they found a formula of interaction - 70% of profit from produced oil and gas go to Turkmenistan and 30% to Azerbaijan but all infrastructure is connected to Azerbaijan's current infrastructure. This will make it possible to save on capital expenditure because only 20-30 kilometers of a pipeline need to be laid to reach the current infrastructure.

Turkey did its best to portray this agreement as Turkic unity in the energy sphere although it didn't have anything to do with either the negotiations or the drafting of a feasibility study for the project, and Turkish companies are taking no part in it. Turkmen, Azerbaijani and Russian companies are involved in it.

Q.: Are there any international energy companies involved in developing gas fields, as in Kazakhstan, for example?

A.: They are, but not to a great extent. There are Malaysian companies working on the shelf but these are small players. In fact, working with Turkmenistan is very toxic and dangerous from the image point of view for large companies. For all the economic benefits of cooperation with Turkmenistan, no one will go there because the political regime doesn't contribute to the safety of investments. No arbitration is going to work, while there are considerable risks for large businesses.

Q.: Let's get back to the comparison with Kazakhstan. The development of civil society and social networks in Turkmenistan is so low that there are absolutely no possibilities for organizing social protests, not to mention the penetration of the country by subversive elements. There is only Islamic influence left. Is it felt there?

A.: In general, Turkmenistan lacks civil society, social networks or any freedoms. The Internet is strictly controlled. There is no unbiased information about the situation in the country. Only the supreme authorities may have it. Some time ago western agencies tried to compile rankings involving Turkmenistan but they stopped, saying they didn't trust official data from the country.

If we speak about the Islamic factor, there is no unbiased data to this end, either. If a country is very closed, we might assume there is some kind of underground, but again this is all guesswork. The reasons are all the same: the state strictly regulates all spheres of life. So, Islam is under control there as well, and we cannot talk about any conditions for an Islamic underground.

Q.: So, the transfer of power in Turkmenistan can in no way be explained by the fact that the authorities fear opposition, since there is no opposition? Nazarbayev previously never spoke about transferring power, but he had to. Why did Berdimuhamedow transfer power to his son? I read that he is a mystic and that is why he cares so much about rituals and numbers. For example, in order to prevent coronavirus Berdimuhamedow, who has medical background, ordered to burn down a burial site to frighten the demon, meaning the virus, away, and there is no registered coronavirus case in Turkmenistan. Reaching the age of Prophet Muhammad he said that in keeping with the Quran he decided to dedicate his life to sharing knowledge and experience to younger people, to his son. Is it possible to say that his mysticism was one of the factors that made him give presidential powers to his son?

A.: Observers note that the Turkmen president does indeed hold various mystical rituals and numbers in high regard. He has always had and continues to have a thorough approach to decisions regarding any state problems. The main thing is that they are symbolic.

This is true. But what are the reasons? Some experts believe that the man has reexamined his life and somehow understood that something has to change in the country. Moreover, it seems to me that he is tired. He has been in power for 15 years and in general this mystical element, he is 64 years old, gives him reasons to say that given his age he could, if not retire completely, then become a mentor for a younger generation. The transfer of power could be viewed as one of the reasons for transit from this perspective.

However, it is absolutely clear to all that Berdimuhamedow Sr. is unlikely to completely leave power. He is likely to keep the post of the speaker of the parliament's upper chamber and therefore the main levers of power. He is simply nominally passing, in the current system, the opportunity to rule and preside to his son. We can see over the past few months that Serdar has been actively attending international meetings.

Q.: In case of Nazarbayev, the post of head of the Security Council, as a body that controls the situation in the country, didn't help him.

A.: The thing is that the incumbent Turkmen president will keep the real main levers of power. In general, the whole political system is tailored to him and is built in terms of personnel, finance, economics and politics in such a way that his son won't be able to make drastic changes. Moreover, his son simply lacks the experience of state administration and authority to become a full-fledged leader of the nation. If we compare it to Kazakhstan, Berdimuhamedow Jr. as the leader will have far fewer opportunities than Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has under Nazarbayev.

Another very important factor which distinguishes power transition in both countries is that the predecessor of the future president is his father, so he bears family obligations before his father, before the elder, which is a very important factor in Turkmenistan, in addition to obligations as a successor.

In any case, it is the father who will be considered as the head both in the family and the state.