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The changing of the guard

After the death of Niyazov in 2006,’free’ elections were held to elect his successor. Former Health Minister, Berdymukhamedov, strongly supported by the then head of the Presidential Security Akhmat Rejepov, was elected President of Turkmenistan on 11 February 2007 with 89.2% of the vote.

Berdymukhamedov’s victory was certainly facilitated by the way of sorting the candidates. Only those candidates from the former government and nominated by the leadership of the government were approved. Besides, citizens of Turkmenistan living outside the country were unable to vote in the presidential election and opposition candidates living in exile were unable to run as candidates.

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The new president was supposed to inaugurate a new era of national reconstruction. Despite that he dismantled some of his predecessor’s personality cult, and implemented some changes in education, health care, and state-media relations, which were the three sectors singled out as priorities in his 2006/2007election campaign, as it turns out, lack of financial resources and qualified personnel as well as the prevalent mindset of the ruling elite, precluded any substantial progress in these areas. After a promising start, most reforms were hampered by the gross inefficiency, systemic corruption, and clientelism of the state bureaucracy and very little changed. In 2008 Berdymukhamedov, signed into law the new constitution. In 2012, he was re-elected President in a landslide victory with 97.5% of the vote. Some changes were made during his second term: Berdymukhamedov, resigned as DPT chairman for the duration of his presidential term, in order to ensure transparency as guarantor of the Constitution and, breaking the Democratic Party’s two-decade-long monopoly in parliament, a deputy, from the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkmenistan created in 2012, was elected to the Turkmen Parliament.

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But the real changes under Berdymukhammedov’s rule are related to foreign policy. As a consequence of the sudden change of the international scenario, and since Turkmenistan’s geographical position is crucial in terms of security and energy issues, the President introduced the so-called multi-vector foreign policy. The discovery, in 2006, of the South Yolotan natural gas field, one of the largest in the world, acted as a booster to the adoption of new economic strategies that focus on diversifying gas export routes, rather than relying on Russian access to European markets. Turkmenistan is the fourth largest oil producer in the world after Russia, Iran and Qatar. Berdymukhamedov, has therefore opened to other partners, in particular China. Turkmenistan’s plans to supply China will also break Gazprom’s monopoly. China, through its investment program, has consolidated its position in Turkmenistan’s energy sector. Beijing will also provide the financing for the construction of the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline (2007-2009).

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While he is loosening the Russian monopoly, and strengthening business ties with China, Berdymukhamedov, is seeking also other markets in order to prevent a Chinese monopoly. The Turkmen President is also trying to create favourable conditions for the implementation of more pipelines such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) project, as well as the trans-Caspian pipeline that would provide Caspian gas directly to European markets not controlled by Moscow or Tehran. In 2013, Berdymukhamedov’s foreign policy showed a frantic dynamism: diplomatic and trade relations were consolidated with Turkey, China and Japan.
Almost 90% of all foreign construction contracts are in the hands of Turkish companies in Turkmenistan, while Japan is interested in establishing close ties with Turkmenistan with regard to the energy sector. Several Japanese companies are currently in charge of the construction of hydrocarbon processing plants in the Central Asian country. With regard to China the joint declaration signed by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, is worthy of note. The two sides stressed that no matter how the global and regional situations change, their relation will remain a priority in both countries’ foreign policy.

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A relevant statement from the geopolitical point of view, if one considers the fragile stability of the Central Asian region.
Turkmenistan, consistent with its multi-vector policy and, unlike its neighbours, does not adhere to organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or the Eurasian Union, preferring a policy based on bilateral relations in order to have broad leeway to safeguard its own interests. A clear example of this policy was the role played by the country in Afghanistan, where Turkmenistan took the leading role in the process of stabilisation of the country with the clear intention of safeguarding both its energy export deals, and a chance for dialogue with another global actor, the US, which as everybody knows, is interested and involved in the matters of this area of the world. (Filippo Romeo)

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