Following months of embarrassing stories in the international press documenting the scale of its methane emissions, Turkmenistan has consented to accept foreign help in solving the crisis.
Signs are, though, that Ashgabat is reluctant to spend too much of its own money in addressing the problem.
On May 31, Bloomberg news agency reported that U.S. officials are in negotiations with Turkmenistan to provide it with funding and expertise to stem gas leakages from outdated infrastructure.
The plan is to hatch an agreement in time for the United Nations COP28 climate summit in November in Dubai, presumably so President Serdar Berdymukhamedov can, as he has done before, disingenuously claim his government is leading the way in combating climate change. Bloomberg cited its unnamed sources as saying a pilot project to plug the gas leaks could begin before the end of the year.
This breakthrough appears to be the direct result of a May 29 telephone conversation between Berdymukhamedov and the U.S. special envoy on the climate, John Kerry. A Turkmen readout of this exchange provided few useful details, although it alluded to how Ashgabat welcomed the Global Methane Pledge, an initiative launched at the COP26 in 2021 to encourage adherents to reduce their harmful emissions.
Turkmenistan cannot be that enthusiastic about the pledge, though, since it is not yet a signatory. Perhaps even Ashgabat could not quite attempt that level of shamelessness. The pledge envisions slashing the volume of human-made methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030 as compared to 2020 levels. But as the Guardian newspaper reported earlier this year, citing satellite data, methane leaks from two gas fields alone in Turkmenistan in 2022 contributed more to global warming than did all the United Kingdom’s carbon emissions.
In any case, Turkmenistan began laying the groundwork for this initiative on June 2 with the creation of an Intersectoral Commission for the Reduction of Methane Emissions.
The government is unsurprisingly happier talking about sales of gas than how much of it is leaking into the environment. On May 30, Berdymukhamedov’s predecessor and father, Gurbanguly, traveled in his bespoke role as National Leader to neighboring Iran. Talks with his hosts touched on Turkmenistan’s desire to see an “intensification in the resolution of issues related to gas supplies and transit.”
The history of Turkmen gas dealings with Iran are an entire soap opera.
The last episode of note appeared to have played out at the start of this year, when gas deliveries to Azerbaijan via a three-way gas swap involving Iran were reportedly suspended amid a sharp cold snap. That hitch does not appear to have been long-lasting, though. Azerbaijan’s State Statistics Committee has reported that the South Caucasus nation bought around 197 million cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan in January-March. This is a relatively modest amount given that the 2021 swap deal allows for the exchange of up to 2 billion cubic meters of gas per year by means of this set-up.
What Iran would like is to buy some of this gas for its own needs. It is eager at the same time to consolidate its strategic status as an energy transit nation. There are some, admittedly thinly substantiated, indications that Iran is interested in positioning itself as a transit point for Turkmen and even southbound Russian gas exports to Pakistan.
Of course, Turkmenistan has its own ambitious plans on getting its gas to Pakistan. Namely, the trans-Afghan TAPI pipeline. But since, as with the story over methane emissions, Ashgabat is allergic to spending its own money on such undertakings, the Berdymukhamedovs have for years been trying to tout this project to foreign investors. Speaking in a June 2 interview to TASS news agency, Yuri Aronsky, the chairman of the Union of Economists of Turkmenistan, suggested that maybe China could be enlisted into this effort. Aronsky did not appear to explain why China, which has cornered most current Turkmen gas exports for its own needs, would wish to do that.
On June 1, the Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Helga Maria Schmid, visited Turkmenistan to attend the ceremonial opening of the organization’s new offices in Ashgabat. Schmid said the building would enable the OSCE’s team in Turkmenistan to continue advancing the tasks under their mandate. She described those tasks as “strengthening border management, regional connectivity, environmental protection, and women’s empowerment.” Among the OSCE’s other alleged side-lines are the promotion of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, but Schmid made no mention of those, lest she embarrass her hosts. Not a promising start for the new OSCE Center.
And it is not clear how much more strengthening Turkmenistan’s borders require. After all, as many are finding to their mounting frustration, it is certainly not getting any easier to leave the country. Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news has reported that people waiting at a passport-issuing office of the migration service in the city of Dashoguz on June 1 mounted a wildcat protest in a show of anger at the chronic delays. Dozens of people gathered outside the building with infuriated demands for passports to be issued more promptly, but that only triggered the arrival of the police. According to Turkmen.news, the process of getting a passport has since this incident only become slower. Similar delays have been recorded all over the country.
While taking every effort to prevent citizens from traveling freely, the Turkmen regime is at the same time renewing its efforts to reduce friction for foreign trade by pushing ahead with efforts to have the country admitted as a member of the World Trade Organization.
Khojamurad Geldimuradov, deputy prime minister with the portfolio for economic affairs, told a Cabinet meeting on June 2 that a WTO delegation had recently visited Ashgabat and held meetings with a wide array of government officials. Berdymukhamedov than ordered the government to create a working group to draft a memorandum on trade protocols in the cause of furthering the WTO accession process.
Another figure poised to visit Turkmenistan imminently is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the European Union leader perhaps most attuned to the authoritarian Berdymukhamedov style. Orban has by virtue of a somewhat contrived cultural-genetic kinship between Hungarians and the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppe regularly made overtures to partners in Central Asia. Going to Turkmenistan would accordingly fit neatly in this pattern. What exact business Orban will have in Ashgabat, however, is yet to be fully understood.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.