The policy of neutrality proclaimed by the Turkmen authorities in foreign policy has actually turned into selective isolation and exacerbates the country’s problems, said Mufiza Kenzhaeva, a participant of the CABAR.asia School of Analytics. In her opinion, Ashgabat should open the country and engage in dialogue with neighbors and external actors.
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The republic acquired the status of permanent neutrality after the adoption of resolution No. 50/80 of the UN General Assembly of December 12, 1995. However, Turkmenistan announced a new doctrine during the 1992 OSCE summit in Helsinki. The country announced its positive neutrality based on an “open-door” policy and UN treaties. In 1995, the republic received official recognition at the regional and international level.
It is very important to understand the logic of Ashgabat itself about the reason for adopting such a foreign policy doctrine, how the state defines “neutrality” and how it sees the establishment of international relations.
In 2002, before the celebration of the Neutrality Day, the first life-president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, who accepted the title of “Turkmenbashi”, explained the reasons for such choice. In his long speech devoted to neutrality and its role in state strategy, Niyazov emphasized the following historical, political, social and economic triggers behind the “doctrine of neutrality”:
In his understanding, globalization is not an unambiguous movement, Niyazov emphasized “… in fact, globalization splits the world into two parts, although it draws these parts closer together. “Interdependence potentially threatens sovereignty and worsens the nationalist mood of countries in the era of globalization. Indeed, Ashkhabad’s policies keep the country in comparative isolation. For example, the following factors put Turkmenistan in the top of the most isolated countries in the world: the most expensive Internet in the post-Soviet space, a strict visa regime, an intensive process of nationalization ( Turkmenization – ed. ), Absolute media control, restriction of travel and education in other countries, difficulties with transmission of money.
History has played an important role in adopting the established position. Turkmenistan, however, like the entire region, is burdened with being the epicenter of the so-called “Big Game”. A geopolitical location between major powers and resources creates a kind of chessboard for external players. Neutrality “once and for all would save us from the unenviable role of a sacrificial pawn in someone’s big game.”
Further, Turkmenbashi also stated that the country was not going to “blindly copy other people’s experience, thoughtlessly borrow someone’s models and ideas.
The Republic takes the fourth place in terms of natural gas reserves in the world hydrocarbon reserves. The abundance of resources leads to a potential clash of powers trying to gain a “sphere of influence” and this can lead to scenarios similar to several countries of the Middle East. Political and economic factors play a big role here – the country refused to participate in various coalitions and alliances to eliminate “unhealthy competition”.
It is very important to consider the above-mentioned triggers that determined the choice of foreign policy. One needs to understand the reality of the factors associated with them: geopolitical location, preventing the threat of the country’s collapse, combating crises in all areas (threats of civil war, ethnic clashes).
Illusiveness, blurred lines and shields
Despite predictions of total chaos after the death of Niyazov in 2006, the transit of power in the country went smoothly. The new president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, continued the policy of neutrality.
The authorities of each country in the region use the presence of certain factors that threaten the stability of society, while the degree of risk is partially exaggerated.
According to leaders, these risks can only be prevented through existing regimes, thereby justifying a policy of tough measures. The authorities of the countries have constructed their theses to justify criticism from the outside. Uzbekistan during the reign of Islam Karimov used the thesis of “an economy above politics”, Tajikistan focuses on the fight against extremists, and Turkmenistan chose neutrality as a shield.
Comparing the criticism that has fallen on the regimes of the countries of the region, it seems that Turkmenistan is less discussed in the discourse of the OSCE, which is more concerned about the situation in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Although the policy of Turkmenistan is more repressive and it is among the top five countries in the world with strict censorship, along with North Korea. Perhaps less attention is drawn to the issue of respect for human rights is due to the declared neutrality policy.
Note that, “isolation”, a very often repeated word along with “neutrality” is not its synonym. Turkmenistan’s foreign policy is more and more like selective isolation, rather than positive neutrality. Niyazov, as once Karimov, saw Central Asia as the epicenter of challenges and threats. Even having signed an association with the region in 1993, Niyazov continued to distort the borders of the region (adding different countries from South Asia), somehow moving away from integration with the region and Russia, with which Ashgabat had rather strained relations.
At the same time, foreign trade, which is highly interconnected with gas and oil exports, is focused on trade with Turkey, China, the UAE, Italy, Afghanistan and Iran.
Initially, as Niyazov said, neutrality implies a certain freedom from the external effect of globalization. Ashgabat actively avoids regional initiatives (the case of a failure to appear at the meeting of the Central Asian leaders in Astana 2017 due to the upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait), but at the same time actively participates in projects in the Middle East and China.
It seems that the country’s neutrality is more illusory and deliberate, since the ambitious dreams of the Turkmen government about neutrality are faced with a real economic crisis, an increasing external debt and security threats.
