Turkmenistan joins the Turkic club, but at what price?

Turkmenistan will finally become a member of the Organisation of Turkic States. A much-desired prize by Ankara that has lobbied in the past for Ashgabat to join its project. However, questions remain about the trade-offs that have led to this decision.

The Uzbek city of Samarkand will witness a triumph for Turkish foreign policy in Central Asia. At a summit of the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS) due to take place there in November, it is expected that Turkmenistan will formally become a member of the club. This was announced by the Turkish Foreign Minister as reported by the Anadolu news agency. After years of negotiations, Ankara managed for Ashgabat to abandon its neutral stance and join the OTS.

Since its inception in 2009 as the Turkic Council, the organisation has aimed, at Turkey’s initiative, to unite the Turkic nations under one banner. Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were the initial members. They were joined in 2019 by Uzbekistan, which looked to the council as part of its proactive foreign policy under president Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Turkmenistan meanwhile kept its distance from the organisation until recently.

Aliyev, Berdymukhamedov, Erdogan and Orban during the OTS summit in 2021

Using its neutrality status, Ashgabat stays away from any commitments to join any new multilateral organisations. This is despite Turkish advances. Rumours started emerging in 2018 of the possibly of Turkmenistan joining the Turkic Council. Then in 2020 the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, openly asked Turkmenistan to join: “I would like to stress once again that we wish Turkmenistan is included in the Turkic Council as soon as possible,” he declared.

The following year, Turkmenistan’s future involvement started to become apparent. In November 2021, the leaders of the countries making up the Turkic Council met in Istanbul. Among them was the Turkmen president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. At the event, the Turkic Council was rebranded as the Organisation of Turkic States. More importantly for Central Asia, it was announced that Turkmenistan would become an observer state, a position also enjoyed by Hungary.

In 2022, Berdymukhamedov, by then former president, became a member of the Council of Elders of the OTS. This movement can be seen as a tactic to lure Berdymukhamedov Senior towards the organisation by playing on his ego. After all, the announcement came just a month after he had stepped down from the presidency. Despite his new symbolic title, he did not attend the meeting of the Council of Elders that took place this August in Kyrgyzstan.

Why join the OTS?

It is unclear what has pushed Turkmenistan to finally join the organisation. The situation in Eurasia has been altered significantly by the war in Ukraine. It is therefore logical to assume this has been a key factor in Ashgabat’s decision. By joining the Organisation of Turkic States, Turkmenistan would diversify its foreign policy, linking with Azerbaijan and Turkey, and not relying only on Russia.

However, there are no significant tangible benefits that the OTS can bring to Turkmenistan in its current state. It is not a defined commercial block nor a military alliance. Such interactions are maintained among its members on a bilateral level. For instance, Turkmenistan is already increasing its ties with Uzbekistan and Turkey supplies much of its modern weaponry. Similarly, the improvement of relations with Azerbaijan and the joint development of the Dostluk/Dostlug Caspian gas field have taken place outside the OTS.

What the OTS does provide is a symbolic unity around a shared ‘Turkicness’, with a strong cultural component spearheaded by Turkey. This does represent significant change to Turkmenistan’s neutrality and isolationism. But assuming this or any other foreign policy reason is what drove the Turkmen authorities to join the organisation would mean that benefitting the country and its stance in the world is what drives such decisions in Turkmenistan. Unfortunately that is not the case.

The main objective of the current and former presidents is to perpetuate themselves, and the elites that surround them, in power. It would seem that the Turkmen regime has managed to extract concessions from Ankara as a price to pay for Ashgabat joining the OTS.

Likely Turkish concessions

Back in 2021, amid a protests of Turkmen migrants in Turkey against their own government, sources told RFE/RL’s Turkmen service that the Turkmen authorities were asking their Turkish counterparts to supress them in exchange for joining the organisation. The protests were dismantled and Turkmen activists, according to them, did have to face more pressure from the Turkish authorities. A few months later, Turkmenistan officially joined the OTS as an observer state.

Last month, the Turkmen government asked its Turkish counterpart to introduce visas for its own citizens wishing to visit Turkey. The purpose of the restriction was effectively to prevent Turkmens leaving their country for Turkey. Ankara accepted Ashgabat’s demands, despite the Turkish vice president speaking categorically against such measure in July. Days later, the Turkish Foreign Minister stated Turkmenistan would be joining the OTS and Turkmenistan Airlines announced it was resuming flights with Turkey.

While it is not possible to duly verify there has been agreement between the Turkmen and Turkish authorities in regard to the price to be paid for Turkmenistan’s membership of the OTS, the timings of the announcements and the aforementioned information recorded by RFE/RL point towards that direction.

Repressing Turkmen dissidents in Turkish soil is not a task the Erdogan administration has any problem with. Under his presidency, the country has become increasingly authoritarian. The introduction of visa requirements for Turkmen citizens, for all the talk of Turkic brotherhood, is a price Turkey is willing to pay for the inclusion of the last remaining Turkic nation that sat outside the OTS.

The Turkish president can now boast that, with the inclusion of Turkmenistan, the Organisation of Turkic States now encompasses all Turkic states. The Turkmen regime meanwhile must be satisfied with the outcome. They have managed to take advantage of Erdogan’s desire to add them to the OTS and have probably extracted concessions that serve their own agenda.

As is normally the case in Turkmenistan, a gain for the regime means a loss for its citizens. They will be part of a wider Turkic club, but they are now all but prevented from traveling to Turkey, where many of their countrymen emigrate looking for a better life. A tragic irony for an already unfortunate nation.

[Update: Contrary to what was expected, Turkmenistan did not end up joining the OTS as a full member at the Samarkand summit]

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