The Belarusian Ambassador to Turkmenistan, Oleg Tabanyukhov, tells us about current and future prospects for Belarusian-Turkmen co-operation.
Mr. Tabanyukhov, Wikipedia calls Belarus one of the major partners of Turkmenistan, alongside such partner states as Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkey and China. Tell us, what predetermines our high partner rating and the special importance of Turkmenistan for Belarus.
First of all, I’d like to mention that Turkmenistan is a strategic partner for Belarus in Central Asia.
Secondly, psychologically, Belarusians and Turkmens are rather close in mentality, despite being situ-ated in different regions of Eurasia, and not sharing common borders (as Belarus does with Russia, Ka-zakhstan and Iran). We are close in spirit, sharing the same understanding of processes taking place worldwide; we have the same life values.
The Republic of Belarus is a rather popular destination for Turkmen people. In 2013, the Embassy is-sued over 7,200 visas, and over 6,500 in 2014. Almost 10,000 Turkmen students study in our country at present, showing Turkmen trust in Belarusian higher education and security.
Meanwhile, all countries are experiencing hard times, economically and politically. Oil and gas prices have dropped globally, while regional conflicts, previously unknown diseases, natural cataclysms and technogenic catastrophes are affecting the global situation.
Despite this, Belarus and Turkmenistan have remained friendly, enjoying beneficial partnership, with-out interfering in each other’s internal affairs. We support each other at the international arena and we jointly promote various international initiatives. We have complete mutual understanding in this respect.
The fact that Wikipedia places Belarus together with such world giants as Russia, China, Iran and India is very pleasing.
Which major Turkmen projects enjoy participation from our country?
Turkmenistan is rich in natural resources, occupying the 4th place worldwide for volumes of gas depos-its. It also boasts the largest deposits of potassium salts in the south-east.
Belarus is now constructing a plant to manufacture potash fertilizers (with a capacity of 1.4mln tonnes per year) in Lebap Region’s Garlyk. This is a major project, due to be commissioned in March 2017, and is completely Belarusian, being implemented on the Turkmen side by Turkmenkhimia State Concern, while Belgorkhimprom is the general contractor for Belarus.
As soon as construction is finished, Turkmenistan will become one of the world’s leaders in extraction of potash fertilisers: likely to rival our Belaruskali.
This is a central and landmark project for Belarusian-Turkmen relations. Efficient construction is aiding the progress of our bilateral relationship.
Which ambitious plans does Turkmenistan have which are of interest to Belarus?
Turkmenistan is involved in developing extensive transport infrastructure, restoring the part of the Silk Road once passing through this land: creating a trans-national route between three seas, with further entrance to South-East Asia, from the Baltic Sea to the Caspian Sea, via the Black Sea. Certainly, there will be a place for our country in this logistic corridor.
Our country is keen to take part in infrastructure projects being realised in Turkmenistan, using our machinery and technology. For example, after the Law ‘On Daihan (Peasant) Farming’ was adopted in Turkmenistan, such farms received necessary development. Our country has great experience in farm construction and boasts production of Belarusian tractors. Meanwhile, construction is developing dy-namically in Turkmenistan, with hundreds of thousands of square metres of residential housing and administrative building built annually. Our Amkodor machinery could be of great help.
Aren’t falling sales of our traditional MAZ tractors and other machinery a signal of the need to change Belarusian business strategy in this country? Which new financial, organisational and marketing schemes are our exporters ready to suggest?
Yes, we’ve recently seen a drop in sales of our MAZ vehicles, tractors and other machinery to Turk-menistan, for objective reasons. I don’t think this has anything to do with business strategies, although these are important. Undoubtedly, the major factors are quality and price; in this context, the correla-tion is in favour of Belarus.
Asian countries are known as an attractive, though competitive, market for all world manufacturers. What competitive advantages do Belarusian producers offer?
Undoubtedly, we are competing against goods and services offered by Turkish, Iranian, Chinese, Ukrainian, Russian, Kazakh, Azerbaijani, American, German, French and Malaysian companies, among others. All are promoting their interests.
Belarusian machinery is of high quality, although it can always be improved upon. However, Belarusian goods offer real value for money, which is certainly attractive. Russian and Chinese goods are also competitive in price; so, to occupy a niche in Turkmenistan, we need to be innovative.
