Given the way things went during his recent visit to Turkmenistan, one has to wonder whether Russian President Dmitry Medvedev looks forward to talks with Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov as he would a visit to a dentist’s office for a root canal procedure.
Medvedev spent October 21-22 in Turkmenistan and came away with nothing. Just about the only thing that the two leaders agreed on was to formally suspend the Prikaspiiski natural gas pipeline project. When it was announced back in 2007, the Prikaspiiski route seemed destined to give Russia a dominant role over Caspian Basin energy exports. But since those heady early days, the pipeline project had remained at a standstill.
After his October discussions with Medvedev, Berdymukhamedov indicated that he was eager to see a revival of Turkmen natural gas exports to Russia. "Russia and Turkmenistan have mutual interest in partnership development,” the semi-official Turkmenistan.ru news website quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying. “Our relationship is noted for stability and mutual understanding on fundamental issues," he stressed.
Actually, Russian-Turkmen relations have been anything but stable since a mysterious pipeline explosion in April 2009. Over the past 18 months Russian imports of Turkmen gas have fallen off a cliff, due to continuing weak demand in Europe, as well as the relatively high price that Moscow pays to Ashgabat for gas.
In 2010, Gazprom planned to import 10-12 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas, a precipitous decline in the import level over previous years. Both Russian and Turkmen officials declined to reveal 2011 volumes.
Perhaps the only bright spot connected with Medvedev’s visit was the revelation that Moscow was interested in getting involved in the construction of a trans-Afghanistan pipeline that would carry Turkmen gas to India and Pakistan.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, as reported by the Russian business daily Kommersant, expressed Moscow’s readiness to participate in a variety of capacities -- whether financer, consortium member of construction contractor -- in the so-called TAPI pipeline.
Despite the unproductive visit, Medvedev said Russia would keep on trying to develop “promising areas of this cooperation in the field of energy," according to a report distributed by Turkmenistan.ru.
But as Russia looks for a way forward, China appears to be a big obstacle. In the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the Turkmen-Russian gas row of the spring of 2008, Ashgabat turned to China as an export partner,and has not looked back. Exports via the Turkmen-China pipeline got underway in late 2009. An expansion, due to be completed in late 2011, would raise Turkmenistan’s export capacity to China to 40 bcm per year.
At the same time, the growth in Turkmen exports to China may be dampening Beijing’s interest in purchasing Russian gas. During Medvedev's visit to China in September, the Russian state-run conglomerate Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corp. tentatively agreed that Gazprom would supply 30 bcm per year to China starting in 2015. But the two sides have struggled since then to settle on a purchase price.
Sechin, who accompanied Medvedev on the visit to Turkmenistan, went out of his way to downplay the notion that Moscow and Ashgabat were competing for Chinese gas purchases.
"We don't compete in the Chinese market," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Sechin as saying.
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs.