Party Pooper: Turkmen President A No-Show For Central Asian Summit
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The first Central Asian summit in many years is due to take place in Astana on March 15-16, and it was shaping up to be an epic event.
But on March 2, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov took some of the excitement out of the gathering in the Kazakh capital by announcing he would not be going.
Berdymukhammedov offered no reason for not attending the summit, a decision arguably made more puzzling because an official visit is planned to Uzbekistan soon.
It is far from the first time a Turkmen president has stayed away while the other Central Asian presidents assembled. But this time the decision is particularly strange, since Turkmenistan could use the support of its neighbors to help get through difficult economic times.
Consulting the archives, we can find only five times that all five Central Asian presidents gathered with no other leaders in attendance: December 1991, January 1993, January 1998, April 1999, and April 2009 (though that last one was technically a summit on the Aral Sea).
The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have met together far more often, but Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, preferred to miss such meetings and Berdymukhammedov has followed his example.
So it is not unusual that all the presidents except the Turkmen president would meet, but times are different now, certainly for Turkmenistan.
Ashgabat clings to Turkmenistan's UN-recognized status as a neutral country and uses that to remain one of the most isolationist countries in the world. But Turkmenistan is in an economic crisis, making connectivity with the outside world more important than it ever was before.
Uzbekistan's new president, Shavkat Mirziyoev, has made regional cooperation a priority since he came to power in September 2016. That has already allowed Turkmenistan to renew electricity exports across Uzbekistan to Tajikistan, and talks with other Central Asian presidents at the summit could lead to more agreements, extra flour imports from Kazakhstan being one important possibility (see below).
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have signaled in recent months that they are moving ahead with construction of Line D of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, the biggest of the four pipelines carrying Turkmen gas to China and the only one of the four that will carry Turkmen gas exclusively.
It is revenue that Turkmenistan badly needs at the moment, and therefore it would seem a priority for Berdymukhammedov to meet with and urge his Kyrgyz and Tajik counterparts to complete their sections of the line.
Security along the Afghan border is a vital topic for Central Asia -- Turkmenistan in particular, since militant groups in northwestern Afghanistan are reportedly operating in areas along the Turkmen border.
The summit would also be an opportunity for Turkmen state media to fill its coverage with images of Berdymukhammedov meeting with his Central Asian counterparts.
So it is a mystery why Berdymukhammedov is not going to Astana.
There are several possible reasons why the Turkmen president is bowing out of this meeting.
The most logical would be that Turkmenistan's economic crisis seems to be approaching a breaking point.
RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, has been reporting for months that basic goods are in short supply.
Azatlyk reported on March 5 that frustrated citizens in Mary Province forced their way into a store after a local official said there was no more flour available. There has been a flour shortage across Turkmenistan. Sales have been rationed and there are reports of people lining up hours before stores open, hoping to be able to buy some flour before it runs out again. Members of the mob in Mary Province reportedly beat the official and broke into the store, discovering sacks of flour that were then distributed to the crowd.
In a different area of Mary Province, a group of women reportedly blocked the road and demanded that officials make flour available, a demand that officials met.
There have been reports of crowds gathering outside administrative buildings in the northern Dashoguz Province, demanding solutions to the problem of food shortages.
Such challenges to the authorities would have been unthinkable in Turkmenistan just a couple of years ago, but they seem to be increasing in frequency in the last year.
That would be the most logical reason for Berdymukhammedov to want to stay in Turkmenistan, but it is unlikely that is the real reason.
Another possibility is that Berdymukhammedov has been rumored to be in ill-health recently.
Before we go on, I know what you're thinking: Rumors of bad health and Central Asian leaders go hand-in-hand, and we've been down this road a hundred times and more already. But in late January, Berdymukhammedov missed at least one session of the government and arrived for visits to Mary and Lebap provinces later than originally scheduled. No explanation was given. However, after he reappeared in early February, Berdymukhammedov looked a bit less energetic than usual.
Turkmenistan also holds parliamentary elections on March 25. Berdymukhammedov could have excused himself from the summit on account of the impending poll, but this would be the thinnest of reasons since elections in Turkmenistan are heavily scripted events and the results clear long before voters actually cast ballots.
Whatever his reasons, Berdymukhammedov's decision not to go to the summit might turn out to be a huge mistake.
He is sending a delegation led by the speaker of parliament, Akja Nurberdieva, officially the second-most-powerful official after the president. But in fact, there can be no agreement with Turkmenistan without Berdymukhammedov.
Berdymukhammedov and his country have much to gain from new Central Asian regional cooperation and really nothing to lose by being a part of it.
It is therefore tempting to conclude that whatever the reason Berdymukhammedov has resolved to stay at home, it's something serious.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.