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Central Asia

Turkmenistan- a brand in the making?

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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.

Central Asia

Greater Eurasia: New Great Game formulate abundant possibilities for Central Asia

Debadatta Mishra

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The title “New Great Game” became the most conversed topic in the contemporary realm of global politics. The heart of the Eurasian continent, the Central Asian region, already witnessed a colonial battle between Russian and Britain. The position of Geopolitical status more fueled up the conflict. The Great Game furnished an unpleasant impact on the entire Central Asian region; it grasps by the Russian empire. Russia’s century-long predominance over the Central Asia region concluded with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, it nevertheless has a massive impact over the countries of Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Following centuries, they were preceding reappeared different New Grete Game, where the foremost global power countries have engaged. The internal scenario of central Asian states is struggling over hegemonic power. Subsequently, the central Asian nations are well equipped with natural resources like oil, gas like Kazakhstan’s largest uranium producer, that attracts all major countries to penetrate in Central Asia.

The New Great Game impacted both as constraint and opportunity in Central Asia. The central Asian states are adopted the multi-vector approach to the foreign policy due to landlocked country. So, the developed countries are offered various development schemes in the region. Currently, three major powers are Russia, US and China compete with each other to become a prominent player in Central Asia. Every nation is looking for their interest through the region. Nowadays, Washington mostly engaged in the New Great Game, after the US entered in Afghanistan, and it required Central Asian states cooperation to expand the authority of NATO in Eurasian land. Although, following the attack on 9/11, the US mostly keep eyes on terrorism activities and central Asian states are becoming significant for security purpose. Moscow always indeed to the presence in Central Asian internal politics and seems to maintain its status quo. Russia always considered the Central Asian states as his campaign, with the significant military, economic and political influence. Moscow consistently rated Central Asian nations as “soft underbelly”. Russian culture, music, food highly incorporated with Central Asian states, but Moscow seems fallen the economic competition with Beijing. China is somewhat successful in pushing Russian influence in Central Asia.

China expands its control over in the pecuniary sector, Dragon becoming larger trade partner and investor in that region. China’s visionary project ‘Belt and Road initiative’ and China’s strategy to influence and grow its economic power over the Eurasian continent required Central Asian states linear involvement. China shared more than 3000 k.m of the direct border with CA, this is an opportunity for China to enhance its strength and became more dominant rather than other countries. Central Asia is a crucial component in the Geopolitical puzzle. The abundant of natural resource in CA is the primary purpose behind for more intense of New Great Game. The Caspian Sea contains a large amount of natural resource. The superpower countries followed up the pathway of the dependency model, and they create opportunity with precisely inside their acquisition. The new Great Game change the notion of Geopolitics on a broader level. China is steadily expanding its influence over the Eurasian mainland with hegemonic expansion over the south china sea. There is an appearance of another cold war (economic domain) between China and the US; both countries headed for intense competition for global supremacy. That’s why central Asia states played an essential function to determine immense superiority over the Eurasian landmass. All these countries participated in New Great Game implemented the soft power and made an effort to pull Central Asian nations through proffering opportunities. The central Asian States compensated relishes the possibility, although faced reluctance from significant players.  The potential development of the Central Asian Region endures the growth of the Eurasian continent.

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Central Asia

Territorial Disputes in Central Asia: Myths and Reality

Yuriy Kulintsev

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One of the focal points of any state foreign policy is the issue of territorial disputes, irrespective of its geographical size, economic opportunities or geopolitical ambitions. At the same time, in the modern world, the scenario of the use of force as a possible option for China to resolve territorial disputes in Central Asia is hardly probable. None of the parties, including neighboring countries, are interested in intensifying territorial claims and initiating a real conflict. Despite the apparent advantages, a guaranteed response from the international community jeopardizes all benefits for the potential aggressor (for example, Beijing) from possible territorial acquisitions. In addition, the system of control and monitoring has been formed in the region with the direct participation of Russia. The guarantors of the system are, in particular, the SCO and the CSTO; the latter one has a sufficiently deterrent effect on the capacity of regional players to demonstrate invasive intentions.

Meanwhile, the international community developed a civilized way to resolve territorial disputes through diplomatic means such as long-term leasing of land, the creation of joint jurisdictions, etc. China has experience of transferring territories, for example, the 99-year lease of Hong Kong by the United Kingdom or the recognition of Macao as “Chinese territory under Portuguese administration” followed by the signing of the joint Declaration on the question of Macao. Since China became a successful economic power, Beijing has preferred to resolve territorial disputes through diplomatic instruments, rather than from a position of strength.

