The Taliban’s pragmatic diplomacy and gradual departure from the Jihadi ideology alienate Central Asian jihadists from the Taliban and strengthen its ardent enemy, the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK). Taliban-backed Uyghur jihadists, who exploited shahids (martyr) exclusively against the Chinese authorities in the past, recently carried out a suicide attack against the Shia Hazara minority under Taliban rule.
Factionalization of IMU
The establishment “warm relations” by the Taliban’s interim government with China, Russia and Uzbekistan have sparked a negative reaction from the Uzbek and Tajik jihadi media, as they consider this trio as Taghut (idol or tyrant) regimes. During meetings with Central Asian and China’s government officials, except Tajikistan, the Taliban generously pledged that Afghan soil would not be used as a terrorist base, which is unlikely to please Central Asian veteran jihadists.
The Afghan Taliban’s ideological compromises retreating from hardline jihadi principles in pursuit of international recognition and legitimacy has cooled their relationship with al Qaeda-linked foreign jihadi groups, which have jointly resisted the US invasion over the past 20 years. Due to pragmatic concessions to ‘Taghud’ states, the Taliban are gradually losing their jihadi attractiveness in the eyes of foreign fighter groups. It is known that the Taliban and al Qaeda have always been the ideological masterminds and role models for Central Asian radical Islamists and Uyghur militants from China’s Xinjiang region, victimized to legal persecution and bloody repression by authoritarian regimes.
In the late ’90s, neighboring Afghanistan became a safe haven for Uzbek, Tajik militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Uyghurs of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) swearing oath of allegiance (bay’at) to al Qaeda and the Taliban leaders. Under the leadership of the parent organizations, they acquired the global jihadi ideology and shaped the foundation of Central Asian jihadism. In exchange for the IMU’s bay`at, the Afghan Taliban provided Central Asian militants with a space for training.
Over the quarter-century jihadi relationship they have experienced ups and downs associated with the violation of the bay’at and the joining of some IMU militants led by Usmon Ghazi to the Islamic State (ISIS). After Usmon Ghazi’s faction changed its jihadi banner and openly made bay’at to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in August, 2015, the Taliban brutally punished the Uzbek jihadists. As punishment for this betrayal, in November 2015 the Taliban killed Usmon Ghazi and about a hundred Central Asian defector at a base in Zabul Province.
The second time Central Asian jihadists were hit hard by the Afghan Taliban in the Darzab district of Jawzjan province in 2018, when the Taliban defeated the Qari Hikmatullah’s network, which was the main pillar of ISK in the northern Afghan province of Jawzjan. Qari Hekmatullah, a former Uzbek Taliban commander, joined his forces with ISK and came to lead the group’s northern territorial project for an extended period of time. He also served as the ISK’s senior foreign fighter facilitator in northern Afghanistan, poaching Central Asia fighters and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) militants.
The ideological vision of the late IMU leader Tahir Yuldash and the TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud regarding Takfiri Salafism, global jihad and worldwide Caliphate has always been close to the current views of ISK. Notably, the TTP and IMU leaders have a long history of jihadi collaboration, lived together in South Waziristan and jointly carried out transnational attacks in Lahore, Peshawar and on Karachi’s international airport in 2014. They ideologically inspired each other and, in contrast to the nationalist ideology of the Afghan Taliban, dreamed of creating a worldwide Islamic Caliphate. Even after the Taliban eliminated defectors in the IMU’s ranks, remnants of Uzbek Muhajireen [foreigner or migrant] retained their global jihadi aspirations. But they learned a bitter lesson from the past and no longer intervened in a bloody dispute between the Taliban and ISK over the future of a single Caliphate and were forced to survive in the Afghan-Pakistan border areas.
Global Jihad and Taliban Nationalism
Despite the fact that the Taliban leadership publicly denies the presence of transnational terrorist groups in the country, a recent UN report revealed that there are about 10,000 foreign fighters in Afghanistan, who are members of al Qaeda, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), the Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB), the Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and Jamaat Ansarullah (JA).
Now that the Taliban have achieved their long-awaited victory and are in power, ISK is trying to take over the vacant jihadi seat to poach Central Asian Muhajireen remaining without a hostile target in post-American Afghanistan. Taliban-backed Uzbek, Uyghur and Tajik jihadi groups are overwhelmed by the ISK’s sophisticated operational abilities and its high potential to conduct targeted strikes on Taliban’s vulnerable spots to undermine their legitimacy in the eyes of Afghans and the world. Since the Taliban came to power on August 15, ISK has claimed more than fifty separate attacks, including a suicide bombing at the Kabul International Airport, Shia Hazara mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar.
