It is customary for Central Asian leaders to exchange pleasantries among themselves whenever one of their countries is marking a day of independence or some other major holiday. But the warmth that Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhamedov conveyed in his message to his Uzbek counterpart, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, for September 1 was more than mere formality. It is hard to think which two nations in the region are at present enjoying as rosy a relationship as these two.
As the data suggests, this cordial state of affairs is very much a legacy of Mirziyoyev’s concerted effort to deepen Uzbekistan’s engagement with its neighbors following his ascent to power in 2016. The year following that, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan sealed a strategic partnership agreement which has yielded its most visible results in trade.
As Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Ashgabat, Akmaljon Kuchkarov, wrote on September 1, bilateral trade turnover has grown fivefold since 2017 to reach the $1 billion mark. The envoy express confidence that a follow-up joint declaration signed in October 2022, which commits the neighbors to deepening the strategic partnership, will serve to consolidate that trend and help enhance cultural and humanitarian cooperation too.
The most vivid recent result of this bonhomie was on view late last month, when Uzbekistan’s Energy Minister, Zhurabek Mirzamakhmudov, visited Ashgabat and came away with a deal to import up to 2 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually. Mirzamakhmudov told reporters that future contracts could be signed for larger amounts.
This is a win-win for everybody involved. Turkmenistan has a new and hopefully reliable long-term buyer for its gas (although the size of the fee is admittedly a mystery), while Uzbekistan can plug the hole left by ever-increasing local demand for and stagnant production of the fuel.
And for simple reasons of geography, Turkmenistan will rely on Uzbekistan to –as stated in a government statement regarding Mirzamakhmudov’s visit – “intensify the creation of a multivariate system for the supply of Turkmen energy resources to foreign countries, primarily to neighboring states.”
This is most evidently an allusion to Tajikistan. The presidents of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan met for a three-way summit at the start of August in which discussions on energy cooperation were high on the agenda.
Kyrgyzstan is ostensibly another regular customer waiting in the wings. Kyrgyz Energy Minister Taalaibek Ibrayev traveled to Ashgabat in October 2022 and afterward told journalists that talks were underway for Bishkek to buy 300 million cubic meters of Turkmen gas. It is unclear what progress those negotiations produced, but Kyrgyzstan is doubtless still eager. In an interview last month, Ibrayev talked about his government’s ambitions to wean the country off its reliance on burning dirty coal and pivot to gas. Another goal is to pipe gas directly into more homes. Ibrayev spoke of sourcing the fuel from Russia, but it is inconceivable Turkmenistan is not also viewed as a strong option.
Kyrgyzstan already relies on Turkmenistan for its energy needs in other ways. As Ibrayev has said, Kyrgyzstan is contracted this year to be supplied with 1.6 billion kilowatt hours of electricity from Turkmenistan, with the volume going up to 1.7 billion kilowatt hours in 2024. Again, Uzbekistan is the lynchpin nation.
Another set of figures attesting to the increasing ease of Turkmen-Uzbek relations were released earlier in the summer and showed how roughly 39,600 visits had been paid to Uzbekistan by nationals of Turkmenistan in the period from January to July 2023. While the number may not be large, it dwarfs the 1,100 such visits performed over the same timeframe in 2022. It is furthermore important to recall that Turkmen citizens have since 1999, when the country pulled out of a visa-free arrangement between post-Soviet states, needed to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get into Uzbekistan. So the growth in number suggests border procedures are being greatly softened.
There is a natural constituency for the simplification of travel rules. Around 300,000 ethnic Uzbeks are still believed to live in Turkmenistan, while more than 200,000 ethnic Turkmens live in Uzbekistan. One should not be too naïve about the underlying factors for some of these trends though. As RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, reported on August 24, Turkmens have just in the past few weeks started going to Uzbekistan en masse as a way of traveling onward to third nations – namely, Russia. In August, state-owned Turkmenistan Airlines announced its was suspending direct flights between Ashgabat and Moscow until the end of October in response to security concerns sparked by a number of drone attacks on the Russian capital. An alternative route to the city of Kazan, around 800 kilometers east of Moscow, has been made available, but getting hold of a ticket is almost impossible without resorting to bribery.
Central Asian leaders may get the chance to explore yet more avenues of cooperation at a “consultative meeting” slated to take place in Tajikistan on September 14. Some mystery lingers about which Turkmen leader will turn up in Dushanbe, though. Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan noticed that Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has so far issued an invitation only to President Berdymukhamedov’s father – the former president and father of the incumbent, Gurbanguly, who occupies a bespoke position of “national leader.”
Berdymukhamedov the younger may just need to fine-tune his messaging machine. Perhaps it was with that thought in mind that he dismissed his father’s holdover press secretary, Kakageldi Charyardurdyev, on September 1, and replaced him with his own man: one Azat Jepbarov, formerly the chief editor of Bereketli Toprak (Fertile Soil), a weekly newspaper run out of the Agriculture Ministry.
The Turkmen regime’s exercise in transnational authoritarianism has continued to yield fruit, according to a September 4 report on the Chronicles website. The many Turkmens caught up in a broader sweep against undocumented migrants that has been going on in Turkey since June included two figures who have been active in their social media-based criticism of the Berdymukhamedovs’ rule — Rovshen Klychev and Dovran Imamov. Klychev, who had previously and unsuccessfully applied for asylum, was deported to Turkmenistan in July. His fate is uncertain. Imamov was put onto a plane to his home country at the end of August and was met at the airport by agents from the National Security Ministry, the successor agency to the KGB. He is now being held at a pre-trial detention facility in the Lebap province.