New President Putting Turkmenistan On The Geopolitical Map

Recent developments highlight that Turkmenistan is growing in importance, with new President Serdar Berdymukhamedov venturing out for his first foreign trips to Russia and Iran since he replaced his father, Gurbanguly, in March. The country is increasingly becoming a transit point for a significant series of relationships between Moscow and Tehran.

Turkmen society is uniquely divided into several region-based ethnic clans. The western part of the country is different from the eastern part. The area around Mary is of a different social texture than Turkmenbashi on the Caspian Sea coast. Important Islamic ruins in Mary are likely to become a major religio-cultural attraction under the new president. There is a new dynamic emerging that is important for logistics and near-term economic cooperation between Ashgabat’s two main partner countries.

The 40-year-old Turkmen leader was in Moscow last month, when he received the Order of Friendship from Russian President Vladimir Putin for his “great contribution to strengthening the strategic partnership between Russia and Turkmenistan.” This was quite an award for Berdymukhamedov, with notable significance for the bilateral relationship between the two countries.

Importantly, Putin noted that: “Russia respects the neutral status of Turkmenistan as well as the desire of the country’s leadership to promote sustainable and stable development in the Central Asian region and in the world as a whole.” This illustrates Turkmenistan’s close ties to Russia. With the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow continues to demonstrate its ability to uncoil successfully in key spots, including the area surrounding the Kopet Dag mountain range on the Turkmen-Iranian border.

Berdymukhamedov and Putin signed 15 cooperation documents, along with a declaration expanding their countries’ strategic partnership. In addition, Turkmenistan is now arguing for bilateral and five-party cooperation to make arrangements for a summit meeting of the Caspian Sea states in Ashgabat. The other subjects discussed during the leaders’ meeting included developments in Afghanistan. These talks were about security and logistics. As could also be seen in the Turkmen president’s visit to Tehran this week, the summit and resulting agreements were about trade growth that fits into Russia’s logistical plan. Russian companies such as Gazprom, Lukoil, Tatneft, Transmashholding and United Shipbuilding Corporation all operate in the country.

Berdymukhamedov’s visit to Iran resulted in very similar agreements focusing on growth in bilateral relations and logistics. However, it is necessary to understand that the Ashgabat-Tehran relationship is not new, it has been ongoing for decades, even during the Soviet period. For quite some time, Turkmenistan and Iran have been cooperating on border agreements, as well as on gas shipped from the Caspian into Iran. Natural gas swaps are also common between the two countries. Turkmenistan’s security interests along the border between the two countries crosses many different geographic zones, with crossing points at Sarakhs, for example. These roads lead to Iran’s holy city of Mashhad.

In Tehran, Berdymukhamedov met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. The two leaders signed nine documents across a broad range of topics. One beneficial outcome of the talks was the establishment of the joint Tehran-Ashgabat Trade Center as part of the preferential trade agreement between the two countries. A reduction in tariffs is now being drawn up to boost trade.

The Turkmen president also met with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who underlined the Iranian government’s commitment to strengthening relations with the neighboring country. However, Khamenei warned that friendly relations between Iran and Turkmenistan have opponents at the regional and international levels, in reference to Middle Eastern and Western interests.

Iran has also started a pilot logistics project with Russia and India, known as the International North-South Transport Corridor. The corridor this week welcomed its first lorries from Russia that are headed to India via Iran. The growth of this route will be enhanced by Turkmenistan’s relationships with these countries. Indian interests in Turkmenistan are also decades-old, especially in regard to the security issue in Afghanistan. Much of this shipping activity is tied to the new Taliban government, with logistics routes seen as a way to keep things calm in Afghanistan if need be.

There are a few other points of interest in Turkmenistan’s new hub-like status. Berdymukhamedov’s relationship with Kazakhstan is also key to the transit lines that are being put into place from Iran. And Nur-Sultan is interested in building a grain storage terminal on Turkmenistan’s border with Afghanistan. This would ensure Kazakh wheat exporters had easy access to the important markets to the south. Thus, the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan axis is coming into sharper relief at the moment, as Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev explores ways to enhance transportation routes to and from Russia.

There was very little discussion of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, which is yet to be constructed. Pakistan is still “out” in terms of being a player. And with Indian interests growing in Central Asia while Pakistan’s political landscape is askew, New Delhi is well positioned.

In addition, Turkey has major corporate and financial interests in Turkmenistan, which may be a positive development over time, especially if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wins reelection in 2023.

Overall, Berdymukhamedov is showing that Russia and Iran are key partners. And the new Turkmen president is planning more international travel to beef up his country’s new-found importance as a logistics hub and gas producer. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is actually benefiting the development of these new transit ties — a fact that puts the Turkmen leader and his partners within the scope of possible Western sanctions.