Turkmenistan Beefs up Caspian Presence, Irritating Russia
On October 9, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, in his capacity as the Supreme Commander of Turkmenistan's Armed Forces, took a televised helicopter ride to visit a naval base on the shore of the Caspian Sea, BBC Monitoring Central Asia reported, citing TV Altyn Asyr in Turkmenistan. The Turkmen leader was accompanied by Yaylym Berdiyev, his national security minister, and they were there to review some new military ships that had been added to Turkmenistan's budding navy. The purpose was clear, even for "neutral Turkmenistan", under its new naval doctrine and plan through 2015: “The naval forces are given the task of ensuring that our country's interests in the Caspian Sea are protected,” said the minister.
According to Viktoria Panfilova, writing for Russia'sNezavisimaya gazeta, Ashgabat is strengthening its position in the Caspian. Of course, the Russia media can be biased on Turkmenistan, given the Kremlin's interests and its own eroding position in the Turkmen gas market. Yet as Joshua Kucera of The Bug Pit reported earlier this year, there is indeed a growing militarization of the Caspian, despite the littoral states' vows to maintain peace -- and Turkmenistan is part of that.
Panfilova says Turkmenistan plans to buy more modern patrol boats and armaments (evidently not from Russia), claiming the purpose is to monitor its borders and counteract drug-smuggling and terrorism -- although "the experts" don't buy it:
But the experts believe that "combating smugglers' is [only] the official reason. In their opinion, Ashgabat's decision to build a military base indicates serious problems in the Caspian. All the more so since not only Turkmenistan is arming, but all the Caspian countries.
Panfilova reports that the Russian fleet takes the lead in the Caspian Sea with 27 ships and several dozen boats and plans for 16 more ships before 2020, according to Vladimir Vysotsky, the commander in chief of Russia's naval forces. Iran has 50 smaller ships and patrol boats and plans 75 more missile ships and cutters to be built on the Caspian shelf or transferred to the north from the Persian gulf. Azerbaijan has 30 patrol boats received from Turkey and 3 from the US. The US is also helping Azerbaijan to establish radar stations and an operations center in Baku. Kazakhstan is building a naval base in the port city of Aktau, and has 17 patrol boats, Panfilova reports.
Turkmenistan, for its part, since 2003 has had 7 patrol boats to guard the coast, which it purchased from Iran and Ukraine, and three Russian guard ships with guided missiles purchased from Russia in 2008, and has additionally two Sobol patrol boats and two Molniya missile boats. Turkey has also given Turkmenistan two rapid patrol boats at a cost of €55 million. Panfilova cites "open sources" that put the Turkmen military budget in 2009 at $250 million, increasing to $261 million in 2010 -- although no one can really be sure what is in the president's pocket and what he spends it on.
While Turkmenistan has been talking up its eventual resolution of differences with Azerbaijan lately (and insisting on doing it only bilaterally), Panfilova reports that Russian expert Aleksandr Knyazev of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Oriental Studies says, "events in the Middle East illustrate that the chief principle of international law remains the principle of force."
Turkmenistan has a declared police of "neutrality," of course, but it has to think of its own security due to its disputed territories with Azerbaijan and Iran, says Knyazev.
Panfilova harkens back to the time in 1997 when past Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov came to beg past President Boris Yeltsin to intervene in Turkmenistan's dispute with Azerbaijan over oil fields in the Caspian Sea bed, called "Serdar" by Turkmenistan and "Kyapaz" by Azerbaijan. Today, Ashgabat finds Russia only in the way of reaching a resolution and has been sounding increasingly annoyed.
And not surprisingly, in response, Knyazev notes:
Turkmenistan is lobbying for the implementation of a controversial gas project, the Trans Caspian pipeline which may provoke sharp counteraction by above all Russia and Iran. Of course, it is not a question of some sort of war for position in the Caspian, but it is impossible to completely rule out a negative scenario of development of events.
Azerbaijan has an interest in this pipeline, but not enough gas to fill it, says Knyazev, opening up the prospect for Turkmenistan's participation. The pipeline is only "controversial" for Russia, since it is designed to bypass it. But if the EU continues to push this project, says Knyazev, "it will be a serious irritant for all the other countries of the Caspian basin."
How serious, and what they will do about it, remains to be seen, but Ashgabat isn't taking any chances.