Reporter's notebook

The dictator and I: A visit to Turkmenistan reveals the limits of Israeli diplomacy

Deserted but pristine streets show the power of a repressive authoritarian regime, whose vaunted neutrality may prove an obstacle to Israeli security aims

Tal Schneider

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

People gather for a monument unveiling ceremony in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, May 25, 2015 (AP Photo/Alexander Vershinin)
People gather for a monument unveiling ceremony in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, May 25, 2015 (AP Photo/Alexander Vershinin)

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan — A few days ago I returned from a rare visit to Turkmenistan — an isolated and anachronistic country, and one of the most cut-off in the world, even compared to other dictatorships.

Turkmenistan has maintained diplomatic ties with Israel since 1991, and the purpose of the visit was to formalize the relationship and open a new embassy in the capital Ashgabat, whereupon, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said, it would be possible to “open the embassy window and see Iran.”

He was half-correct. It is true that the embassy is only about 17 kilometers (10 miles) from the border, and from every point in the capital city you can see the Kopet-Dag mountain range that separates Iran from Turkmenistan. But for security reasons it is too dangerous to open the windows in the Israeli embassy.

While there is no Israeli flag flying at the entrance to the building, Iran’s embassy complex takes up two whole streets in the Turkmen capital. And Iranians walk around the city’s streets due to the open and accessible border between the two nations.

Many fantastic things can be said about Turkmenistan, but also much that is negative.

This is a country without freedoms for its citizens and it is forbidden to utter a bad word about the celebrated leader, Serdar Berdymukhamedov, or his father, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who served as president until March 2022, when he passed the reins of power (at least partially) to his son.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (right) meets Turkmen President Serdar Serdar Berdymukhamedov in Ashgabat, April 20, 2023 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Although during the visit we Israeli journalists joked on social media about what we saw in Ashgabat — the golden dog statue, the white and silver cars (the country’s leader does not allow black cars) and the TV broadcasts that appeared disconnected from reality — it is obviously unpleasant to witness a dictatorship up close.

Everywhere, emptiness

During the trip I was often asked, and attempted to establish, how many people live in Turkmenistan. The answer is that nobody knows, or at least nobody who knows is saying; it’s a state secret. Even the most reliable source of information on the matter — the CIA’s World Factbook — can only wildly estimate that the number is somewhere between 1 million and 5.6 million.

While Berdymukhamedov Sr. held a census in 2021, he kept its results a secret. He is widely believed (including by the CIA) to be concealing that millions of citizens have fled the country over the last decade, mostly through Turkey, Russia and Uzbekistan.

Former Turkmen president People’s Council (Khalk Maslahaty) Chairman Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov smiles during his meeting with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin in Ashgabat, on Jan. 20, 2023 (Dmitry Astakhov, Sputnik, Government Pool Photo via AP)

The Americans think that at some point Berdymukhamedov banned people from leaving. He is said to have sent police officers to force people off planes or find procedural difficulties with their passports, lack of permits and more.

In any case, anyone who walks even a hundred meters in the capital city will immediately feel its emptiness.

The country is simply deserted. There are hardly any people outside. The Ashgabat mall is empty; at the food court we saw nobody except for a group of about 10 girls who were having a celebratory meal with two of their mothers, perhaps for a birthday. There were more waiters than diners, by a wide margin.

The empty mall in Ashgabat, April 2023 (Tal Schneider/Times of Israel)

All of the huge monumental squares we saw were empty. The sidewalks were sparkling clean, and deserted.

In the Soviet bazaar, which serves as a very small urban market, there were a few people, mostly merchants but also some shoppers. On a highway we saw a bus full of passengers that was the largest number of people we saw in one place for the entire duration of our stay.

There are no tourists in this closed-off nation. There were only two planes parked at Ashgabat’s beautiful airport, designed to look like a bird with a massive wingspan, where there was space for dozens of planes. The huge corridors and parking lots were empty. Everything is painted white, the leader’s favorite color, with barely a living soul to appreciate it.

The traffic lights, incidentally, are also white, with gold stripes.