Along with devastating suicide attacks, the group’s strategists have successfully positioned ISK as a tough ideological adversary to the Taliban, portraying global Salafi jihadism as an irreplaceable alternative to the Taliban’s Pashtun nationalist jihadism. In its propaganda and media, ISIS continuously derides the Taliban as “apostates” and mocks their leaders as puppets of the Americans. Following the Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover of Kabul, ISIS’s al-Naba’ newsletter condemned the victory of its ideological rival as false, since it was not a conquest but a takeover of the country coordinated with the Americans as per the peace process in Doha. According to the Islamic State, “it was merely a process of peaceful transfer of power form one Taghut to another.” The al-Naba’ highlighted a “sore point” of foreign fighters, including Central Asian jihadists, noting that “American restored Taliban’s rule and granted them Kabul without firing a shot” because “Taliban left the Muhajireen (foreign fighters) and pledged that it would not allow the repeat of the ‘Manhattan mistake.’
Analysis of the jihadi media shows that the recent brutal and mysterious killing of the leading Afghan Salafi scholar, Shaikh Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil in Kabul by the Taliban has sparked lively discussion and sympathy among Central Asian Muhajireen adhering to Salafi ideology. The Taliban are suspicious of Afghan Salafists for supporting their arch-enemy of ISK. Following this event, ISK ideologues have focused on three main issues directly related to the future fate of foreign fighters and their Quranic beliefs regarding sacred jihad.
Firstly, the Islamic State emphasizes a deviation of the Afghan Taliban from the jihadi principles in alliance with the Crusaders and their diplomatic collaborations with the Taghut regimes of Central Asian states, Pakistan, Russia, and China, where the religion of Allah is persecuted. Secondly, the Taliban’s nationalist jihad distorts the goals and timing of the sacred global jihad and the scale of the creation of a single Caliphate. Thirdly, according to the ideologues of the Caliphate, the Taliban’s warm relations with the ‘Rafidha’ (rejectionist, used in a derogatory manner for the Shia) Iran is a betrayal of the Sunni Ummah. ISK views Shias as polytheists and heretics, who reject (rafiḍh) the caliphates of the first two successors of the Prophet Muḥammad: Abu Bakr and Umar.
The issues raised in the ISK propaganda networks really deeply disturb the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups. Since the Taliban came to power, the Uzbek, Uyghur and Tajik militant groups are undergoing ideological shifts and rethinking the goals of Central Asian jihadism. The Pashtu nationalist jihad treads on the toes of Central Asian jihadist veterans who have long fought in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda. Moreover, the Taliban’s frequent public promises about non-interference in the neighbors’ affairs and expulsions of foreign fighters cause deep concern among the Central Asian Muhajireen. Today they are worried that the Taliban, after consolidating power and international recognition, may abandon them or use them as expendable for a lucrative economic deal with China, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Our previous report noted that al Qaeda-linked Central Asian jihadi groups warmly congratulated the Taliban on the “great historical victory”, in honor of it issued special congratulatory statements and echoed jihadi Nasheeds (chants of jihadi glory). In particular, Uzbek militants of IJU, KTJ, Uyghurs of TIP and Guraba Jamaat (GJ) and Tajik jihadists of JA heroized “the Taliban’s victory as an epic triumph”, and “the advance of Nusrat (victory) in Khorasan, promised by Allah in the Qur’an.”
Following a victorious euphoria, Central Asian militants seek their own jihadi identity between al Qaeda, ISK, TTP and the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Unlike the rest, only ISK attempts to lure them to break away from Taliban’s circle and join the Islamic State’s ranks. Moreover, ISK’s strategic objectives and ideological views are currently more in line with their long-term goals and interests. In addition, the Taliban’s nationalist jihad, limited only to Afghanistan, plays into the hands of ISK. For many Central Asian jihadists, their distant future probably looks more promising with an ally that promises to create a worldwide Caliphate, than one who banned the use of Afghan soil to conduct global jihad.
