Not known as a man whose conscience unduly troubles him when it comes to the plight of his fellow Turkmen, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow has instead turned his attention to neighbouring Afghanistan in what appears to be an unprecedented act by the former dentist of humanitarian assistance to an outside nation.

Turkmenistan has firmly established itself as a Non-Aligned or Neutral nation, vowing to keep out of affairs beyond its borders, a stance presumably predicated on a quid pro quo basis to ward off prying eyes from the often bizarre but always controversial events occurring within the gas-rich Central Asian state.

There is though some debate as to whether Berdymukhamedow fully grasps reality – it is almost without question he doesn’t. The vanity projects that frequently pop up around Ashgabat and increasingly so away from the capital city are invariably heralded by the man himself to great fanfare, no doubt with the intention of propelling Turkmenistan ingenuity and wisdom, in effect his and his alone, onto the world stage. These are not though the most obvious behavioural traits of someone pursuing Isolationism.

With though an ego the size of the Caspian Sea Berdymukhamedow just cannot help but restlessly move on to his next boondoggle, complete with pointing cane and cringeworthy stage-managed public appearances to portray the president as sagacious beyond measure and unerringly brilliant. Knowing full well of the reach of Social Media and that news programmes broadcast by state-sanctioned television can be seen in neighbouring countries, the president is hardly going to great lengths to hide events in Turkmenistan but is making sure the country, or he, is being seen in what is concluded to be in the best possible light.

What he cannot though control is how media clips, sanctioned or otherwise, do not discriminate between what Berdymukhamedow wishes the world to see, and the dirty secrets of oppression, the denial of religious freedom, and food shortages that contradict his carefully constructed narrative. It is with the latter scenario that the country’s Isolationist, neutral footing becomes more credible and whilst Non-Interventionism does not necessarily equate to sequestration, the president wants the world to see what he wants it to. Should anything seep out not to his liking Berdymukhamedow can once more bang the Neutral drum and while foreign nations still tiptoe around the Human Rights abuses and nepotism in a gas-rich country they dare not upset, it has become the job of the likes of Amnesty international and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to shine a light on the many unsavoury practices redolent with the incumbent regime.

At the beginning of this post I referenced an apparent rare dose of morality from Berdymukhamedow, towards neighbouring Afghanistan. A three-year package of humanitarian assistance is certainly a significant undertaking from a country held firmly in check by its current and previous autocratic regimes, and whose previous history of similar altruism could be detailed on the back of a postage stamp.

Turkmenistan is assumed by dint of its hydrocarbon resources to be a rich country, with the means to significantly improve the lives of its citizens both in real time and presumably through a Sovereign Wealth Fund, the latter usually an initiative to diversify a nation’s economy once its primary source of income has dried up. If though Turkmenistan was once rich, the countless billions blown by the president on White Elephant schemes and Potemkin-esque facades would suggest as such, evidence points to it no longer being so.

Free utilities privileges have been removed from everyday Turkmen, many of who live in substandard accommodation and face queues for basic foodstuffs. Recent footage has shown some residents of Ashgabat searching through dumpsters for food. Unemployment is perhaps somewhere near to or above 50%, with a rumoured third of the population having disappeared abroad during Berdymukhamedow’s tenure. Money that could have been spent on the country has instead been frittered away on bringing the president’s whims and fantasies into reality.

To many observers it will therefore be confusing that a country that cannot feed itself is extending help beyond its own borders. In an excellent article describing conditions in Afghanistan The Caspian News portal states the country “…is extremely poor, landlocked, heavily dependent on foreign aid, while much of the population suffers from shortages of housing, clean water, electricity, medical care, and jobs“. Away from the smoke and mirrors and legerdemain, much of what accurately describes Afghanistan encapsulates the modern-day position of Turkmenistan and its people save for the president, his family, and cronies.

If then Turkmenistan cannot or will not tend to its own people first, a population I feel that are viewed by the president as an inconvenience and who are there to be exploited, it is surprising that a sense of right has come to the surface within Berdymukhamedow to assist another nation in a way that contradicts his unfeeling, hard-line personality and that arguably doesn’t represent a position of neutrality and Isolationism. Therefore, the obvious, albeit cynical conclusion inevitably arrived at suggests there must be something in it for Turkmenistan and by default – the president.

A year ago several hundred Afghan soldiers were chased over the border into Turkmenistan by Taliban militants. Whether concerned that affording sanctuary to the soldiers would antagonise the Taliban and encourage further incursions or that simply an argument occurring outside of its sovereign territory wasn’t neutral Turkmenistan’s problem, the state-employed Afghans were sent back over the border into the hands of the Taliban and to their likely doom. This horrifying instance suggests humanitarianism towards Afghanistan from Turkmenistan must purely be on the donor’s terms.

Is then the offer of a three-year pledge of aid that appears to centre upon the realisation of a series of infrastructure projects merely a sop, by which to reboot Turkmenistan’s need to get the TAPI(Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline on stream and reduce its reliance on exporting the fossil fuel to Russia and China, the latter from whom it receives little or no money for gas which in effect pays back what Ashgabat owes Beijing for loans and construction projects within Turkmenistan.

Perhaps one of the most perpetually volatile and crisis-ridden countries on earth, Afghanistan has for decades been such a problem to the Soviet Union, the U.S. and the West that Winston Churchill’s famous “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” quotation aimed at Stalin’s Soviet Union is just as appropriate for contemporary and historic Afghanistan as it is for Putin’s Russia. Representing fertile recruiting ground for militants and the location of vast fields of opium whose derivatives find their way on to Western streets, solving the manifold issues attendant to Afghanistan remains labyrinthine, diplomatically sensitive, and without an obvious overarching answer.

If Berdymukhamedow has had to spend money to make it this in itself in a global sense isn’t an unprecedented move, to in effect to buy a way in to get what you want. It would though seem that the president has squandered so many of Turkmenistan’s financial resources, treated as his own, that he is now taking himself out of a self-imposed comfort zone that would otherwise abhor getting involved in the affairs of another nation.

It would be nice to think that the Turkmen president, perhaps troubled by the likely slaughter of the fleeing Afghan soldiers sent back into Taliban hands has felt a need to redress his country’s part in such a disturbing occurrence. Evidence would though suggest otherwise, with financial reserves dwindling and few other revenue streams available, Berdymukhamedow has no choice but to use his well-polished shoe to kickstart arguably his and the country’s last financial chance: the TAPI pipeline.

Source material and further information:

Trend News Agency: https://en.trend.az/casia/turkmenistan/3195192.html

Eurasianet: https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistan-shots-fired

Caspian News: https://caspiannews.com/news-detail/turkmenistan-pledges-to-help-revive-afghanistans-economy-adopt-humanitarian-aid-policy-2020-2-22-15/