Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and became a permanently neutral country with the approval of the United Nations General Assembly in 1995. Toshio Motoya spoke with Dr. Gurbanmammet Elyasov, the Turkmen ambassador to Japan, about topics that provide useful information for Japan’s future. These include the sightseeing attractions, industries, national defense, and foreign policy of Turkmenistan, a country that many Japanese people are unfamiliar with.
Motoya Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. I have been conducting these interviews for 25 years, and our dialogue today marks the 302nd Big Talk. In the past I have talked with many people, including ambassadors to Japan. You attended the party commemorating the publication of my latest work in June. I think many Japanese people are unfamiliar with Turkmenistan. I hope to learn a lot from you today, including its location and what kind of country it is.
Elyasov Thank you for having me. My job is to help develop the relationship between Japan and Turkmenistan, so I will speak about a range of different topics today. As you say, Turkmenistan is a new country that gained independence in 1991, and a close relationship with Japan must be built in the future. First of all, Turkmenistan is located in the middle of Central Asia. It touches Iran to the south, Afghanistan to the east, and the Caspian Sea to the west, across which is Azerbaijan. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are to the north. This is a good location in terms of geopolitics and economics, and Turkmenistan has served a central role in politics and as a trade base since ancient times. It is linked with Russia across the Caspian Sea, and you can reach Georgia and Turkey if you go west from Azerbaijan. You can say that Turkmenistan is a point of contact between Europe and Asia. It has roughly 1.3 times the area of Japan and the population totals approximately six million people. The Turkmen ethnic group comprises 90% of the population and Turkmen is the official language, but Russian is also widely used as well. Turkmenistan is also a great place for sightseeing.
Motoya I have been to 81 countries across the world but have yet to visit Turkmenistan. My impression is that it has hot summers and cold winters. Is that true?
Elyasov Turkmenistan has four seasons, just like Japan. The autumn and spring are chilly. The temperature can reach as high as 41 to 42 degrees in the summer and fall to 10 or 20 degrees below zero in the winter.
Motoya What sightseeing attractions do you recommend?
Elyasov First, I’d recommend the country’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Nisa ruins are around 15 kilometers from the capital of Ashgabat. These historic city ruins are from the Parthian Empire, which flourished in the 3rd century BC. At the royal palace ruins, you can see Zoroastrian temples and wine storehouses. Kunya-Urgench, near the border with Uzbekistan, was a major city on the Silk Road from the 12th to 13th centuries. It is home to magnificent buildings such as those from the Torebeg Hanym dynasty. Ancient Merv boasts the largest historic ruins in Central Asia. It was an oasis city that prospered from the 6th century BC. Merv’s symbol is the Kyz Kala, a walled residence with pillars that stand 20 meters high. This is evidence that Ancient Merv was a place of civilization.
Motoya It sounds like there are many ruins since Turkmenistan is a country with a long history.
Elyasov Yes. Another place to visit is the Door to Hell, which was built by human hands. This fiery crater has a diameter of approximately 90 meters. During a boring survey of underground resources in 1971, work machinery collapsed into an underground cave filled with natural gas. It was lit on fire to burn off the poisonous gas and has continually burned since then. The capital city of Ashgabat is also a beautiful place with rows of white marble buildings. Other popular spots are the National Museum that exhibits artifacts from Nisa and the lively bazaars where you can buy anything. Ashgabat also has four world records. It has the most marble buildings, the world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel that is 46.7 meters tall, the world’s largest architectural star, and the world’s longest carpet.
Motoya There are so many things to see! How do you get from Tokyo to Ashgabat?
Elyasov There are no direct flights, so you have to transfer at another city. People often transfer at Istanbul, Beijing, Moscow, Paris, or Dubai.
Motoya Are there flights from Dubai to Ashgabat? I have attended every Olympics opening ceremony since the Montreal Olympics, excluding the games in Moscow that Japan didn’t participate in. I’m also going to the opening or closing ceremony in Rio de Janeiro in August, even though I’m a bit worried about safety and illness, and will stop by Dubai on the way back.