Perhaps, struggles may soon erupt between the Taliban and Central Asian jihadi groups. Recently, Farrukh Shami (Farrukh Furkatovitch Fayzimatov), one of the KTJ’s fundraisers, whom the US Department of the Treasury added to sanction list, urged post-Soviet Islamists not to make hijrat (migrate) to Afghanistan, but to come to the Middle East.
Foggy Future of Central Asian Jihadism
Another indicator of the defections of Central Asian jihadists to the ISK side was a suicide bomb attack on worshippers at Hazara Shia mosque in the Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 55, over 140 injured on October 8, 2021. In its claim of responsibility, ISK identified the suicide-bomber as “Muhammad al-Uyguri,” indicating that he belonged to China’s mainly Muslim Uyghur minority. The ISIS-linked Amaq news agency said, the attack targeted both Shias and the Taliban for their purported willingness to deport Uyghurs from Afghanistan in response to requests from China.
This indicates that the ISK ranks swelled with new Uyghur deserters of TIP, disillusioned by the Taliban’s policy towards China, which is carrying out genocide of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. In addition, given the proximity of Kunduz to the borders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, ISK signals radical Salafists from Central Asia to make hijrat to Khorasan and join them, while the Taliban have pledged to expel foreign jihadists. Thus, ISK demonstrated once again that Shia Hazaras remain a desirable target of its attack, and the Taliban are unable to protect the people of Afghanistan. Now, when Uyghur militants of TIP faced with the stark reality of the Taliban’s rapprochement with China, they have only two options: martyrdom in hijrat or raising a flag of worldwide Caliphate with ISIS. The Uyghur suicide attack was a symbolic warning to China that its enormous Belt and Road Initiative would be a desirable target for ISK attacks.
It is conceivable that in the near future ISK can exploit suicide bombers from Central Asia to demonstrate its multinational face. It projects the existence of foreign fighters as proof of it being unbound by modern borders and nationalities highlighting a transnational face of Ummah. Such sophisticated attacks could target Hazara Shia minorities, Taliban’s combat units and markets in security-vulnerable provinces. To encourage desertion Central Asian Muhajireen and local Salafi community, ISK also will increase its propaganda campaign against the Taliban.
Although al Qaeda-linked Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups loudly praised the Taliban’s victory, it did not bring them the long-awaited and promised jihadi future. Instead, they faced the threat of fragmentation into small jamaats and the loss of the global goal of the Central Asian jihad after the Taliban’s power seizure.
The Taliban might offer Central Asian jihadists standing in Afghan territory to blend in with Uzbek, Tajik and Turkmen tribes in the northern Badakhshan, Kunduz, Jowzjan and Takhar provinces, appoint some especially trusted commanders as their overseers, as they did so recently. When the Taliban captured a strategically important security checkpoint near Afghan border with Tajikistan in July, they assigned a Tajik jihadi group Jamaat Ansarullah to raise the Taliban flag on the site. They also put JA’s leader Mahdi Arsalon in charge of security in five districts of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province – Kuf Ab, Khwahan, Maimay, Nusay, and Shekay – near the Tajik border. The Taliban exploited Tajik jihadists during the conquest of the northern provinces as their “hard power” and political leverage against Tajikistan, which supported Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan.
However, some Uzbek, Uyghur and Tajik jihadists, dissatisfied with the Taliban’s concessions to Russia, China and the Central Asian ‘Tahud’ countries, but unwilling to side with ISK or participate in ‘Talibanization’ process, may try to leave Afghanistan and migrate to Syria’s Idlib province and join their ethnic groups.
It is expected that the jihadi activities of foreign fighters remaining on Afghan soil will be strictly controlled by the Taliban’s Badri Battalion. Turns out that the Taliban have long tightly controlled the media activities of Central Asian jihadi groups forbidding them to publish about joint military operations on social networks. Analysis of the jihadi media showed that in parallel with the launch of the US-Taliban peace negotiations in Doha, Uzbek and Tajik militants sharply reduced publishing video reports on the Taliban’s al-Fath jihadi operation.
ISK Threatens the US
Recently, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the US military’s Central Command, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested that the U.S. may not be able to prevent al Qaeda and ISIS from rebuilding in Afghanistan. His colleague, Colin Kahl, under secretary of defense policy, warned that ISK could be able to attack the United States in six months. The US military leadership’s concerns are shared by expert scholars on Afghan jihadism, warning that the Taliban cannot defeat the ISK alone.
