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Turkmenistan and Central Asia after Niyazov

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | September 2007

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Sapirmurat Niyazov ruled Turkmenistan, a small Central Asian country with enormous natural gas holdings, like a sultan or latter-day Stalin. Therefore his sudden death on December 21, 2006, opened the way not just to a domestic power struggle, but also to fears of instability in Turkmenistan and Central Asia, and to a major international struggle among the great powers—Russia, China, Iran, and the United States— for influence over the new leadership.

This monograph examines the dimensions of the succession to Niyazov, the great power struggle for influence in this key Central Asian state, and concludes with recommendations for American policymakers. It examines the ways in which the succession has been arranged and what its likely course is going to be, one of very cautious and moderated reforms from the top. It also takes account of the issue of succession in Central Asian regimes, all of which are despotic and often dominated by families and clans. Turkmenistan may be or serve as a kind of precedent of what we should soon expect elsewhere in Central Asia, given the age of its leaderships. Thus the dynamics of this succession are viewed in their regional as well as domestic context.

In similar fashion, this monograph examines in detail Niyazov's energy policies and the rivalry among the key players—Russia, Iran, China, and America—for influence over the future disposition of those holdings and the destination of future pipeline projects either to China, Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan (through the Caspian Sea), and to Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. This great power rivalry also encompasses Russian and Iranian, if not Chinese efforts to persuade Turkmenistan to renounce in deed or in rhetoric the neutrality that was Niyazov's consistent policy and join one or another of the regional security blocs that they are proposing. On the other side of the ledger, Washington is seeking to ensure that Turkmenistan's gas goes to states and markets other than exclusively to Russia and supports new pipelines like those to China, a projected pipeline to India through Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a Trans-Caspian pipeline to Azerbaijan. Therefore, the rivalries over Turkmen energy and security policies are entwined with each other, and the examination of the nature of the great powers' policy programs underscores the importance of Central Asia in global energy and security agendas. Finally, the monograph also makes specific recommendations to American policymakers as to how they should proceed in trying to ensure and even widen Turkmenistan's effective sovereignty and advance American interests in behalf of a Central Asian energy or security system that is not monopolized by Moscow.