Critical Review of the Digest “Turkmenistan: Changes and Stability under Berdymuhammedow”

By Hoşgeldi Bagtyýarow

A Letter from a Reader: Critical Review of the Digest “Turkmenistan: Changes and Stability under Berdymuhammedov” (CAP edited volume)

General Review

At the outset, I want to convey my tremendous respect for every single person who was involved in the creation of this series of analytical reviews dedicated to the 26th anniversary of the independence of the Central Asian republics. And above all, I would like to express my respect for Marlene Laruelle and her activities.

In truth, Turkmenistan is a very unique country. Long before the pressure created by the regime of Saparmurat Niyazov, a highly developed system of filters constructed by the Soviet regime—coupled with various myths closely tied to the historical, social and cultural development of the Turkmen people—had a significant impact on the development of Soviet Turkmenistan. There had long been a great struggle over the question of the Russian invasion of Turkmenistan, and from the beginning of national revival in the 1970s—and with the exodus of the Russians—local intellectuals have undertaken searches for national identity and attempted to position themselves in time and space. It was precisely for this reason that Zylyha Muhammedova and her husband, Sapar Ensari-Ahally, published their works in Moscow.

Since that time, we can observe how the ideology of independent Turkmenistan has changed from the search for the keys to the creation of a national identity to the construction of its own place in the modern world order. These searches are closely tied to self-positioning and self-understanding, even in the framework of international relations studies.

It is noteworthy that Turkmenistan is not a solid structure; it changes with internal and external conditions. One of the gravest mistakes an analyst writing about the political and socio-economic development of the country can make is to portray Turkmenistan as an island in the ocean of the modern world. Turkmenistan is a developing country with its own place in international economic and political relations. The evolution of Turkmenistan—its constant search for a national model of development that would incorporate national values and respond to the challenges of the country’s turbulent agenda—has to be studied.

Two points about this phenomenon are worthy of note. The first is the desire for staid and sedate development, expressed by the phrase “ýuwaş-ýuwaş.” To put it succinctly, the national Turkmen way of life is steady; it is not about commotion. The second is a quote from Halnazar Agahanov (1952-2013), former ambassador of Turkmenistan to Russia, Germany and Latvia. In 2012, after Minchenko Consulting published an analytical paper on the elections in Turkmenistan, there was a roundtable discussion in Moscow involving Russian experts on Central Asia and representatives of Turkmenistan from the country’s embassy in the Russian Federation. During this conversation, Mr. Agahanov underlined the fact that “there is no ideal pattern of democracy in this world. If you want us to create a new country based on it, simply give it to us to stencil it.”

According to the authors of the current digest—the editor’s brief abstract, in particular—the aim of the publication was to analyze Turkmenistan’s internal evolution over the past 5 years and come to an understanding of the Turkmen path of development. The stress of the post-crisis period is just as important as research into the Turkmen government’s reaction to external pressure, especially given new economic conditions, and serves to indicate the results of the 2008-2011 reforms. As such, the editor’s point of view is perfectly selected. However, the lack of information and obviously small group of experts familiar with the domestic situation in Turkmenistan are the main obstacles to creating a well-researched analytical paper without referring to old and unverified reports. Consequently, this publication is not a comprehensive analysis of contemporary Turkmen life. Instead, it simply attempts to draw readers’ attention to the country. All but one or two articles offer nothing more than a general overview of Turkmenistan’s socio-economic development. Very limited data is provided on controversial questions such as language development, the religious situation, the modernization of cities and regions, gender issues, etc.

As I understand it, this publication consists of articles created by students and analysts in the CAP (Central Asia Program). This approach helps explain the quality of the discussion and the final results of the digest, which did manage to introduce local voices to the narrative. This is a truly important and underestimated factor in the analysis of Central Asia’s recent development. However, I want to underline that the preparation of such a digest on Turkmenistan could have taken advantage of much more experienced professionals living in this country, each of whom seeks to share their outlook on modern Turkmenistan. For instance, Turkmenistan’s involvement in international relations and education could have been analyzed by Täçmyrat Jumaýew (PhD, the St. Petersburg State University), who is working in the Ministry of Education of Turkmenistan, has participated in a number of conferences organized by CESS in the US, and manages educational programs with the EU; Batyr Mamedow (PhD, the National Research Institute Higher School of Economics), who participated in the 4th Afghanistan-Central Asia Dialogue that took place on July 14-15, 2017 in Bamyan and works at the Turkmenistan State University; or Selbi Hanowa (PhD, St. Andrews University), a UNDP worker in Ashgabat. On the topic of international educational programs in Turkmenistan, it might be more appropriate to ask their bosses, such as Christina Beans (University of Alicante), who is in charge of the UNIWORK program in Central Asia. For a discussion of the economy and local political environment, Hendrik Meurs (PhD, GIZ program), who lived in Turkmenistan from 2009 to 2016, or Isaac Scarborough (PhD student, LSE), who worked in Turkmenistan for a couple of years, could provide useful insights. The analysis of social issues could be undertaken by Cara Kerven, PhD, a social anthropology specialist from the University of Cambridge who has produced full-scale research on Gökdepe and some other regions, or Moscow colleagues such as Elena Larina or Olga Naumova, who traveled to some regions in 2008. These specialists could shed light on the life of Turkmen regions, a theme that is not mentioned in the present digest. Finally, the Islamic issue is one of the biggest and the most unknown in the context of this country. Why were the voices of Sebastien Peyrouse, William Woods, Marhabo Saparowa, Natalie Koch, Paul Michael Taylor, John V. Richardson Jr., Alan DeYoung, and Valerie Sartor not included in this work? It might also be possible to request a personal interview with Turkmenistan’s ambassador to the US, who I believe would be willing to answer various questions, as he has participated in numerous events tied to the Durdy Bayramov Foundation. The Turkmen ambassador to the UK, for his part, has participated in numerous workshops at the University of Cambridge.

