Turkmenistan can be labeled as the most traditional society in the Caspian area. As a country, somewhere between historical tribalism and current authoritarianism, Turkmenistan has yet to establish a clear image of itself beyond state borders.
With the power change in 2007, following the death of the former president-for-life Niyazov, many political analysts claim Turkmenistan entered a new era of alternated and to some extent softened internal politics, accompanied with the process of establishing the country`s image on the international stage, as a reassuring sign of the country`s willingness to open up to the world.
Turkmenistan is also one of the most homogenous countries of Central Asia and is fiercely proud of its traditions and culture. Turkmen people are well known for their generosity and hospitality, as witnessed by the growing number of tourists in the country. Besides the many historical and cultural sights the country can offer, some even protected as UNESCO world heritage sites, along with the famous authentic horse breed Akhali- Teke and world renowned rugs, one of the well-known ones is definitely the so called Door to hell, a burning natural gas field in the middle of the Karakum desert, burning continuously after being lit by the Soviet petroleum engineers back in 1971. More vivid tourism activity in the future would arguably benefit the soft power of the country, but for now remains only one possible future outcome. Many prospective tourists are namely deterred by the very strict visa regime.
This seems to be perpetually more and more understood by the Turkmenistan regime that is looking for ways to diversify and strengthen the soft power tools of the country. After being somewhat isolated for a long period of time, this goal seems a bit distant for now, but there are signs of setting the course for different trends in the future. For example, with a new mega-project named “Avaza National Touristic Zone”, which started back in 2009, country wishes to establish a chain of hotels, entertainment structure and casinos to transform the area by the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan Las Vegas in the next decade. First important international event was held there last year, when 12th of August was marked as “The day of the Caspian Sea” and the ceremony was attended by the diplomatic delegations of Caspian littoral countries and representatives from Asia Development Bank, World Bank, UNDP, OSCE and German Society for International Cooperation. Accompanied conferences on the ecological issues of the Caspian Sea were also held.
Besides tourism attractions and renowned hospitality of local people, Turkmenistan has various other means to help boost the soft power country has in international community, which is for now still to a large extent power in the making. One of them is certainly expanding and enlarging the prospects for (still very careful and monitored) cooperation with international scientific community on various topics, but most prolifically on the cultural identity of peoples, dialogue of civilizations and preserving the national heritage. Most of the international scholarly mingling is still being held inside the Turkmenistan state borders, for example, in 2015 only we can list almost 30 different international exhibitions and conferences on vastly different array of topics, from sports, trade, tourism, art to gas and oil. This can be identified as the first step towards a broader and more prolific international engagement.
Turkmenistan is also very proud of its neutral foreign policy and is highlighting their direction of positive neutrality in international relations as many times as possible. The regime proclaimed the year 2015 as the Year of Peace and Neutrality and President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov was promoting this brand in a series of official visits to Austria, Italia and Slovenia, in addition to exploring possibilities for energy cooperation with the selected countries.
One of the most fruitful cooperations and arguably an additional display of attention the soft power tactics have in the country`s establishment is the relationship with Germany. Bilateral cultural links include Turkmen- German Forum and the Turkmen- German Cultural Institute, founded for attaining the goal of closer ties between the countries` people. The latter is based in Cologne, Germany, with a special endeavor of promoting Turkmen culture and cultural heritage in Germany and concentrating on creating and enhancing ties between Turkmen and German artists, poets, sportsmen and students by organizing events, festivals and exhibitions. Similar events were held this year in May in Zagreb, Croatia and in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan titled “Days of the Turkmenistan Culture”, presenting work from various Turkmenistan artists, poets, singers and musicians.
In addition to substantial cultural exchange there were also events, focusing on the economics. One was the so called “The Day of Turkmenistan Economy in France”, held last year in Paris and an economic forum in Ashgabat, titled “The Day of the German Economy in Turkmenistan”, attended by some 350 people, including representatives from around 90 German companies. Germany is arguably the biggest European presence in Turkmenistan with businesses in oil and textile industry, healthcare, communication, transportation and agriculture. With the current (ongoing) desire of the EU to diversify its energy supply chain, the significance of bond between Germany, as one of the leading countries of the EU, and Turkmenistan is even more important.