It should be pointed out that implementing its Belt and Road Initiative, China has never presented it as a charity project. Moreover, the initial goal was the development of the Central and Western regions of China. All foreign countries participating in the initiative expressed their desire to join it on the terms of mutually beneficial development. By accepting China’s offers and agreeing to its loans and investment projects, any of the countries had the opportunity to assess the risks and not participate in them, or to make a choice and develop their own economy on the terms of other financial institutions, such as Western ones. In this case, China acts in the Central Asian region like most major powers interested in strengthening their positions and promoting their political, economic and humanitarian agenda.

Possible allegations of Beijing concluding economic contracts on bonded terms should also be addressed to officials of the “affected” countries who agreed to these proposals from the Chinese side. At the same time, if it appears that one of the parties has not acted in its national interests, this is more a problem of the internal state structure of a particular country and its attitude to the work of its own officials, and to a much lesser extent – a claim to the development of bilateral relations with China.

It is also necessary to distinguish the official position of the state from the statements of individuals who often act in their own interests. For example, an article with the title “Why Kazakhstan seeks to return to China,” which is given as an example in the publication “Land leases and territorial claims of China in Central Asia and the South Caucasus,” was written by an anonymous blogger with just over 80 thousand subscribers (insignificant number according to the Chinese standards). An analysis of how the news was spread geographically by international media, as well as the contents of official statements, confirms the opinion of experts-sinologists that it was an attempt to gain popularity and “collect likes,” and has nothing in common with the official position of Beijing.

Another example of using the foreign policy agenda in the internal political struggle is the statement of the leader of the opposition party of Tajikistan, R. Zoirov, who accused China of moving the borderline 20 kilometers deeper into the territory of Tajikistan.

On the eve of the presidential elections in 2013, Tajikistan’s opposition once again tried to “accuse authorities of surrendering land to China” in the framework of the 2002 border demarcation agreement. China claimed 28 thousand square kilometers of Tajikistan’s territory, but as a result of the negotiations, it received just over 1 thousand square kilometers of high-altitude land unsuitable for life, without proven volumes of large deposits. The results of negotiations can be evaluated in different ways, but each country has the right to seek convenient forms of dispute resolution and debt repayment. In addition, this agreement was ratified by the government of Tajikistan only in 2011. The official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan described the statement of the opposition as a provocation, due to the fact that the author acts in his own interest. Later, it was revealed that Zoirov’s statement refers to 2011 and was “made two years ago and published just now.” According to R. Zoirov, he determined the distance to the border based on the statements of local residents. The official authorities of Tajikistan, China, Russia and other regional powers ignored information about China’s occupation of Tajikistan’s territory as unreliable.

Recognizing the high public sensitivity of transferring land from one state to repay credit obligations to another, it is necessary to proceed from the analysis of the contents of specific international agreements, the motives for signing them by current authorities, and the national interests of the parties involved. Otherwise, one is likely to discover a distorted interpretation of key events in line with the populist rhetoric of an unknown blogger or to be the recipient of information propaganda carried out by major powers competing for regional influence.

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Central Asia

From Central Asia to the Black Sea

Emil Avdaliani

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(Source: mift.uz)

In early June, China unveiled a new transportation corridor when a rail cargo of 230 tons of electrical appliances worth some $2,6 million arrived in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. Though distant from the South Caucasus, the development nevertheless has a direct impact on the geopolitics of the South Caucasus energy and transport corridor.

For centuries, Central Asia has been notorious for the lack of connectivity. Highways, railroads and pipelines were solely directed northwards towards Russian heartland. Geography also constrained the development of alternatives, but the problem is that other routes were also purposefully neglected during the Soviet times. Therefore, nowadays breaking these geographical boundaries equals to decreasing Russian influence in Central Asia.

Indeed, over the past 30 years, crucial changes have taken place where newly developed east-west transport links (from China to Central Asia, then South Caucasus) allow the region to be more integrated with the outside world. The primary motivator for this is China. The country strives to involve itself into the region’s economics and politics and, specifically, build ties with arguably the region’s most important geopolitical player – Uzbekistan. Beijing has already taken several important steps. For instance, China has become Uzbekistan’s top economic partner through growing trade and direct investment. Take the most recent example, Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will lend $100 million to Uzbekistan to help deal with the coronavirus pandemic and future public health disasters.

