Iran's President Hassan Rouhani (R) and Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov walk together during an official welcoming ceremony at Sa'dabad Palace in Tehran, Iran on November 22, 2015
In the new era, Turkmenistan’s political elites, like other Central Asian states, have faced major problems to achieve the objectives of development and stability in the years following their independence. This has affected this state’s foreign policy behavior and at times been a source of her irrational behavior. In other words, internal policy requirements, geopolitical limitations and the unique decision-making structure of this state seem to undermine many of the estimates based on this state’s foreign policy behavior.
In terms of the mentioned requirements and relying on the history of repulsive and threatening behavior in the past nomadic history and culture of Southwest Central Asia, it seems that out of the neighborhood norm behavior and severe reactions have been, somehow, justified for Turkmenistan’s foreign policy decision makers and implementers. In this context, the sudden interruption of exporting gas, severe and disproportionate response to the Caspian Sea issues, the inappropriate decisions on the issue of transit and, more recently, the threat raised again to cut off the flow of gas on the cold days of this year all should be considered as a part of features derived from the political culture of this northern neighbor.
It should be noted here that the first and main geographical area vulnerable to Turkmenistan’s “gas game” includes regions where the majority of inhabitants are the Turkmen Iranian. In other words, the Turkmen Iranian, especially those who live in the Iranian Province of Golestan, despite having an ethnicity and a culture close to those of Turkmenistan, will bear the main damage from this periodical game of Turkmenistan.
Aside from the living experience of past centuries, the experience of being dominated by the Russian and the Bolshevik for nearly a century is not negligible, because tribal values have been reinforced based on using force during this period, and under the influence of the values of the invading culture and now, many social and political behavior as well as the political culture of the Central Asian people are consistent with the violent aspects of the Slavic culture. In fact, there are striking similarities between the behavior of the political elite and the rulers of these states. One of the best examples is that, indeed, both Russia and Turkmenistan use gas and its exports instrumentally in the foreign policy interaction. Russia (in a larger scale) has used gas for interacting with the near abroad countries and even the EU, and Turkmenistan also uses the periodical “gas game” as a platform to achieve her objectives in the region. As mentioned, according to these states’ political culture, this out of the norm behavior which is undermining the good neighborliness is seen as a natural right for the political elite and leaders of these states, and even they are proud of achieving their desired results from them.
The use of repulsive and unconventional behavior by these states should not only be considered as the consequences of their foreign policy behavior, since regarding the link between domestic and foreign policy analyses, these states’ behavior in the field of foreign relations is considered as the continued terms and requirements of their domestic policy. Perhaps it is not that irrelevant to mention that the unconventional behavior of these states is related to their domestic policy issues. In other words, the periodic performance of these states, generally assessed outside the accepted international norms, will be better understood in relation to the interplay of their internal pressure and domestic policy challenges.
In 2006, Niyazov, the first President of Turkmenistan, passed away, and Berdimuhamedow came to power. Up to that time, Niyazov’s cult of personality (Turkmenbashi) was to the extent that other political leaders and figures were overshadowed by him. During this time, the potential instability resulting from the transition was also raised as the primary concern. In addition, Turkmen leaders were afraid of the influence of stimulating movements due to the present tribal bond between the Turkmen Iranian living in north-eastern provinces and some Turkmen tribes (the Yomut). Of course, it should be mentioned that no Iranian movement has ever targeted Turkmenistan, but at that time, and perhaps even to this day, some political elite of Turkmenistan still feel threatened by this fear. In this regard, the first strong reaction of “post-Niyazov Turkmenistan”, regardless of the economic and legal justification, was to cut off gas exports which affected the normal life of people living in northeastern Iran. This has created a sense of disillusionment among the Turkmen Iranian toward this northern neighbor; a feeling that pushed back many cultural exchanges between the two sides of the border for a long time.
Recently, the memory of 2008 winter has faded in many minds in Northern provinces of Iran, and the increasing incentives for expanding interactions between the two sides of the border have emerged. On the other hand, 2017 Asian Olympic Games will be held in Turkmenistan, so this state will have to accept the presence of many citizens of other states including the neighbors. At the same time, providing the infrastructure and the new sports town near Ashgabat has imposed enormous costs to Turkmen economy. This is all despite the fact that in recent years the prices of energy carriers have sharply dropped in global markets, and the sources of Turkmen government’s revenues have suffered as far as some domestic sources have talked about the government’s problems to finance her ambitious plans. But the Turkmen leaders have always used the government’s success in the implementation of ambitious development and construction projects and costly symbolic plans to show their ability and efficiency in governance, and have used them for their continued political legitimacy.
More recently, following the limited disagreement on the Caspian Sea, the first retaliatory action of the government was to increase various kinds of transit and transportation rates which, more than anything, could increase the government’s revenue. These days, as stated, the main claim of Turkmenistan was to receive the price difference close to $2 billion for gas exchanges. These revenues, though uncommon, can cover some part of this state’s economic problems and domestic challenges. Also, any success achieved in this periodic show provides a fertile ground for showing this state’s sovereignty. Above all, the psychological impact of Turkmenistan “gas game” should be also noted here that reproduces disillusionment among people in the northern regions, especially the Turkmen Iranian.
As seen, the sudden reaction and surprising performance of Turkmenistan can be understood and assessed within the context of the elite political culture and geopolitical requirements and different aspects of effects of this game on the state’s domestic policy, regional security policies and economic (although) limited incentives. This perspective provides the basis for achieving a pattern for this state’s foreign policy behavior and also for estimating the current and future behavior of this “northern neighbor” more accurately.
Behrouz Ghezel, a PhD student in Central Asia and Caucasus studies at University of Tehran, is the managing editor at IRAS.
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