International competition in Turkmenistan’s energy sector is supplying a pretext for Iran to remind Ashgabat of its need to preserve good relations with Tehran. A bilateral meeting held in Ashgabat on November 19, attended by senior foreign ministry officials from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, considered the problems associated with the status of the Caspian Sea. The meeting drew unwelcome criticism from Iran, voicing its own concern about the legitimacy of any future bilateral accord between Baku and Ashgabat on energy cooperation in the Caspian.
In recent years both countries have disputed the ownership of several oilfields. The ongoing political issue became more important as a result of the presidential change in Ashgabat and greater Western interest in Turkmenistan as a regional energy player. The Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran predictably praised the Caspian agreements reached between Iran and the USSR in 1921 and 1940 but pointedly affirmed that Iran will not countenance recognizing the legality of any agreement reached involving only Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan (Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, November 19; Itar-Tass, November 20).
As Turkmenistan’s foreign and energy policies evolve, bringing more international attention, the country’s leadership will require rapid input on how to handle Western investors. One key advisor has apparently fallen from favor. In September 2007 rumors emerged in Ashgabat concerning Turkish businessman Ahmet Calik, head of the Calik Holding Company. Calik had formed a very close association during the last decade with the late President Saparmurat Niyazov, which he utilized in developing his construction business interests in the country. Notably, Calik was given unprecedented access to projects in the oil and gas sectors. He reportedly reached an agreement with President Berdimukhamedov on February 20 to cooperate jointly on projects in the energy and textile sectors. The two appear to have disagreed and parted company, allowing other Turkish companies to foster “confidential contact” with Berdimukhamedov. This development suggests three tentative conclusions. First, the new Turkmen leader may prove unpredictable and difficult in business deals. Second, competition in the energy sector is increasing. And third, presidential control over the energy sector will continue along the lines of his predecessor (Gundogar, November 14).
Lacking indigenous expertise, Berdimukhamedov will rely on guidance from his close and trusted regional partners, including Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Presumably, Tehran would also like a role.
While there is no denying that competition exists, Teheran is vigorously promulgating a rivalry over Turkmenistan involving a clash between Western and Russian interests. Iran is actively emphasizing the growing rivalry in Turkmenistan’s energy market, noting several factors: since Turkmenistan is neutral in a region of strategic value, it could become a balancing force in managing these various interests, these rivalries will raise Turkmenistan’s role in Central Asia, and Ashgabat will need to balance carefully its relations with Russia, China, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, the EU, and the United States. Moreover, Iranian radio pointed to comments made by Valeriy Golubev, deputy head of Gazprom, who is claiming that a major part of his company’s activities in Central Asia are now focused on Turkmenistan (Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, November 19).
However, Ashgabat appears to prefer its traditional partners to Iran. Following the Commonwealth of Independent States’ heads of government summit held in Ashgabat on November 22, which reiterated Berdimukhamedov’s commitment to the May 2007 trilateral Caspian gas pipeline agreement with Russia and Kazakhstan, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov began a working visit in the capital. Western observers may underestimate the potential for Russian success, as its diplomats and government officials advance Moscow’s lesser-known agenda in Turkmenistan.
As Ashgabat re-evaluates its relations with the EU and Western countries in order to develop its energy sector, at least some “priorities” are emerging. Berdimukhamedov addressed a session of the Turkmen State Security Council on November 19, claiming that his government will ensure successful implementation of what he claimed as a “new stage” in the development of the armed and security forces. Turkmenistan will continue to adhere strictly to the principles of neutrality and will simultaneously strengthen the defense capacity of its armed forces, since this is regarded as an important factor in guaranteeing stability in the country.
Presidential support was given for strengthening the material and technical maintenance of military personnel and constructing sufficient facilities for servicemen. Of course, in reality Turkmenistan’s armed forces are in need of serious systemic reform, requiring sustained state investment and support from the country’s international partners. Nonetheless, during the Security Council session, some curious signals were given concerning Ashgabat’s sources of defense and security support.
Defense Minister Agageldi Mammetgeldiyev presented a report on his recent visit to China, which involved discussions with Chinese defense officials about a bilateral military partnership. He made no mention of defense contacts with other countries. Equally interesting was Muhammetguly Ogsukov, prosecutor general of Turkmenistan, as he briefed the president on the precise details of his working visit to Russia on November 15, during which he met his counterpart, Yuri Chaika, and held talks with various representatives of Russian law-enforcement and security agencies on defining the priority areas for interstate cooperation between these institutions. This mostly involved cooperation on criminal extraditions, but included a commitment to step up bilateral efforts to combat terrorism and counter narcotics trafficking. The message from the Security Council session seemed to convey that such cooperation was not controversial. No one felt the need here for promises or reports on developing such links with Western countries (Turkmen TV Altyn Asyr Channel, November 20).