ISIS strategists always considered the main principle of the group that the global jihad should be brought under the auspices of the Caliphate and managed by it in a more disciplined and coordinated manner. Following its strategy, if the central leadership of ISIS decides to financially strengthen its Khorasan branch of ISK, then the cross-border movement of militants and the recruitment of new fighters from Central Asia will get a new breath.
The revival of the ISK is dangerous, as the modern weapons left by the US in Afghanistan can easily fall into the hands of global jihadists. The high-profile suicide terror attacks of the ISK against the background of the country’s economic collapse and the Taliban’s failure to maintain control of their borders could turn Afghanistan into another hot spot for the ISIS’s followers from the Middle East, South and Central Asia. If the situation develops according to a scenario similar to the creation of the Caliphate in Mosul in 2014, then the intervention of the international armed forces will be required to tackle the problem posed by the ISK.
However, Moscow did not allow Central Asian countries to host U.S. or NATO military forces for “over the horizon” counterterrorism operations that would allow the U.S. military to more easily surveil and strike targets in the Taliban-controlled nation. Moscow sees the post-Soviet Central Asian region as its southern defensive flank. Russia exploits the threat of the Islamic State in Afghanistan to expand its military-political influence and cement its military CSTO bloc in the region. Thus, the resistance of authoritarian Russia and China to the US counterterrorism initiative can reduce the pressure on ISIS and revive a resurgence of transnational jihadi terrorism in the very heart of Central Asia.
In this situation, the US should signal Central Asian countries and regional powers that Washington’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan does not mean its complete abandonment of Central Asia. The White House might play the card of economic partnership, financial support, and protection of human rights as a tool to counter the rise of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and the affirmation of Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union.
Contesting Russia requires renewed US engagement in Central Asia
When US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III declared that Washington wanted to see Russia so “weakened” that it would no longer be able to invade a neighbouring state, he lifted the veil on US goals in Ukraine. He also held out the prospect of a long-term US-Russian contest for power and influence.
Mr. Austin’s remarks were problematic on several fronts. For one, they legitimised Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification of the invasion of Ukraine as a defence against US-led efforts to box Russia in and potentially undermine his regime.
“US policy toward Russia continues to be plagued by lack of rhetorical discipline. First calling for regime change, now goal of weakening Russia. This only increases Putin’s case for escalating & shifts focus away from Russian actions in Ukraine & toward Russia-US/NATO showdown,” tweeted New York-based Council of Foreign Relations president and former senior State Department official Richard Haas.
Mr. Haas was referring to President Joe Biden’s remark last month, which he subsequently walked back, that Mr. Putin “cannot remain in power.”
Leaving aside that Mr. Austin’s remark was inopportune, it also suggested a lack of vision of what it will take to ensure that Mr. Putin does not repeat his Ukraine operation elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. That is an endeavour that would involve looking beyond Ukraine to foster closer ties with former Soviet republics that do not immediately border Ukraine.
One place to look is Kazakhstan, a potential future target if Russia still has the wherewithal after what has become a draining slug in Ukraine.
Mr. Putin has long set Kazakhstan up as a potential future target.
He has repeatedly used language when it comes to Kazakhstan that is similar to his rhetoric on the artificial character of the Ukrainian state.
Referring to his notion of a Russian world whose boundaries are defined by the presence of Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than its internationally recognised borders, Mr. Putin asserted last December that “Kazakhstan is a Russian-speaking country in the full sense of the word.”
Mr. Putin first sent a chill down Kazakh spines eight years ago when a student asked him nine months after the annexation of Crimea whether Kazakhstan, with a 6,800 kilometre-long border with Russia, the world’s second-longest frontier, risked a fate similar to that of Ukraine.
In response, Mr. Putin noted that then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era Communist party boss, had “performed a unique feat: he has created a state on a territory where there has never been a state. The Kazakhs never had a state of their own, and he created it.”
To be sure, Russian troops invited in January by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to help put down anti-government protests were quick to withdraw from the Central Asian nation once calm had been restored.
Mr. Putin’s remarks, coupled with distrust of China fuelled by the repression of Turkic Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs, in the north-western province of Xinjiang, and the shutdown of Russia’s Black Sea Novorossiysk oil terminal, Kazakhstan’s main Caspian oil export route, creates an opportunity for the United States.
Last month, Kazakhstan abstained in a United Nations General Assembly vote that condemned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Since then, its sovereign wealth fund announced that it would no longer do business in rubles in compliance with US and European sanctions against Russia. This week, Kazakhstan stopped production of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19.
In an apparent effort to stir the pot, Russian media accused Kazakhstan of preventing Russian nationals from expressing support for Mr. Putin’s invasion and firing Kazakhs who supported the Russian president’s actions from their jobs. At the same time, opponents of the war were allowed to stage demonstrations.
“As Washington policymakers look for ways to counter Russian influence and complicate Mr. Putin’s life, helping Kazakhstan reduce its dependence on Moscow-controlled pipelines, reform its economy, and coordinate with neighbouring Central Asian states to limit the influence of both China and Russia might be a good place to start,” said Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead.
Last month, Mr. Tokayev, the Kazakh president, promised sweeping reforms in response to the January protests.
A high-level Kazakh delegation visited Washington this week to discuss closer cooperation and ways to mitigate the impact on Kazakhstan of potentially crippling sanctions against Russia.
Supporting Kazakhstan would involve a renewed US engagement in Central Asia, a key region that constitutes Russia as well as China’s backyard. The United States is perceived to have abandoned the region with its withdrawal from Afghanistan last August.
It would also mean enlarging the figurative battlefield to include not only military and financial support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia but also the strengthening of political and economic ties with former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are, alongside Kazakhstan, members of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which Mr. Putin, referring to Kazakhstan, described as a bulwark that “helps them stay within the so-called ‘greater Russian world,’ which is part of world civilization.”
The invasion of Ukraine has given Uzbekistan second thoughts. Uzbekistan failed to vote on the UN resolution, but Uzbek officials have since condemned the war and expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
As a result, Uzbekistan appears to have reversed its ambition to join the EEU and forge closer ties to the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the region’s Russian-led military alliance.
“The way Central Asia thinks about Russia has changed. While before, Russia was seen as a source of stability, it now seems that its presence in a very sensitive security dimension has become a weakness for regional stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity,” said Carnegie Endowment Central Asia scholar Temur Umarov.
“I think that Central Asian governments will seek to minimise the influence of Russia, which will be difficult to do, but they have no choice since it has become an unpredictable power.” Mr. Umarov predicted.
Turkmenistan’s Presidential Elections: What to Expect from the New Head of State?
Not much is known about Turkmenistan – it is a rather closed-off country. While fairly credible information on the nation’s foreign policy can be found, there is no opportunity whatsoever to glean credible information on its economy, society and domestic policy. This article is an attempt to forecast the new president’s agenda by looking back to the presidential elections of the past.
Serdar Berdimuhamedow’s Rise to Office
Serdar’s father, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, was in power since 2006. He won the latest election of 2017, securing 97% of the votes. The Constitution of Turkmenistan stipulated that the next election was to be held in 2024, but Berdimuhamedow announced an early vote in February 2022, marking the end of his 15 years in office. He specifically emphasized that he did not intend to run for president, instead remaining head of the Halk Maslahaty, the upper chamber of Turkmenistan’s parliament: “I support the idea that young leaders who have been brought up in a spiritual environment and in accordance with the high requirements of our time should be given an opportunity to lead our country,” he said on the occasion. “As the Chairman of the Halk Maslakhaty, I now intend to direct my vast life and political experience to this area.”
Political pundits and the media rushed to declare that Berdimuhamedow was preparing for a transfer of power. Special emphasis was laid on the fact that Serdar Berdimuhamedow, the president’s son, recently turned 40, which is the minimum age to become president under Turkmenistan’s Constitution. One of the possible reasons for the president’s retirement was his health, which can neither be confirmed nor disproved on the basis of the available information.
Two days into the statement by Berdimuhamedow Senior, on February 14, 2022, Serdar Berdimuhamedow’s candidacy was indeed proposed at the meeting of the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan.
Two more days after, the Agrarian Party of Turkmenistan proposed the candidacy of Agajan Bekmyradov, deputy head of the Mary Region. On February 18, 2022, it was announced that at least six other candidates would compete for Turkmenistan’s presidency if they collected enough signatures. Then, two candidates emerged on February 19 – Berdymammet Gurmanov (a doctor from the Balkan Region) and Perhat Begenjov (a school principal from the Lebap Region). On February 22, more candidates were registered, most prominently Hydyr Nunnayev, Vice Rector for Research at the Turkmen State Institute of Physical Culture and Sports. The registration ended soon after, and the electoral campaign began on February 23.