Finally, why was the digest not published based on the 2015 conference? It would be much more interesting to discuss those topics that were not analyzed previously.

I see that the digest tried to incorporate previously published articles from 2014 till 2016. This means that all of these articles have been reviewed and have passed through the hands of critics. However, we can see that the articles were not changed before inclusion in this volume, nor were they supplemented by commentary.

For example, Turkmens themselves wrote 4 critical articles dedicated to the mistakes made by Slavomir Horak, but this critique was not used to make a “response” or short commentary:

A publication year is provided, but no information about the journal where these articles were published, nor a concrete date. In the first article, this aspect is crucial for understanding the author’s thought in the first paragraph (I will go into more detail below).

Finally, this digest has no strict structure. All articles can be separated into 3 chapters: international relations and economy, evolution of the social sphere, and the educational system. It is unclear why there is no discussion of language development, monetary policy, changes in the legal system, regional development, small and medium enterprises, gender issues, the ecological situation, etc. Not to mention what is probably the most important issue for this region in particular: the blurred boundaries between formal and informal institutions, declared and actual development, legal and illegal. This is crucial for understanding internal policy within the borders of these republics. I know that specialists in Germany, UK and the Russian Federation accurately assess these issues, making them a particular focus, whereas in this book they are not considered at all. This fact is significant for the last article in particular.

In terms of editorial work and typography, it should be noted that I found a few mistakes or faults in the text. On page 6, numerous terms were written in italics, but there was no explanation as to why. On page 11, Nazik Muradova uses the abbreviation PSA (Production Sharing Agreement) for the first time in her text, while the explanation of this word is mentioned only on the next page (12). The description of the paper by Victoria Clement contains the title of Turkmen-Persian newspaper روزنامه ماورای بحر خزر. The transliteration was written rather well, but the computer unfortunately miscorrected the spaces between words (it should be Ruzname-i Mawara-i Bahr-i Hazar). On page 46, there is an issue with the description of graphs. Instead of Figure 7, there should be a reference to Figure 2 and instead of Figure 8, there should be a reference to Figure 7. In another case, there is a mistake in the interpretation of data.

This compilation of articles does not require any kind of transliteration tables of modern Turkmen toponyms or personal names, simply because there is no analysis of inter-governmental changes, no article on the Gökdepe group in the upper echelon of government and no mention of regional development issues. There is no need for a list of works cited, because some articles were written as analytical papers without references and the bulk of the references in the articles are tied to theoretical questions or websites. But I insist on the need for an introduction or conclusion by the editor to help the reader understand the team’s purpose and approach. In fact, this “tool” would have helped avoid the majority of the abovementioned questions.

Article 1. Turkmenistan’s Neutrality in Post-Crimea Eurasia by Luca Anceschi

In general, the first article is rather controversial. Its title refers to the post-Crimean changes in the system of international relations. The post-Crimean situation can be characterized by two major features: 1) the activation of post-imperial fault lines; and 2) the unauthorized intrusion of big countries into the internal affairs of small and medium players, in contravention of international law. The phenomenon of post-imperial fault lines is rather widespread and has different variations. For instance, it can be an ethnic distinction as a result of imperial policy or long-term history of ethnic interaction (Rohingya people and Burma; Eastern Ukraine and Crimea); it can be a “clumsy demarcation” (Durand Line, Middle East); and so on. In the recent history of international affairs, these fault lines are represented by Russian Federation’s activity in the Caucasus (2008) and Eastern Europe (since 2004) as an answer to the Kosovo issue and Chinese movement toward controversial islands and borders (Japan 2012; Vietnam 2014; India 2017). Undoubtedly, these aspects have different characters and scenarios, but a single root. For the Central Asian region, all the above-mentioned aspects represent a serious threat. We can observe these fault lines in the case of Turkmenistan: the status of the Balkan region, the richest oil region (among Russian scientific society, there is a view that it might one day become independent Yomudistan, but this is an absolute fiction); relations between Uzbekistan and the Lebap and Dashoguz regions of Turkmenistan; the issue of Iranian and Afghan Turkmens; the Pan-Turkist conception of the “big historic Khorasan” (popular among Iranian Turkmen students in Turkey) and territorial claims to the Islamic Republic of Iran; and  the issue of Mangyshlak (I observe this claim only among Turkmen nationalists; an expedition by Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology of Russian Science Academy to Mangyshlak showed that the Turkmen population constitutes a minority of the peninsula’s present-day inhabitants). The analysis of all these factors—including the activity of China, Russia, and other global players, and the issue of local minorities and their rights (for instance, holders of dual citizenship)—would be perfect in the context of the description of the post-Crimean reality. Unfortunately, the author proposes an absolutely general description of Turkmenistan’s place in the system of international relations. Instead of describing the new threats posed by this age of uncertainty, Luca Anceschi presents an exploratory picture of the stable local lines of conflicts between Turkmenistan and its neighbors.

