Neighbours in Eurasia
[b]The President previously visited the country in 2002 and 2009 and, during his recent trip to Ashgabat, agreed with Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov that, in recent years, Belarusian-Turkmen relations have developed well. Our two states have achieved a level of strategic partnership, having enjoyed dozens of visits at various levels. Thousands of Turkmen students attend Belarusian universities, while we boast almost $100mLN. of turnover and joint projects worth over $1bLn.[/b]Flying back, journalists asked Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov (who also attended the talks as part of the delegation) to sum up the results of the visit. “We hope that, as a result of the Belarusian President’s present visit to Turkmenistan, the breakthrough seen in our relations in recent years will strengthen, becoming an integral part of our daily life. Despite our geographical distance, Belarus and Turkmenistan are expected to become true neighbours,” he stressed, noting that Belarus’ building of a town for potassium miners in Turkmenistan is the major achievement of the trip (at the Turkmen President’s request).
Flying back, journalists asked Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov (who also attended the talks as part of the delegation) to sum up the results of the visit. “We hope that, as a result of the Belarusian President’s present visit to Turkmenistan, the breakthrough seen in our relations in recent years will strengthen, becoming an integral part of our daily life. Despite our geographical distance, Belarus and Turkmenistan are expected to become true neighbours,” he stressed, noting that Belarus’ building of a town for potassium miners in Turkmenistan is the major achievement of the trip (at the Turkmen President’s request).
During Mr. Lukashenko’s last visit, it was decided that Belarus would establish a whole new branch of its economy within Turkmenistan’s Kara-Kum mining industry. Production of potash fertilisers is planned, with the development of the Garlyk potassium salt deposit overseen by Belarusians — although there were many other tender bidders, as the project is worth over 1bln. “Both the Turkmen side and our own are working on the basis of liaising on international markets once production is established — to ensure the greatest efficiency,” Mr. Martynov noted.
Turkmenistan has asked Belarus to build infrastructure for a future town of workers. According to preliminary estimations, 20,000 flats are to be constructed — enough for 100,000 people. Since the new company is being set up in a desert, not far from the Afghani border, accommodation is a priority. During their last rendezvous, the presidents reached the construction site by helicopter; as Turkmenistan’s neighbour is unsettled, the flight was conducted at the highest possible altitude.
We could say that Belarus is shifting its Venezuelan experience to Central Asia, supplementing its traditional trading ties with mining of mineral deposits, launching of production facilities and building of accommodation. Speaking of talks between the two presidents, Mr. Martynov noted that many issues are in focus, including aviation, education and personnel training. The latter is of special interest to Turkmenistan, with around 4,500 Turkmen students currently attending Belarusian universities. According to Mr. Martynov, this figure is set to rise. “We are ready to satisfy the needs of friendly Turkmenistan in all specialities and to whichever extent required,” he added.
Belarus is also ready to establish assembly facilities and service centres in Turkmenistan. In recent years, supplies of Belarusian machinery to this country have risen, with more models offered. Most growth has been seen in deliveries of MAZ, Amkodor and Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant vehicles. As Mr. Martynov noted, the Turkmen President is keen to see Belarus satisfy state orders in future. This year, Minsk Tractor Plant is to export 1,500 ‘Belarus’ tractors — worth $11mln. Belarusian buses have also been trialled on Ashgabat streets, with Belarus-made agricultural vehicles next in line for supply.
Belarusian manufacturers have made some new proposals, offering warranty and service maintenance of Belarus-made machinery operated in Turkmenistan. “Our producers are ready to supply components, so that machinery continues to function well, being serviced without problems,” the Minister said.
Over the past five years, Belarusian-Turkmen turnover has doubled, reaching $91mln. in 2010. Remote Turkmenistan is among the top seven-eight CIS partners for Belarus in terms of trade. Of course, it cannot yet compare to our trade with Ukraine or Russia but, considering the present lack of currency, the fact that our trade balance is positive is inspiring (last year, it rose by another $84mln.). There is every reason to believe that the figure will grow after the President’s visit.
No doubt, Turkmenistan is a profitable economic partner for Belarus. It is viewed in the same way by Russia, China, the EU and the USA, whose politicians and businessmen are common guests at Ashgabat hotels. After taking power, Mr. Berdimuhamedov announced the start of the Epoch of Great Revival — using the natural resources so rich in Kara-Kum and Kopet Dag. This is yielding results already: the Academy of Sciences has resumed its work, foreign languages are lectured, opera and ballet are permitted, pensions are paid and the Internet is now available. However, access to the global net is, as yet, underdeveloped. The hotel where journalists were staying lacked Internet access, necessitating a trip to the five-star presidential hotel. Moreover, it was impossible to phone to Minsk by mobile phone, due to roaming problems. Overcoming these difficulties, reporters nevertheless managed to acquaint Belarusians with our two states’ collaboration…
In the sphere of diplomacy, the first foreign state visit of a newly elected head of state is always important, since it hints at foreign political priorities. After the presidential elections, Mr. Lukashenko went to Turkmenistan, explaining his move on meeting Mr. Berdimuhamedov, “I wish to thank you for your firmness and brotherly solidarity. Before the presidential elections, you said — as if joking — that Turkmenistan is a friendly country and the first official visit must be paid here as a result. We’ve been coming here, to your friendly state, and I’m thankful to you for the specifics of our relations. The matters which we discussed are now being promoted in all directions. We have a range of new proposals. I was impressed on hearing about your plans from our Foreign Minister. You do not merely plan diversification, but are starting development of the private sector of the economy. We’re ready to join you in this work.”
Turkmenistan could soon be the new player on the global potash fertiliser market, mining 1-1.5 million tonnes, with most exported. However, Mr. Lukashenko believes that Turkmenistan and Belarus won’t compete directly for custom, saying, “We’ll become reliable partners on the international market.”