As expected by observers, Serdar Berdimuhamedow took the election in a landslide. It should be noted, however, that the share of his supporters (72.97%) looked more realistic than the last result of his father.
Who is Serdar Berdimuhamedow: How He Prepared for His Presidency and What to Expect
On March 19, 2022, Serdar Berdimuhamedow officially became Turkmenistan’s third president.
Serdar Berdimuhamedow was born on September 22, 1981, in Ashgabat. He graduated from the Turkmen Agricultural University as an engineering technologist in 2001, at about the same time when his father, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, started his political career. Berdimuhamedow Senior provided his son with plenty of opportunities to explore the many levels and dimensions of civil service.
The first step was to acquire some experience in foreign policy. In 2008–2011, Serdar Berdimuhamedow held the post of minister-counsellor in the Embassy of Turkmenistan to the Russian Federation. During that period, he graduated from the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia with a degree in International Relations. In 2011–2013, Serdar Berdimuhamedow worked as an adviser in the Permanent Mission of Turkmenistan to the United Nations in Geneva, where he studied European and International Security at the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF). On returning from Switzerland, he became Head of the European Department at Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, overseeing the country’s relations with the entirety of Europe. In 2016–2017, he held the position of Head of International Information of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan. Finally, in 2018, he became Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan.
It should be noted that Turkmenistan’s permanent neutrality status—officially confirmed at a United Nations General Assembly meeting on December 12, 1995, during the rule of Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbashy), but largely thanks to the efforts of Minister of Foreign Affairs and Vice Prime Minister Boris Shikhmuradov—is a key trait of the country’s identity in foreign policy. Serdar Berdimuhamedow has picked up the baton of this tradition. Since 1995, Turkmenistan has not been part of any bloc or integration, even opting to be an associated member rather than a full member of the Commonwealth of Independent States. This allows the country to pursue a pragmatic multi-vector foreign policy based on engaging with all interested countries in hydrocarbon trade. In his inauguration speech, Serdar Berdimuhamedow declared that he would be committed to the “principles of neutrality and good neighbourhood.”
Oil and gas remain the most important dimension of Turkmenistan’s economy: gas accounts for the majority of the country’s GDP. The new president has dabbled in this as well: in 2013, he was appointed Director of the State Agency for Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources.
Turkmenistan’s notable feature is that the president is often perceived as a “leader” in science and the arts. Saparmurat Niyazov actively contributed to history, religion and literature, and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow published works on a wide range of topics, most of all medicine and healthy living. In Turkmenistan’s political culture, the subject taken up by the president becomes the key focus of the country’s ideology. Having obtained degrees of Candidate of Technical Sciences (roughly equivalent to a PhD) in 2014 and Doctor of Technical Sciences (a still more advanced degree) in 2015, it is quite possible that Serdar Berdimuhamedow will start publishing on technical and economic issues, technological innovation, etc.
In 2016, the future president started his career in domestic policy: in November, he was elected member of the Mejlis (lower chamber of parliament) of Turkmenistan. The following year, he became Chairman of the Legislative Committee.
In 2019, Serdar Berdimuhamedow was appointed head of the Ahal Region, a key province where the capital is located as well as where the politically dominant Teke tribe lives. In 2020, Serdar Berdimuhamedow was appointed Turkmenistan’s Minister of Industry. After a year in this capacity, he was appointed Vice Prime Minister, which equates to being the “second in command” in the country, since the president and the prime minister are one and the same person. It is from this office that Berdimuhamedow Senior had risen to the rank of president once Saparmurat Niyazov passed away. At the same time, Serdar Berdimuhamedow was appointed to the State Security Council of Turkmenistan.
What Should We Expect from Turkmenistan’s Third President?
Serdar Berdimuhamedow started his presidential term by dismissing the government, which was entirely in accordance with the Turkmenistan’s Constitution. With this, he’s set about forming new government and elaborating new policy. Experts are still out as to what his rule will be like. Some say that Berdimuhamedow Junior will maintain the system his father had erected. Others, including the author, expect that he may carry out some reforms, albeit at a limited scale.
The first reason why we could expect reforms from Serdar Berdimuhamedow is tradition. Serdar’s father likely advises his son to make the same political steps he made himself when he rose to power.
