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.
Turkic Chinese soup: A barometer of anti-Chinese sentiment
A heavy soup made of pulled noodles, meat, and vegetables symbolizes Central Asia’s close cultural and/or ethnic ties with China’s repressed Turkic and Hui Muslims. It also explains growing Central Asian unease with China’s re-education campaign in its north-western province of Xinjiang and its signature infrastructure and energy driven-Belt and Road initiative.
Named Ashlan Fu and introduced to Kyrgyzstan in the late 19th century by Dungans, exiled Chinese Hui Muslims who fled over the Tien Shan Mountains after a failed rebellion in 1877, the soup has become a staple of Kyrgyz cuisine.
Made of Laghman noodles, starch preserves, onion, garlic, chilli, dark vinegar, and egg, Ashlan Fu is “the best cure for a hangover,” says Aman Janserkeev, a Kyrgyz student.
It’s also indicative of the potential fallout of China’s crackdown on Turkic and increasingly Hui Muslims that amounts to the most frontal assault on Islam in post-World War Two history and of commercial terms underlying Belt and Road-related Chinese investments in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia.
Some 150 members of Kyrgyzstan’s far right Kyrk Choro (Forty Nights) group last month protested outside the Chinese embassy in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek against the inclusion of ethnic Kyrgyz in the up to one million Muslims detained in re-education camps in Xinjiang as part of the Chinese crackdown.
In a sign of the times, Kyrk Choro, a nationalist group that has gained popularity and is believed to have the support of the Kyrgyz ministries of interior and labour, migration and youth, and the National Security Committee (GKNB), focused in its protest exclusively on ethnic Kyrgyz in Chinese detention.
Acting as vigilantes, Kyrk Choro four years ago raided clubs in Bishkek in a campaign against prostitution and accused Chinese nationals of promoting vice. In a video of an attack on a karaoke club, a Kyrk Choro leader showed a receipt that featured a girl as one of the consumed items.
Yet, while standing up for the rights of ethnic Kyrgyz and Kyrgyz nationals, Kyrk Choro has also called for Uighurs, the Turkic Muslims that populate Xinjiang, to be booted out of Bishkek’s most popular clothing bazaar and replaced by ethnic Kyrgyz.
During December’s protest, Kyrk Choro also demanded the expulsion of illegal Chinese migrants. It further insisted that the government check the documents of migrants, including those who had obtained Kyrgyz citizenship over the last decade, including 268 Chinese nationals who are in majority of Kyrgyz descent.
Kyrk Choro’s contradictory demands and claims reflect not only a global trend towards ethnic and religious nationalism with undertones of xenophobia but also concern that Belt and Road-related projects serve Chinese rather than Kyrgyz and Central Asian interests.
The Kyrgyz government recently reported that 35,215 Chinese citizens had arrived in the country in 2018, many of them as construction workers on Chinese-funded projects.
Political scientist Colleen Wood noted that social media activists were linking criticism of Chinese commercial practices with China’s crackdown in Xinjiang.
“One widely-shared image, which declares “Don’t let anyone take your land,” depicts a strong fist — adorned with a Kyrgyz flag — stopping a spindly hand — marked by a Chinese flag — from snatching factories and a field,” Ms. Wood wrote in The Diplomat.
Ms. Wood said some activists compared Chinese practice to the demarcation in 2002 of the Chinese-Kyrgyz border during which the Central Asian nation handed over 1,250 square kilometres of land to China.
Another Facebook page, Kytai baskynchylygyna karshybyz (We’re against Chinese aggression) posted articles about Chinese mining companies operating in Kyrgyzstan, a target of Kyrgyz protesters, alongside articles depicting the intrusiveness of the crackdown in Xinjiang, according to Ms. Wood.
Ashlan Fu, the popular Dungan soup, could prove to be a litmus test of the depth of mounting anti-Chinese sentiment.
An Instagram account with a Stop China feed publishes xenophobic content about Chinese culinary habits as well as regular updates on the crackdown that is expanding into the autonomous region of Ningxia Hui.
Ningxia Hui recently signed a cooperation agreement on anti-terrorism with Xinjiang in a bid to learn from the crackdown on the Turkic Muslims or in the words of the Global Times, a Communist Party organ, “to learn from Xinjiang’s experiences in promoting social stability.”
In advance of another protest at the Chinese embassy in Bishkek scheduled for January 17, Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov called this week on the public not to believe anti-Chinese postings on social media.
In an acknowledgement of Kyrk Choro’s appeal, Mr. Boronov asserted that the group had denied participating in the December protest.
The government, much like Turkey and the vast majority of Muslim countries, has so far evaded taking China to task on its crackdown for fear of jeopardizing its relations with the People’s Republic.
Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov insisted last month that “the ethnic Kyrgyz of China are citizens of China, who obey the laws of their country. How can we intervene in their domestic matters? We can’t.”