Elyasov August in Dubai is very hot (laughs). The flight from Dubai to Ashgabat is about two hours.
Motoya But when one hears that Turkmenistan is near Afghanistan, safety is a bit of a concern…
Elyasov Turkmenistan has excellent public order even compared to global standards. It provides various types of aid to Afghanistan, and both countries respect the border.
Motoya Is the relationship totally different from that of the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s?
Elyasov Yes, it is. At that time Turkmenistan was part of the Soviet Union, and the political situation and citizens’ lives were entirely different than today. But even after Turkmenistan became independent, we have maintained a good relationship with Afghanistan. In the government, we place the most importance on maintaining order and peace. The Turkmen government has relationships with both the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban and is making efforts to end the fights of both.
Motoya Turkmenistan is an important position in Central Asia and shares land borders with major powers like Iran. I think you have to be quite sensitive to the issue of safety, so how do you protect your own country? Do you have any alliances with other nations?
Elyasov Turkmenistan has a stance of permanent neutrality just like Switzerland and Austria. We have no military alliances with other countries for that reason.
Motoya Is that so? Are you a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)?
Elyasov Yes, but Turkmenistan declined to ratify the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organisation in 1992, so it is currently an associate member.
Motoya What is the scale of your armaments?
Elyasov We have armed forces for self-defense to protect the country according to the global standard. However, they do not act together with the armed forces of other countries. We also work in close cooperation with the UN. The United Nations Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia is located in Ashgabat, the capital, and we have a structure for cooperative efforts with other nations in Central Asia to resolve various issues such as terrorism and organized crime.
Motoya That’s probably because Turkmenistan has a stable national structure. I feel like you have a strong will to not be dragged into the disputes of other countries. You share land borders with many other nations so I am sure permanent neutrality is difficult, yet you are successfully maintaining this stance.
Elyasov We discussed what kind of foreign policy to implement after independence. Strife and terrorism is occurring in many regions across the world for various reasons. Turkmenistan chose the path of independence without having relationships with specific countries, policies, or alliances. With the approval of the UN General Assembly, we determined our stance of permanent neutrality in 1995 – something only Turkmenistan has done. Still, that doesn’t mean we don’t have relationships with any other countries. We are building friendly relations with all sorts of nations in the humane and cultural realms.
Motoya Turkmenistan is experiencing favorable economic growth and maintaining a constant economic growth rate of 10% or greater. Is the main industry the export of resources like oil and natural gas?
Elyasov Yes, we boast the world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas in particular. We currently export a great deal to Iran, Russia, and China. We are first building the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline (TAPI), and are considering a plan to construct a pipeline across the Caspian Sea that links us to Europe via Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. This cannot be accomplished without permission from the countries through which the pipeline passes, so deliberate negotiations are underway right now. We are also hoping to create a cooperative structure with Japan, which possesses technical abilities, in fields such as oil and natural gas generation, chemical production, etc.
Motoya You said the Turkmen people comprise 90% of the population. Did many Russians come in during the Soviet era? For instance, China sent many Han Chinese to Tibet.
Elyasov It’s true there was a negative state of affairs in which the Soviet Union tried to change Turkmenistan’s traditional culture. However, it was not successful in the end.
Motoya I think the issue of language is one reason that failed. Turkmenistan has its own language. A unique language means that a unique culture exists.
Elyasov We prized our own culture even during the Soviet era.
Motoya Was school education conducted in Russian during the time of the Soviet Union, or was it in Turkmen?
Elyasov Both, although there are no statistics saying which was more prevalent. Three languages are currently used according to the government’s rules. The first is Turkmen, and the others are English and Russian. The people overwhelmingly use Turkmen; all citizens of Turkmenistan are proficient in this language.
Motoya Were there other differences between the Soviet Union and Turkmenistan? The Russian Orthodox Church was a prevalent religion in the Soviet Union, but Turkmenistan is Islam.
