Turkmenistan And The Neutrality Trap
The Turkmen government has been proudly proclaiming its UN-recognized status as a neutral country for more than 20 years now. Ashgabat's policy of "positive neutrality" is, since September 2016, even part of the country's constitution.
But the policy is not always positive for Turkmenistan, and the current gas spat with neighbor Iran might be a case in point.
Turkmenistan has either greatly reduced or suspended entirely -- depending on which country you believe -- supplies of gas to Iran.
Each side has its own version of the problem. I'll mention their claims later; that is not so much the issue in this article.
The audience they are trying to reach to tell their respective sides of the story, and in Turkmenistan's case those being kept in the dark, is the focus of this work.
First, some necessary background.
Turkmenistan's first post-independence president, Saparmurat Niyazov, was the architect of the policy of neutrality in the early 1990s. The policy was never articulated very clearly, and to this day it remains vague; but essentially it meant Turkmenistan would not take sides in anyone else's conflicts; nor would it join any alliances, excepting multinational economic organizations, but would act as a mediator or at least offer its territory as a neutral venue for feuding parties to meet and try to resolve their problems.
A benefit of this policy, in theory, was that by courting good ties with all, neutrality would be a shield for the country, since no outside party would have any reason to be upset or angry with Turkmenistan.
That's what the Turkmen government has told its people for more than 20 years.
Now to the current Turkmen-Iran dispute.
Starting in the last days of December, Iranian news agencies including Mehr, IRNA, ISNA, Fars, Shana, and Press TV, cited various government officials and representatives of the National Iranian Gas Company (NIGC) explaining the problems with Turkmenistan.
The general picture these officials and the media painted was that Turkmenistan was demanding payment for gas supplies in 2007-08, when Ashgabat used a freezing winter in northern Iran to demand nine times the previous price for gas. In any case, the price Turkmenistan was now demanding was incorrect and inflated.
On New Year's Eve, Iranian news agencies reported an 11th-hour deal was reached and there would be no cutoff, a new five-year agreement had been reached, and the issue of the debt would be discussed and resolved in the coming months.
Hours later, Iranian media reported Turkmenistan had "suddenly" suspended gas supplies to Iran.
Iran's Tasnim news agency interviewed NIGC spokesman Majod Bourjarzadeh, who said Turkmenistan had "reneged on the promise" and cut off gas supplies and that Turkmen officials "had gone on New Year' holidays" and could not be reached.
The new Iranian media narrative has followed Bourjarzadeh's lead, and reports now have officials calling Turkmenistan an "unreliable partner" and generally blaming Ashgabat for the entire situation.
Turkmenistan did not respond until January 3, when the Foreign Ministry released a statement on its website calling reports in Iranian media "misleading" and saying the NIGC had "not made sufficient effort since 2013 to pay off its debt."
The ministry also claimed that during 2016 "the Iranian side was officially repeatedly informed of the adverse situation...and possible cuts in Turkmen natural gas supplies." The Turkmen statement says Ashgabat was forced to "limit" supplies, not halt them. There is no mention of the amount of Iran's debt.
The NIGC's response that same day, widely cited by Iranian media, said Turkmenistan had "time and again" violated the terms of gas agreement but had still been "compensated" by Iran. The NIGC also vowed to take the matter to international arbitration.
Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry responded once more on January 4, surprising many by revealing, at least according to the ministry, that Iran signed a "take or pay" contract for gas, that "the NIGC hasn't taken large volumes of the Turkmen gas for several years," and "at the same time, the company didn't pay any financial compensation to Turkmenistan."
So Turkmenistan is essentially demanding payment for gas Iran never received but said it would buy.
Tehran's version of the dispute with Turkmenistan is being disseminated by Iranian state media to the public.
But the government in "neutral" Turkmenistan can't tell its people because such a narrative runs contrary to the philosophy of positive neutrality. Turkmenistan's state media (the only media in the country) have not mentioned the problems with Iran. The statements from the Foreign Ministry, posted on the ministry's website, are unlikely to seen by Turkmenistan's citizens, who have limited opportunities to access the Internet and are unlikely to use such possibilities as exist to check their government's websites.
Turkmen authorities have been telling the country's citizens for two decades that neutrality would make everyone their friend. Having to admit publicly that there has been a rift with a neighbor and partner Turkmen media has praised since the early 1990s would be difficult to explain.
Turkmen authorities have caged themselves in. Positive neutrality might be a means to avoid making enemies, but clearly it cannot resolve problems in which Turkmenistan itself is involved.
This is not the first example either. Neutrality failed to resolve a gas dispute with Russia in 2008 and 2009, and today Russia does not purchase any gas from Turkmenistan.
Neutrality has not prevented security problems across the border in northern Afghanistan from affecting the situation in Turkmenistan, one example being the sudden and unprecedented need to build up the military and spend state funds on massive amounts of new equipment.
But neutrality does make it impossible for the government to tell the people bad news that involves Turkmenistan, and this situation with Iran is just the latest example.
Iranian media have reported that power is being rerouted to alleviate the situation in northeastern Iran. Some officials go so far as to say that Iran can totally compensate for the power being lost due to the "suspension" of Turkmen gas supplies. This episode has given new impetus to projects already under way to provide northeastern Iran with domestic sources of power, ending forever the need to buy gas from Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan has only two customers for its gas: Iran and China.
And Turkmenistan might have just lost Iran as a customer, but that can't be explained by neutrality, so the Turkmen government can't tell its people about it.
RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, and my colleague and Iranian specialist Golnaz Esfandiari contributed to this report.
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.