If Kazakhstan where the issue of ethnic Kazakhs detained in China has flared up is anything to go by, the Kyrgyz government is walking a tightrope.
Asyla Alymkulova, a Kyrgyz national recently established the Committee to Protect the Kyrgyz People in China after her husband, Shairbek Doolotkhan, a Chinese-born Muslim, vanished in October on a business trip to Xinjiang.
Mr. Doolotkhan’s company subsequently advised Ms. Alymkulova that her husband had been “sent away to study” in a camp.
A Kyrgyz diplomat was among representatives of 12 non-Western countries whom China in the last week invited to Xinjiang to counter criticism of the crackdown and showcase economic and social progress. A group of foreign journalists was invited separately.
Short of a reunion with her husband, there is little that is likely convince Ms. Alymkulova or the relatives of thousands of other Central Asians, including at least 2,500 Kazakhs, that Chinese policy towards Muslims is benign and benefitting the community and the region’s progress.
That in turn will not make things easier for the Kyrgyz and other Muslim governments at a time that ethnic and cultural identities in a nationalistic and at times xenophobic environment are becoming prevalent. Kyrgyz attitudes towards Ashlan Fu may be the barometer.
China and Central Asian Republics’ Connectivity Through CPEC
The CPEC is just not a road but a network of connectivity, industrialization, trade promotion, energy generation, and much more. The main purpose of the package is to create a land link between western China and Pakistan by providing access to the southern port of Gwadar in Balochistan province. This port was especially designed to cater the needs of China and Central Asian Republics. CPEC route provides immense opportunities to Central Asian Republics to expand trade with Pakistan and also go through China and expand their trade. Chinese Xinjiang enjoys centuries old cultural traditions and trading links with Central Asia. The ancient Chinese Silk Road first connects with Central Asia than rest of the world. Central Asia is thus central to Silk Road. It is believed that Gwadar Port and its allied road infrastructure is a Suez Canal for China and Central Asia. With abundance of natural resources such as oil, gas, gold, and other metals, Central Asian Republics have great potentials to investment in CPEC-related projects and also to investment in the new industrial zones. Pakistan’s location at the crossroads of West Asia, South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East makes it the natural gateway for the landlocked Central Asian Republics.
The Central Asian Republics have been historically connected to the world through the ancient Silk Road, situated at the crossroads of East Asia, West Asia, South Asia and Europe, their location is excellent for trade. The CARs states are literally a goldmine of energy reserves with Kazakhstan having 30 billion barrels of oil reserves while Turkmenistan’s natural gas is estimated at 265 trillion cubic feet, this wealth makes the region central in the battle for resources between world powers and portend to play an important role in determining global supremacy. Central Asian countries have always looked to access regional markets, including Pakistan, China, India, and the countries of West Asia. In this regard, CPEC could serve as a strategic opportunity for Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to transport their goods and market them more competitively to regional and global markets. Pakistan also desires to access the rich resources of Central Asia via Afghanistan to meet its energy needs, as well as transport goods to Central Asia. It becomes pertinent at this point to state that indeed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has great potential to become a gateway to Central Asia and to provide the region with the much needed economic uplift. It would be a natural extension of that strategy by connecting Central Asian countries with CPEC, China intends to cultivate new markets with significant growth potential in the region and evolve goodwill with neighbouring countries.
In this context, several Central Asian countries have welcomed the implementation of the CPEC by emphasizing the role of the project in promoting progress and prosperity. For instance, Turkmenistan has been allowed to use the crown jewel of CPEC, the newly modernized Gwadar deep-sea port in Pakistan, which gives Turkmenistan access to the Indian Ocean. Tajikistan is also eying access to Gawadar port, as it would be a junction to connect the landlocked Central Asian state with the rest of the world. Uzbekistan expressed a similarly supportive stance about CPEC. The participation of energy-rich Uzbekistan in the CPEC project has the potential to double Pakistan’s energy output for the next six years, ensuring the country with permanent access to electricity. Kazakhstan is also seemingly eager to launch joint projects under CPEC and highlighted the importance of the CPEC project for Kazakhstan and the Central Asian region. Kazakhstan would like to join the mega project as it would provide an alternative route to the Central Asian State for access to sea. Kazakhstan and Pakistan concluded that both countries had a large scope for trade in textile and cotton products, pharmaceuticals, food items, engineering equipment and machinery and construction enterprises. They ended up signing Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) for cooperation in the areas of trade and investment, defence and strategic studies and training in foreign services along with establishing the need of cooperation for bringing peace in the region.