The first paragraph of this article is dedicated to two recent events: “new frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine” and “Russia’s forced annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.” These terms are correct if this article was submitted after September 2014 (the adoption of the Minsk I protocol). Otherwise, this conflict could not be termed “frozen.” The U.S. Department of State called this conflict “not frozen” on July 23, 2017, even after the Minsk II protocol was submitted on February 11, 2015. This means that the author used an absolutely clear juridical statement based on the adoption of the Minsk I protocol. There is, therefore, the issue of the difference between a de jure and de facto description of the situation in Ukraine, and there is the question of the date this article was submitted.

The author goes on to describe the relations between the Russian Federation and the countries of Central Asia. Interestingly, there is no description of Central Asia’s reaction to the Crimea issue at all; there is a simple definition of the medium-term tendencies in these relations. These trends, in their turn, are not tied to the Crimean crisis; they are closely connected with domestic policy and the development of the “pendulum diplomacy” typical of these countries. It is truly hard to understand how the “process of leadership change” in Uzbekistan is connected to the events in Crimea.

In the fourth paragraph, the author insists on the fact that the “neutral status” of Turkmenistan was “a most convenient rationale for Turkmenistan’s conspicuous absence from the vote on UN Resolution 68/262.” However, the author does not mention that the representatives of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were also absent, while Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan abstained from voting. Though only Turkmenistan has made neutral status a legal instrument of its actions, every state in the region uses “pendulum diplomacy.” (Many other examples of the work of this status will be analyzed in Tatyana Khruleva’s PhD thesis.) As such, Anceschi’s emphasis on Turkmenistan in the context of the vote on UN Resolution 68/262, a major theme of the article, turns out to be inappropriate.

Moreover, the author describes Turkmen diplomacy as a “business-as-usual approach,” suggesting that only the Crimean crisis had an impact on the Turkmenistan Ministry of International Affairs. Nevertheless, in 2010-2011 (1379), an article was published in the Islamic Republic of Iran entitled “Continuity and Change in the Foreign and Domestic Policy of Turkmenistan in the Period of [Presidency of] Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov” (تداوم و تغيير در سياست داخلي و خارجي تركمنستان در دوره قربان قلي بردي محمداف). This article, written by Dr. Farhad ‘Atayi and M.A. student Muhammad Kazem Shaja’yi, describes Turkmenistan as a typical rentier state and underlines the change in the relations between this state and its neighbors from the beginning of Arkadag’s presidency. If Turkmenistan was previously an archetypal small exporter country that sought only to protect its transit arteries, it is now an active participant in many regional projects. It also has its own public diplomacy, which aims to attract the interest of potential investors. The abovementioned publication disproves the author’s claim that “Turkmen foreign policy has been operating along the same general guidelines that were consolidated in the Niyazov era.” It also should be noted that Turkmen policy is closely tied to economic needs and that the foreign policy of this country has changed numerous times: in 1996-1998, after Russian elections (after the crisis, Turkmenistan almost left the CIS); in 1999, as Vladimir Putin came to power (for instance, the famous negotiations between Saparmurat Niyazov and Rem Vyahirev, and the issue of dual citizenship); in 2002-2003 after the attempted murder on Turkmenbashi (changes in relations with Turkey and Russia); and in 2005-2006, with the first attempt to deal with China; among others. The latest contacts and deals between Turkmenistan and the South Caucasus were directly tied to the Crimean crisis and the need for new markets. Gas swaps with this group of countries; mutual agreements with Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey on security issues; and the development of relations between Turkmenistan and Armenia—all this happened after Crimea. However, the author does not pay any attention to these events. Instead, he insists on the independent character of the political and economic spheres and propounds the stability of the diplomatic conception even during the Niyazov period. Finally, the references to Afghanistan and the current situation on the Turkmen-Afghan border are closely tied to the ISIS factor and the situation in Afghanistan itself. There is no obvious reason to make a connection with Ukraine.

The author is right to talk about the crystallization of multiple issues tied to Turkmenistan in the context of international relations. However, there are multiple reasons for this, from internal and external challenges (such as Turkmenistan’s new role of in the system of international economic relations or the role of ISIS). It is truly noteworthy that Turkmenistan has activated its connection with Europe, the South Caucasus and South Asia. Despite offering an interesting description of regional international relations, the author does not mention any threats tied directly to the Crimean issue.

Article 2. Turkmenistan’s Export Crisis: Is TAPI the Answer? by
Luca Anceschi 

The second article is much more interesting. There is no controversial difference between title and content.