There are quite a few mutual projects being implemented, including in the sphere of infrastructure, and innovative technologies. For example, a service centre for Belarusian machinery in Ashkhabad is in its final stage of construction. In future, such centres will open in all regional centres across Turkmeni-stan. Our academies of sciences are establishing a joint laboratory for low-tonnage chemistry produce and there are interesting plans to create joint projects in the third states, with intensive work already being conducted in this area.
Belarus and Turkmenistan are geographically distant but, as former Soviet republics, face similar goals. How can we be useful to each other?
Our countries were a part of the huge USSR for 70 years. Before that, we were a part of the Russian Empire. Over this period, we learnt from each other and relied upon each other.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, our two countries declared independence and established dip-lomatic relations, opening diplomatic representations. We declared sovereignty and, ever since, have independently determined our domestic and foreign policy.
Both countries created a new political system, management system, and relations with neighbouring and other states. We both struggled against inflation and other negative economic processes following the USSR’s collapse, and we solved issues of social protection.
Many still remember that, back in Soviet times, production co-operation existed, with some regions, including Turkmenistan, boasting huge volumes of mineral resources. Others lacked such resources, so their territory housed a network of industrial and processing enterprises, as in Belarus.
After the USSR’s collapse, we found ourselves in a similar dilemma. Belarusian enterprises lacked re-sources for processing while Turkmenistan’s resources went mostly unused; only Russia consumed Turkmen gas.
Under such conditions, Turkmenistan’s domestic policy aimed to diversify its consumers of mineral resources. Turkmenistan is now constructing various enterprises (using the most advanced technolo-gies) to manufacture goods with high value added.
Therefore, we can say that, in these post-Soviet times, our countries have solved various tasks to achieve economic growth and improve the standard of living, while strengthening security.
Evidently, we can be useful to each other, having complementarity economies, which don’t directly compete. Belarus has a well-developed sphere of services: education, medicine, tourism and con-struction. Also, we can offer Turkmenistan domestic machine building. In its turn, Turkmenistan is rich in mineral resources and has well-developed light industry. Turkmenistan is also interesting to Belarus-ians as a tourist destination.
Together, we can create joint products for our partners in other countries and regions.
Do we share a similarly planned social state policy of healthcare, sport and education?
Of course, the Republic of Belarus is a socially-oriented state. However, it seems to me that, in this re-spect, Turkmenistan is slightly ahead of us.
It spends huge funds on its social policy: about 70 percent of its budget is allocated for construction of schools and kindergartens, polyclinics, medical centres, hospitals and higher educational establish-ments. Moreover, its social facilities, like all other sites, are being built using the latest technologies: in construction and in equipment of these sites.
Basic utilities (such as water, and salt for the road) are provided free of charge by the state, while oth-ers are heavily subsidised. Most monthly payments are around US$8.
During housing construction, half of the cost is subsidised by the state, with the rest paid by the owner within 30 years, at an interest rate of just 1 percent per annum. From this, you can judge Turkmeni-stan’s social policy. Understandably, an epoch of might and happiness was proclaimed in this country several years ago.
The interests of our countries coincide regarding healthcare, sport and education. We’re now consid-ering liaising on the transplant of organs and tissues, with Belarusian and Turkmen specialists working together. All that’s needed is to decide on financing.
Meanwhile, we also work together on sporting events, with athletes from both states often attending events and training camps in each location. Last year, we held almost 15 joint sports events and, this year, plan the same.
Our universities have a range of agreements on co-operation. Last October alone, five such agree-ments were signed, with implementation gaining speed this year.
Regarding education, you mentioned that many Belarusian universities have signed agreements on co-operation with Turkmen partners. Tell us more…
Agreements on inter-university co-operation enable us to share experience, while developing educa-tional programmes and strengthening scientific interaction.
As I’ve already said, in October 2014, we signed five agreements on inter-university co-operation dur-ing a Minsk visit by Turkmenistan’s President. These stipulate that co-operation will develop not only through experience sharing between teachers, but via internships for final-year students, Master’s Degree students and post-graduate students. There will be joint development of electronic text-books, while professors and teachers will be invited to read lectures, take part in scientific confer-ences, and implement joint sci-tech projects.
