Wind of change
[b]Mutual top-level visits paid, Belarus-turkmenistan relations experience the upswing[/b]Turkmenistan covers almost 500,000 square metres, being 2.5 times larger than Belarus, yet its population comprises just 7m. Efficient land development is a priority, with geologic explorations placing the country in a leading position worldwide in regard to oil and, especially, gas deposits. However, the Turkmen desert is rich not only in hydrocarbons. The Garlyk potassium salt deposit should make Turkmenistan an influential player on this market, assuming successful development and efficient logistics. Accordingly, Belarus plans to share its rich experience, as well its scientific and technical skills in the mining sphere. On January 11th, an agreement was signed stipulating that Belgorkhimprom JSC will build a ready-to-operate mining and processing plant in Turkmenistan. This is a pilot project for bilateral relations, with further co-operation reliant on its success. Minsk has a long list of proposals for Ashgabat, as announced during Alexander Lukashenko’s visit in June 2009. These were later confirmed and defined during a return visit by the Turkmen President to Minsk.
Turkmenistan covers almost 500,000 square metres, being 2.5 times larger than Belarus, yet its population comprises just 7m. Efficient land development is a priority, with geologic explorations placing the country in a leading position worldwide in regard to oil and, especially, gas deposits. However, the Turkmen desert is rich not only in hydrocarbons. The Garlyk potassium salt deposit should make Turkmenistan an influential player on this market, assuming successful development and efficient logistics. Accordingly, Belarus plans to share its rich experience, as well its scientific and technical skills in the mining sphere. On January 11th, an agreement was signed stipulating that Belgorkhimprom JSC will build a ready-to-operate mining and processing plant in Turkmenistan. This is a pilot project for bilateral relations, with further co-operation reliant on its success. Minsk has a long list of proposals for Ashgabat, as announced during Alexander Lukashenko’s visit in June 2009. These were later confirmed and defined during a return visit by the Turkmen President to Minsk.
“In Belarus, we are attentively following major construction in Turkmenistan,” Mr. Lukashenko told President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov during his first official visit to Minsk in late January 2010. He assured the Turkmen President, “We are ready to share our skills in modern technologies and our experience, ensuring the successful realisation of development plans in the Turkmen economy. These signed agreements and documents will strengthen our collaboration, helping us create a favourable environment for the further extension and deepening of relations between our countries.” According to the Belarusian President, the mining and processing plant is ‘a landmark in our relations, promoting bilateral co-operation in all related branches’.
Mr. Berdymukhammedov’s first official visit to Minsk was not his first trip to our country. Several years ago, he attended a CIS Summit (held at the National Library of Belarus) as Deputy Prime Minister. After a long absence of Turkmen heads at such events, it was a sign that a new stage of foreign policy had begun. In recent years, Ashgabat’s diplomatic activity has been much enhanced. Mr. Berdymukhammedov visited Italy not long ago to meet Silvio Berlusconi and was given all possible honours. Shots of their friendly hand shake became a Euronews headline. He also recently made a successful, much-talked-of visit to France. Meanwhile, the Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, is coming to Ashgabat, and the Turkmen Foreign Minister is negotiating in London… Several years ago, this situation could hardly be imagined, with Turkmenistan seemingly taking a path of self-isolation.
In Minsk, Mr. Berdymukhammedov spoke much of peace and the principles of the UN Charter, which Turkmenistan advocates within the international arena. Ashgabat loves the word ‘neutrality’, seeing itself as a Central Asian Switzerland in terms of its foreign political status and level of economic development.
In 2008, gas extraction in Turkmenistan dropped by 7bn cubic metres, falling to 70.5bn cubic metres a year, due to insufficient investment — a problem spanning many years. This has brought limited possibilities for the transportation of gas to foreign consumers. Now, objective economic necessity pushes Ashgabat to activate diplomatic channels. Meanwhile, many countries — including some western states which previously treated this Central Asian country with arrogance — are searching for ways of infiltrating Turkmen deposits of gas and other natural resources.
Turkmenistan’s old Soviet gas pipeline leads in only one direction — to the north, to Russia. Previously, Gazprom bought all of Turkmenistan’s gas; however, Ashgabat was unsatisfied by this single market situation and has been endeavouring to change it. Since independence, a gas pipeline has been launched leading to Iran, but this state is an energy market leader — so cannot be called a ‘strategic consumer’, unlike Europe. Europeans want to connect Turkmen gas deposits to the Nabucco pipe but the Chinese have been the first to break ‘the gas blockade’. China is now almost a world leader in terms of consumed energy. A new gas pipeline to China was launched a few months ago, as covered widely by news agencies.
The geographic position which could have been called unprofitable just a few years ago is now Turkmenistan’s advantage. The more Ashgabat can enter foreign markets, the more independent and influential it becomes. “I’d like to note Turkmenistan’s active promotion of its own vision of solutions to topical problems of international energy co-operation,” noted Mr. Lukashenko at the Minsk meeting. “Our approaches coincide in many ways, creating a basis for close and positive interaction - bilaterally and within the framework of international forums. In Belarus, we believe global energy relations should take into consideration the interests of all participants: exporters, importers and transiters. It’s important to respect the long-term interests of partners. Pursuing last-minute benefits undoes the previous good work of building trusting relations…”
“Turkmenistan is interested in extending co-operation with Belarus in the fuel-energy sphere,” confirmed Mr. Berdymukhammedov, adding that Belarusian-Turkmen relations are characterised by mutual respect and equal rights.