The General Director of the Belarusian Potassium Company explains this move:
A facility is being built in Turkmenistan, due to start operations in 2-3 years. We’re interested to see it exporting potash fertilisers through our company. Meanwhile, Turkmenchemistry is keen to enjoy joint operation on foreign markets.
Belarus is already a global market leader. How would co-operation with Turkmenistan benefit us?
The Belarusian Potassium Company exports over 11.5mln. tonnes of potash fertilisers, occupying 33 percent of the global market. After developing two deposits, Turkmenistan will produce 2.8mln. tonnes of potash fertilisers, with domestic consumption reaching about 200,000 tonnes.
Will this new seller take a share of our market, while offering lower prices?
Our company is working at 100 percent production capacity and still doesn’t fully satisfy the demand, which is continually growing.
Turkmenistan’s immense mineral wealth is currently underdeveloped: not only potassium, but gas and oil. These are attracting huge attention from around the world. Several years ago, the country boasted the only route for its gas to the global market: via Russia. These days, a gas pipeline to China is operational, with supplies to Iran exceeding those of Turkmen fuel bought by Gazprom. We can suppose that the EU urgently needs Turkmen gas for the Nabucco pipeline (an alternative to Gazprom’s pipe) since the European Parliament seems ready to adopt any resolution to allow fuel to be pumped to the West.
Ashgabat has wisely used its resources to strengthen its independence, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Mr. Lukashenko congratulated Mr. Berdimuhamedov in advance, saying, “We’re now seeing the fruits of Turkmenistan’s independence. Your major achievement is that you’ve managed to ensure — not in words, but in action — the fundamentals for Turkmenistan’s independence. You exist irrespective of the whims of our modern world… close and far. This is your greatest merit.”
Unlike many other states, Turkmenistan has managed to avoid becoming a subject of international relations. The UN has acknowledged its neutral status — like Switzerland. It now artfully balances between the interests of the greatest states.
One local tradition in Turkmenistan is interesting: all foreign ambassadors accredited in Ashgabat join meetings between the Turkmen President and foreign heads of states. It’s a custom I’ve now twice observed, with ambassadors from the USA, the EU states, Russia, China and other countries joining talks. Last year, Mr. Berdimuhamedov met the heads of France, China, Germany and Turkey, while paying an official visit to Minsk.
At the end of his official visit to Turkmenistan, Mr. Lukashenko visited the local oil refinery (Belarus boats huge experience of oil refineries’ modernisation) and the Caspian resort of Avaza. On the eve of his visit, the President invited Belarusians to participate in a grand construction project, to be located near the Port of Turkmenbashi. It seems that the country now plans to rival Turkey and Egypt, with $1.5bln. already invested into Avaza. New hotels have been built, in addition to a man-made river and a 100m fountain. Turkmenistan now needs new sporting sites.
Mr. Berdimuhamedov, who previously occupied the post of Minister for Health, is keen to see the nation improve its fitness. A much stricter ban (in comparison to Europe) exists regarding smoking, which is prohibited on the street. Meanwhile, the Turkmen President is seen all over Ashgabat in photos depicting him riding a bicycle. Being aware of Belarusian achievements in this field, Turkmenistan has asked us to build a cycle track and an ice rink, among other facilities.
Turkmenistan currently profits from exporting its gas. Accordingly, it is involved in some major construction projects. Two years have passed since the last visit by Mr. Lukashenko to Ashgabat and changes are evident. In the centre of the city (journalists were not taken farther), more white marble has appeared. Local fountains are impressive, while streets are even cleaner. On walking by the Turkmenistan Hotel in the morning, there is an impression that there are more street cleaners than passers-by. In fact, few people promenade, with traffic lights aimed at car drivers rather than pedestrians.…
Mr. Lukashenko’s visit was accompanied by a certain sadness, since the Turkmen President expressed his condolences regarding the recent terrorist act on the Minsk metro. There is no excuse for terrorism and, as proven by events at Oktyabrskaya metro station, terrorists have no limits. The bomb killed and wounded a hundred innocent people, with one Turkmen student among them. Mr. Lukashenko informed his colleague of the boy’s condition and medical treatment, passing on information as to when his parents are arriving. This episode well demonstrates that Turkmen-Belarusian relations stretch beyond business; public diplomacy is evidently growing.
Our two countries recently signed an agreement to allocate land lots for the construction of embassies in Minsk and Ashgabat, aiding traditional diplomacy. Meanwhile, thousands of Turkmen students at Belarusian universities act as unofficial guides of our mutual interests. They commonly meet on the streets of Minsk and are a source of future joint business, since these Turkmens are studying with their future business partners. They are also doing internships at companies whose products they’ll be working with in their homeland in the future. For example, students from the Turkmen Agricultural University do internships with Minsk Tractor Plant. Mr. Lukashenko notes, “The first young specialists who received their education at Belarusian universities will soon return to their native land. I hope that they’ll bring a warm attitude towards Belarus, alongside their knowledge.”
Direct flights now operate between Minsk and Ashgabat, overseen by Turkmen Airlines and Belavia. “Next steps are now in focus,” notes the Head of the Aviation Department at Belarus’ Transport and Communications Ministry, Vadim Melnik. During his Ashgabat talks, the Turkmen President approved a code-sharing agreement between our national carriers. “As a result, Turkmen Airlines will offer places and tickets for Belarusian passengers travelling to South-East Asia. In turn, we’ll offer transit of Turkmen passengers to Europe,” explains Mr. Melnik. Ties between Belarus and Turkmenistan are sure to progress well as a result, with true partnership being outlined in Eurasia. Distance is no longer an obstacle.
By Igor Kolchenko