The Central Asian Republics happen to be the nearest and most dependable source of energy supply via fastest trade routes for China’s burgeoning economic growth. Three of the Central Asian states have common borders with the Chinese province of Xinjiang so it is being planned as a future economic and transportation hub for 75% of Chinese trade with CARs. Further down the route Xinjiang connects with Pakistan so it is all set to function as a key trade centre on the economic belt. An extensive highway network is to be laid for transporting oil, coal and agricultural products from Xinjiang which would be shipped out from Pakistan’s Gwadar Port. Thus Central Asia is unlocked once it links to these trade routes and it gains access to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. China’s BRI kicked off with its first corridor, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, it would connect the Central Asian Republics (CARs) to the world with Pakistan becoming a center-point where most routes converge. The CPEC lies at the very heart of an intricate network of corridors working their way through land and sea as they connect vast regions, it can be defined as the most important of the six OBOR corridors and it is the linchpin of the entire strategy.
The Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) transport corridors are key conduits, improving connectivity and facilitating cross-border movement in the region. Most CAREC countries are landlocked and rely almost exclusively on overland transport for trade within the region and with markets just outside. Comprising an extensive, but still underdeveloped, network of roads and railways spanning the region, the six CAREC corridors are intended to expand trade and improve competitiveness, and in the process augment regional economic cooperation. The notion of a ‘corridor’ was developed to address the trade and accessibility problems of landlocked countries. The corridor concept has since evolved to include transport, trade, logistics, economic, and even supply chain corridors. In addition, these corridors have exceeded their primary functions, and are now indispensable in promoting global and regional economic development. The map shows the three CAREC corridors.
Where there are advantages there are drawbacks too and here the negative factor is the presence of various radical Islamist movements that could destabilize the entire region, so it is essential that CARs be integrated and stabilized with trade and economic opportunities to stem militancy before it spreads across the length and breadth of Eurasia. China would like to quell Uighur rebellions in its territory and prevent the influence of militants from the Central Asian countries. Consequently, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was formed as a confidence building forum aimed to promote the integration of the region, borders were demilitarized and the vision is to reduce the influence of Western influenced world forums like the United Nations. The focus of the SCO is on economic initiatives, India and Pakistan also became members recently and the mandate has been broadened to include joint security, trade and anti-war pacts.
Central Asia is important in its own right because it is the vital fulcrum between the dynamism of East Asia and the wealth and technology in Western Europe. Pro-actively, Central Asia is being reoriented into the new Silk Road and Eurasian Economic Union to promote the joint objectives and unity of the region. The US would certainly like to have unrestricted access to the CARs energy reserves and maintains military bases at this valuable strategic location, Russia feels that the US is intruding in its territory and has its own military bases to counter American invasive intentions. The Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are members of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) while all the Central Asian Republics are part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as well and are well consolidated with China and Russia.
While highlighting the significance of Pakistan in the CPEC connectivity initiative it is observed that the country is actually one of the supercontinent’s most important economic hopes, as it has the potential to connect the massive economies of the Eurasian Union, Iran, SAARC, and China, thereby inaugurating the closest thing to an integrated Pan-Eurasian economic zone.” Moreover, the strategic significance of all this enhanced connectivity can mean the end of an empire and result in a multi-polar world, shifting the ‘power base’ to Eurasia. US geopolitical strategy has received this setback at a time when it is a progressively weakened force, this is why analysts call this the Eurasian Century, the integration and economic prosperity it offers make its success inevitable.
To conclude, CPEC is instrumental in economically uplifting the entire region not only through the land routes but also through sea channels, not only benefitting Pakistan but also the Central Asian Republics.
Preventing Violent Extremism through Education in Central Asia
The UNESCO Almaty Cluster Office in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and UNESCO Headquarters, in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), held a Sub-regional workshop on the prevention of violent extremism through education on 13-15 November in Almaty.
UNESCO’s approach to preventing violent extremism through education is related to its work on Global Citizenship Education (GСED). Based on its long-standing commitment to peace and human rights education, the GCED strives to foster respect for all, create a sense of belonging to humanity and help students become responsible and active citizens. Thus, the GCED creates conditions for strengthening students’ commitment to renouncing violence and peace and creating conditions for protection from hatred, discrimination and violent extremism.
The workshop was organized within the framework of the partnership of UNESCO and UNODC on “Education in the spirit of global citizenship in support of the rule of law”. It strengthened the capacity of education stakeholders to implement educational measures and approaches to prevent violent extremism in an effective and appropriate manner. More specifically, the workshop provided a common discussion platform for a clearer understanding of the issues of violent extremism in the Central Asian region, as well as discussed new tools and innovative approaches and drew up a plan for further action to prevent violent extremism through education in Central Asia.
During the workshop, the participants also had a chance to visit the Nazarbayev Intellectual School and Almaty State College of Tourism and Hospitality Industry and observe open classes on global citizenship education and values.
The workshop brought together education stakeholders from all over Central Asia, including representatives from the ministries of education and community development, universities and research institutes, as well as youth organizations and civil society. International experts from France, UNODC, UNESCO as well as other UN agencies and international organizations also took part in the event.
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