For someone of such a narcissistic persuasion it is indeed unusual to witness what appears to be an exercise in pragmatic genuflection towards Russia by Turkmenistan president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow.
Operating perhaps the most closed, repressive regime outside of North Korea, Berdymukhamedow is not in the habit of dishing out public expressions of admiration or sympathy towards foreign nations, even the one from whom the former Soviet republic seceded. Although there are many similarities from history, and to a lesser extent the modern era from where the president’s iron grip on the gas-rich state could be inspired, Berdymukhamedow is more cut from a similar cloth of those, and not just the leaders of nations, who believe their own hype once power and finance distort the reality, serving to mask the actuality of an individual’s true abilities when sycophancy born from fear effectively elevates the head of a nation, or business entity, to that of a deity.
The modern era of dictators runs the gamut from the Kim Dynasty to Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, with Berdymukhamedow somewhere in the mix. In reality Turkmenistan’s apparent ‘president for life’ differs little from Donald Trump’s new best friend in Pyongyang, save for the lack of a nuclear capability which corresponds to Ashgabat’s neutral position. The president’s excesses are nothing new in the annuls of autocracy although the ideals that brought many eventual despots to power, think the freedom fighter Robert Mugabe, are often subsumed by a rush of blood to the head once power has been gained, or wrestled away from colonialists. As if at the controls of a new toy that comes with its own bank vault and endless lickspittles, an absolutist in the making can quickly forget the cause which ultimately brought him or her to power. Berdymukhamedow is though no principled idealist in the mould of Mugabe or even Kim Il-sung but instead an opportunist, tin pot dictator whose power base has been consolidated to such a degree that it is unthinkable that he, or dauphin Serdar, will ever be dethroned by those acting from within Turkmenistan.
It will therefore not have come easy to the president to sympathize with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, in the wake of devastating floods that swept through the Irkutsk region. There can though be little coincidence that the unfortunate events in southern Siberia coincided with Turkmenistan inking a five-year deal with Russian gas company Gazprom to supply Russia with 5.5 billion cubic metres(bcm) of gas per annum. This figure is small beer compared to the reported 40 billion bcm purchased by Russia over a decade ago but represents a tangible thawing of relations between Ashgabat and Moscow, who for the past 3 years ceased all purchases of Turkmenistan’s Caspian Sea riches.
Beggars though cannot be choosers. Energy security is a hotly debated topic amid the increasingly acrimonious arguments between those that deny and expound the existence of Climate Change, and internecine dangers inherent within many of the world’s leading hydrocarbon-producing countries. Russia will be acutely aware that throwing Turkmenistan a bone during the latter’s economic problems is not its responsibility, although a decision to resume purchasing gas from Ashgabat will be an act born more from expediency than out of charity. By slowly reintegrating Turkmenistan as a gas supplier Russia has greater leverage to manipulate the price and prevent a repeat of 2016 when disagreements over unit cost ultimately ceased the flow between both countries.
There is an argument that posits the buying of gas from Turkmenistan legitimizes the Berdymukhamedow regime and fuels the president with fresh currency to finance his schemes of self-deification whilst much of the country queues for basic foodstuffs. In such a scenario many within the country could be excused for not realizing Russia is once more a customer for its gas, with little positive change being felt by the everyday man-in-the-street. The economy will remain depressed no matter how much gas is sold to Russia, China or whoever whilst the president siphons off the country’s dwindling resources for his pet projects, dressed up as schemes for the good of the people, who will never get to use them, and the country as a whole.
Linking what appears to be an unprecedented break with tradition by Berdymukhamedow to Turkmenistan’s renewed economic relations with Russia is almost a given, especially since he failed to even acknowledge the devastating floods that swept many parts of his own country earlier this year. Much of which that goes wrong in Turkmenistan, well, most things, really, has its origins in the president’s haphazard ways and skewed priorities, so it is with some irony that the one thing over which even he has no influence, the weather and its potentially deadly consequences, aren’t even referenced when so many citizens and buildings were badly affected. Could the president’s drive for beautification that underpins the ‘Potemkin’-esque mania behind many of his whims have prevented his pride taking an unprecedented hit, thereby not wanting to publicly acknowledge that his carefully sculpted country has been tarnished by such inundation? Or, more bizarre still but not without credence, is the president loathe to admit that even he cannot control the weather as he does all other areas of contemporary Turkmenistan life?
By now even those not previously versed in Berdymukhamedow’s alternative approach to logic and reason will come to the conclusion that he cares little for his own people, who are impediments to him having the whole of Turkmenistan to himself as his personal playground, where he can bring physical reality to his many ‘innovative’ and costly fantasies. How else other than not being able to tolerate an apparent prick to his overwhelming hubris and delusional mindset can it be explained that floods within his own nation aren’t acknowledged or publicly addressed – surely Berdymukhamedow pictured in full firefighter/rescue apparel would be meat and drink to his sense of drama and machismo as the nation’s Arkadag(protector) – whilst he laments over a similar situation in Russia, now once more a customer for its gas.
Should Russia decide in the future that it needs more of Turkmenistan’s gas it will undoubtedly be expedient for it to be acquired, subject to the deal between both countries not becoming a case of the seller continually moving the goalposts. Where necessity overrides all other sensibilities Russia will run the risk of losing the whip hand on the deal, although Turkmenistan’s self-inflicted economic woes continues to render the market as being in the buyer’s hands. Quite where the revenue garnered from sales to Gazprom ends up can only be imagined, but for how long can the international community stand back and look the other way when a hydrocarbon-rich country pleads poverty? The absence of a Sovereign Wealth Fund but existence of $23 billion, a veritable king’s ransom, squirreled away in German bank accounts, with no suggestion when it was put there by whom or why, shines a bright, unforgiving light onto where the fault of Turkmenistan’s stagnating economy squarely lies.
The moral conundrum of dealing with a oppressive regime is without question, but when it involves an element of life still overtly relied upon the likes of Berdymukhamedow will continue to have access to the levels of finance which could, and should be used for the betterment of Turkmen society but will instead be funnelled into his “future projects” slush fund. In what amounts to the uneasiest of quid pro quo arrangements Turkmenistan has what the world wants, and the president knows it.
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