However, there are multiple issues with details. Some of these issues are insignificant and not dependent on the author’s knowledge or analytical capabilities. For example, the study of the Atlas of Economic Complexity issued by the University of Harvard reveals that Turkmen exports changed between 1995 and 2015 ( However, this change was insignificant in the context of the country’s entire economic system. In this case, it is more convenient to use much more accurate terminology. But there should be a discussion of the statistics issue, which is truly controversial. In general, the author uses numbers provided by international organizations, which should not be open to question. That being said, there is a reference to an independent audit of Turkmen gas fields which was made by a British company. During the penultimate round of the fight between Gazprom and Turkmenistan, this audit became one of the hottest questions. Gazprom used the old research of Soviet geologists, while the British audit was carried out using numbers provided to the independent British company by Turkmen Geological Services. In the next article, there is a note that this audit completely changed the evaluation of Turkmen fields. Moreover, this article makes no mention of gas swaps with South Caucasus and other regions (probably due to their insignificance in terms of the total volume of gas exports). Nor is there is any mention of gas and oil extraction companies other than CNPC, probably due to the author’s idea that CNPC has a monopoly over the Turkmen market. Though CNPC controls a large share of gas fields, especially in the Mary region, and has its own office building in Ashgabat, many companies from United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Singapore, Ireland, Netherlands, and Russia are working on the offshore parts of the fields.

There are some global issues in this article that require special attention and a more accurate approach. For example, the barter payment for gas by the Iranian side during the period of sanctions is now one of the main problems tied to gas supplies to the Islamic Republic. Though the article mentions that Turkmenistan refused to accept such payment, there is an issue with its coverage of the contemporary discussion about how to calculate barter payment under sanctions and the need for “hard currency.” Since I am no great expert on monetary policy, it is hard to judge the author’s reference to the relation between the devaluation of ruble and manat. However, it should be noted that during this period the same problem—closely tied to oil prices, new wave of crisis, trade balance and other factors—touched almost all the post-Soviet countries. In 2015, the number of devalued currencies grew to include China, Nigeria, Colombia, Sweden, etc. During the same period, the Kazakh tenge was devalued twice, even though Kazakh currency is the one most closely tied to Russian due to Kazakhstan’s participation in the Eurasian Economic Union. After Arkadag took office, Turkmenistan concluded a number of agreements—with Romania, Latvia and Switzerland—on the fight against currency crimes. There were rumors about Turkmen money in Baltic countries. Alongside this, China has become Turkmenistan’s first economic partner. The monetary crisis, the first wave of which was observed in Turkmenistan in 2013 (according to money stock statistics from the Eurasian Development Bank), may be much more complicated than the simple causative relationship with Russian events posited by the author.

This article’s major theme is TAPI. This issue cannot be described without reference to the situation in contemporary Afghanistan. Even for an expert, it is a real challenge to understand the multi-conflict system of relations between different tribes, peoples, and confessions, and the influence of external players. It should be underlined that the local government wants to find support for exploitation of its resources. Numerous articles by Bloomberg, the Economist and other publications have discussed the infrastructural challenge and the work of foreign investors (China, India, and Iran) in Afghanistan. There is an attempt by Russia to impact the local market. Turkmenistan is also interested in developing Afghanistan’s northern provinces (despite the fact that the agricultural development program would have a great impact on the Harirud river, potentially decreasing the flow of the Tejen river in Turkmenistan). But understanding the path to TAPI realization requires too many factors to be analyzed. The Turkmen anti-drug program, the Afghan Turkmens and their positions far from local financial centers and main routes controlled by the Taliban, business and financial interactions between the Turkmens of both countries, the modernization of the local border control system, and other aspects should all be taken into account.

Without a doubt, this article is better than the first one, but it is not particularly detailed and includes numerous issues that should be analyzed individually by professional economists (for example, the economic reasonableness of the denial of the system of social preferences) or Afghan Studies specialists.

Article 3. An Ideal Investor to Come: Diversifcation of the Energy Exports of Turkmenistan by Nazik Muradova

The third article is a typical publication by a Turkmen student. It consists of a detailed description of the governmental position on an issue, numerous references to theory, and a lot of data taken from different websites (frequently, in the case of Turkmenistan State University, from Wikipedia). Undoubtedly, this mode of writing is understandable. The lack of literature, pressure from officials and the need to represent the national narrative are powerful factors that all influence young Turkmen specialists. Sometimes they try to underline contradictions that can be observed in the sources (for example, the British audit of Turkmen gas fields). Some articles are crafted very well: there are no logical mistakes and there is a clear structure. Nazik Muradova’s article meets these criteria.

Nevertheless, sometimes there is the possibility to deny commonly-held beliefs about Turkmenistan. In the introduction of this article, for instance, there is no expression of one of the main obstacles to the interest of foreign investors: the country’s intracontinental location and, therefore, the geographical remoteness of Turkmen gas from the main consumer markets. However, on page 12, the author tried to deny this statement: “While Turkmenistan is a landlocked country in the heart of Eurasia, its current energy exports are not limited solely by the country’s location.” This statement is true, but gas pipelines to China and Russia—and planned pipelines to Azerbaijan and India—cross into other countries, and in some cases state companies have control over the valve. In 2009, for example, opposition between Turkmengaz and Gazpromexport caused an incident along the pipeline. This industrial disaster marked the beginning of a new period of conflict between Gazprom and Turkmenistan. In another case, Iran declared its intention to block swaps of Turkmen gas to Turkey, but adhere to the contractual obligation for gas swaps to Azerbaijan. In general, the transit of Turkmen gas through the territory of other countries is a possible risk factor. It could be solved by having one company-manager for the pipeline (such as CNPC) or by a strict system of the contractual obligations.

