Why did Berdymuhamedov come to Astana?

On April 18-19 a governmental visit of president of Turkmenistan was held in Kazakhstan. It is quite notable and indicative that his first official trip after the “reelection” in February of 2017, was to Astana.

Thus, as official media of both countries have noted, fundamentals of bilateral relations – friendship, neighborliness and mutual respect were underlined. Thus, awarding of Berdymuahmedov by Kazakh president with the order of friendship of 1st degree, possibly, wasn’t just a diplomatic move.

But are Kazakh-Turkmen relations really as ideal as they appear according to official chronicle of pro-governmental media?

In order to understand this, we need to step back a little, to the moment of gaining of independence, and question the persons who have left Turkmenistan earlier, but preserved connections with the motherland.


Diplomatic relations between two countries were established on October 5th 1992, and by the time of aforementioned visit, legal background of consisted of over 60 documents, including a Treaty on friendly relations and cooperation from may 19, 1993.

In the ruling period of the first Turkmen president (until dec. 2006) good relations have formed between Nazarbaev and Saparmurat Niyazov. However, they were largely in regards to cooperation on various inter-governmental programs, such as within the framework of EKO, and mutual interest in participating in programs as EAEU and ESCAP (UN) and SPECA rather than on the bilateral basis.

It is hard to bring up any visible, real successes of equal, mutually-beneficial Kazakh-Turkmen cooperation during that period. The reason was due to both objective and subjective factors.

Among objective factors are that both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are exporters of hydro-carbons, thus transport-logistical cooperation between them is defined by a much larger dependency of Turkmenistan from the transit of exported natural gas through the territory of Kazakhstan, than by Kazakhstan’s dependency on transit through territory of Turkmenistan of Kazakh oil. This happened because the projects of transporting of Kazakh oil through Turkmenistan were never realized.

In particular, in July of 1999 an active discussion of the project on transporting of northern Kazakhstani oil to port of Turkmenbashi took place. From there, it could be shipped in tankers towards the Caspian shore of Iran. To achieve this, it was planned to involve an existing oil pipe Pavlodar-Chimkent (Kazakhstan) going to Seidi (Turkmenistan). With this, Kazakhstan was ready to transport through it up to 50 thousand tons of oil a month; but the negotiations on this project weren’t successful in the end.

The project of transit of Kazakh oil through Turkmenbashi port wasn’t the only one. In June of 2002, Iran’s Kazakhstan ambassador Saffari, following the visit with prime-minister Imangali Tasmagambetov, announced to the journalists that Iran is ready to start the talks on building of oil pipe from Kazakhstan through Turkmenistan to Persian gulf.

Franco-Belgian company Total-fina Elf prepared technical-economic justifications of this project with the exit to Persian gulf and a branch off into western Pakistan. The oil pipe planned to be built by 2008-2012. However, this project remained on paper. At the same time, Turkmenistan’s dependency on transit of natural gas through Kazakhstan not only didn’t disappear but with the onset of construction of oil pipe into China, only became more noticeable.  Thus, equal relations between Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan couldn’t be achieved anyway – something both states clearly understood.

Nonetheless, Turkmenistan remained Kazakhstan’s important partner in the energy sphere. In particular, this was underlined in October of 1998 by the ambassador extraordinary of Republic of Kazakhstan in Turkmenistan Valeriy Temirbaev. Turkmenistan was one of the major exporters of natural gas (and gas condensate) into southern regions of Kazakhstan and (by 25%) satisfied their power demands.

However, by the end of 2000, as a result of this cooperation, a number of minor conflicts have piled up already, as a result of which first vice-prime minister of Kazakhstan Danial Ahmetov, at the meeting with Niyazov acknowledged Kazakhstan’s debt for the power imported in the past years, as well as part of the debt for Turkmen gas, In accordance with the protocol of inter-governmental talks, that took place in Ashkhabad in  March of 2001, Kazakhstan’s debt was over $55 mln. of which over $21 mln. was for the payment for Turkmen gas, exported in the beginning of the 90s. Thus, despite declared importance of abovementioned economic cooperation, it can’t be called trouble-free.

