Turkmenistan: Is Pipeline Project Trying to Mask Ashgabat’s Fiscal Woes?
Proponents of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline say the much-discussed, long-delayed project will be completed by the end of the decade. But some regional experts are contending that TAPI’s time may have already passed.
The pipeline, which would convey Turkmen natural gas via Afghanistan to Pakistani and Indian markets via a 1,800km-long route, has been beset by myriad issues for the better part of two decades. But the plan seemed to move off the back burner last December, when, out of the blue, officials in Turkmenistan announced that construction had gotten underway.
The problem, according to Luca Anceschi, a lecturer in Central Asian Studies with the University of Glasgow who has extensively studied TAPI, is that Ashgabat provided no tangible evidence, such as video of backhoes doing some digging, to support the claim that work had started. And since Turkmenistan is home to one of the most ruthless dictatorships on the planet, where words and images are twisted to meet the needs of the country’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, it is hard to take officials at their word.
“We only know what the Turkmen government wants us to know,” said Anceschi, speaking at a forum hosted by Columbia University’s Harriman Institute on April 11. “There is not a picture, there is not a TV frame, of the works being done. It’s like the Middle Ages.”
Despite Ashgabat’s assurances that the pipeline would come online within a few years, Anceschi noted that the market window for TAPI may well have closed. With energy prices seemingly set to remain low for the foreseeable future, a huge question mark hangs over TAPI’s profit potential. In addition, the lifting of sanctions on Iran could mean that Iranian imports are more appealing for South Asian customers. This combination of factors is prompting some analysts to believe TAPI will follow in the footsteps of other ballyhooed failures, in particular the Nabucco project.
For now, the illusion that TAPI is on track serves an important purpose for Berdymukhamedov’s regime, creating an illusion of normalcy when, in fact, lower energy prices are punching huge gaps in the Turkmen state budget, and thus eroding the leadership’s ability to rule via a combination of fear and patronage.
“We can sort of compare Turkmenistan’s understanding of what TAPI is to what Rogun [Dam] is for Tajikistan – the planned infrastructure is a symbolic project that will happen in the future,” Anceschi said.
As a series of recent sackings illustrates, Berdymukhamedov is experiencing a “regime crisis,” Anceschi asserted. “This is probably the weakest the Turkmen regime has ever been.”