Energy is a promising branch of co-operation while traditional trade continues to steadily develop. In 2004, turnover reached $17m and, in 2009, is thought to have exceeded $70m. However, the President of Turkmenistan admits that he believes more could be achieved. Of course, bilateral economic relations boast greater potential. “With no other country are we fulfilling our agreements so quickly,” Mr. Lukashenko stressed, confirming that Minsk also hopes to radically raise turnover, as well as mutual investments.
Among the most successful projects has been a contract to deliver 1,500 Belarusian tractors. In Ashgabat, a Government session summed up the results of the visit to Minsk, with Mr. Berdymukhammedov calling his visit ‘very productive’. He notes that, in 2010, Turkmenistan is to purchase 1,500 MAZ vehicles, in addition to a large number of Belarus-made agricultural machines.
During his visit to Minsk, Mr. Berdymukhammedov looked closely at opportunities within Belarusian industry, visiting the Minsk Automobile Works, the Minsk Tractor Works and the AGAT Scientific-Production Centre. At the MAZ factory, he was shown the latest trucks and buses. The Deputy General Director for Foreign Economic Ties, Vladimir Lyusikov, explained, “These are examples of machinery currently undergoing testing in Turkmenistan.” He noted that the Turkmen market is a priority for the plant. In the past three years, 1,000 trucks have been delivered there, with buses expected to be supplied from 2011. “We are also planning to set up a major service complex in Ashgabat, able to provide spare parts for all our machinery operating in Turkmenistan, as well as to train drivers and technical personnel,” Mr. Lyusikov added. “We hope to see long-lasting and mutually beneficial co-operation with our Turkmen partners.”
At the Minsk Tractor Works, General Director Alexander Pukhovoy introduced the Turkmen President to the newest developments. Mr. Berdymukhammedov was clearly in-terested in the technical characteristics of new models and their prices. On leaving the plant, he emphasised, “This is a good factory — no other words are needed.”
During his official visit, Mr. Berdymukhammedov also visited Minsk-Arena — to attend an exhibition organised by construction manufacturers and producers of consumer goods. The President stood near a stand showcasing projects relating to bridge construction - a topical theme for Turkmenistan. Last year, a railway bridge was built over the River Amurdarya by Ukrainian specialists. Mr. Berdymukhammedov is also interested in the possibility of using Belarusian bridge builders. He was also attracted by refri-gerators and washing machines made by Atlant, as well as Keramin products.
The Turkmen President praised the venue for it cycle track, skating stadium and hockey arena. Nikolay Ladutko, the Minsk City Executive Committee’s Acting Chairman, accompanied our guest. He tells us that the President ‘was interested in the smallest details, asking who designed the building, and how much time and money was needed’. Mr. Berdymukhammedov was even interested in who produced the tiles.
The Co-Chairman of the Inter-governmental Belarusian-Turkmen Commission on Economic Coopera-tion, Viktor Burya, tells us, “It was flattering to hear such praise from the President of Turkmenistan regarding our companies’ technological skills. It’s likely that Belarusian machinery will be in demand in Turkmenistan.”
Joint work in the field of science and technology is also an important element of bilateral dialogue. Belarusian scientists have developed several directions for joint realisation. Mr. Lukashenko believes that provision for training Turkmen students could be included directly in contracts relating to the supply of Belarusian machinery. Belarusian specialised universities are ready to train 120 Turkmen students for work in the potash fertiliser industry, supplementing the hundreds of Turkmen students who already study in Minsk. They crowd flights on Turkmen Airlines each holiday season, making it difficult for others to obtain tickets. The presidents agreed that, next year, the number of Turkmen students attending Belarusian universities will rise to meet Turkmenistan’s requirements: perhaps 2,000 in total.
Ashgabat has its own view of its international partner — Belarus. Aigozel Aramedova, from the Turkmen Foreign Ministry’s International Information Department, tells us, “Belarus’ economy is multi-branch, with well-developed industry. Belarusian automobile giants MAZ and BelAZ occupy a worthy niche in the global market, as do ‘Belarus’ tractors, road-construction and communal machinery. The Belarusian economy shows social balance, with strong legislation and major potential for developing various branches, including science intensive production. With political and social-economic stability, this makes the country attractive as a reliable partner within the international arena.”
Ten documents were signed as a result of the visit — encompassing the traditional avenues of co-operation, including trade and education. Also, an intergovernmental agreement on military and military-technical co-operation was signed, conforming to international law, the Presidential Press Service informs us. Mr. Lukashenko accompanied his guest to the airport personally, showing special care and attention. In line with Belarusian diplomatic protocol, it indicated that talks were a success and demonstrated the highest regard for the foreign leader.
By Igor Kolchenko,
By Vitaly Volyanyuk