Unfortunately, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many cultural ties were lost, which impover-ished nations. Tell us about distinct aspects of rich Turkmen culture and psyche.
Undoubtedly, the culture of the Turkmen nation is rich. Moreover, it’s manifested in everyday life, clothes and rituals.
Headgear is obligatory for Turkmens. Men and boys wear ‘tahya’, as do girls until they marry. These ‘skullcaps’ have white and red lines forming circles when worn by men, while those designed for girls usually have red and yellow rhombus. From the day of their marriage, they begin wearing a kerchief.
The tahya occupies a special place in traditional Turkmen costume, being not only practical in protect-ing the head from the burning sun but serving as a decoration. In ancient times, they were also thought to act as a talisman, defending the wearer from all trouble, disease and curses. According to custom, it is forbidden to give your tahya to anyone else, or to throw it away.
Mature men also wear fur caps (usually mink) as an indicator of their wealth and status.
Of course, it’s customary to wear headgear when entering a mosque but any sad gathering obliges men to wear caps (though not tahya).
Rugs feature prominently in the home, and are sat upon for meals, and to sleep. They are national treasures, being hand-woven, and radiating the love and diligence with which each is crafted. It takes many hours of scrupulous work to create a single rug. Many Turkmen carpets are actually named as cultural treasures and are protected by the state. Their artwork represents historical events, traditions and customs, with each one telling a story of the tribal life of a particular district of Turkmenistan.
Beautiful Akhal-Teke horses are also part of Turkmen culture, gracious and elegant, these ‘sky horses’ are bred only in Turkmenistan, and form part of the country’s national heritage.
There is so much to describe that a whole magazine would be inadequate.
Speaking about Turkmen mentality, I’d like to note a great feeling of patriotism, respect for elders and, of course, tolerance. It seems to me that no other nation can rival the Turkmens in the degree of this feeling.
How is our inter-cultural dialogue developing, especially against the background of Europe’s problems in relating to the Muslim world?
Of course, culture helps in establishing Belarusian-Turkmen relations, while promoting deeper under-standing of history and traditions. Culture helps bring nations closer, as our governments realize; they have been paying attention to this component of our relationship. Speaking of cultural liaisons of re-cent years, our Days of Culture were a landmark event, being official in character.
We hold similar events regularly. Days of Turkmenistan were organised in Belarus in 2014, while 2012 saw the Days of the Republic of Belarus (in April) and the Days of Belarusian Cinema (in July) in Turk-menistan. In July 2014, the Days of Turkmenistan Culture were a great success in Minsk and Bobruisk. Recently (from December 7th-10th), Turkmenistan hosted Days of Culture of the Republic of Belarus, hosted by Ashkhabad and Türkmenabat (former Chardzhou).
As part of the Days of Culture, we organised Days of Cinema and Days of Poetry, featuring over 60 per-formers, including Pesnyary, the Khoroshki State Dance Company, popular singers Alexander Tikha-novich, Yadviga Poplavskaya and Alena Lanskaya, and opera singer Nina Sharubina. We also held an exhibition of folk and applied arts.
As part of the Days of Culture, poet Ales Badak conducted a presentation of Belarusian prose and po-etry, including translations of works by Turkmen poets and writers into Belarusian. Turkmen audiences were able to see feature and animated films, as well as documentaries produced by Belarusfilm Stu-dio.
Other events organised jointly with Turkmen partners have included a tour by the Belarusian State Circus, which saw full houses, as part of a tour by Turkmen Galkynysh dzhigit equestrian performers. Representatives of Belarus also took part in cultural events within the Avaza National Tourist Zone (on the Turkmen shore of the Caspian Sea), dedicated to Children’s Day, and participated in Avaza interna-tional music and song children’s festival (June and October 2012).
In May 2015, as part of celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the Great Victory, Syabry band, headed by Anatoly Yarmolenko, performed in front of a Turkmen audience in Ashkhabad. Moreover, Belarusfilm’s Brest Fortress was screened and an exhibition of war photos organised.
While remembering our common past, we look confidently into our shared future.
by Nina Romanova