The new China-Uzbekistan corridor is some 295 km shorter and cuts five days off the standard 15 days-corridor which goes through Kazakhstan and Russia to reach Europe. As different forecasts indicate, the Kazakhstan-Russia corridor could lose some 10-15% of Chinese freight per year to the new China-Uzbekistan route – a significant number considering the massive amount of goods that move between between Europe and China.

What is crucial here is that the only viable route to ship freight to Europe from Uzbekistan is across the Caspian to Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Black Sea. Another possibility would be sending goods via the Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, then Iran and Turkey. However general insecurity along this route makes the Caspian option more promising.

These infrastructure changes in distant Central Asia as well as steady growth of shipments from China will further boost the fragile South Caucasus transport and energy corridor, which struggles to compete with enormous trade routes which go through Russia and elsewhere.

What makes the Caspian routes more interesting is the progress made in port development in Azerbaijan and Georgia. The ports of Baku and a small city of Alat have notably improved their infrastructure over the past several years. Located to the south of Baku, Alat is particularly promising as an estimated transshipment of the new port complex is potentially up to 25 million tons of cargo and 1 million TEU per year.

Similar trends of improving infrastructure take place along the rest of the South Caucasus corridor. In March, the Georgian government granted the APM Terminals a permit to start the expansion of Potin port. Essentially the project, which will add more than 1000 local jobs, involves the construction of a separate new deep-water multifunctional port (officially still a part of Poti port).

The project consists of two major phases: first stage of $250 million will take nearly 2-2,5 years to complete and will involve the development of a 1 700-meter-long breakwater and a quay with a depth of 13.5 meters. A 400-meter-long multifunctional quay for processing dry bulk cargo and further 150 000 TEUs will be added; the second stage envisages a 300-meter-long container quay. If all goes as planned, 1 million TEU yearly container capacity could be expected. What is more important for the infrastructure of the eastern Black Sea region and the geopolitics of transcontinental transshipment, the expanded Poti port would have the capacity to receive Panamax vessels.

Expansion of Poti will have regional implications. The port already enjoys the role of the largest gateway in the country and a major outlet for Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s trade with Europe. For instance, liquids, passenger ferries, dry bulk and container traffic go through Poti. Moreover, Poti port also serves as an alternative route for exporting wheat from Central Asia to the Black Sea and elsewhere.

As the work on the Poti expansion speeds up similar developments are taking place in Batumi. In 2019 Wondernet Express, Trammo and the government of Georgia announced plans to build a new terminal with total investment cap of 17,5 million euros. More importantly, the new facility will store up to 60 000 tons of mineral fertilizers coming from Central Asia through Azerbaijan.

From a wider geopolitical perspective, both port expansions enjoy US government support as American business interests are deeply intertwined. PACE terminals, a company which operates in the port of Poti for almost 30 years, is partially owned by a US-based company. This connection raises a possible longer-term vision of Poti’s and Batumi’s development as gateways not only for Georgia, but generally for the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

Overall, these connectivity trends will reinvigorate Trans-Caspian shipping. Moreover, though considered by many as unrealistic, the dormant Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), could gain traction. There is more to the story. I have mentioned the US support for the Georgian ports. Europe and Turkey share an identical position. All parties are interested in breaking Russia’s grip on gas export routes from Central Asia. Support for the east-west corridor across the South Caucasus has been present since the break-up of the Soviet Union, but rarely there have been such promising trends as there are now: steadily increasing China-Europe shipping; Chinese Belt and Road Initiative’s expansion into Central Asia; gradually improving rail-road and ports infrastructure in Georgia and Azerbaijan.

On a negative side, much still remains to be done. For instance, in Kyrgyzstan, through which the new China-Uzbekistan route goes, Chinese cargo has to be shipped by road which complicates shipment operations. Nearly the entire 400 km of the Kyrgyz section of the railway still needs to be built. So far, no solution is in sight as difficult mountainous landscape and Russian opposition complicate the issue. But the overall picture, nevertheless, is clear. Central Asia is gradually opening up, shipment across the Caspian increases and the expansion of the Georgian ports takes place creating a line of connectivity.

Author’s note: first published in Caucasuswatch

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