In this context, we may recall that Berdimuhamedow Senior’s presidential term started with moderate reforms. In large part, it was due to his background: unlike most heads of post-Soviet states, who came from business, military, security or intelligence agencies, or from the Soviet political establishment, Berdimuhamedow Senior was a representative of intelligentsia, just like Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the current President of Uzbekistan. Before his political career, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow was quite a successful dentist.
Berdimuhamedow Senior did away with some of Saparmurat Niyazov’s most notorious policies governing culture and everyday life, like the ban of opera and ballet as “contrary to national traditions.” In the social and economic domains, the second president made every effort to redress the utter breakdown of education and healthcare that occurred under Niyazov.
Certainly, when it comes to the political part, it is unlikely that Berdimuhamedow Senior will advise his son to repeat his history of reforms to the letter. The cult of Saparmurat Niyazov, who had declared himself a “prophet equal to Mohammed,” was quietly laid to rest. Berdimuhamedow Senior also replaced all the officials installed by Niyazov, with the most active “cleansing” taking place from mid-2007 to early 2008. Among those who lost their posts were key security and military officials, the Minister of Energy, Minister of Automobile Industry and Construction, Prosecutor General and Supreme Court leadership, as well as a number of other key figures. A significant number of political prisoners convicted under Niyazov were set free through the work of extrajudicial commissions. This time, however, the only political change we can expect is to see more younger faces, but even that would likely happen gradually.
Second, when speculating about possible reforms, we need to remember that Turkmenistan is undergoing a deep socio-economic crisis caused by an ineffective state bureaucracy and a less than advantageous gas contract with China.
Reports about the country’s progress in the fight against COVID-19 are also contradictory. According to the official sources, Turkmenistan’s healthcare system was well prepared for the pandemic: Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow said that healthcare facilities are receiving all the resources they need. It is important to note that Berdimuhamedow served as the minister of healthcare under Niyazov, so effective medicine is one of the pillars of his legitimacy in his post. At the same time, opposition sources paint a different picture: a dire need of beds, qualified doctors, testing facilities and personal protective equipment. Furthermore, opposition sources report that mass gatherings were held in Turkmenistan from March to April 2020 because political celebrations were not cancelled out of ideological considerations.
Crisis in the neighbouring Kazakhstan, another post-Soviet commodity exporter, is an important circumstance that reflects on risk assessment of the Turkmen leaders. During the civil unrest of January 2022, Turkmen security forces were put on high alert, and it was then that the decision to convene the upper chamber of parliament was made, which the president used to announce extraordinary elections.
Reforms may not only help to resolve difficult domestic situations, but also to successfully overcome challenges in foreign policy. If the civil war in Afghanistan escalates, hostilities might spill over the Turkmen-Afghan border. Other foreign policy risks include the consequences of mass migration into Turkey. Many of the Turkmen migrants have fought in Syria, and their return may create certain risks for the government.
Given the current reality of Turkmenistan, an important factor in maintaining the stability of the existing regime could be Berdimuhamedow Senior, who is apparently going to follow the Singapore/China model by gradually transferring power to his heir—much as Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaoping did in their time. On the whole, a gradual transfer of supreme power from father to son is not new on the post-Soviet soil. This has been done by Heydar and Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan, and a similar process is currently unfolding in Tajikistan.
Speaking about reforms in Turkmenistan, we should understand that they will be rather limited, mostly aiming at economic aspects – specifically, expanding foreign investment opportunities and modernizing the country’s economy. Far-reaching political reforms, however, do not appear to be on the agenda. The Turkmen government’s main focus seems to be maintaining stability in a difficult international situation. It may find a possible model for economic reform in the experience of the neighboring Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, both far ahead of Turkmenistan when it comes to modernization.
Russia may benefit from enhancing its economic ties with Turkmenistan, especially given the current foreign economic environment. Export items likely to be in demand on the Russian market include Turkmen vegetables, fruit and cotton textiles. The experience of quickly expanding trade with Uzbekistan after Mirziyoyev began his reforms may prove useful in this regard.
From our partner RIAC
Iran capitalises on Central Asian vacuum created by the Ukraine war
Anti-Iranian protests in Afghanistan and the stabbing of three clerics in Iran threaten to cast a shadow over Iranian efforts to capitalise on the fallout in Central Asia of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The protests at Iran’s diplomatic representations in Kabul and Herat erupted after videos went viral on social media allegedly showing police beating Afghan refugees in Iran.
