While the world is watching Ukraine, there is another former Soviet republic that has quietly undergone regime change. Turkmenistan’s 65-year-old former president, known, in the manner of a comic book superhero, as ‘The Protector’, stepped down in February. With Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s departure, the Mejlis Assembly duly called for elections on 12 March.
As regime changes go this one was hardly revolutionary. The Protector’s son, having just turned 40 (the minimum age at which a candidate can stand for the presidency) won the election at a canter. The only surprise was that Serdar, ‘The Son of the Nation’, won just 73 per cent of the vote compared to his father’s 97 per cent winning mandate in 2017. His nearest challenger was an anonymous university official who won 11 per cent. Perhaps the voters mistook him for the president’s son; Serdar, like his challenger, has the generic clean-cut looks and suiting of an IBM executive circa 1960.
The new president projects a charisma-free image. Like a fast-tracked corporate manager, his pro forma CV has included spells in the army, the foreign office, the energy ministry and the governorship of Ahal province. Serdar is a dour technocrat, a quietly spoken family man with four children. So far, so dull. But there is time for dictatorial foibles to emerge.
In 2006, after the suspicious death of Turkmenistan’s first post-Soviet president, Serdar’s father was seen as the nation’s saviour. His predecessor’s life-size gold statue, which rotated with the sun in Ashgabat’s main square, was dismantled. Meanwhile, Turkmenbashy’s random bans, which included circus performances, gold teeth, recorded music at weddings and listening to car radios, were abolished.
Serdar Berdymukhamedov, the country’s new president (Getty)
After a brief interlude, Serdar’s father doubled down on Turkmanbashy’s eccentricity. He often appeared at official events on horseback wearing elaborately brocaded coats and a fluffy white hat. At other times he wore gaudy tracksuits when he was in DJing mode. Obsessed by Guinness World Records, he kept their adjudicators busy with important contributions to global culture such as the largest indoor ferris wheel.
Other useful idiots who supported this corrupt tinpot dictator included Jack Nicklaus, who built Turkmenistan’s first golf course, and the singer Jennifer Lopez, who was paid by the China National Oil Corporation to serenade The Protector on his 56th birthday.
Despite the eccentricities of its leaders, Turkmenistan is emerging as a power of sorts. Sometimes described as an isolationist state in the mode of North Korea, Turkmenistan, with a population of just six million, does not have nukes to attract international attention, but it does have vast mineral resources. Their gas fields alone amount to 4 per cent of world reserves. The Galkynysh gas field, which started to operate in 2013, is the world’s second-largest.
However, like Ukraine, Turkmenistan has resolutely refused to bow to Russian pressure to join its Commonwealth of Independent States. A low-ball Russian offer to buy its gas was rejected. Where could Turkmenistan sell its gas?
For over 25 years the government has planned to build a gas pipeline across the Caspian to Azerbaijan from where it could link up, via Turkey, with the Trans Adriatic Pipeline to the heel of Italy. However, Russia has thus far used its littoral rights in the Caspian to block this route to market on the grounds of environmental damage.
A southern pipeline known as Tapi (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India) is also stymied. Even the Taliban has stated that ‘the Tapi pipeline is an important regional project’. But transit pricing and financing remain problematic.
Fortunately, China’s insatiable need for power has provided Turkmenistan with an outlet. Xi Jinping has used China’s geopolitical muscle to build a 1,800 mile pipeline across Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. From here Turkmen gas taps into China’s nationwide gas network.
Placed at the crossroads linking Europe, Russia, the Middle East and China, Turkmenistan might appear vulnerable from its more powerful neighbours. But crossroads have advantages. Its energy wealth and determined independence, somewhat like Qatar, put Turkmenistan in a position of some power and influence.
Russia, with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline now mothballed, is being frozen out by Europe. The Kremlin needs access to new markets for gas. New pipeline deals have been signed with Xi Jinping to bring Siberian gas to northern China. However, does Putin want to put himself entirely in Chinese hands?
Through Turkmenistan’s planned Tapi and trans-Caspian pipelines, Russia could tap into the fast-growing markets of India, Pakistan and Turkey. Newly elected President Serdar Berdymukhamedov could yet emerge as a power broker as the world re-engineers its gas networks in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
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