Energy, multimodal transport, transit corridors will boost regional integration, trade and cooperation

Excerpts of an interview that THE BLUE MOON Editor Amit Mittal had with Ambassador of Turkmenistan Parakhat H. Durdyev:

The first and foremost let me express my gratitude to “The Blue Moon” for a chance to share my views on different aspects of our cordial bilateral relations, their progress and of course history. The year 2016 has a special meaning for the people of Turkmenistan – 25th Silver Jubilee Year of Independence. At the same time let me also congratulate the Indian people and the Government of India with the 69th Independence Day. Both these occasions embody importance that respectively in 1992 and 1947 our peoples’ aspirations for freedom and statehood fructified through the recognition by the United Nations Organization (UN) as independent subjects of international relations.

Another milestone event, unprecedented in the history, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) through a resolution “recognized and extended support to the status of permanent neutrality declared by Turkmenistan.” The date was etched in history 12 December 1995 expressing the hope that the status of permanent neutrality of Turkmenistan will contribute to the strengthening of peace and security in the region. Indeed, the day when Turkmenistan had made history and strategic choice to go along the path of creation, peace and development. India in its part supported Turkmenistans aspirations for independence and lately positive and permanent Neutrality since the idea was first hatched at the dawn of Independence. In fact, last December Turkmenistan celebrated its 2oth Anniversary of Permanent Neutrality.

Since then the scenario has changed in international relations, but Turkmenistan’s choice for Neutrality to remain non-aligned, still being actively involved in resolving serious global issues diplomatically remains firmly rooted.

Turkmenistan and India form a unique neighbourhood with relations that predate history which help in creating new partnership for mutually beneficial cooperation. With Positive and Permanent Neutrality at the core of Turkmenistan’s foreign policy and India as an advocate of world peace and international cooperation together can do wonders in resolving Turkmenistan’s quest for economic diversification and India’s desire for diversification of its energy basket.

An example of agricultural diversification can be best judged from the fact that during the Soviet time, Turkmenistan was producing 70,000 tons per annum of wheat which was utilized as animal feed. Then in 1994 the change came in when wheat was cultivated for consumption as food raising the output to 1,6 million tons per annum by 2016. Now for a population of seven million people, 1.6 million tons is more than enough, so Turkmenistan started exporting wheat too. Afghanistan is one of the reliable buyers of wheat. All agriculture in Turkmenistan is on leased land by private sector. Land is leased to private farmers for a long period of time and the private sector has a significant playing field in achieving food security as envisioned in different National Developmental Programmes till 2030.

Cotton and textiles industry, including silk, another area of Turkmenistan’s advantageous position that play crucial role in the GDP as well as jobs market. The country is able to process more than 1.2 million tons of homegrown raw cotton and silk almost in total as the modern textile enterprises capable of covering the whole cycle, unprecedented prior to independence.

Gas is another major source of income but the efforts undertaken by the Honourable President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov through various mechanisms and socio-economic reforms agenda effectively fructifies in bringing down the dependence on this natural resource and targets of private share in GDP of 60% may be even achieved by 2020. Turkmenistan is the fourth major supplier of gas in the world. The Galkynysh gas field has the second-largest volume of gas in the world, after the South Pars field in the Persian Gulf. Reserves at the Galkynysh gas field are estimated at more than 28 trillion cubic metres. Turkmenistan’s national gas company “Türkmengaz” is the main body which deals with gas exploration, extraction and delivery within and outside of the country.

How will the participating nations in TAPI project benefit?

The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India or TAPI pipeline will carry 33 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas of which 14 bcm each will be distributed among India and Pakistan. The remaining 5 bcm shall go to Afghanistan. The total length of the pipeline will be 1814 kilometre of which 214 km lies within Turkmenistan. The pipeline is under construction being built by the leader of the consortium Türkmengaz using the advance methods and technology available in the market. It is worth mentioning that the Turkmen National Company has an overall experience of more 50 years in the transnational gas supply chain with the volumes exceeding current Indian gas consumption more than two times. Simultaneously, the giant Gas Field Gakynysh is being actively developed using advance technologies from Japan, Germany, China, South Korea and others will be ready for deliveries by the time the TAPI gas pipeline is brought to Fazilka in the north-west of India at the end of 2019.