The weakest part of this article is probably its historical references. These are certainly very important to an understanding of the evolution of the system of interactions between Turkmenistan and foreign investors. But the author failed to mention that Turkmenistan was the second-largest resource contributor to the USSR (behind Russia). In other words, its economy was incorporated into the Soviet market system that exchanged foodstuffs for gas (and vice versa) across the Union. After the dissolution of Soviet Union, this unified economic complex was broken up by new political borders. It became necessary to find a supplier of foodstuffs and alternative routes for pipelines. The opening of Iran around that time briefly helped to address the food deficit and temporarily solved some issues tied to agricultural development.

Nazik Muradova does make a small reference to the history of the Azeri energy complex. To be honest, this reference is rather debatable. Azerbaijan took a circuitous route to independence, passing through numerous conflicts in the 1990s. It should be noted that there was an attempt to create hydrocarbon relations with Russia. However, the pressure of Russian oligarchs contributed to the failure of this deal. Relations with Turkey and Western investors, educational possibilities, and cooperation with international organizations have created the basis for the development of modern Azerbaijan. However, a rather developed clan system persists behind the facade of joint-stock companies. Turkmenistan, for its part, has chosen a different development path. Independent auditing of the majority of Turkmen banks (by the Kazakh branches of different consulting and audit companies), the creation of joint-stock companies, and the question of the future development of a stock market were introduced only as a result of the Berdymuhammedov reforms. In other words, there were different conditions for energy sphere development in the two countries while the interaction between them was blocked during the conflict. Nowadays, this situation has completely changed. During the Asian Games in Ashgabat, Azeris had a particular organizational role. There are common projects in the spheres of security, energy and economy (like Turkmen oil in the Baku-Tbilisi-Jeyhan pipeline and the synchronization of the work of the Turkmenbashi and Baku ports, etc.) and education.

The next big mistake is tied to the chapter “The Private Sector in Turkmenistan.” As I understand it, the mention of CNPC in this part of the text was tied to the list of PSAs in Turkmenistan. However, CNPC is not a private company (100% state share). Possible solutions to this issue include carrying over all tables in the Appendix or including a special commentary. I would also like to indicate that in the discussion of state companies working in Turkmenistan, there is no mention of the work of Petronas, despite the fact that this company was working in the Turkmen market even under Niyazov and provided educational opportunities for Turkmen oil workers.

In this article, too, there are a number of points that are missing or open to debate. For example, there is no mention of the unification of the Mary group of gas fields into the Galkynysh Gas Field in 2011 (the data on the legal status of exploitation is different issue). There is no info on Turkmen swap supplies to Azerbaijan and liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies through the Turkmenbashi port. The author made no reference to the Iranian system of gas pipelines and the necessity for system modernization in order to supply gas to the northern provinces. The most important point of this article—the affirmation of the economic issue of TAPI realization—was not used in the context of a discussion of the Transcaspian pipeline project. Despite the political engagement of Russian authors, they indicate multiple obstacles on the path to realizing project, including the pricing model in the EU, the question of expediency, ecological aspects, etc. There is a mention of “capacity building,” but there is no idea of social capital. The absence of concrete examples of the obligations and involvement of official Turkmen services and companies—like the lack of discussion of anti-corruption mechanisms—is also problematic. Finally, I have one remark for the editor. There are numerous repetitions of the same definition (for example, PSA and JVA), whereas such definitions are necessary only at the beginning of the article (they did not come until page 12).

In conclusion, the author avoids any kind of political discussion by using theoretical definitions of different phenomena closely tied to the theme under study. However, the most important part of the article is a focus on the economic obstacles to the realization of TAPI and the need to understand Turkmen officials’ perspective on foreign investors. There are numerous controversial details and a very debatable understanding of anti-corruption mechanisms. However, this article is an important contribution from within Turkmenistan itself.

Article 4. Turkmenistan: Domestic Evolution, Economic Development, and Regional Environment by
Myles Smith, Chris Miller, Teresa Sabonis-Helf, Jan Šír, Kenyon Weaver, Nazik Muradova, Slavomir Horák,
Sebastien Peyrouse, Victoria Clement, Aynabat Yaylymova

This article is rather hard to analyze, mostly because it is a so-called conference summary. There is no argumentation or possibility of seeing authors’ ideas. Thus, all the questions are hypothetical. For instance, the commonalities between Turkmenistan and Burma (and why did no one from the team of authors analyze Berdymuhammedov’s reform of the National Security Council)? In the context of electricity exports, are there enough facilities and equipment for long-distance export? How about domestic consumption—is it growing? What is known about the work of the “Gün” institute and alternative energy sources? Is there any mention of the ecological situation in regions far from Ashgabat, particularly in Tejen? Is there any possibility of competition between Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan? In the context of commercial law, can we speak about the legitimization of business and the output of entrepreneurship from the shadows? Were mechanisms of notification on new laws and loan system for entrepreneurs developed, in particular within the structure of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkmenistan? Did any author attempt to produce a sectoral analysis of privatization facilities? With regard to the paper of Victoria Clement, were Turkmen enlighteners jadids in the fullest sense of the word or just Soviet bureaucracy produced during the process of indigenization? Finally, there are two questions relating to project managers: 1) why is it an Internet platform despite the fact that the Internet became available to a mass audience only after the beginning of reforms?; and 2) is there any agreement between and the Ministry of Healthcare? Is any progress being made in the fight against traditional tabibs (healers)?

Despite all the above-mentioned issues, I find the chosen topics very interesting and I hope that the papers from this forum will someday be published.

