The recent visit of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Turkmenistan showed that Ashgabat continues to confound the Kremlin on energy matters. Prior to the Medvedev's trip, Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov seemingly sent several signals of his readiness to tighten already strong bilateral energy relations. But Medvedev, along with the large trade delegation accompanying him, departed from Turkmenistan without signing any substantive energy deals.
Analysts in both Russia and elsewhere characterized Medvedev's Ashgabat trip on July 4-5 as a disappointment. Apparently, Berdymukhamedov was unwilling to budge off his current position, in which Turkmenistan is playing a waiting game in order to obtain the best export deals possible from either Russia or the West. The Kremlin obviously hoped that the presidential visit could coax Berdymukhamedov's firm commitment to Russian-backed export options. "Medvedev and Berdymukhamedov talked in private for longer than the scheduled one hour," said a commentary printed by Rossiiskaya Gazeta. "The Russian president emerged [from the meeting] accompanied by the head of Gazprom discussing something. Alexei Miller's face was not radiant with joy."
Berdymukhamedov did reaffirm Ashgabat's "abiding commitment to our obligations," according to a report in the official Turkmen newspaper Neitral'ny Turkmenistan. Specifically, Berdymukhamedov mentioned Turkmenistan's desire to uphold a 25-year natural gas-supply pact with Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
But Russia's experience with verbal commitments made by Turkmen leaders has not been good. Berdymukhamedov's predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, was notorious for his policy zig-zags. As a result, Moscow is ever eager to get Ashgabat to make firm pledges on paper.
Most worrisome for Moscow, Turkmen and Russian officials did not settle on a price for 2009 natural gas supplies. The lack of a pricing structure could have a number of ripple effects on Moscow's energy strategy, including delaying Russian plans to expand a Caspian Basin pipeline network. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In the weeks leading up to Medvedev's visit to Ashgabat, Berdymukhamedov appeared to be coming around to the point of embracing Moscow's energy vision.
In an apparent demonstration of warming ties between the two countries, Berdymukhamedov opted to mark his 51st birthday on June 29 in Russia, traveling to the Volga River region of Tatarstan. During a meeting with Tatarstani leader Mintimir Shaimiyev at the Kazan Kremlin, Berdymukhamedov hailed Turkmenistan's increased cooperation with Russia and its regions, notably Tatarstan. Berdymukhamedov also expressed a desire to expand cooperation with Tatarstan in the energy sphere. Earlier in 2008, the Tatarstan-based truck maker Kamaz agreed to establish a service center in Turkmenistan, and supply the Central Asian nation with 2,500 trucks. Meanwhile, the Tatar firm Tatneft moved ahead with a deal to help Turkmenistan explore potential oil deposits in the Goturdepe field.
The Kremlin's hopes were also bolstered by moves in June to strengthen the institutional framework of bilateral cooperation. On June 18, for instance, Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appointed his deputy Viktor Zubkov to head the inter-governmental commission on cooperation with Turkmenistan. The commission is co-chaired by Turkmenistan' deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov. In early June, Meredov traveled to Moscow to discuss a package of bilateral agreements to be concluded during Medvedev's visit to Ashgabat.
Ultimately, Turkmen and Russian officials signed four agreements in connection with Medvedev's visit, but none of them was especially noteworthy. They covered education, cultural matters and the protection of state secrets.
Zubkov's appointment as Russia's top government officials in charge of ties with Turkmenistan hardly came as a coincidence. On June 27, Zubkov was elected to head Gazprom's board, thus replacing President Medvedev in this capacity. The Kremlin-controlled conglomerate has largely directed the development of energy relations with Turkmenistan. Indeed, presidential spokesman Sergei Prikhodko stated while in Ashgabat that "Gazprom is in charge of preparing addenda to existing contracts."
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs.