Our Man in Turkmenistan?

Posted by Cutler on February 05, 2007
Great Power Rivalry, Turkmenistan

Sometimes Great Power Rivalry caSometimes Great Power Rivalry can facilitate democratic or populist uprisings.  Sometimes, not so much.

In Turkmenistan, not so much.  At least, not yet.

The Washington Post has published a report on the “battle” to succeed the late Turkmenistan President Saparmurad Niyazov who died in late December.

Acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, 49, will almost certainly win when the Central Asian country’s citizens go to the polls Feb. 11. His opponents, a deputy minister and four regional officials, are willing foils, according to analysts and exiled politicians.

Murad Karyev, the supposedly neutral chairman of the Central Election Commission, has already said Berdymukhammedov is the best man for the job.

Any protests from the US and the idealistic “true believers” in the Bush Administration who reportedly really believe in democracy?  Not so much.

The opposition-in-exile has expressed frustration at what it sees as muted statements from those countries about the need for real democratic change.

In a previous post, I argued that in the Caspian energy pipeline rivalry between Washington and Russia, the Turkmenitstan stakes have been very high.  The Washington Post report explains:

For the outside world, the direction Turkmenistan takes will carry profound implications for energy security. The former Soviet republic is becoming the focus of competition among Russia, China and the West as they vie for its natural gas resources.

Most of Turkmenistan’s gas is now exported through Russian pipelines. The supply could become vital to the ability of Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, to meet rising demand over the next decade. But Western governments would like to see construction of new export routes that bypass Russia and diversify the supply chain, something Niyazov had resisted.

Thus far, however, all of the Great Powers appear content to compete exclusively for the loyalty of the incumbent authorities rather than making an appeal to dissident or popular forces:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has embraced Berdymukhammedov….

The United States and the European Union have stepped up contacts with Turkmenistan’s new leadership.

The US attempt to “flip” the Russian-backed incumbent regime, rather than facilitate rebellion against it, was already clear when Richard A. Boucher, Assistant Secretary For South And Central Asian Affairs, traveled to Turkmenistan for the Niyazov funeral.

Boucher met with Berdymukhammedov and has been clear ever since that he wants to cut a deal at the top:

I wanted to go to the funeral to express our condolences, first of all, to the people of Turkmenistan, but also to signal — to say clearly that we are ready for a new beginning if they’re ready to start something new. And I’m not sure how far I can elaborate it at this point. We’re certainly interested in a smooth and peaceful transition in Turkmenistan. We understand that people have lost their leader and they have hope for the future, but they also have some uncertainty about it, so we want to work with them as they move forward…

As we hope Turkmenistan will move forward to a new future, we’re quite ready for a new relationship…

QUESTION: Yeah, but [Berdimuhhamedov]… didn’t mention anything about the political reforms.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No, he didn’t. Obviously, we think that needs to be part of the package, creating a more open society, a more dynamic society, more creative society, a better economic opportunity for everyone. Those things all go together, and so we do think that needs to be part of the package; but — you know, where they need — where they’re ready to get started, we’re ready to get started as well. Education, access to information, economic opportunity, entrepreneurship, these are things that are fundamental to creating a more open society and we’d obviously like to see it become a society where people of Turkmenistan get the kind of justice and openness that they deserve.

QUESTION: Almost all Turkmen opposition are currently abroad. Will the United States support Turkmen opposition?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: What we have said, what we’ll continue to make clear is that we look for a more open society where everyone can participate in the social life, the political life, the economic life. That’s fundamental and that needs to be part of the change. But those decisions are going to have to be made in the end in Turkmenistan. And so we’re encouraging that kind of change, but I can’t — we’re not supporting particular people one way or the other. We’re supporting a more open society, and continue to make clear that that’s the direction that we think they have to go.

I know what you are thinking: That Boucher… he must be one of those naive, democracy-loving, idealistic, messianic missionary zealots from the crazy Cheney administration!

But let’s just wait and see.  It ain’t over until it is over.

If the US manages to flip the incumbent regime and get to the natural gas, then all will remain quiet on the US side.  But don’t forget: the incumbent regime is aligned with Putin.  Will Putin remain quiet if the US flips Berdimuhhamedov and he loses his monopoly on the gas?

If Putin pressures Berdimuhhamedov to show Boucher the door, will the US continue to remain silent?  Or will the US suddenly and conveniently discover the virtues of a democratic uprising in Turkmenistan?

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