For reasons of economic disagreements in April of 2001, official visit of Niyazov to Kazakhstan, was moved. It was planned to sign a treaty of delimitation and demarcation of Kazakh-Turkmen government border (notable is the fact that this treaty was later reevaluated multiple times and was signed in a different revision as part of last visit from Berdymuhamedov) during it, as well as agreement on cooperation and protection of Kazakh-Turkmen government border and a treaty on transfer of persons sentenced to jail to further serve their sentence.

Interestingly, even at the end of 2005 debt obligations of Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan still weren’t regulated and remained the subject of discussion of specially-created Kazakh-Turkmen work group, which from Kazakhstani side at the time, was headed by Byrlik Orazbaev, a vice-minister of energy and mineral resources.

Among subjective factors with regards to difficult relations of Niyazov’s Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, surveyed experts cited certain “similarity of personality” of both presidents. They were largely concerned not by the interests of the nation, but by their own well-being, which reflected itself in the hiring policies – just a threat of economic catastrophe might have prompted them to involve (and only temporarily and considering their loyalty) capable, independently-minded people. Both leaders were prone to sway between USA and Russia, and both viewed coming of Putin into presidency in 2000, with undisguised irritation and fear.

In February of 1999, Niyazov and Nazarbaev actively cooperated on preparations of visit of leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (without Tajikistan) in Ashkhabad in April of that year, with the goal of discussing issues of regional development and working out a single position on building of consolidated relations with Russia. Though they didn’t manage to work out a single position due to contradicting ambitions on regional leadership.

In June of 1999, ambassador extraordinaire of Turkmenistan Khalnazar Agakhanov, when giving credentials certificate to president Nazarbaev, noted that president Niyazov proposes to work out a bilateral consolidated position with regards to transport infrastructure, using of railway corridor north-south, determining the status of Caspian sea and actions regarding energy carriers on world markets, such as building of oil and gas pipers into Europe, China and Persian gulf. However, back then it wasn’t possible to reach a consensus, due to lack of trust between two leaders.

From the moment of Berdymuhamedov’s coming to power, Kazakhstani president has visited Turkmenistan four times with official and work visits. However, it is worth noting that two our of four visits were with regards to multilateral international talks with Turkmensitan. In that same period, Berdymuhamedov, in turn visited Kazakhstan a few times, including first governmental visit in May of 207.

However, despite frequency of mutual visits, we cannot state that there was some noticeable breakthrough in recent years, in Kazakh-Turkmen relations.

A slew of documents was signed by Berdymuhamedov and Nazarbaev on April 18th 2017, most important of which were Agreement on strategic partnership between two republics and a treaty between Kazak and Turkmen republics on demarcation of Kazakh-Turkmen government border and a treaty between the governments of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan on Kazakh-Turkmen intergovernmental commission.

Drawing conclusions of the meeting, it is important to note that Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, were first countries in the region that overlooked controversies related to common government border, effectively outpacing Uzbekistan, whose new president is aimed at expediting similar processes with neighboring nations.

Let’s remember that Turkmen-Uzbek talks on delimitation and demarcation of government border between two countries were renewed only after the visit to Ashkhabad of a new president of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoev in early March of 2017. Meetings of work groups of single Turkmen-Uzbek inter-governmental commission on issues of delimitation and demarcation of Turkmen-Uzbek border were held in Turkmenabad on March 27-30th.

However, as mentioned above, an agreement on delimitation and process of demarcation of Kazakh-Turkmen border was prepared and signed already in early 2001.

Cooperation of Astana and Ashkhabad, foreign policy priorities of which align in such spheres as relations with foreign countries on matters of energy, diversification of hydro-carbon exports, creation of trustworthy and multi-option transport-logistical infrastructure are clearly necessary and can be mutually beneficial. However, the common trade volume is still relatively small – $283.5 mln. in 2016 and $178.2 mln. the year before.

Of course, this can be explained by the fact that at the core of economies of two states is the export of oil and gas. However, the development of trade is also stalled due to non-convertibility of Turkmen national currency (manat). Also, let’s not forget that Turkmenistan is not planning to cancel the visa regime in the near future, including for the citizens of Kazakhstan. This clearly doesn’t facilitate development of mutual trade and tourism.

Whether the organization for cross-border trade could increase the mutual trade volume – something that was mentioned in the mutual statement of two presidents on results of face-to-face talks, remains unclear. What is clear is that considering the overall financial situation, solution of this issue will not be the main priority of the current year.

