ASHGABAT -- The signing of a long-pending security agreement between Turkmenistan and Russia is the latest evidence of Moscow's growing leverage over the Central Asian country, say observers.
On October 24, after more than 17 years, Turkmenistan's parliament ratified a security co-operation agreement with the Russian Federation.
The Russian State Duma took the same step three days earlier, on October 21, after Russian President Vladimir Putin shepherded the long-shelved document to ratification.
The agreement, which was signed in Moscow in April 2003 by Putin and then-Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, allegedly aims to counter terrorism, organised crime, illegal drug trafficking, money laundering and illegal migration, while also guaranteeing transportation security and co-operation on environmental protection.
The agreement stipulates that the parties will co-operate through intelligence agencies, thwart the activity of terrorist and other organisations and prevent the planning and financing of terrorist acts.
The pact commits the countries not to grant asylum to identified terrorists, to exchange intelligence about their plans, co-operate to provide legal assistance, and extradite individuals who have committed or are planning terrorist acts in either country that is party to the agreement.
Analysts inside and outside of Turkmenistan were baffled by the timing and the circumstances that accelerated adoption of the document in both countries' parliaments.
"Two things are surprising: that it took so long to give legal force to the document, and what caused the ratification process to speed up," said Dovlet Muradov, an Ashgabat-based political analyst who requested to use a different last name.
"Without a doubt, the document is important, but if that's the case, this raises a many questions. Why did it remain unratified for so long, and what prompted the parties, particularly Turkmenistan, to adopt it right now, 17 years later?" Muradov asked.
The primary reason for ratification was Turkmenistan's serious financial and economic problems, not any worsening of the overall regional security situation, he said.
"The issues related to terrorism and provision of security are right where they were in 2003, while some aspects of them have even stabilised," Muradov said.
Moscow seizes on the moment
The global pandemic and resulting economic downturn have knocked the Turkmen economy to a level below that of 2003, said Muradov.
In the early 2000s Turkmenistan flourished: it was exporting more than 50 billion cubic metres of gas to Ukraine, Russia and Iran per year, and in exchange was receiving hard currency and all the goods, food and equipment it needed, he said.
Considerable hard-currency earnings from the sale of hydrocarbons, the production of petrochemicals and the textile industry enabled Niyazov -- and from 2007 on, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov -- to execute dozens of mega-projects and at the same time preserve social stability within the country.
However, by 2020 the situation changed.
Global oil and gas prices plummeted, and the national currency, the manat, depreciated. At the same time, Moscow slashed imports to a minimum and Iran stopped buying Turkmenistan's gas.
In addition, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the borders were shut, unemployment surged and disruptions cropped up in the supply of basic food products to the population. Other social problems worsened.
"Moscow seized on this difficult time for Ashgabat and compelled it to ratify this document that had been shelved," Muradov said.
Berdymukhamedov "is counting on millions of dollars in aid from Putin", said Alexander Sitnikov, a columnist for the Russian publication Svobodnaya Pressa, noting the downturn of the Turkmen economy.
Sitnikov's hypothesis, published in Svobodnaya Pressa on November 1, is not baseless as the country's financial situation is grave.
The deteriorating exchange rate for the manat shows the acute lack of confidence nationwide. The official rate has been 3.5 TMT per $1 since 2015. However, since 2017, the black market rate that almost everybody uses has fallen from 7 to 8 TMT per $1 to almost 25 TMT per $1, according to Stanradar.com.
The government has been forced to tighten its belt too.
Parliament October 24 approved the 2021 government budget, which calls for 22% less spending than did the 2017 budget, noted Stanradar.com
"Ashgabat gravitates to Moscow when it is experiencing financial hardship, but during the fat years it shies away from contact at both the highest level and the ministerial level," Sitnikov said.
"If it weren't for these economic and financial problems, Turkmenistan would have dragged out the ratification of the security co-operation agreement with Russia for another 17 years, or maybe even longer," said Muradov, the political analyst.
According to Muradov, thanks to its permanently neutral status, Turkmenistan since 1995 has remained independent from regional entities such as the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.
Such a position has come into play in Turkmenistan's complicated relationship with Russia, which observers say is trying to keep Turkmenistan in its geopolitical grasp.
Moscow is essentially tethering Turkmenistan to it with bilateral agreements and accords, including the most recent one, said Muradov.
"I'm not sure that after the ratification there will be any concrete actions by the countries against terrorists, drug trafficking or organised crime, because in Turkmenistan there are no real reasons for such actions," he said.
"But this agreement, like documents that were previously ratified, will be like threads that entangle Turkmenistan and keep it entwined with Russia," Muradov added.