Presidents of Russia and Turkmenistan talked one-on-one in Sochi
President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow visited Sochi at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Three issues led the Turkmen leader to Bocharov Ruchey: an acute financial crisis, energy projects and security. The one-on-one meeting at the request of Berdymukhamedow was held in an informal atmosphere. The leaders of Russia and Turkmenistan had met before on August 12 in the Kazakh city of Aktau, where the presidents of the Caspian states (Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Turkmenistan) signed a historical document - the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, which had been negotiated for 22 years.
Opening the meeting, Vladimir Putin suggested Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow ‘to discuss the bilateral issues that are of mutual interest in the informal atmosphere’ "As you suggested, the atmosphere will be informal. We will just sit and discuss all issues that are of interest for the bilateral relations," Putin said. ‘These are economic issues, social issues, interaction in humanitarian fields and international activities. "Our positions here, like diplomats say, are close or almost the same, we work very closely and effectively with each other,” Putin said.
On the eve of the Caspian summit, another important bilateral document - the Strategic Partnership Treaty between Russia and Turkmenistan signed in October 2017 - entered into force. Under this agreement, Turkmenistan expects to receive assistance from Russia. Berdimuhamedow then said that Ashgabat was ready for close cooperation with Moscow on ensuring security in Central Asia with respect to Russia's interests in this region. Today, at a meeting with Vladimir Putin, he confirmed Ashkhabad's willingness to work together. "We always build our relations on the background of the mutual respect, so in reality, we are doing a lot to realize the issues of our cooperation," the Turkmen president said. He drew attention to the active work of the intergovernmental commission and expressed gratitude for the appointment of a new head of the commission since the new composition has a potential to achieve positive results in implementing the plans. "I would also like to take an opportunity to congratulate you on the excellent 2018 World Cup organized on the highest level,” Berdimuhamedow said, adding ‘’better late than never’’.
The current second visit to Sochi initiated by the Turkmen side is of great interest for Ashgabat. In November 2016, Turkmenistan faced a severe financial crisis. Then Russia came to the rescue by providing a $ 2 billion loan to Turkmenistan. This assistance was not advertised, but experts say that the rate of manat (national currency) increased by 25% against the dollar on the Turkmen currency ‘black market’ the day after Berdymukhamedow returned from Sochi. The entrepreneurs buying food abroad were allowed to convert the currency. Currently, Turkmenistan is experiencing a deficit of the state budget once again. "The fall in hydrocarbon prices and a number of unsuccessful foreign policy decisions led to the conflicts with Iran, Russia and China, which in turn affected economic ties with these countries, and they were the only buyers of Turkmen gas. Plus, unnecessary and high-cost events - the Asian Games, the construction of infrastructure and the need to spend a huge amount of money on its service. The whole of these spending has now been transferred to the population that has become accustomed to the subsidies for essential goods and services, Now all this has been almost eliminated. But the population’s discontent is connected with the loss of access to goods at a low price, given that wages have fallen, and goods remain only at the real, market, commercial prices. Small wholesale trade does not manage to unfold and fill these niches," a source in Ashgabat told Vestnik Kavkaza on condition of anonymity. According to the source, the main problems are connected not with products, but with the lack of drugs. The whole categories of medicines are absent- heart, women's health, drugs for diagnosis. The authorities are trying to replace some items with local surrogates, the medicine of unknown origin, but this causes another string of problems. Plus the most corrupt system for obtaining licenses. The main question asked of the customs control: "Do you carry drugs and cigarettes?".
"The preservation of social stability in Turkmenistan is up in the air,” Andrey Grozin, head of the Department of Central Asia and Kazakhstan at the Institute of CIS Countries, told Vestnik Kavkaza.” Therefore, according to the expert, Turkmenistan acts as a petitioner, a weak negotiator. "Ashgabat could start the military-strategic cooperation with the Russian Federation, but Turkmenistan has a lot of barriers that interfere with the counter-movement of the two countries, for example, the neutral status enshrined in the UN resolution does not allow the country to participate in any military coalitions,” the expert noted. At the same time, the prospect of cooperation remains.
Experts do not rule out that Berdymukhamedow came to Putin to resolve the gas issue. Since the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea signed at the summit in Aktau does not give a direct answer to the main issues causing the greatest tension in the region. In particular, the delimitation of sectors on the Caspian shelf between the signatory States of the Convention will be carried out "by agreement between neighboring and opposing states, taking into account generally recognized principles and norms of the international law." That means in the course of individual negotiations of the countries with each other:
- on the delimitation of the seabed and subsoil in the Caspian Sea;
- on the general ‘’rules of the game’’ for the exploitation of oil and gas reserves and the construction of transit pipelines (in particular, on the route Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan-Turkey-Europe, TANAP / TAP / Southern Gas Corridor). Experts believe that Ashgabat has no prospects of supplying its gas in the European direction.
As compensation, Russia can take a counter step - to buy small amounts of gas from Turkmenistan. This autumn Gazprom may start negotiations on the purchase of gas from Turkmenistan. This was previously stated by Deputy Minister of Energy Anatoly Yanovsky. This is a political decision, because Russia is interested in expanding its presence in the energy sector of Central Asia, and Turkmenistan is interested in getting rid of China's monopoly dependence, resolving the crisis and filling the treasury with cash. It is important for Turkmenistan to resolve two issues: financial and ensuring its own security.
According to Alexander Knyazev, the expert on Central Asia and the Middle East, Russia is only interested in Turkmen gas as an instrument - in exchange for foreign economic and foreign policy concessions of Turkmenistan. Russia seeks to control the security sphere in the Turkmen direction, including the Caspian. This does not necessarily mean a military presence of the Russian Federation on the territory of Turkmenistan, it may be groups of advisers and observers, it may be the coordination of the activities of the law enforcement agencies and intelligence services, information exchange. But on this issue, the Turkmen side (under the US pressure) does not make concessions.
The second no less important issue is security. The situation on the Turkmen-Afghan border is consistently grave, although there are no such aggravations that were in 2014. In 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Ashgabat to discuss strengthening the border with Afghanistan. However, the Turkmen leadership refused to help Russia, counting on the US support. According to Andrey Grozin, the current situation is completely different, but this does not mean that Berdymukhamedow will allow Russian troops to enter the border. According to the expert, the Turkmen neutrality will not allow the introduction of troops. This refers not only to the neutral status of the state. Turkmens do not need Russian, Chinese or American soldiers on their territory. The situation is not so acute to rely on the external forces. There remains only the expansion of the military-technical partnership. And Turkmens can expect to receive the preferential arms supplies on credit that would be written off and forgotten eventually, as it happened with the African countries in the Soviet era. As it happened with Cuba. As it is now happening with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.