Belarus - Turkmenistan: the end of a success story?
On 30-31 March, talks were held in Ashgabat between Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenka.
The launch of the $1bn Garlyk potash fertiliser plant which Belarus built in the country differentiated this encounter from other such annual meetings between Turkmenistan and Belaurs.
The economic cooperation and training of Turkmen students in Belarus remains the only thing keeping the two countries' relationship afloat. Will it survive the end of a huge construction project and the continuing fall in trade turnover?
‘Belarus's most strategically important partner’
In Ashgabat, Alexander Lukashenka has traditionally tried to sell Belarus as a ‘reliable foothold… in the centre of Europe'. However, his Turkmen host has shown little enthusiasm for this generous offer.
During the visit, Belarus and Turkmenistan signed a number of non-essential documents, mostly on cooperation in education. The leaders of the two countries also inaugurated a complex of Belarus embassy buildings in Ashgabat.
According to Alieh Tabaniukhou, Belarus’s ambassador in Ashgabat, his country sees Turkmenistan as the ‘most promising market… and Belarus's most strategically important partner in Central Asia’. This is quite an intriguing statement, as Turkmenistan does not even belong to the Eurasian Economic Union, unlike two other Central Asian nations, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Relations ‘on hold’ during the Niyazov era
Belarus and Turkmenistan, despite having been 'sister republics' in the former USSR, established their diplomatic relations only in 1993, more than a year after the break-up of the Soviet empire.
During the first fifteen years of the two countries’ independence, their relationship remained limited and occasionally strained. Lukashenka visited Turkmenistan only once, in 2002. Turkmenistan’s president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov failed to show up in Minsk on a bilateral visit.
It took Belarus eleven years to open its embassy in Ashgabat. Belarusian citizen Ilya Veljanov, an ethnic Turkmen with virtually no ties to his country of origin, served as Turkmenistan’s ambassador to Minsk in 1994 – 2007.
Only after Niyazov’s death in 2006 did bilateral relations begin to improve more steadily. Since 2009, Lukashenka and his new Turkmen counterpart Berdimuhamedov have established an extremely regular pattern of meetings. The Belarusian leader comes to Ashgabat on every odd year and hosts his Turkmen counterpart in Minsk on every even year.
Trade and training: two pillars of relations
Relations with Turkmenistan are of little value to Belarus when it comes to political, security, or cultural issues. Thus, Minsk has focused heavily on trade and economic cooperation with the fast-developing Central Asian nation, which also boasts the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves.
During the last seven years of Niyazov’s rule, the bilateral turnover fluctuated between $3.6m and $46m per year. A steady growth began in 2009, the year of Lukashenka’s first post-Niyazov visit to Ashgabat, before attaining the peak in 2013, $320m.
Belarusian officials tend to blame the abrupt fall of Belarusian exports in 2014-2016 on Turkmenistan’s decreased gas revenues. However, during these crisis years the Turkmen economy remained among the fastest-growing in the world, with 10.3% growth in 2014 and 6.5% in 2015.
Meanwhile, the sales of Belarusian trucks to Turkmenistan dropped from 1031 units in 2013 to 203 units in 2015, tractor sales fell from 500 to 437 units, and special purpose motor vehicles from 589 to 33 units. The loss of export revenue for these three positions only amounted to $126m.
Sales of ethyl alcohol, road and agricultural machines, trailers, and some construction equipment and materials also suffered greatly. Belarusian exports continued to fall in early 2017.
Imports of Turkmen goods to Belarus remain quasi-nonexistent. They largely comprise cotton and cotton products, petroleum products, and preserved tomatoes.
Another major source of profit from cooperation with Turkmenistan is the education of its youth in Belarusian universities. Currently, 7,911 Turkmen students (a 5% decrease from the peak academic year of 2014/2015) are pursuing higher education in Belarus – over half of the total number of foreign students in the country.
Belarusian universities and technical colleges often turn a blind eye to the inadequate preparedness of many Turkmen students for higher education, caused by the desolate state of the country's schools. During each exchange of highest-level visits, the universities sign several new partnership agreements.
Major construction project finally over
Lukashenka and Berdimuhamedov attended the launch of the Garlyk potash fertiliser plant built by the Belarusian consortium Belhorkhimpram as the prime contractor.
Some Belarusian pundits had criticised the government’s decision to build a potash fertiliser plant in Turkmenistan, arguing that Belarus was creating a competitor for itself in fertiliser sales. On the top of everything, Turkmenistan is situated much closer to India and China, Belarus’s main markets for potash.
However, Berdimuhamedov confirmed during his talks with Lukashenka that Turkmenistan was ready to become a partner to Belarus in supplying its new commodity. Besides, if Belarus would have refused to build the plant, another contractor would have happily snapped up this lucrative construction project.
The plant, which is worth over $1bn, and is capable of producing up to 1.4m tonnes of fertiliser per year, has become the flagship project for Belarusian-Turkmen cooperation.
The two leaders laid the plant’s foundation stone on 19 June 2009, during Lukashenka’s first post-Niyazov visit to Turkmenistan. The parties signed the formal contract in early 2010. However, actual construction work started only in late 2011.
‘Despite all the drawbacks, I think we have not let down the Turkmen people,’ Lukashenka said during the opening ceremony, without elaborating on their nature. Indeed, the plant was launched two years later than the original deadline.
In September 2016, disagreements between the contracting parties went public. Belarus said that Turkmenistan had failed to honour its financial obligations under the project. Turkmenistan accused Belarus of seriously lagging behind the construction schedule and failing to supply the remaining equipment.
Berdimuhamedov told Lukashenka about his plans to build two more potash plants in the country. However, Turkmenistan’s reluctance to immediately attribute these contracts to Belarus may be a sign that the Central Asian nation was not fully satisfied with Belarus’s performance in the Garlyk project.
In 2014, Mikhail Miasnikovich, the then prime minister of Belarus, set an objective of achieving a $1bn turnover with Turkmenistan within the next three to five years. The latest developments in bilateral trade make this figure look utterly unrealistic.
The Belarusian government needs to obtain new large-scale construction contracts and reverse the negative trend in the sale of machinery to Turkmenistan. Otherwise, the turnover risks declining to negligible figures, which is the case for Belarus's trade turnover with Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan. The solidarity of the two autocratic presidents-for-life will not be of any help there.