Elyasov I think there were good and bad impacts from the Soviet Union. For example, you used to have to be a member of the Communist Party to get into a good school. Yet no attempts were made to abolish the Turkmen language during the Soviet era.
Motoya I think it’s wonderful that traditional cultures including ethnic unity and languages were continually protected in the Republics of the Soviet Union.
Elyasov Perhaps one reason is that the people of Turkmenistan have a long history stretching back to 2000 BC.
Motoya Japan also has a long history.
Elyasov Turkmenistan and Japan have many things in common. Turkmenistan is also an earthquake-prone country, although there are not as many quakes as in Japan. Most buildings collapsed in the major earthquake that occurred in Ashgabat in 1948, and the number of victims was roughly 160,000. Many meetings were held on the theme of disaster planning based on this experience. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who is highly esteemed within Turkmenistan, has served a leading role in attending international conferences for disaster prevention and drafting disaster policy for the government.
Motoya Is that so? Historically, Japan was invaded twice by the Mongolian Empire in the second half of the 13th century. Turkmenistan was also invaded by the Mongolian Empire.
Elyasov Yes, it was. The Khwarazmian dynasty – which possessed Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Iran – waged a hard fight against the Mongolian soldiers but was defeated in the end. After Genghis Khan died the Mongol Empire was split up, including Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan was ruled by various countries afterwards before being invaded by Russia in the 19th century. It resisted fiercely, but in 1881 Ashgabat was occupied by Russia. It then became a part of the Soviet Union due to the Russian Revolution. Turkmenistan gained independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Motoya It seems like Turkmenistan has a chaotic history. Japan is surrounded by ocean, so it was never occupied by any other countries. But world history shows that if a landlocked country is in an important geopolitical position, it will inevitably have a history like that of Turkmenistan. Still, Japan should look to Turkmenistan, which carries out diplomacy based on friendship while also making military preparations to protect itself by itself as a permanently neutral country after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Japan is at a crossroads for military security. The Constitution of Japan created after World War II renounces military force. As the Cold War intensified, it was transformed into a structure in which Japan was protected by the Japan Self-Defense Forces and Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. Yet the United States, which had seemingly gained global hegemony, has weakened. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved the limited exercise of the right to collective defense to ensure security in Japan, which is located between the expanding China and withdrawing U.S. However, American presidential candidate Donald Trump has stated that the U.S. Forces could be removed from Japan if Japan does not pay all fees for stationing them here. Now that 71 years have gone by since the end of World War II, I think Japan should start building a new framework for protecting itself while referring to models such as Turkmenistan.
Elyasov Ensuring safety and constructing international relationships is extremely difficult, but I feel these are the most important roles of a government.
Motoya I would like to ask you a more personal question. You speak very clearly and seem quite wise. Where were you educated?
Elyasov I studied medicine in Ashgabat and then studied abroad in Russia. My original profession is actually that of physician.
Motoya Was your father a doctor as well?
Elyasov No, my parents passed away from illness when I was a child. That is why I decided to study medicine.
Motoya You must have studied a great deal.
Elyasov When I was young, there was a time when I studied without getting a wink of sleep.
Motoya So you switched gears from doctor to diplomat.
Elyasov In the government, I served as minister of health and medical industry and minister of tourism and sports. As the ambassador to Japan, today I am doing my best to develop friendly relations between Turkmenistan and Japan with mutually beneficial trade and economic activities.
Motoya So that is your history. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
Elyasov They should do all they can to avoid wrongdoing and other things that shorten their lives, and also always love their own country and ethnic group. These are the keys to success.
Motoya That’s exactly what I have always tried to do. Thank you for talking with me today.
Elyasov Thank you.
Dr. Gurbanmammet Elyasov
Born in October 1959. Graduated from the Turkmen State Medical Institute in 1983. He was the head of various clinics and medical examination centers under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health and Medical Industry from 1995 to 2006. He became the deputy minister of health and medical industry in 2007, head of the Turkmenistan Tourism and Sports Committee in 2009, and minister of health and medical industry in 2010. He took up his current position as ambassador to Japan in October 2013.