Turkmenistan seemed to come even closer to pledging support for construction of the Trans-Caspian pipeline last week, although it may have been a mirage in the desert still subject to the workings of commissions and committees devising frameworks and formulas. Even so, a regional meeting organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) last week provided a backdrop for both the European Union to push for Western-directed pipelines to circumvent Russia and for Turkmenistan to feel as if it could once again rebuff Russia. Ashgabat insists that its own mutual interests with the EU need not be perceived as a blow against Russia.
In fact, Moscow has increasingly made it clear that it perceives the Trans-Caspian pipeline as a significant harm to its interests. The Kremlin has insisted, in concert with Iran, on ruling wealth distribution in the Caspian and resisted bilateral deals littoral states want to make with the EU. An analyst for RusEnergy, Mikhail Krutikhin, put it starkly: Gazprom sold 107 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas in 2010; the Trans-Caspian could pump 20-30 bcm from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, which would mean a third of Gazprom's business in this sector. No wonder Russia is "categorically opposed to the Trans-Caspian," although it has never put it in these terms, instead focusing on the enormous cost of extracting Turkmen gas or questioning its reserves.
At an investment conference also held last week, Turkmenistan's oil and gas minister Bayramgeldy Nedirov said confidently that the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline was "imminent," slated to pump 33 bcm. Yet as TAPI has been held up for years over disagreements on gas prices, transit fees and of course security in areas of conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it's hard to believe in the official's statements. The parties signed an agreement in December 2010 and supposedly India reached a price consensus with Turkmenistan which Pakistan said was behind its back, but the project has not progressed significantly.
While attention has been focused on Russia as a spoiler for the Trans-Caspian, Iran, another gas customer of Turkmenistan, isn't happy, either, because Caspian matters are being decided without Tehran's participation. Since Baku signed an agreement with Turkey to develop the Shah Deniz II gas fields (although yet another agreement still subject to further commission meetings), Iran has begun to put pressure on Azerbaijan through various threats and provocations. Taner Yyldyz, Turkey's energy minister, acknowledged the agreement "changed the existing balance in the region" because a pipeline would go directly to Europe around Russia.
Now there is also some concern that Baku’s decision to go against Russia on these pipelines could delay resolution of the long-frozen Karabakh conflict. Meanwhile, Lamberto Zannier of Italy, the new secretary general of OSCE, is proposing that Turkey be brought in to mediate the conflict, and that the long-standing Minsk Group be disbanded -- a prospect that Moscow may see as elbowing it aside.
Russia has added two ships to its Caspian fleet and staged missile boat exercises last week, a move that Turkmenistan has seen as belligerent. When Russian media has headlines like "Gazprom Chased Out of the Caspian" and "Berdymukhamedov Pledges Support to Romania to Implement Anti-Russian and Anti-Iranian Projects in the Caspian," as regnum.ru recently published, the war of words can seem ominous indeed, but could it lead to actual violence?
Alexandros Petersen, an, advisor at the European Energy Security Initiative, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said in a recent interview with news.az "there is little Moscow can do other than make loud, but rather empty pronouncements," and that Iran is not likely to use force against Azerbaijan as it did 10 years ago over its own border dispute. Petersen has also reminded us that Azerbaijan doesn't need Turkmen gas (and therefore doesn't have to hurry to resolve the border dispute): the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), Interconnector Greece-Italy (IGI) and BP's new South East Europe Pipeline (SEEP) "are all designed to move forward with only Shah Deniz II gas from Azerbaijan," he says. Even so, Baku would like to have Turkmen gas to expand.
Other analysts have also discounted actual war in the Caspian, but there is still likely to be a very bumpy road ahead in relations between Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus due to the shifting of the interlocking puzzle pieces in the region. One question is whether Turkmenistan will sign a free trade agreement that other members of the Commonwealth of Independence signed in St. Petersburg last month, or even join the Customs Union formed by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan with already an invitation to Kyrgyzstan and feelers out to Tajikistan. The Central Asia states have been vigorously celebrating their 20th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union, which in the case of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan also took definite forms of exhibiting independence from Russia as well.
An anniversary of dependence of sorts, the 20th anniversary of the CIS, is coming up December 8, and an informal summit of CIS leaders will be held in Moscow. The Russians are expecting President Berdymukhamedov to come for that summit and meetings with President Dmitry Medvedev. A Turkmen Foreign Ministry official said that the vice premier present at the St. Petersburg meeting was not authorized to sign international agreements and that only the president could do this, holding out the hope that Berdymukhamedov would sign when he came to Moscow next month.
It was yet another sign of how much every deal depends personally on Berdymukhamedov, who seems to be growing in his own cult of personality even as Turkmenistan grows in importance to the world. Curiously, given his recent focus on his own accomplishments and awards (the Hero of Turkmenistan medal comes with a $25,000 gift and a 50 percent increase in his salary), Berdymukhamedov chose to bring the golden statue of Turkmenbashi (“leader of all Turkmens”) out of retirement, perching it atop a new Monument to Neutrality. True, the 230-foot marvel is now in the suburbs, and apparently it no longer rotates with the sun as it did on the Arch of Neutrality in the center of town. Turkmens have been dismayed at this perpetuation of the past dictatorship and drawn parallels with Berdymukhamedov’s rule.
Without the heliotropic statue, the chief meteorologist may have had trouble predicting sunny weather. Recently the president berated his main weatherman for erroneous forecasts. The independence day parade was rained on, and Turkmens didn’t seem to use the old Soviet practice of cloud-seeding. It is not known if the public humiliation of the meteorologist is related to the parade, or other forecasts for snow last week that didn’t come to pass.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Turkmenistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Sifting the Karakum blog.