In turn diplomatic relations of two countries cannot be called cloudless. They especially exacerbated in 2015 after a mutual briefing of presidents of Russia and KR, during which Nazarbaev publicly stated concern with regards to situation with security of Afghan-Turkmen border. Moreover, from February 15 2015 (Magtymguli Akmyradov was let go) Turkmenistan doesn’t have ambassador in KR.

Plus there is a number of small scandals, related to activity of diplomats of both countries that could’ve been solved in a more friendly fashion. Yes, they weren’t widely covered in media, but nonetheless could be considered indicators of real level of inter-governmental cooperation.

Another such indicator is the incident with 7 citizens of Kazakhstan, that took place in 2012 and is related to unintended crossing of government border. As a result, Kazakh citizens were indicted and spent over 3 months in detention and only afterwards were pardoned and returned home.

It is customary to think that the largest potential for mutual economic interest is the transit capabilities of both states – with regards to transfer of Kazakh oil in the southern direction towards Persian gulf and of Turkmen natural gas in the northern direction to Russia, Ukraine, Eu countries as well as China. But there are nuances here as well.

At this moment, the only buyer of Turkmen gas remains China. From the moment of conclusion of construction of trans-continental pipe Central Asia-China, Turkmenistan has exported 127 bil. m³ of natural gas into China (as of the end of 2016). The total transport capabilities of three branches of gas pipe is 55 bil. m³ (A and B – 15 each, C – 25 bil. m³) a year and they pass through territory of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan that themselves are gas extracting states.

In 2016, Turkmenistan has exported around 30 bil. m³, Uzbekistan around 4.5 bil. m³, Kazakhstan – less than 1 bil. m³. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have a right to transport 10 bil. m³ each annually. And in recent times Kazakhstan has announced many times its intentions to increase export of its own gas.

Thus a share of Turkmenistan within framework of existing capabilities (which, by the way, aren’t put to projected indicators yet) can be varied only from current 30 to 35 bil. m³. This doesn’t allow Ashkhabad pay multi-billion Chinese loans on a timely fashion, in order to later use profits from this project for preserving of relatively high (compared to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) quality of life of Turkmen citizens.

In this regard, Kazakhstan’s position regarding prospects of utilizing of common gas pipe remains sensitive for Turkmenistan. Thus, in case of Kazakhstan increasing export of its own gas into China, a hidden competition with Turkmen gas might start.

It is good that potential of transport-communication cooperation between two countries doesn’t limit itself only to transit through Kazakhstan of Turkmen natural gas into China. There is also a possibility of opening of new sea routes between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan through Caspian sea. Increase of cargo flow can also happen after end of reconstruction of the automobile route Astrakhan-Atyrau-Aktau-Turkmen border.

But undoubtedly, the main things is that in December 2014 there was an opening of railway Uzen-Kyzilkaya-Bereket-Etrek-Gorgan. Despite the fact that realization of project dragged on since 2007, when during the second Caspian summit in Tehran a three-sided (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran) inter-governmental agreement was signed, regarding the construction of railroad line, which was accompanied by halts, its launch became a significant event of regional importance. In February of 2016, managers of railroad institutions agreed on through fare for cargo volume via indicated route for the current year. Only thing left to do is to bring the cargo traffic by 2020, up to the planned 15 mil. tons of annual cargo volume, something that is still problematic.

Meanwhile, leadership of Turkmenistan, based on estimated of OSCE commission in Ashkhabad, doesn’t have time to await positive effects from large projects, since there is rise in severity of issue of securing current balance of budget; due to introduced restrictions on conversion of national currency more and more small and mid-size enterprises in the country, seize their activity, there is a noticeable deficit of capital investment for organizing of production for import phase-out, support of domestic procesing industry.

Due to all this, it is possible that the main goal of Berdymuhamedov’s visit to Astana was to ask Nazarbaev for a stabilization loan which Turkmensitan was denied from World Bank and IMF. Could Kazakh state, which itself is in a difficult economic situation, provide necessary help on acceptable conditions for Turkmen president, is something that will be clear in the near future, based on a number of indicators that will be hard to hide. However, even if such help will be provided, its effect doubtfully will have a long-term character.

About the author

Andrey Medvedev is a Russian political expert, executive director of ANO CPT Politkontakt.



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