Turkmenistan: Bear trap
Turkmenistan is looking to Gazprom to deliver new customers, at the risk of further eroding its independence. Our weekly briefing.
Turkmenistan’s dictatorial regime has over the decades prided itself in how it has preserved the nation’s sovereignty and steered clear of geopolitical tangles.
But a rumor doing the rounds is once again casting strong doubt over such preening.
It all began with a visit to Ashgabat by the head of Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom, Alexei Miller, on February 15. He met while there with President Serdar Berdymukhamedov.
Miller is only the latest in a growing list of senior Russian dignitaries to have traveled to Turkmenistan in recent weeks.
Government statements shed no useful light on why this visit happened.
The timing and context offer some clues, though. Since the start of this year, Moscow has made important progress drawing its Central Asian partners back into the fold on matters of cooperation in the natural gas sector.
In January, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan inked cooperation agreements with Gazprom. The bottom line is that Russia is poised to start exporting gas to those two countries, which have unaccountably suffered seasonal shortages despite being rich in the fuel.
Toward the end of last year, meanwhile, Iran started signaling that it was interested in buying gas from Russia for its domestic needs so as to free up capacity for sale of its own gas to third nations. The main impediment to such an arrangement is that Russia would need to send that gas through transit countries – either Azerbaijan on the western shores of the Caspian Sea, or Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to the east.
Seen in the totality, all this produces a picture wherein Russian gas is flowing in ample volumes from north to south. Europe is in the process of almost entirely shunning Russian gas, so that makes sense.
But the gas is also, if official accounts are to be believed, supposed to be flowing from south to north. In 2021, Gazprom bought 10 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan, although in truth, there is no certain information about where that fuel ends up. In earlier times, Russia bought gas from Central Asia to supply its southern regions so as to free up capacity for westbound exports. Analysts additionally hypothesized that hoovering up relatively cheap Turkmen gas prevented Ashgabat from making a more concerted effort to explore options in selling directly to Europe.
The intent of state-issued press releases was to convey the idea that Miller’s visit to Turkmenistan was intended to consolidate this arrangement. Berdymukhamedov is also evidently eager to tap Gazprom for its technical expertise to modernize Turkmenistan’s oil and gas sector. His repetitive and palpably frustrated demands for ever-increasing output targets attest to his belief that the local energy industry is in a serious rut that only foreigners can help the country escape.
A Telegram channel called Vzglyad na Vostok (View of the East), which RFE/RL’s Turkmen service has described as appearing to be linked to official Russian sources, offered an additional, startling detail. Miller warned the Turkmen leader that Gazprom remained firmly opposed to construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline of the kind that would be needed if Ashgabat wants to be able to sell its gas directly to Europe, the Telegram account claimed.
Such sensational reports are by their nature unconfirmable, but the general thrust of the claim is in tune with the background music. In December, Alexander Bashkin, a Russian senator from the Astrakhan region, which is developing deep economic ties with Turkmenistan, penned a brief op-ed to argue why the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, or TCP as it is also known, could never happen.
“Due to the possible threat to the environmental safety of the Caspian Sea represented by the underwater part of the gas pipeline, Russia will not be able to agree to its construction,” wrote Bashkin, adding in a note of would-be reassurance that any excess Turkmen gas could always be soaked up by buyers in China, India and Russia.
Russian squealing about the dangers of subsea gas pipelines is obviously disingenuousness of a particularly ripe degree. But when the Turkmen government talks about wishing to “maintain trust-based contacts [with Russia] at the highest level,” it more than implies that approval of TCP will have to go through Moscow, regardless of whatever multilateral conventions have been signed on shared use of the Caspian.
While Turkmenistan’s options are somewhat limited by this unspoken veto, a number of convoluted hypothetical Russia-involved permutations are floating in the ether at the moment. Some of these will have been discussed in a two-hour meeting on February 16 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and a Miller freshly arrived from Ashgabat.
Vzglyad na Vostok claims that Gazprom is encouraging Turkmenistan to send its gas to Turkey via Iran by means of a swap agreement, for example. Turkmenistan is currently bound by a three-way swap agreement with Azerbaijan and Iran, but there have been suggestions this whole deal came off the rails at some point this winter.
And all that gas that Russia buys from Turkmenistan? Where is it going now that Russia’s westward exports are withering? Both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have struck deals to import gas from Turkmenistan – under impossibly nebulous terms, naturally – so it is not inconceivable that Gazprom is involved there too. Kyrgyzstan, which does not share a border with Turkmenistan, occasionally signals it wants to buy Turkmen gas as well. Kyrgyzstan’s gas industry is all but wholly controlled by Gazprom, incidentally.
In case this isn’t complicated enough, Iran is reportedly offering yet another angle. The Turkmen capital last week played host to an Iranian trade fair involving the participation of companies in the petrochemicals, automotive, construction, agriculture and pharmaceuticals sectors. The visiting delegation included Reza Noushadi, the head of an engineering subsidiary of the National Iranian Gas Company, who told Ashgabat-based website News Central Asia, or nCa, that Iran stood ready to offer Russia and Turkmenistan transit privileges to send gas to South Asia.
“We are ready to deliver gas to Pakistan,” he said, specifying his point.
Moscow-based Neftegaz.ru speculates in an analytical piece that this fix could even put paid to the trans-Afghan TAPI pipeline. That would certainly save Turkmenistan a lot of time and energy, but it would make a mockery of its long-stated strategy of diversifying export options. In a scenario where Russia pulls all the strings and plays the role of gas trade coordinator, Turkmenistan could acquire several new customers, only at the cost of undermining its scope for independent action.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.
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