Article 5. Public and State Responses to ISIS Messaging: Turkmenistan by Noah Tucker and Rano Turaeva

To be honest, I am not a professional Islamic studies specialist. As such, I can only comment on the study’s methodology.

First of all, Turkmen Islam has a deep nomadic heritage. The Islam of nomads is closely tied to religious rites and ceremonies, as underlined in the works of Bahtiyar Babajanov. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, there was an influx of Bukhara religious authorities to the Transcaspian region, creating a struggle between local ishans and the mullahs from Bukhara. During the Soviet period, local (!) Islam still played an important role in the daily life of Turkmens, a fact brought out in the works of Yuri Botyakov. Nevertheless, there was a huge difference between urban and rural areas.

Religious revival began at the beginning of the 1990s. A discussion of this situation can be found in Sergey Demidov’s “Post-Soviet Turkmenistan.” In that epoch, it was fashionable to be Muslim, to make pilgrimages, etc. Demidov, who currently lives in the Krasnodar region, may well have collected more information on these phenomena, though such material has not been published.

Nowadays, there is a huge development of Islam in Turkmenistan. We can observe it in Turkmen social networks: the celebration of Islamic holidays (although some Turkmens believe that these holidays are state holidays), Islamic selfies, references to Quran-i Karim, etc. It should be noted that Turkish and Arabic Islamic models have affected the modern Turkmen comprehension of the religion. This is due to several factors: study in and labor migration to Turkey; business activity in Turkey and the UAE; Turkey’s role in Turkmenistan’s education system in the 1990s and 2000s; social networks (especially Instagram); and the cultural process of neo-Islamism (which, according to cultural studies specialists, is an attempt to combine the achievements of modern societies and the Islamic community in Europe and the US). In sum, the Turkmen comprehension of Islam varies from generation to generation and is regulated by the state, making it difficult to analyze the underlying processes.

The authors of this article, which is a part of series dedicated to Central Asian republics’ struggle with the influence of ISIS, tried to produce their own analysis of Turkmen social networks, with the goal of illuminating the trails of Islamist propaganda described by the Russian press. The first issue is connected to the social networks under study. The authors mentioned Facebook, VKontakte (VK), and WhatsApp, all of which have been blocked by Turkmen authorities and are accessible only using VPN (VK was blocked in 2015-2016). However, there are some references to the most popular and unblocked social networks, such as China’s Line and Russia’s Odnoklassniki ( The bulk of Turkmens use Chinese social networks. It should be noted that Line was blocked in Russia last year, so it cannot be described as a “Russian system.” Significantly, the most popular social network in Turkmenistan (even using VPN) is Instagram. Much deeper analysis of this platform is necessary.

There is also the question of the groups analyzed in the study. Line groups of particular importance to such studies. In the case of VKontakte, we can observe that there are Turkmen groups and publics with a huge international audience, mainly maintained by students studying abroad or local youngsters (like Turkmenistan Limited, Modern Turkmenistan, Türkmen sungat älemi, Top People of Turkmenistan) and domestic-oriented groups (like regional ones). For the authors of this article, the audience of Islamic self-education groups should have been of primary interest (groups include;;;;, Pan-Turkism and Pan-Turanism (;;, as should groups of people with open religious views (such as However, the authors made no reference to these sources. Nor do they mention whether they looked at Turkmen-language sources or dealt solely with data in Russian.

All in all, the article is logical and accurate, without any ambiguous references. However, I would like to advise the authors to pay more attention to the question of financial support for military groups (especially for Syrian Turkmens) and to make Turkish news more of a focus. It is actually hard to find any reference to Islamists in social networks, which are controlled and self-censored; the situation on the ground could be very different. It should be remembered that for modern Islamists, a gym is much more important than a mosque.

Article 6. Educational Reforms in Turkmenistan: Good Framework, Bad Content? by Slavomír Horák

As I mentioned above, this article was heavily criticized by Turkmens themselves. In my review, I would like simply to indicate various details that were distorted by Slavomir Horak.

In relation to criticisms of the publishing industry, the author should take into account that all textbooks and manuals pass through the hands of experts from Turkmen State University. These scientists have the possibility of learning from Russian textbooks and sometimes make contact with European, British and American colleagues. For example, there are good relations between Turkmenistan and Cambridge University Press. It is possible to read European, Russian and other books during the Annual Bookfair, at the Annual Educational Fair, and in the bookshops on the Russian Bazaar and near the Turkmen State University. There are also other bookshops throughout Ashgabat. In Berkarar mall, for instance, there is a shop where it is possible to order Russian and foreign books. Undoubtedly, books are far more available in 2017 than they were in 2013, but it should be recognized that Turkmens are working on the quality of their books and have the possibility of ordering new ones from other countries. A publication by John V. Richardson, Jr. is also surveying the situation on the Turkmen book market.

Furthermore, the author did not mention that different embassies have cultural offices and operate language courses (for example, L’Institut Français du Turkménistan). The development of relations between Turkmenistan and Belarus has brought new opportunities to go abroad and study the Russian language. For a time, it was also possible for students who graduated from the A.S. Pushkin Joint Turkmen-Russian secondary school to continue their studies at a Russian university without taking entrance exams.

