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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turks and Turkmen Rekindling Ancient Ties

APTurkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, paying his respects at Niyazov's funeral in December in Ashgabat.
ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- With a crescent moon still hanging low in the pre-dawn sky, a dozen black Mercedes sedans lined up in front of the Presidential Hotel in this hard-to-reach city.

The cars, flanked by Turkmen police vehicles, came to escort the delegation of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country appears to have gained unparalleled access to Turkmenistan's reclusive new government.

The strengthening of the Turkmen-Turkish alliance has been clear since the death of dictator Sapurmurat Niyazov in December of last year. His successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who was inaugurated last week, has dropped tantalizing hints of reform that some expect could lead to the oil and natural gas-rich country opening up to the world.

The Turks and the Turkmens are natural allies. Descended from common ancestors, they share close ethnic and linguistic ties and a common religion -- Islam.

Turkish officials were on hand in force both for Niyazov's funeral and Berdymukhammedov's inauguration. Turkey-based journalists were given visas for both events while journalists from many other countries -- including Russia, which held sway over Turkmenistan during seven decades of Soviet power -- were shut out.

Those signs appear to point to a relationship that could grow closer. If it does, it could have dramatic benefits for both countries. It could also affect how the great powers compete for a piece of Turkmenistan's tremendous energy wealth -- among them Russia, the United States and China.

"A fierce era of competition for Turkmen natural gas is beginning," says Sinan Ogan, head of the Ankara-based Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis. "There will be a competition, a struggle for interests between the West and Turkey."

Aside from ethnic and cultural ties, the Turks and Turkmens share strategic interests.

Turkmenistan is poor and isolated but sits on the second-largest natural gas reserves in the former Soviet Union behind Russia itself. Its foreign policy is founded on "permanent neutrality."

Turkmens desperately want to develop their economy while avoiding dependence on major foreign powers.

Turkey could give them that opportunity. One of the world's most dynamic emerging markets, its leaders say they want to use their good standing with the West to make Turkey an energy corridor linking Central Asia and the Caucasus to Europe. And as Turkey's European Union bid founders, the moderate Islamists in power in Ankara seem to have few hesitations looking East rather than West.

"We do feel some responsibility for them," former Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Murat Ozcelik said. "They have some problems to work out in the fields of freedoms and such, and we want to help."

Turkmenistan is widely regarded as one of the world's most repressive countries, with a single-party system, one of the worst rankings in the world in freedom of the press and regular reports of dissenters being jailed -- or worse.

Turkey, which has its own much-publicized problems with freedoms, is a liberal bastion by comparison, and could use its brotherly ties to exert pressure on the Turkmen government.

Turkmens have reflexively turned to Turks before in moments of uncertainty.

"On the day I declared our independence, I stated that Turkmenistan and Turkey are two states, and one nation," Niyazov wrote in the "Ruhnama," a book of his musings that is considered a holy text in Turkmenistan. "Our religion, culture and lineage are identical. We Turkmens are proud of this and expect the same from our Turkish brothers."

Niyazov, who called himself Turkmenbashi, or Father of all Turkmen, consciously modeled himself after the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, whose adopted last name means Father of all Turks.

Like Ataturk in Turkey, Niyazov's likeness is everywhere and graces every denomination of his country's currency. And like Ataturk, devotion to his principles is considered a prerequisite for public office.

Another factor pushing Turkmenistan into Turkey's corner could be suspicion of Russian influence, especially over natural gas export routes.

Though political ties with Turkey eventually waned during Niyazov's erratic rule -- a failed assassination attempt made him increasingly paranoid and isolated -- business connections expanded, and Turkey's presence can be felt on the streets of Ashgabat.

As Erdogan's convoy made its way to greet Berdymukhammedov, past extravagant monuments and fountains, futuristic ministries and artificial forests, it passed one of the country's largest shopping centers, which bears the name of an Islamic-leaning Turkish holding company, buildings under construction by Turkish contractors, and dozens of advertisements for Turkish clothing and electronics companies.

Young Turkmens are also looking to Turkey in increasing numbers.

According to officials at the Turkish Embassy, the city is home to around 20 Turkish schools, many considered to be among the best in the country.

"It was natural for Erdogan to be in Turkmenistan," said Ogan, the political analyst. "It is an ally of utmost importance, in terms of its rich resources."