Turkmenistan: Geopolitics Explained

By: Ryan Cook

Ex-Soviet State

In 1991 the Soviet Union dissolved into fifteen sovereign states and various other unrecognized states, constituting a major change in international relations by signifying the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a unipolar system with the US as the sole superpower.

These newly independent states, no longer under Soviet rule, had to establish themselves as sovereign nations and formulate independent economic and foreign policies.

The Baltic states chose to orbit closer to Europe by focussing on EU and NATO membership, whilst other states chose close alignment to the newly established Russian Federation through organisations such as the Commonwealth of Independent states (CIS).

One of these newly formed states was Turkmenistan. A country located in Central Asia with a population of 5.6 million, over 90% of which are Muslim - albeit secular.

The country is bordered by the former Soviet states of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to the north, and the non ex-Soviet states of Afghanistan and Iran to the south. Since its independence, Turkmenistan has been ruled by two presidents.

The first Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov who ruled from 1991 to his death in 2006, and proclaimed himself as Türkmenbaşy, meaning father of the Turkmen.

The presidency of Niyazov was dominated by his dictatorial rule and cult of personality which brought Turkmenistan infamy for his strange laws (McElroy, 2004; Guardian, 2006), such as renaming the month of January after himself, and April after his mother (Kalder, 2010).

His rule oversaw corruption and mass acquisition of private wealth, all of which had a detrimental impact on the people of Turkmenistan who saw no wealth distribution and had the lowest life expectancy in Central Asia.

The second and incumbent president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, began his rule by enacting a policy to reverse Niyazov's eccentric laws and permit the removal of extravagant buildings such as a rotating gold statue in the centre of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan's capital city (BBC, 2008).

President Berdimuhamedow, whilst maintaining Turkmenistan’s policy of neutrality has increased participation in international organisations such as becoming a member of NATOs partnership for peace.

Turkmenistan's Foreign Policy

However, Turkmenistan remains an authoritarian state where power remains centralised with the presidency and individual rights such as freedoms of expression, association, and religion are repressed (HRW, 2019).

The foreign policy of Turkmenistan is based upon a position of ‘Permanent Neutrality’ which was formally recognized by the United Nations in 1995.

This is reinforced through a position of neutrality between belligerents during a war or conflict, demonstrated by Turkmenistan maintaining relations with both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in the 1990’s.

The position of neutrality also prohibits the state from membership of military organisations such as NATO or CSTO, Turkmenistan even refused to contribute peacekeepers for a UN mission in neighbouring Tajikistan following its civil war.

The country has disputes with Uzbekistan over water security (Trilling, 2016), Afghanistan with narco-trafficking, and territorial disputes with Iran, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan regarding Caspian Sea boundaries.

However, this article will primarily focus on; its role in the War on Terror and international terrorism, relations with great power states, and natural resources and energy security.

Turkmenistan's Role in the War on Terror

Islamic terrorism has had a major impact on Turkmenistan; internationally due to the War on Terror and the War in Afghanistan, and domestically due to security concerns emerging from regional terror threats.

As a neighbouring country to Afghanistan, Turkmenistan had significant role to play in assistance to the United States during the war.

This cooperation could first be seen in 2001 when Turkmenistan and other Central Asian states granted the US landing and overflight rights (Peimani, 2009), and then as a member of the North Distribution Network (NDN).

The network was established in 2009 as an alternative supply route into Afghanistan due to the unreliability of delivery and security concerns through Pakistan.

The NDN became the dominant supplier of logistics into Afghanistan following Pakistan’s closure of supply routes in 2011 as retribution for a NATO attack on a Pakistan border post which killed 28 Pakistani soldiers.

The NDN had several routes through Central Asia, of which Turkmenistan was a member in the southern distribution route which transported supplies from the Caucasus across the Caspian Sea into Turkmenistan.

Membership of this route was beneficial to Turkmenistan as it acquired around $500 million annually in transit fees from the United States (Cooley, 2012).

A report by the Global Terrorism Index stated that Turkmenistan remains largely unaffected by terrorism (Gunaratna & Kam, 2016).

However the country still has security concerns on multiple fronts. Firstly, its proximity to Afghanistan which has an active insurgency from the Taliban, and hosts international recognised terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda, Haqqani network, and ISIS-K.

Most specifically ISIS-K which has conducted operations in the border province of Jowzjan (Pannier, 2017).

Second, its location within Central Asia which has militants in the Ferghana Valley due to the Tajik Civil War, and active terrorist organisations such as the Islamic Movement Uzbekistan(IMU) and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement founded by Uyghur jihadists in western China.

Third, although Turkmenistan is a secular state its population is majority Muslim, this had deadly consequences as its claimed over 300 Turkmenistan citizens had joined ISIS (Pannier, 2017), and now the state is fearful of returning fighters following its destruction in Syria and Iraq.

Foreign relations of states are often dictated by its relations with neighbouring countries, due to its geographic location Turkmenistan is in close proximity to two great powers, China and Russia, and to regional powers Turkey, Iran, India, and Pakistan.

Relations with Russia & China

As a neutral state Turkmenistan’s international relations is dominated primarily by the two great powers China and Russia vying for power and influence, which has been labelled as ‘The New Great Game’ (Kleveman, 2003; Cooley, 2012), a 21st century version of the economic and political confrontation in Central Asia between the British and Russian Empires in 19th century.

As a former Soviet state, Russia has the advantage of having the infrastructure in place to maximise economic influence this was demonstrated through its dominance of Turkmenistan’s gas market from 1991 until 2010.

