Turkmenistan's interim leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, is promising economic and political continuity, even as he keeps signaling a desire to push the country in a new direction. Berdymukhammedov's genuine intentions won't be known until after the country's special presidential election on February 11, which is expected to confirm him as the successor of the deceased despot, Saparmarat Niyazov.
Since Niyazov's death in December, Berdymukhammedov has mentioned on several occasions a desire to promote reforms. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In January 24 comments published by the RIA Novosti news agency, Berdymukhammedov went so far as to raise the possibility that the Turkmen government might dismantle the totalitarian system erected by Niyazov and permit multi-party political competition. He likewise garnered goodwill with the West when Turkmen officials announced that foreign observers would be permitted to observe the special presidential election.
Outside analysts have been guarded in evaluating the sincerity of Berdymukhammedov's reform comments, noting that the special presidential vote appears to be a carefully stage-managed affair. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some analysts suggest the pending case against the environmental activist Andrei Zatoka, a dual Turkmen-Russian national who was arrested days before Niyazov's sudden death, could provide a gauge of the new government's commitment to change. Zatoka's trial is scheduled to begin on February 1.
In the all-important area of Turkmenistan's energy exports, there exists greater reason to expect a shift in government policy. That's because Berdymukhammedov would be ensuring continuity with Niyazov's course in the energy sphere by promoting change, namely the diversification of Turkmenistan's export options. Turkmenistan has long been Russia's energy vassal, and all the signs point to the fact that Turkmen leaders are dissatisfied with the present situation. Russia at the same time seems determined to preserve its virtual monopoly on Turkmen energy.
In the months before his death, Niyazov took significant strides toward reducing Turkmenistan's export dependency on Russia. He signed an agreement committing Turkmenistan and China to exploring the feasibility of building a gas pipeline linking the two countries. Chinese officials also agreed to import 30 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas per year for 30 years starting in 2009. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].On another front, Niyazov was buoyed by limited progress toward the construction of a trans-Afghan pipeline that could deliver Turkmen gas to rapidly growing markets in Pakistan and India. Islamabad and New Delhi both ratcheted up their support for this project, as has the Asian Development Bank, despite Russian efforts to scuttle it.
Thanks to these successes, Niyazov was able to extract a 54-percent price increase in what Moscow pays for Turkmen gas, bringing that price to $100 per thousand cubic meters, still less than half the market price, but much more than before. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Berdymukhammedov remains well positioned to press ahead. The next test for Turkmenistan's diversification strategy involves cooperation with Azerbaijan, and the construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline (TCP). It is a project that Moscow is steadfastly opposed to, given that such a route would enable Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to bypass Russia in exporting gas to the West.
There are numerous obstacles standing in the way of a trans-Caspian gas pipeline, none more problematic than the unresolved issue of the Caspian Sea's border delimitation. The five Caspian Sea littoral states Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan -- remain deadlocked on the terms of a treaty. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Although Iran is the main holdout, Turkmenistan too has blocked a five-party settlement. In the absence of progress on a comprehensive pact, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan have worked out a tripartite arrangement concerning their own coastlines.
Just before Niyazov died, there was a flurry of activity suggesting that he was mulling an effort to improve what had been bad relations with Azerbaijan, and to explore possible participation in the TCP project. Baku, for its part, eagerly wants to improve ties with Ashgabat, build TCP, and reach an enduring solution concerning Caspian delimitation. Azerbaijani political analysts generally shared the view that Niyazov's demise opened the way to significantly better relations with Turkmenistan. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev supported this notion when he announced during a late December interview with the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy that "Azerbaijan is ready for cooperation with Turkmenistan."
Closer Turkmen-Azerbaijani ties would enable both countries to better resist Russian pressure and to create a check on Russia's neo-imperialist inclinations in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Better bilateral relations might also promote stability in global gas markets, which clearly are anxious due to Russia's habitual use of its gas as a political weapon.
In the weeks and months after Turkmenistan's presidential election, it is likely that Baku, with the strong encouragement of the United States and the European Union, will make a renewed push for a Caspian Sea treaty breakthrough, trying to clear the ground for substantive TCP talks. All eyes will be on Berdymukhammedov to see how he reacts to the expected overture.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.