If Turkmenistan is a country somewhere between tribalism and authoritarianism, then its energy policy is somewhere in between soft and hard power tactics. Traditionally, the buyer of the Turkmen gas was Russia, which left the country with little maneuvering space. After a dispute with Gazprom on the prices and quantity of the purchased Turkmen gas, which reached its high in an explosion on the common pipeline infrastructure in 2009 that the Turkmen authority labeled as a deliberate act of technical sabotage, Turkmenistan had to reduce its gas production and distribution, causing a big hole in the country`s budget. Consequently, Turkmenistan started looking east and west to diversify its options, making China the number 1 supplier of its gas and vocally lobbying for the Trans- Caspian Pipeline, also supported by Azerbaijan, which is very intriguing for European markets.
Here, we enter another important loop for Turkmenistan; the not yet agreed upon border limitation on the energy-rich Caspian Sea. The clearly marked borders between the five littoral states would immensely strengthen the negotiating position of the country when closing and proposing new gas deals to potential buyers, be it Iran, China or the EU. Therefore, we can mark the latest alleged agreement on the maritime border between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan as a great success for both.
Relationship with Kazakhstan can be described as the warmest of all the Caspian states with countries having good railroad and highway infrastructural connectivity. Arguably, the toughest issue with demarcating the border has been between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan and this issue has pitted the countries against each- other since the 1990s. It reached a very hostile stage in 2001, when the rhetoric on both sides implied gestures aiming at military threats and the leadership of both countries publicly accusing each other of illegal exploration, development and/or operation on the disputed oil fields, in addition to violation of territorial waters with military and non- military vessels. Situation worsened with Baku purchasing two American military boats, which was viewed as a provocation on the Turkmen side and ignited the arms race between the countries, the only significant time Turkmenistan applied somewhat hard power tactics since becoming independent. Luckily, in 2003 and 2004 the situation shifted towards efforts for the diplomatic solution, but the countries have yet to find a satisfactory long-term answer to these pending issues, which is also of great importance for the feasibility of the Trans- Caspian Pipeline. Armed conflict seems unlikely though, especially (but not exclusively) because of the Turkmenistan devotion to its policy of positive neutrality. So hard power in any sense of the word, both economic and especially military, is not a viable option for Turkmenistan.
After years of isolation, the new president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is making great efforts to increase the ties Turkmenistan has with the outside world. Mainly, we have to mention the relationship and regional cooperation with Central Asian states, Russia and many high level commercial ties and political visits to China. Additionally important are financial investments from Iran and Saudi Arabia, but Turkmenistan has to carefully balance out the potential islamization spill-over effect within the country`s (preferred secular) borders. Also very crucial are the ties with neighboring Afghanistan, where Turkmenistan is helping with the reconstruction process, investing in schools, hospitals and other vital infrastructure projects, providing electricity and issuing grants for Afghan students to study on Turkmenistan university programs. Turkmenistan also, although staying loyal to its neutral status, enhanced its activities inside the Commonwealth of Independent States, cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an observer member and within NATO infrastructure as a Partnership- for- Peace country.
Arguably then, with the new leadership, Turkmenistan is reforming its relationship with the broader international community and trying to establish a specific kind of brand for the country and its internationally- recognized image. With enhanced relationship with various countries, Turkmenistan is hoping to enhance its soft power capabilities, which could result in more prolific FDIs to important infrastructure and technological projects and the reinforcing of the negotiating power when it comes to pipeline diplomacy for country`s rich energy resources. We have yet to witness the success and outreach of the changes in Turkmenistan and whether or not they represent a successful tactic for deviating away from the isolationistic status the country was confined in for a significant amount of time.