TAPI is a huge, crucial project which will bring stability to the region it passes through; an economic project which will benefit all the four members and even far beyond their boundaries and with the Honourable President of Turkmenistan confirming that when introducing the TAPI Turkmenistan never pursued any hidden geopolitical agenda. Rather, Turkmenistan’s goals are transparent and driven by the ideals of integration and creation of stable and prosperous Asia through diversification of national economy and export routes. This brings us to another important aspect of global cooperation stable and predictable rules for all stakeholders in the energy security chain. Energy security is one of the major areas where Turkmenistan plays significant role which materialized in the UNGA Resolutions on the subject since my country is a recognized and reliable supplier of natural gas, oil and their derivatives and electricity.

An office of the ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) has already started operating from Ashgabat while GAIL takes care of India’s interest in the TAPI.

What is it for India in transport and transit corridors that Turkmenistan offers?

Creation of multimodal transportation and transit corridors will significantly boost regional trade and cooperation. Having successfully completed Kazakhstan Turkmenistan Iran railway project in December 2014, Turkmenistan is considering being a part of the International North- South Transit Corridor (INSTC) which was founded by Iran, Russia and India in 2000 and now has 16 member countries. INSTC is 40% cheaper than the Egyptian corridor through Suez Canal.

At the same time India is actively looking at the possibilities of joining Ashgabat Agreement which in effect created the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran-Oman transport-transit corridor in 2011.

Besides, Turkmenistan though landlocked is a very conveniently and strategically located and known to be one of the major links of erstwhile Great Silk Road. As such, nowadays my country offers air, land and even sea routes that are in any calculation will be quite competitive with highways, land, sea and air terminals for speedy cargo processing. Just look at Turkmnebashy International Airport, that should be looked at as midway technical halt and refueling for those who travel in all directions.

In this aspect again as in the case with the energy security Turkmenistan initiated and succeeded in securing the UNGA Resolutions on stable transport-transit corridors for sustainable development. As an outcome of the one of December 2015 Turkmenistan, being a landlocked country, is entrusted by the UNGA to host International Conference on Sustainable Transport on 26-27 November, 2016, at Ashgabat.

What can be added to Indian trade basket?

India can be reliable buyer of oil, gas and petrochemicals. Turkmenistan has extra capacity of sulphur, urea, and other chemicals and minerals like iodine, salts etc. It can also export cement to India due to introduction of high tech production lines in recent years. Currently, within the efforts of diversification as a major condition for economic security Turkmenistan is already exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, getting ready to produce a synthetic petrol and other byproducts from natural gas, expects commissioning of potash factory while the Turkmenbashy refinery produces base motor oils and detergents, polypropylene and polyethylene granules and many other items.

We import from India rice, sugar and jewellery, in addition to pharmaceuticals, steel products, processed food items and machinery.

The Central Asia South Asia (CASA) 1000, a future project by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, coupled with the TAPI project under the practical implementation phase is not only of economic advantage for all, but will also serve to maintain regional stability, ensuring security and prosperity.

Similarly, since 1995 Turkmenistan has been supplying electricity to Afghanistan on nominal pricing formula and accumulated amounts are normally get waived off as our contribution to the international reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts of Afghanistan. So, based on the success story of energy cooperation with Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan signed an agreement in December last for supply of electricity. This can be extended to India too.

What Agreements have been done with India?

The diplomatic relations between India and Turkmenistan exist since April 1992. In 1995 as I mentioned earlier, Turkmenistan became permanently neutral country by the clear mandate from the major international body that is United Nations Organization.

The readers will forgive me for repeating. Neutrality is a serious international mandate and mature political decision by Turkmenistan. This legally binding status prevented us from syphoning assets for military purposes and directing them for the creation rather than destruction. As an example of our adherence reference may be made to numerous appraisals from the international community, especially the UN Secretary General for our assistance in matters of diversifying delivery routes of the humanitarian aid extended to Afghanistan.

