Back in May 2006, The Economist ran an article on Turkmenistan which said:
There is, though, much speculation about the 66-year-old Turkmenbashi’s health. He has had heart surgery, and has a team of eight top-notch German doctors constantly on call. This raises other problems, most obviously the lack of a mechanism for an orderly transfer of power, coupled with the lack of any democratic tradition in a conservative, tribal society. Pessimistic Turkmen fear that a lost generation, uneducated beyond the Ruhnama, may fall prey to Islamic radicalism—and create a nasty failed state that could destabilise an already volatile region.
Upon the death of Turkmenbashi 7 months later in December 2006, I recalled that article in this blog post, adding:
Fortunately, I think his death may have come too early for Islamic radicals to move in. Had Niyazov been around for another decade, education in the country would have been almost eliminated in all meaningful sense.
Had [Niyazov’s eradication of education] been allowed to continue, or indeed if it does continue, then the country will likely join the likes of Somalia and Afghanistan as fertile grounds in which to establish Islamic fundamentalism. But with a lot of luck, and in the hope that Russia and the US can cooperate to help get Turkmenistan back on its feet without squabbling to the point where things are left to get worse, the situation should improve.
There have been mild overtures from both Russia and the west towards enticing Turkmenistan back in from its self-imposed isolation, but events in Georgia and other issues have prevented any definitive actions regarding the gas-rich Caspian state. And with the current climate between Russia and the US, it is unlikely that there will be much cooperation between the two on anything, let alone ensuring Turkmen development is supported in a bipartisan manner. I always keep half an eye on the developments in Turkmenistan, and so I noticed this story from the BBC:
There has been heavy fighting in Turkmenistan between Islamist militants and security forces in the capital, Ashgabat, unconfirmed reports say.
Residents told news agencies that at least 20 police officers had died in gun battles on Friday night, and that police were now patrolling the area.
This report generates as many questions as it provides information, the most prominent one being where are these Islamic militants coming from? Turkmenistan borders both Iran and Afghanistan, where Islamic hotheads are not in particularly short supply. Or are they home-grown? Or a mixture of both? I read an account in one of Colin Thubron’s books where the author asked some Turkmen whether militant Islam could take hold in the country. The wisened son-of-the-desert Thubron addressed the question to said that any such threat would come from Iran and had little chance of being produced domestically. But it’s probably best not to extrapolate too much from one person speaking to a travel writer passing through the Karakum desert.
However, Russia would do well (and I’m sure they are) to find out pretty sharpish if this story is true and where the troublemakers are coming from. If it turns out to be Iran, we could see a shift in attitude between Russia and Iran. For some time the Russians have been gambling that a belligerent Iran poses more of a problem for the US than Russia, even to the point that they seem prepared to extend this assessment to a nuclear armed Iran. An Iran which can export trouble to Turkmenistan – which
also shares doesn’t share (see comments) a border with Russia – might make the Russians reconsider. They’d do well to make up their minds before Iran advances much further with its nuclear plans.