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Turkmenistan at Twenty-One: Double Holiday and Thaw with Russia

Turkmenistan marks its Independence Day on October 27. Every year, the celebrations of the country's main holiday become more and more stupendous, with the authorities eager to demonstrate the pyrotechnic and other technological advances brought to the country in the period that is officially referred to as the “Golden Age“.

Last year the government put on an impressive laser show. The nuts and bolts of the show were supplied by a Chinese company which built a huge screen consisting of 2,000 square meters of LED panels with an enormous eight-angle star in the middle to aid the celebrations (watch the video below).

Double holiday

This year, Independence Day arrived on the same day as Gurban Baýramy (aka Eid al-Adha). These two public holidays are very popular in Turkmenistan. Thus, internet users in the country were keen to exchange mutual greetings and warm wishes.  For example, akylym1990 wrote [tr] on the popular youth chat group Teswirler:

Biziñ ilde gosha baýram gosha toý! Åhli watandashlarymy ýetip gelýän baýramlary bilen gutlaýan!!!

Our nation has a double holiday, a double celebration! [I wish] all my fellow compatriots happy coming holidays!!!

Still, as noted by Ruslan T. on Chrono-Tm, an independent information service set up by Turkmen expatriates, preparations for the Independence Day are always fairly totalitarian in scope:

“…the number of ceremonial events is not limited to the aforementioned 70 [events announced by the government]. The number of festivities organized by local authorities in the provinces, NGOs, regional offices of ministries and agencies is countless. Mass participation needs to be demonstrated in all television broadcasts…Large-scale participation is staged by schoolchildren, students and employees of state-owned organizations, the number of which is limited. This crowd of people is sent from one event to another while TV crews make TV coverage in advance in order to show the entire country rejoicing during celebrations of Independence Day…”

“Thaw” in relations with Russia

This year, the Independence Day also comes at a time of the apparent “thaw” in what used to be “icy” relations between the gas-rich Caspian state and Russia.

Over the last 21 years of independence, the leadership of Turkmenistan has praised the collapse of the Soviet Union and the country's “liberation” from the alien values of communism. Due to Turkmenistan's stubborn insistence on neutrality (yes, there is a public holiday to celebrate that as well) in opposition to Russia's preference for close bilateral ties, relations between the two countries have often been rather tense. But as of 2011 relations have been said to be warming up again, mainly because Turkmenistan is interested in selling Moscow more of its gas. And Moscow is keen on reclaiming the status of Turkmenistan's key gas re-exporter.

Safe in the knowledge that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov loves titles and honours, Russian sports organizations lined up this summer to award the Turkmen president a number of medals and titles, accolades that local netizens saw as tacit political gifts from Moscow.

And, as Myles Smith writes on EurasiaNet's Sifting the Karakum blog, Berdymukhamedov returned the favour earlier this month, awarding the prestigious (in Turkmenistan) Ruhubelent state award to Dmitri Medvedev's wife Svetlana Medvedeva:

Berdymukhamedov and Putin also spoke by phone the previous week. And they spoke in July when Putin called to congratulate Berdymukhamedov on his birthday. At the time, Putin and Medvedev also sent congratulatory letters. Perhaps Medvedev’s specific reference to the grand time the two shared in Rio de Janeiro – at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June – helped land his wife the Turkmen trophy.

But beneath all the new found bonhomie, there will be much talk of who gets what, when and how, as analysts anticipate a Moscow-Ashkhabad rapprochement imminently. The relationship with Russia is hotly debated by the anonymous posters on Chrono-TM. One user, Mered suggested [ru] earlier this year that Turkmenistan needs to give up its neutrality and open up its borders to Vladimir Putin's nascent Eurasian Union:

Туркмении однозначно вступать в Евразийский Союз и открывать границы. В гордом одиночестве долго не протянем.

Turkmenistan should definitely join the Eurasian Union and open up its borders. We can’t [survive] too long in proud loneliness.

Another netizen, FE, opposes [ru] Turkmenistan's potential accession to the Putin-backed “union of states”, echoing the familiar rhetoric of ‘positive neutrality’ in world politics:

Думается России больше нужен Туркменистан, чем Туркменистану Россия, из-за геополитики. Если дружба (пишем, а продажу углеводородов имеем в виду)не с Россией, так найдутся выходы на Восток (чем тебе Китай хуже РФ, или Индия…?).

I think Russia needs Turkmenistan more than Turkmenistan needs Russia, due to geopolitics. If Russia doesn't become Turkmenistan's friend (we write “friendship” but actually mean the supply of hydrocarbons), we can find [friends] in the East (is China or India anyhow worse that [Russia]?..).

For the moment, the troublesome Turkmenistan-Russia relationship appears to be improving on all fronts. Global Voices Online reported on June 13 that the scandal surrounding a popular Russian mobile operator in Turkmenistan appears to be correcting itself somewhat. So, while Berdymukhamedov receives a congratulatory Independence Day call from Vladimir Putin (the man who wishes the Soviet Union had never collapsed), the ordinary Turkmen will be able to call one another using a reliable connection to wish each other a “happy double holiday”.

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