The military confrontation between Georgia and Russia in August highlighted the West’s misconception that the Caspian energy transit through the Caucasian nation is a totally secure means of bypassing Russia and Iran, a key tenet of the U.S. administration’s policy. In the aftermath of the military imbroglio, nations dependent on Caspian energy have been scrambling to readjust to the new geopolitical reality, none more so than Turkey.
Ankara currently imports around 90 percent of its oil supplies, mainly from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Russia; and the giant Russian gas monopoly Gazprom currently supplies Turkey with 63.7 percent of its natural gas imports, primarily via the Blue Stream pipeline under the Black Sea. In its relentless search for diversified energy sources, Turkey is actively courting Turkmenistan, even though Gazprom currently seems to have first call in acquiring the future volumes of Turkmen natural gas production. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accordingly decided to make an official visit to Turkmenistan in an attempt to use his personal influence to persuade Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov to reinforce Turkish interest in his country’s hydrocarbon reserves (Anadolu Ajansi, October 3).
On October 3 Erdogan flew to Ashgabat for discussions with Berdimukhamedov. He was met at the airport by Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Rashid Meredov. Accompanying Erdogan were Turkish State Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Hayati Yazici, State Minister Said Yazicioglu, Industry and Trade Minister Zafer Caglayan, Energy and Natural Resources Minister Hilmi Guler, and a group of deputies. Berdimukhamedov told Erdogan that his government greatly valued the efforts of dozens of Turkish companies that collaborated in joint ventures on his government’s reform programs, adding that Turkish companies had profoundly contributed to establishing and developing Turkmenistan’s textile industry, bringing it up to where it could compete in international markets. He expressed his appreciation of Turkish businessmen’s efforts to contribute to other important sectors of the Turkmen economy, including the development of the Avaza national tourist zone project (Gosudarstvennoe informatsionnoe agentstvo Turkmenistana [TDH], October 6).
For his part, Erdogan wasted no time in stating that Turkey was ready to expand its partnership with Turkmenistan in the fuel and energy sector, adding that his country had “exceptional interest” in importing Turkmen natural gas. Flattering his host, Erdogan praised Berdimukhamedov’s initiative on the security of a transnational energy infrastructure as being of “contemporary importance.”
While in Ashgabat, Erdogan also attended a meeting of the Turkmen-Turkish business forum at the President Hotel. Turkmenistan was represented by cabinet ministers and high-ranking ministerial officials and representatives of business organizations (Gosudarstvennoe informatsionnoe agentstvo Turkmenistana [TDH], October 6).
Before attending the business forum, Erdogan and delegation members diplomatically showed respect to Berdimukhamedov’s predecessor, traveling to the village of Kypchak to lay flowers at Saparmurat Niyazov’s mausoleum and visit the “Turkmenbashi Mosque of Spirituality,” the largest mosque in Turkmenistan, the walls of which are decorated not only with Qur’anic verses but with quotations from the Niyazov’s Rukhnama.
Beneath the diplomatic politesse is the fact that Turkey remains deeply committed not only to securing its energy imports but to becoming a major regional hub for Caspian energy exports. Erdogan used his visit to Turkmenistan to hammer this point home, telling journalists in Ashgabat, “Turkey will become one of the strategically important world and regional bases for energy resources. I am grateful to the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, for showing understanding on this issue,” before adding, “Turkey is the safest route for transporting oil and gas from the region to Western countries” (Itar-Tass, October 6).
Turkish investment in Turkmenistan has slowly and steadily increased in the past 18 months reaching $2.7 billion, according to Berdimukhamedov, who added, “Our countries have always had good relations. In the new stage of its development, Turkmenistan plans to make cooperation with Turkey more intensive” (Itar-Tass, October 4).
Fraternal diplomatic good intentions aside, however, if Ankara is to diversify its energy suppliers and become a transit hub, a number of geographical constraints have to be overcome, some of which date back to the collapse of the USSR and even earlier.
First, Turkey is promoting an undersea Trans-Caspian pipeline, which would transit Turkmen gas westward to Baku for transshipment further west. The final division of the Caspian’s seabed has yet to be definitively agreed by the five riparian states of Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, and Turkmenistan. As the de facto Azeri and Turkmen self-proclaimed Caspian offshore zones share a common border however, this is not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle.
In particular, Turkmen natural gas is essential for Ankara in order to guarantee the capacities of the proposed Nabucco gas pipeline, as Azeri production from its Caspian offshore Shah Deniz field by itself will be insufficient for the project.
If, however, Georgia is to be downgraded as a possible transit route for a natural gas pipeline in the aftermath of its military clash with Russia, then Turkey is left with two alternatives: a westerly route through Armenia or a more southerly route across northern Iran. Both options come with significant diplomatic baggage. Relations between Ankara and Yerevan remain frozen, with no formal diplomatic contacts, although Turkey’s recent “soccer diplomacy” and its Caucasus Stability and Cooperation initiative have received a cautious welcome in Armenia.
A route across Iran is more problematic, as there remains the threat of possible U.S. retaliation under the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA). Up to now, however, Washington has discreetly turned a blind eye to Turkey’s growing interest in Iran’s energy sector.
It is here, however, that Turkey’s growing closeness to Turkmenistan may prove to be a way around this diplomatic conundrum, given the latter’s vaunted neutrality. As Berdimukhamedov acknowledged in a recent interview, “The potential of permanent neutrality is wonderfully realized in international economic partnerships. A lack of external suspicions in political commitments enable Turkmenistan to feel itself a reliable partner for Turkey as a NATO member, Russia as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and Iran as a member of the Non-Aligned Movement” (Mezhdunarodnyi zhurnal Turkmenistan, September 26).
As irritating as Washington and Moscow might find it in a period of rising confrontation, regional players around the Caspian putting their security and prosperity first may well opt out of choosing sides in the new “Great Game.” If Niyazov left his nation a legacy of neutrality that its new leadership is loathe to abandon, Turkey also has an historical example to guide its foreign policy. As the founder of the Turkish Republic, Kemal Ataturk said, “peace at home, peace in the world.” In 1932 his efforts to repair relations with Greece culminated in a visit to Ankara by the Greek premier Eleftherios Venizelos, who two years later forwarded Ataturk’s name for the 1934 Nobel Peace Prize.