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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE GREAT GAME: Turkmen Hide In Black Sands ... And Wait




Turkmenbashi has had his latest bash to celebrate seven years of independence. As usual, it was a celebration of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov himself. Hours of parades and flag-waving in Ashgabat, with announcers reciting eulogies to Turkmenbashi, Head of the Turkmens, as he likes to be called, over deafening loudspeakers.


Last time I came here I was enraged by Turkmenbashi's cult of personality. This time I found myself laughing. The intelligentsia in Ashgabat is telling some rude jokes about him, even though the jokes could theoretically earn them a prison sentence.


One joke is a comment on the massive bronze statue of a bull that stands on top of the new museum in the middle of Niyazov's new city center. The bull has his rump pointing to the State University, some 500 meters across the gardens, and the view from behind looks fairly obscene. Groups of students enjoy standing between the statue and the university and remarking in loud voices: "So that's what Turkmenbashi thinks of education, showing his backside to the university."


It is tempting to think that Niyazov is a bumbling fool. And certainly some of his policies look stupid. For 1 1/2 years, his country, which sits on vast reserves of natural gas, has been exporting only a dribble of gas because of an argument with Russia.


There is no doubt that Russia, or more precisely Gazprom, is being unfair. But it is also pretty obvious that Turkmenistan should swallow its pride and do a deal, any deal, just to get the gas flowing and something coming into the state's bare coffers.


There is an element at play here that is pure Turkmen. It is a centuries-old tactic, born out of the Turkmen's past life as nomadic tribal warriors. They were some of the fiercest resisters of Russian expansion, and the Russian general who finally defeated them, General Kaufmann, is said to have called them the most formidable light cavalry in the world.


When dealt a blow they would withdraw into the Karakum, or Black Sand desert where no one could follow them. Their horses, the famous Akhal Tekke, could cover 160 kilometers a day on little water. They would pitch their tents and take time out.


You can see the Turkmen government using the same tactics in their arguments with their neighbors. With the Russians they have just cut the flow of gas and acted aloof in any negotiations since. In their argument with Azerbaijan over the division of the Caspian Sea they withdrew very pointedly. At stake is the ownership of offshore oil fields and the fate of a trans-Caspian pipeline.


The argument has been dragging on for years. It is obvious that a quick resolution would be in the interests most of all of Turkmenistan, cash-strapped and cutoff as it is, but it can play the waiting game better than anyone. It looks like the Turkmens do not care, but I think their tactics are based on instinct.


The Azeris and Russians may drive a harder bargain, but the Turkmens will be tied down by no one. They want to be as free as their forebears were. And however bad the economic situation is - and it is very bad - they will survive like their ancestors did, in the desert, on very little. It may seem like weakness, or wackiness on the part of Niyazov, but perhaps it is a strength.