Shouting “Mag bar Iran” (Death to Iran), protesters set the Herat consulate’s door on fire and destroyed security cameras.
Iranian and Taliban officials sought to downplay the incident. They said ‘rogue elements’ and forces seeking to stoke unrest had staged the protests.
The protests erupted almost a week after two Iranian Shiite clerics were killed and a third injured in the conservative religious stronghold of Mashhad in a knife attack by an allegedly Afghan Salafi immigrant. The attack occurred at the shrine of Ali Al-Ridha, the eighth Shiite imam.
The incidents cast a shadow over efforts by Iran to exploit geopolitical opportunity that initially emerged with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August of last year and has potentially been significantly enhanced by Russia becoming bogged down in the Ukraine war.
The Ukraine conflict means that Russia is less focused on Central Asia. It also casts a shadow over Russian security guarantees for Central Asian states, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, that are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
And it casts a different light on past statements about Kazakhstan by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In January, the Kazakh government asked the CSTO to help end mass anti-government protests.
Russian and other CSTO troops have since left the Central Asian state, but statements by Mr. Putin made weeks before the intervention linger.
Using language reminiscent of his pre-war references to Ukraine designed to lay the groundwork for an invasion, Mr. Putin told a news conference in December that “Kazakhstan is a Russian-speaking country in the full sense of the word.”
At the time of the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Mr. Putin asserted that then Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era Communist party boss, had “performed a unique feat: he has created a state on a territory where there has never been a state. The Kazakhs never had a state of their own, and he created it.”
Mr. Putin went on to say that Kazakh membership of the five-nation, post-Soviet Eurasian Economic Union “helps them stay within the so-called ‘greater Russian world,’ which is part of world civilization.”
Central Asian states have been careful not to condemn the Russian invasion. Still, they have reportedly rebuffed Mr. Putin’s request that they recognize Donetsk and Luhansk, the two breakaway Russian-backed Ukrainian regions.
Beyond geography and Russia’s security presence in the region, Central Asians need to consider close economic ties with Russia, including the flow of remittances by Central Asian migrant workers that have taken a significant hit because of the Ukraine conflict.
In that environment, Iran, particularly if a revival of the 2015 international nuclear agreement lifts US sanctions, has much to offer landlocked Central Asia.
US and Iranian negotiators are near a make-or-break point on resurrecting the agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program but was thrown into disarray after former US President Donald J. Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018.
Iran believes that its opportunity in Central Asia is enhanced because it offers one of the few alternatives to a full embrace by China in the absence of Russia and the United States.
Like much of the rest of the world, Iran has refused to formally recognise the Taliban government as long as it does not demonstrate inclusivity.
Nevertheless, trade with Afghanistan, which hosts multiple land routes to landlocked Central Asia, remains brisk at approximately USD$2.9 billion a year.
Moreover, Iran is discussing with the Taliban the revival of an ambitious rail project that would initially connect Herat to Khaf in north-eastern Iran but ultimately be extended to connect five Central Asian countries.
“This rail line can also link Afghanistan with Iran’s southern ports,” said an Iranian transport official.
The project is part of a proposed US $2bn Five Nations Railway Corridor (FNRC) which would run 2,000 kilometres from China through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.
The project takes on added significance as US and European sanctions against Russia dash Russian, Iranian and Indian hopes for a North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) that would link India to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia, and Europe through Iranian ports.
Iranian and Indian were touting the corridor before the Ukraine
In the past year, Iran has also increased military and security cooperation with Central Asian states. Last year, Iran and Tajikistan established a joint military committee that will focus on counterterrorism.
Afghanistan’s neighbours – China, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – gathered in Tehran in October to discuss containing the security fallout of the Taliban takeover in Kabul.
Despite taking advantage of Russia’s self-inflicted predicament, Iran will want to retain good relations with Moscow even if the nuclear agreement is resurrected and US sanctions are lifted.
Iran has no guarantee that the accord will remain in place if US President Joe Biden loses control of Congress in this year’s mid-term elections or a Republican, possibly Mr. Trump, wins the 2024 presidential election.
“Manoeuvring in Central Asia makes eminent sense for Iran. However, that will not please multiple players. Iran, therefore, needs to ensure that it doesn’t close any doors as it fiddles in backyards that everyone is interested in,” said a Western official.
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