The Turkmen educational system continues to develop. However, there is one factor that must be kept in mind: the blurred boundary between unwritten and written law. For example, there is a limitation on visits to Turkey by Turkmen women younger than 35. In the educational sphere, a Turkmen youngster has to have one local education stage. There is also a stereotype that a Turkmen youngster has to be a graduate of universities in Belarus, Ukraine or Russia to have any prospect of working in a government ministry.

The data contained in Horak’s article is rather outdated. For instance, university students are now required to perform 2 years of military service upon graduation, and every alumnus has to prove that he possesses his diploma by presenting numerous documents (including the accreditation and license of the university) and by passing special examination. It is noteworthy that the group of students that could not go to AUCA (American University of Central Asia) during the last Kyrgyz revolution was sent to the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences (Smolny College) of St. Petersburg State University, and has now successfully graduated from that program. Today, the relations with Kyrgyzstan have new life.

There are also two very important factors underestimated by Slavomir Horak. First, the statistics about students (and the map of their educational destinations); and second, the demand for educated and professional staff within Turkmenistan. The first point potentially provides the impetus for a new article, while the latter problem was already critical under Niyazov. The work of Vadim Masson in St. Petersburg, the activity of the University of Petronas in Malaysia and the Turkish influence on the educational system created the objective prerequisites and educational opportunities for Turkmen students to study abroad. This fact was underlined in Berdymuhammedov’s 2007 election program. The development of small and medium enterprises—especially in the sphere of tourism—and the adoption of new laws that made higher education requisite to climb to the highest echelons of the local labor market created the backdrop for the increased movement of students. Adults (aged 30 and above) trying to complete their education in order to improve their position within Turkmenistan could often be found studying in post-Soviet space, particularly in Kharkiv and Minsk—which were known as “altynjy we yedinji welaýatlar” (6th and 7th regions of Turkmenistan)—as well as in Turkey, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, and China. Later, around 2010, the flow of students became younger and aimed for Europe, the UK, the US, Japan, South Korea, and Azerbaijan. One’s educational destination also became important to family image. Numerous Turkmen students who have returned from Germany, Poland, the UK, the US, etc., have become employees of foreign enterprises, local consulting companies and international organizations.

Certainly, there were students and businessmen who left the country. In other words, the situation has changed during the presidency of Arkadag (there is now a special line in the airport for students). Since 2007, the social, financial, age, and regional distribution of students has changed, yet authors who refer to this theme fail to undertake the very necessary analysis of this flow.

The second issue is one of the main problem studied in the next article.

In conclusion, Horak’s article is outdated and inaccurate. Instead of analyzing the trend, he simply indicates the general details of the situation. The most concerning fact is that this article was republished by numerous journals (, as well as the current digest.

Article 7. Economic Smart Power: Utilizing the Untapped Asset of Turkmen Youth by Dursunjemal Halimova

This article is a cornerstone of the book. It is an independent scientific work produced by a Turkmen Ph.D. student on a very important theme. This work contains some elements of the typical work produced by a Turkmen student (discussed above). But there is a research element and an attempt is made to produce a full-scale analysis of a phenomenon.

Nevertheless, some of the author’s ideas are rather controversial. At the beginning, Dursunjemal Halimova introduces a brief reference to the ideal type of “Dutch disease,” accusing rentier states of having disdainful attitude toward the educational sphere. Norway (7.4% on education, GDP $364.4 billion, according to CIA World Factbook; total $26.6 billion, $5200 per person) or Saudi Arabia (5.1%, GDP $1.751 trillion; total $86.7 billion, $3000 per person). For comparison, in Japan – 3.8%, GDP $5.2 trillion; total $190 billion, $1507 per person. However, all above-mentioned calculations are incorrect due to the need to take into account purchasing power parity, population structure (age, gender), local traditions, and differences in educational assets. In other words, it is hard to accuse those countries whose economies are based on extractive industries—especially Norway—of denying their populations an education. The author’s theoretical framework is correct, but the situation on the ground depends on an educated government’s understanding and fear of the “Dutch disease.” The “Dutch disease” is well studied and is an obligatory part of all economics courses.

Next, the author mentioned Malaysia, a resource-poor country in which the oil and gas sector accounted for 22% of government revenue in 2015 ( To be honest, Malaysia has passed its peak of oil extraction, but its national petroleum company, Petronas, has begun to exploit oil and gas fields across the world (including, interestingly enough, eastern Turkmenistan). The structure of the Malaysian economy has changed since the 1970s.

In other words, the author is not familiar with the history of transition in other rentier countries. That fact can play tricks on the author, who needs to understand the models used by other rentier countries to improve their youth policies. The mention of China is also inaccurate: China has big deposits of shale gas and coal, but does not exploit these for ecological reasons. This is not the author’s mistake, since such claims were drawn from other articles. However, it is necessary to check the data represented and ensure that one is not reproducing incorrect statements.