Ashgabat wanted to become the local Qatar
If the rest of the republics have a certain gradual plan for nation-building, then Ashgabat began this process immediately after independence. The state imposed the concept of “correctness” of Turkmen-way in the representations of good and evil, clothing, traditions and a vision of the world through the Ruhnama and other books of the two presidents.
Niyazov and the current “Arkadag” (the title of Berdymukhamedov, meaning “patron/protector”) actively modernized the capital of the country, trying to create something similar to Dubai in the region. In general, Ashgabat tried to borrow the experience of the rich Persian Gulf countries. Turkmenistan actively cooperates with these countries, for example, with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. There was an attempt to recreate the welfare state model, in 1993 Niyazov introduced benefits for a certain amount of electricity, drinking water, gas and basic products (flour, salt).
The benefits in tandem with neutrality were supposed to create some associations with the country: to declare the special situation of Turkmenistan in connection with welfare-state in the post-Soviet space, and that the regime in Ashgabat is different from its neighbors and is similar to the regimes of Saudi Arabia or the UAE, where the state pays social benefits for some restrictions.
This tandem, according to its creators, was supposed to protect against criticism and justify the policies of Ashgabat. However, the concept of “neutrality” sounds inappropriate for a country dependent on the export of hydrocarbons, in which gas makes up 83% of total exports. One can also say about dependence on the main consumer of Turkmen blue fuel – China and the so-called “resource curse”. The countries of the region are drawn into the debt-trap of China, and Turkmenistan does not even have immunity, since there is no diversification of the economy and the countries of importers.
The second reason to question the doctrine of Turkmen neutrality is migration. Now the main directions of migration from Turkmenistan are the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan and Russia.
Headrush after “success”
Present-day Turkmenistan, which was tearing itself away from Central Asian realities under Niyazov, is gradually coming to its senses. Since 2019, Niyazov’s benefits have been abolished by Berdymukhamedov, as he said, “at present, the incomes of the population have increased markedly and there are wide opportunities for earning money for every family”. In fact, the country faced the first shock period since gaining independence. RadioAzzatyk and Chronicle of Turkmenistan (Хроника Туркменистана) report a shortage of certain products, rising prices for goods and utilities, as well as cases when students are forced to refuse from scholarship.
Selective isolation of a country exacerbates its current situation. Isolation from Central Asia and the post-Soviet countries in general has many drawbacks. The rest of the countries successfully balance and even benefit from external players, and currently they are strengthening cooperation within the region. The Turkmen position with neutrality looks like an unwillingness to communicate with the outside world and especially the post-Soviet space. There are more and more regional and global threats that Ashgabat can successfully counter by adhering to positive neutrality rather than selective isolation.
One of the threats is the rise of religious extremism. In 2014-2015, ISIS fighters appeared near the border of Turkmenistan with Afghanistan. The army of Turkmenistan is relatively weaker, there is no cooperation with neighbors and external actors to develop its military potential. Continuing selective isolation, the country can reach not only the stage of renunciation of neutrality, but also chaos.
The authorities of Turkmenistan should reconsider plans of turning into post-Soviet Kuwait and take a look at the existing reality. Other “Stan” countries also maintain neutrality, while not practicing isolation. None of these countries, despite close ties with Russia and China, has come under the influence of one external actor and adheres to an original political course. The idea that being an open country means renouncing sovereignty is not justified, and examples of relatively successful neutrality are closer than it might seem in Ashgabat.
By entering into a dialogue with neighbors and foreign actors, the country will dispel myths, attract investors and tourists, diversify the economy, and strengthen military and technical potential. Otherwise, Ashgabat may remain an outsider, which will create threats to the stability of society and the state.
The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.
 Mirzekhanov V.S., Tyulpakov M.V. The Doctrine of Positive Neutrality and Foreign Policy Priorities of Post-Soviet Turkmenistan . Ser. 9, Orientalism and Africanism: Abstract Journal. 2018. No3.
 The Great Game-formed term describing the political and diplomatic confrontation between the British and Russian Empire in Turkestan, the action took place in the 18-19 century.
 Sputnik. “The Head of Turkmenistan Will Not Come to the Summit of the Heads of State of Central Asia.” Sputnik Uzbekistan , 5 Mar. 2018
Countries with abundant natural resources turn out to be less developed and often the “resource curse” is accompanied by a “Dutch disease”, that is, a strong dependence on the export of natural resources harms the development of other sectors of the economy and makes the country vulnerable to changes in the market for natural resources.
 “The Number of Migrants in Turkey Has Increased More Than 20%.” RusTurkey.com.
 “In Turkmenistan, from 2019, the benefits for the population will be canceled.” TuranToday, 26 Sept. 2018.
 “In Turkmenistan, Products in Deficit, Bread Are Sold on Passport.” Radio Azatlyk, June 15, 2018;
“End of the Tale. Deficit and Queues Increasingly occur in Turkmenistan.” Chronicle of Turkmenistan, 11 Nov. 2018.