Silk Way Rally planning rally raid in Turkmenistan

Six years after hosting its first international rally raid, Turkmenistan has partnered with the Silk Way Rally to organise another race scheduled for 9–15 September.

The International Silk Way Rally Project, represented by development director Sergey Tukmanov and deputy head Viktor Sokolov, met with State Committee for Physical Culture and Sports of Turkmenistan chairman Allaberdi Saparov in Ashgabat on Friday to discuss matters like “developing the route, ensuring the safety of participants, medical care, and organising communications during the race, among others.” The Silk Way Rally, the largest rally raid in Russia, concluded its inaugural edition in 2009 in Ashgabat.

Run by an authoritarian government, Turkmenistan is one of the most isolated and repressive countries in the world with elections widely denounced as unfair, restrictions on travel, heavy suppression of the media, and an extreme cult of personality surrounding its autocratic—and even eccentric—leaders. Visa rejection rates are high and tourism, which is heavily regulated, struggles despite historical landmarks like points on the Silk Road trade route, which the Silk Way Rally gets its name from. In spite of this, it is a major exporter of cheap natural gas in Eurasia and increased commercial profits during the late 2010s prompted President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow to begin promoting the country for global sporting events, which culminated in Turkmenistan hosting the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in 2017 followed by the Amul–Hazar International Rally (also known as the Turkmen Desert Race) in September 2018.

Overseen by Dakar Rally great and Africa Eco Race co-creator Jean-Louis Schlesser, the rally began in Türkmenabat (formerly known as Amul) and ended in Avaza, a borough of Türkmenbaşy near the town of Hazar. Berdimuhamedow briefly drove in the Prologue stage in a Mini All4 Racing from X-raid Team before his personal chauffeur Hojaguly Annamammedov took over the Mini for the rest of the rally and finished third in the T1 class; the president rewarded him with a Mercedes E200 Coupe. Two-time Dakar champion Nani Roma won the overall.

Although the Amul–Hazar was included on the 2019 FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies (predecessor to the current World Rally-Raid Championship) while Schlesser was contracted through 2020, it was cancelled before a second race could be held due to “incompatibility between the FIA requirements and Turkmenistan.”

Credit: Turkmen Desert Race

Turkmen drivers regularly compete at the Silk Way with backing from the Federation Automobile Sport of Turkmenistan. Maxatmyrat DanatarovShamirat Gurbanov, and Merdan Toyliev represented the contingent at the 2023 edition, where Danatarov’s Nissan Patrol placed runner-up in the T2 category. The federation also entered that year’s Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia with Hydyrberdi and Gurbanberdi Abdurahmanov in Patrols but neither started the race.

Despite the SWR’s prestige, it has not seen international competitors since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and non-Russian participants nowadays generally hail from friendly countries like Turkmenistan, Belarus, and China. Turkmenistan is also one of six nationalities whose drivers can sign up for the Russian Rally-Raid Championship without requiring documentation, though they need a Russian Automobile Federation licence to earn points in the main standings.

Although Turkmenistan’s official neutrality policy means it neither votes in support of the invasion at the United Nations (instead opting to abstain) nor lends military support like Belarus and China, it and Russia maintain close relations. This also makes the Berdimuhamedow administration, currently a power-sharing arrangement between him and his son Serdar, a loyal friend in Central Asia as Russia’s other allies such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have expressed more wary stances. Kazakhstan was supposed to host a round on the W2RC calendar in 2022 until the Russo-Ukrainian War forced its cancellation.

While most personnel in the International Silk Way Rally Project ostensibly hold pure, apolitical intentions, it might not be unreasonable to surmise its involvement in Turkmenistan could be another push of Russian soft power in the region. A joint investigation led by The Insider in 2023 uncovered documents stating the project’s explicit diplomatic platform, the pièce de résistance being a massive but unrealised route for the 2022 race that ran through nine countries including Turkmenistan. The case, as well as another published Sunday detailing Russia’s ties to Havana syndrome, found some head rally officials are members of the GRU’s Unit 29155 tasked with assassination and destabilisation operations in Europe; some unit’s assassins also disguised themselves as SWR crew members to move between Europe and Russia in 2016 and 2017.

In the meantime, before they focus on Turkmenistan, the SWR will keep their attention on their own race. Scheduled for 5–15 July, the 2024 Silk Way Rally will begin in Russia and finish in Mongolia; China was originally supposed to host stages as well before the plan was dropped, though they hope to try again in 2025.

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Author: Justin Nguyen

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