Situated between Central Asia and Iran, Turkmenistan has a noteworthy strategic position. In other words, Turkmenistan is Iran’s gateway to Central Asia as well as a portal for Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan into the Caspian Sea. In this sense, Turkmenistan is at the centre of trade routes both in north-south and east-west direction. Conscious of the strategic position that the country possesses, the government is emphasising on developing trade and transportation routes characterised as the “New Silk Road”. In this regard, the declaration of the year 2018 as “Turkmenistan, the Heart of the Great Silk Road” by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is of utmost importance. Accordingly, the new Silk Road policy of Ashgabat needs scrutinising. Particularly the railway projects of the Turkmen administration are essential for the development of international trade.
To begin with, it is worth noting that the Turkmen foreign policy draws up a framework for the economic development of the country. In fact, being a neighbour to an unstable country like Afghanistan and sharing borders on land and at sea with Iran —which has tense relations with the United States since 1979 — has entailed Ashgabat to abstain from geopolitical contention. Taking into consideration such realities the government declared “permanent neutrality” on 12th December 1995 and was widely respected by the international community. With such stature, it was possible to focus on the prosperity of the country without being engaged in geopolitical and military encounters in the region. Within this scope, Ashgabat is developing cooperation with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO), as well as its neighbours within the Caspian Sea and the Turkic World, particularly with Turkey.
When regional and global geopolitical competition is considered, Turkmenistan is located at crossroads where the sphere of influences of Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Ankara intersect one other. Moreover, none of these powerhouses wants Ashgabat to be under the influence of a country. Hence, regional and even global forces seem satisfied with the “permanent neutrality” legem of Turkmenistan. With the advantage provided by the impartial foreign policy, the Turkmen administration is focused on economic growth. In this context, it is possible to define Turkmen foreign policy as economy-indexed expedient.
As noted, Turkmenistan is a gateway between the Middle-East and Central Asia. In this connection, Sarakhs railway connection holds a key importance. The pass inaugurated in 1997 has become a valuable link in connecting Mediterranean and Pacific ports to one another. With this link, Iran is able to connect with Central Asia and China while the landlocked states in Central Asia network with the Persian Gulf through Iran and Europe via Turkey. Undoubtedly, the execution of such strategic project lies in the visionary understanding of the Turkmen administration.
The completion of the “China-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran Railway” in 2014 and its induction by the President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev has accelerated trade in the east-west direction. The line which carries 12 million tons of cargo per year is also regarded as a part of the North-South Transport Corridor due to its link with Iranian railway network running in a north-south direction. Therefore, this route is vital for Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in accessing international waters. Likewise, it connects Iran with Central Asia, Russia and more importantly Europe. For instance; on 27th December 2017, news agencies reported that a large fruit shipment departed from Pakistan and headed to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan through Iran. This event was considered as the beginning of a new transit corridor to transport food products from Southeast Asia to countries like Russia.
It is critical to conceive that the “China-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran Railway” is part of the “Road-Belt Initiative” announced by Beijing in 2013. In this sense, Turkmenistan constitutes the southern route of this project. Therefore, Beijing postulates Turkmenistan as a strategic partner. Besides, compared to the China-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran line, the Chinese-Kazakh-Turkmen-Iranian line has a more affordable price for the transportation of goods. The reason for this is that the railway passes through two countries rather than three. Thereby, those who transport goods from Iran to China or vice versa tend to prefer this route. In sum, Turkmenistan plays a key role in China’s “New Silk Road” project.
The adjacency of Turkmenistan with Afghanistan requires Ashgabat become considered with the security of Kabul. In this regard, Ashgabat which supports the economic development of Afghanistan also conduces to its stability. Within this framework, railway lines broadened between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan can be evaluated as Ashgabat’s New Silk Road policy. Traditionally, during the Soviet period, the city of Serhetabat in Turkmenistan and Torghundi in Afghanistan were connected by rail. With the initiative of the Turkmen administration the line was reopened for use in 2007 and by the end of 2017 plans to extend the line from Torghundi to Herat commenced. With the completion of the 100km Torghundi-Herat railway, Herat, the principal city in North-Western Afghanistan will be connected to Central Asian rail lines and have access to the Caspian Sea via Turkmenistan. The second rail line connects the city of Aqina in Faryab province of Afghanistan with the city of Kerki (Atamyrat) via Imamnazar of Turkmenistan. The line which was inaugurated in 2016 will become a branch of the Northern Railway Line — which passes through Andkhoy — once the Herat – Mazar-i Sharif line is completed. These projects are concrete examples of Ashgabat’s resolve on regional stability.
As a result, it could be said that Turkmenistan has utilised its strategic position subtlety for economic development. With the visionary policies of President Berdimuhamedov, Turkmenistan is being transformed into a hub for regional trade and transportation. When Ashgabat’s New Silk Road policy is assessed, it clearly confers with centuries-old Turkoman history. As a matter of fact, the cities of Nisa, Konye-Urgench and Merv which are located within Turkmenistan had been centres for international trade in ancient times. In this respect, we can say that the project “Turkmenistan; the Heart of the Great Silk Road” which the Turkmen administration purloined on the historical and future basis, will further advance the international reputation of Ashgabat.