A view of the new international airport terminal outside Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Sept. 17, 2016 (AP Photo)

Our hotel was large, and largely empty. There are no ATMs and credit cards aren’t accepted, only cash. There is no internet and the television channels show broadcasts of the leader giving speeches, along with archaeological lectures and educational broadcasts on honey production and handicrafts.

As I was only in Turkmenistan for 24 hours on a trip accompanying Cohen, I did not take any local currency, the manat, with me. But at the airport, I had to pay some extra costs on my ticket, so I pulled out my credit card. At the one staffed desk at the airport they told me in Turkmen (almost no one here speaks English) that they only accepted cash. I had to rally my fellow journalists and photographers to help me scrape together the $200 I needed.

But Turkmenistan is not a poor country. It is considered the fourth biggest in the world in terms of natural gas exports.

Empty street in Ashgabat, April 2023 (Tal Schneider/Times of Israel)

Family feud

The younger Berdymukhamedov does not have the best relations, to put it mildly, with the elder.

The father decided to hand over power two years ago, but when Russia invaded Ukraine, and Western Europe began to beg to purchase natural gas from anywhere in the world, this closed-off country saw its prestige begin to rise.

There were international deals to be made and a renewed interest in a previously abandoned nation. The father, who had been thinking of retiring, became jealous. He had not planned on his son being an international success.

He is therefore said to have recently begun to advance various moves within government departments in an attempt to clip his son’s wings. Even in dictatorships, it turns out, there are faint signs of a separation of powers when disputes emerge within the ruling body.

But it’s impossible to get specific information about these fights and their consequences; everything is based on rumors spread among the foreign diplomats.

Empty square in Ashgabat, April 2023 (Tal Schneider/Times of Israel)

No smoking

The Turkmenistan leadership maintains a public smoking ban: Cigarettes are forbidden in all open spaces — anywhere that is considered “outside” — at the risk of incurring heavy fines.

For now, smoking is permitted at home and in cars. However, the Turkmenistan Foreign Ministry minder who accompanied us for part of the trip said that starting in 2024, it will be forbidden to smoke at all, anywhere in the country.

When we asked him how this would be implemented practically and whether new legislation would be passed that would outlaw smoking, the Foreign Ministry official explained that no such law would be necessary.

“We will simply block the import of cigarettes and nobody will smoke here anymore,” he said.

If this turns out to be true, Turkmenistan may become the first cigarette-free country in the world, though not by the choice of its citizens.

Celebrating neutrality

Another matter that aroused curiosity was the national holiday that celebrates the country’s neutral position.

In the capital city, on a slight angle due to the sloping of the great mountain range that descends from Iran, stands a prominent 75-meter-high (250-foot) three-legged “Neutrality Monument,” or as it is called locally “The Tripod.”

Every December, Turkmenistan celebrates the “Holiday of Neutrality” to mark its position as a nation that does not support any side in any international conflict or war as designated by the United Nations.

The Arch of Neutrality topped by a gold-plated statue of Turkmenistan’s late President Saparmurat Niyazov stands in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, on Dec. 12, 2011 (AP Photo/Alexander Vershinin)

This means that while the Turkmenistan army is responsible for defending the country against external threats, the nation will not join any diplomatic or regional organizations based on defensive or offensive alliances.

While over the years it has participated in bilateral military exercises with Uzbekistan and Russia, Turkmenistan does not send soldiers to NATO or other international bodies.

This neutral status will clearly have an impact on whatever it is that Israel seeks to achieve in the country due to its proximity to Iran.

As far as we know, there are no Israeli security forces present here, and there are no connections between the armies, nor have there been over the past few decades. Those who have tried to advance security contacts (from the Israeli side) have run into a brick wall.

It also appears that the country will not be used as a base from which Mossad agents can be sent to destinations within Iran. And in contrast with the deep military relations between Israel and Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan is not one of Israel’s military customers.

If Israel and Iran get to the point of a full military crisis, Turkmenistan will not provide Israel with any support. But perhaps, in Jerusalem, the hope is that at the very least, Turkmenistan will also not give support to Iran.

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