However, in 2013 Chinese Premier Xi in his pursuit of superpower status announced the One Belt One Road initiative, a major infrastructure and investment project, which includes the creation and development of highways, airports, trainlines, energy pipelines to establish a network of interconnectivity across the Central and South East Asia (Chatzky & McBride, 2019).

This 'new silk road' has seen billions of dollars worth of investment in Central Asia for developing the land route of the initiative, and specifically in Turkmenistan building new pipelines to transport gas to China’s growing economy.

This investment has left the economy of Turkmenistan highly dependent on China (Lain 2018, p. 3), and the One Belt One Road initiative has seen China leverage its economic strength into political influence in countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

So, the question remains whether Turkmenistan’s neutral foreign policy will dissipate under further Chinese influence moving into the middle of the 21st century. Russia has tried to counter this Chinese dominance by expanded its own regional influence through organisations such as the CIS and the Eurasian Economic Union.

However, as the declining energy dependant Russian state cannot match the soft power of the emerging Chinese superpower, the new great game is one which Russia appears to be losing.

One of the main reasons Turkmenistan is at the centre of this new great game is due to its access to natural resources, specifically natural gas. Turkmenistan has the sixth largest natural gas reserves in the world, and the second-largest natural gas field, Galkynsh.

In 2010, Turkmenistan pursued a policy of market diversification. This changed the dynamic of the relationship with Russia who was the country’s primary energy partner due to it being a former Soviet republic.

This policy shift has resulted in China establishing itself as the primary importer of Turkmen gas. However, Russia still remains an important energy partner for Turkmenistan signified by the recent 5-year deal with Gazprom (Putz, 2019).

In addition to supplying the economies of Russia and China, the program to open its markets to growing regional economies can be seen in the ambitious Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline which is currently under construction and is due to become operation in 2020 (Haidary, 2018).

This new market will further diversify Turkmenistan’s natural gas partners and provide energy to the fast-growing economies of South East Asia.

Relations with the European Union

Furthermore, following a breakdown in relations between Russia, the United States and EU member states, the EU is now looking to break from its reliance on Russian gas for its energy needs.

This diversification was developed through the EU INOGATE programme which expanded international energy co-operation with states in proximity to the Black and Caspian Sea.

This desire to establish a southern gas corridor to provide an alternative to Russia as the primary energy provider was dependant on the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline.

This planned gas corridor would connect the vast gas reserves of Turkmenistan through Azerbaijan onto Turkey and into the EU.

As relations between the West and Russia continue to deteriorate and the EU looks to end the Gazprom monopoly on EU markets, Turkmenistan will play a major role in EU diversification in the 21st century.

In conclusion, after nearly a century under Soviet control, Turkmenistan has established itself internationally as an important state in the geopolitical arena due to the emergence of neighbouring superpower China, its role in combatting Islamic terrorism, and due to its vast energy reserves in the form of natural gas.

Both as a supplier and a transit state for growing the South Asian economies, but primarily in diversification of EU energy to end Russian energy supremacy. History aside, Turkmenistan will have a role to play in International Relations for the remainder of the 21st century.


BBC. (2008). Ex-Turkmen leader's statue moved. Retrieved from BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/7382512.stm

Chatzky, A., & McBride, J. (2019, May). China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative. Retrieved from Council on Foreign Relations: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative

Cooley, A. (2012). The New Great Game in Central Asia. Retrieved from Foreign Affairs: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/central-asia/2012-08-07/new-great-game-central-asia /

Guardian, T. (2006). The personality cult of Turkmenbashi. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/dec/21/1

Gunaratna, R., & Kam, S. (2016). Handbook of Terrorism in the Asia–Pacific. Imperial College Press.

Haidary, M. (2018). A Pipeline for Landlocked Afghanistan: Can It Help Deliver Peace? - The Asia Foundation. [online] The Asia Foundation. Available at: https://asiafoundation.org/2018/03/14/pipeline-landlocked-afghanistan-can-help-deliver-peace/

HRW. (2019). Turkmenistan. Retrieved from Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/europe/central-asia/turkmenistan

Kalder, D. (2010). The madness of Turkmenbashi. Retrieved from The Spectator: https://www.spectator.co.uk/2010/02/the-madness-of-turkmenbashi/

Kleveman, L. (2003). The New Great Game. Grove Press.

Lain, S 2018. ‘The potential and pitfalls of connectivity along the Silk Road Eco-

nomic Belt’, in M Laruelle (ed), China’s Belt and Road initiative and its impact

in Central Asia, pp. 1–10. The George Washington University, Washington, DC.

McElroy, D. (2004). A peep into the strange world of Turkmenbashi, whose every word is law. Retrieved from The Telegraph: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/turkmenistan/1460852/A-peep-into-the-strange-world-of-Turkmenbashi-whose-every-word-is-law.html

Pannier, B. (2017, August). Is There A Terror Threat In Turkmenistan? Retrieved from Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty: https://www.rferl.org/a/qishloq-ovozi-turkmenistan-terror-threat-afghanistan-islamic-state/28653368.html

Peimani, H. (2009) Conflict and Security in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

ABC-CLIO, LLC, California, pp. 180-181.

Putz, C. (2019, July). Turkmenistan and Gazprom Settle 5-Year Gas Deal. Retrieved from The Diplomat: https://thediplomat.com/2019/07/turkmenistan-and-gazprom-settle-5-year-gas-deal/

Trilling, D. (2016). Water Wars in Central Asia. Retrieved from Foreign Affairs: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/gallerys/2016-08-24/water-wars-central-asia

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