Five Presidents Meet at the “Caspian’s Las Vegas”
Left to right: Presidents of Tajikistan - Emomali Rahmon, Turkmenistan - Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, Uzbekistan - Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Kazakhstan - Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and Kyrgyzstan - Sadyr Japarov, at the summit in Awaza, Turkmenistan. August 6, 2021. Image: Shavkat Mirziyoyev's Press-service
The national presidents of all five ex-Soviet Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) met this weekend in the Turkmen resort city of Awaza. Such a high-level meeting is unusual without taking the format of a broader international forum, typically including a Russian, US or Chinese contingent. In this case, the main international presence was the UN in the person of the Secretary General's Special Representative for Central Asia, Natalia Gherman.
Presidential-level meetings like this between all five nations are unusual outside of broader international gatherings.
The long-planned meeting was designed to engender closer trade and political and cultural cooperation between Central Asian countries. Photo opportunities showed the presidents at a selection of slickly organized events showcasing local strengths. These ranged from an exhibition of industrial products to a festival of regional foods and an extravagant dance and music concert. Ms. Gherman also attended the Women’s Leadership Caucus, held in parallel with the main conference, aiming to ensure a greater focus on gender issues in Central Asia.
However, the most important aspects of the event were the various bilateral meetings that were enabled between different pairs of leaders, along with an overall chance to discuss the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, a country that neighbours Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov has described Afghanistan as "the question that worries all of us."
Earlier in the week, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov had described Afghanistan as "the question that worries all of us." Reports claim that both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, while far from relishing the idea of a Taliban takeover, have established official contacts with the Taliban’s “government-in-waiting” in case the Kabul regime continues to prove unable to control border regions – or falls altogether.
Turkmenistan put on quite a show as part of the Central Asian Summit festivities. Image: Shavkat Mirziyoyev's Press-service
Summing up the meeting on state media, a commentary focused not on Afghanistan but on the Turkmen offer to increase gas exports to its Central Asian neighbours and a call to develop intra-regional transport links. Meanwhile, the same article immodestly stated that, in holding the consultative meeting, Turkmenistan had “once again confirmed its universally recognized status as an innovator-country.” In reality, Turkmenistan is more widely seen as an enigma than an innovator. Indeed, for those interested in the Caspian region, the meeting was doubly interesting for shedding a little light on the country, which is a place that few of the world’s journalists ever get a chance to explore.
The heads of state had been welcomed at the airport of nearby Turkmenbashi City in a charming ceremony that included the symbolic presentation of gifts by traditionally dressed children: flowers and freshly baked loaves of chorek bread – a mark of hospitality throughout the region.
During the First Caspian Economic Forum –intense security meant that even local tourists were barred from visiting Awaza, and most non-official venues were essentially closed.
The meeting’s venue, Awaza (aka Avaza), is a glitzy new Caspian seaside resort town. Despite a plethora of sports facilities, pools with swim-up bars, and multi-storey palace hotels with wings shaped a little like gigantic yacht sails; the resort is barely known to international travellers. That’s due to Turkmenistan’s highly restrictive visa policy. One foreign reporter who managed to photograph the place in August 2019 found it eerily empty. However, his unrepresentative trip had been during the resort’s previous great geopolitical shindig – the First Caspian Economic Forum – during which intense security meant that even local tourists were barred from visiting, and most non-official venues were essentially closed.
At other times, Awaza is slowly becomingly popular with wealthier domestic tourists thanks to glorious sunsets and summer temperatures that are typically 15 degrees cooler than the sweltering capital. One day, it might genuinely become the ‘Caspian’s seashore Las Vegas’ that its designers dreamt it should.