The article also includes a questionable discussion on the impact of the construction industry. First of all, this industry is an important factor in economic development, due to the growth of private enterprises and employment. Nevertheless, construction is a risky industry, due to companies’ debt obligations, the demand for new buildings, etc. Turkmenistan is no exception. In the case of the Asian Games facilities, it should be noted that there is a standard procedure of the “heritage regime.” This approach works perfectly for the Olympic facilities in London, Beijing, etc. There is also a need for new sports facilities, the developing of doping control, etc. due to the desire to develop the professional sport sphere, while private sports facilities are widespread through the capital (examples include the Lotus and Görogly fitness clubs). The cases of Athens and Rio are closely tied to the domestic economic obstacles of Greece and Brazil. From the other side, is it possible to say that the growth of private enterprises and employment in construction is a factor of human resource development and investment in the creativity of local engineers and architectures who are able to cooperate with their foreign counterparts? The answer to this question should come in the form of a specific article that aims to analyze local small and medium enterprises, including data on the “foreign company substitution” process in the capital, among other interesting phenomena. By law, every company in Turkmenistan employs a fixed number of “native workers”—this figure had been 70%, and there were rumors that it might be increased to 95%. This practical instrument is an important factor in the analysis of the local labor market. In numerous foreign companies, Turkmens hold most positions, though they do not perform the accounting. In other words, it is a not-entirely-correct statement on an economic question. One possible solution is a consultation with a professional economist.

One of the main criticisms of this article is the author’s emphasis on written law and legal institutions. There is no mention of corruption or internal obstacles (including financial ones), no understanding of the punishment for taking initiative that is the legacy of the Niyazov regime. This factor relates directly to the prescriptive approach taken by numerous youngsters within the framework of official institutions—for instance, the Magtymguly Youth movement. Individuals work directly to realize the plan constructed by higher authorities and have no will to transgress the limits specified by the plan, with the result that there is a desire simply to occupy a position, particularly in the political sphere, while critical thinking and the desire to work are lacking. My comments on the previous article, connected to the need for research on students’ social and age structure, are equally important here. The child of a family with close relations to the government is far more likely to get a job in the Ministry of his or her parent. There are also internal lines of communication through which students receive information about workplaces, foreign grant programs and other educational facilities.

There is one more global comment. As a political studies specialist, the author has to understand that every program mentioned in her text is an element of public diplomacy and soft power by foreign states in Turkmenistan. Why is there no mention of this factor, and why is American policy in Turkmenistan discussed using stereotypes (for instance, the opinion that US education is available only to an elite group of Turkmens)? The prejudice against American policy, even if it has decreased in the last few years, should have been marked and explained in the context of soft power mechanisms.

On a list of other questionable points, I can name the issue of duration of study at school. The previous author insisted that the duration of study is only a false front, and that there is no schedule for this extra year. Has the situation changed since 2013? There are also numerous mentions of American programs, to the exclusion of those of other countries (for example, the GIZ courses provided by Germany). Furthermore, there is just one example of a successful Turkmen graduate of these programs.

It is truly hard to understand why author underlines the comparison of youth centers for the Latin American population in the US and the Turkmen youth center. These two groups differ in terms of ethnicity, local educational conditions and social institutions. Obviously, the author is drawing on her own experience as a student of the American University; however, examples from rentier states and the other post-Soviet states—such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan—should also have been mentioned. Otherwise, her text is an example of Eurocentrism. The references to new specializations are not correct in view of economic complexity theory and the evolutional approach towards economic and social institutions.

The last comment is tied to the author’s survey. Every sociologist knows that graphs should be followed by analysis and the typical questionnaire used during the survey. Otherwise, there is no way of understanding how the author drew a conclusion about the “narrow mind” of a person. Moreover, in the anthropologic sphere, the in-depth interview is much more important; the Internet survey is a controversial technique. There is also the issue of analytical analysis of a causal relationship—the author provides the numbers without presenting any kind of research. The lack of information on informants (their social group), the need for detailed description of problems, and the absence of an analytical approach to the results of these surveys are factors that call into question the quality of the author’s interpretation. Moreover, it is doubtful that a 15- to 17-year-old would be capable of discussing opportunities for youngsters.

In conclusion, this article is based on a Turkmen student at the American University’s view of her generation. It is truly important to understand the place of the “Turkmenbashi generation” and Millennials in the social and economic structures of modern Turkmenistan. They are active participants in the latest reforms. The appeal to this theme—to the conditions of their lives—is truly important if we want to understand the country’s future path. The author has chosen a very important and interesting theme, but this research is limited by her Eurocentrism and focus on legal issues. Halimova does not mention the Soviet-era tendency of Turkmen students to return home and the reasons why this trend is relevant nowadays. There are also numerous controversial references to other scientific disciplines that do not make a positive contribution to her theme. Finally, the use of the sociological method is important and should provoke further discussion over its results; however, the survey mechanism is the most controversial part of this article. The author needs to continue her study, improve her skills and be careful with theoretical issues.


All in all, I am conflicted about this digest. On the one hand, it is a new book on Turkmenistan, the most closed country in the region of Central Asia, and includes articles on new and important topics that have not previously been studied: education, social sphere, while previously the main focus was based on the studies of ideology, policy, and gas price fluctuation. On the other hand, the book is composed of outdated articles that have not been edited or fact-checked.

The first, second, sixth articles are outdated and arguable. There are issues with, and questions about, the content of the Turkmen articles. Finally, why was a special digest not published about the conference of 2015?

This publication is a typical example of a book on Turkmenistan produced by foreign experts. It offers no breakthroughs in our understanding of the life of Turkmens. This factor —the understanding of Turkmens’ outlook, the system of interactions and communications inside their society—is vital to understanding them as a people. Without a doubt, it is truly an art to be an expert on Central Asia, just as it is an art to be a Turkmen.


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