So, India among other nations extended its full support yet again when we in October 1995 at the Venezuela summit applied for the membership in the Non-Aligned Movement or NAM and subsequently for neutrality in the UNGA.

Five sessions of inter-governmental commission on trade and economic cooperation have been held since establishment of diplomatic relations. Several agreements following high dignitary visits from and to India have been signed which include politics, diplomacy, taxation, transport and transit, culture, people to people contacts, air services (1992!) following which we have regular flights, eight to twelve per week.

Needless to say, that education is important. India being a recognized centre of education extended its hand to Turkmens and today around 200 students are doing various undergraduate and postgraduate courses while at the same time providing assistance in upgrading skills within different government schemes like ICCR, ITEC etc.

The legal framework that was meticulously crafted in almost 25 years of cordial Turkmenistan-India relations in a way was a kind of vindication of our ancient interaction that existed between civilizations of Gargum Desert and Indus Valley. So our intertwined destinies continue their journey nowadays in the form of different levels and ways of contacts. Like the thriving diplomatic-political contacts, with the advent of TAPI and transportation opportunities offered by Turkmenistan, the economic cooperation received a moral boost. Culture is yet another area that in combination with Indian songs and films as a soft power created a very unique opportunity for the both the sides to interact in modern times.

What are the major forthcoming events in Turkmenistan?

On 17 September, 2017, Turkmenistan will host the Fifth Asian Indoor Martial Arts Games (AIMAG). These Games are held every five years. Forty two Asian countries will be participating in the games in addition to 17 Oceania countries.

The general strategy of the government and personally that of National Leader is on nurturing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Every single village in the country has its own sports club where physical education and sport are a must.

The government adopted policies that have led to number of smokers getting drastically reduced.

In November this year, a high level intergovernmental conference on sustainable transport will be held.

This obviously is not even a near listing of all activities conducted in Turkmenistan annually and the list can go on.

Do Turkmen nationals travel to India?

There has been a new development in the past two years; there are thousands of Turkmenistan nationals travelling to India. A couple of Turkmenistan companies have also registered in India.

The major attraction in India is magnificent Taj Mahal. But since the Kutb Minar, Turkmen Gate, Abdurahim Khan-e Khanna Tomb, Char Minar and burial ground of Kutb Shahi dynasty and other historical wonders are close to the hearts of Turkmens, these sites are becoming increasingly popular with them while on visit to India.

What about tourism in Turkmenistan?

The tourism industry has been growing rapidly in recent years, especially ecological and historical tourism. Ever since the first phase of National tourist zone ‘Awaza’ was opened in 2009 on the eastern shore of Caspian sea, the numbers have been increasing. In the second phase, 20 world class hotels and resorts with tourist capacity of 12000 persons per day have been added. The third phase is ongoing that already making headlines with addition of new recreational facilities. Awaza has all such options including specialized children’s resorts, yacht clubs and waterways, water parks, restaurants, camping grounds, shopping centres and many more.

Last but not the least, the Akhalteke horses, an ancient breed that originated in Turkmenistan thousands of years ago, has over the years been nurtured as part of the culture.

The Akhalteke horses, known for their racing capabilities, endurance and loyalty to humans. So close is this breed of horses to the heart of Turkmen people that we call them our wings and the President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov wrote several books on the Akhalteke horse. This is the most known ancient breed on earth that gave birth to many other breeds including British and Arabic.

It is rightly to pay rich tributes to this breed that Turkmen Horse Holiday was organised on every last Sunday of April. It is a festival which runs for a week where competitions, exhibitions, conferences, and even Turkmen Horse Beauty Contest are held.

The Akhalteke horse is the proud heritage of the Turkmen people. It is their honour and glory from times immemorial.

Let me again thank the Blue Moon for an opportunity to address its readers and hope that we’ll be able to continue this experience to extend two way and mutual knowledge of each other’s strengths and advantages to apply them for the benefits and sake of cooperation. Thank you!