Although the political establishment in Azerbaijan was chagrined by the May 12 agreement among Turkmenistan, Russia, and Kazakhstan for plans to construct a new gas pipeline to export Turkmen gas to Western markets through Russia, official Baku still sees great opportunities in bilateral relations with Turkmenistan.
Azerbaijan Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov traveled to Ashgabat on May 23 to meet his Turkmen counterpart, Rashid Meredov, and the new president of the country, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov. The visit was aimed at expanding the warming relations between the two neighbors, frozen since 1997 due to the conflict over the oil fields in the center of the Caspian Sea. Mammadyarov proposed creating an inter-governmental working commission with Turkmenistan to deal with a wide range of bilateral issues. President Berdimukhamedov welcomed the suggestion.
Both sides reportedly discussed cooperation on energy, economic, social, and political issues. They agreed to hold cultural events in each other’s capitals and to resume talks on the legal status of the Caspian Sea.
Turkmen Foreign Minister Meredov will likely reciprocate the official visit by coming to Baku. Meanwhile, experts are still pondering whether the new Turkmen president will be able to diversify his roster of energy partners or continue to depend on Russia for a “window to the West.” The initial signs show that Berdimukhamedov wants to diversify, although for the time being his dependence on — and fear of — Russia is likely to continue.
Azerbaijani politicians, on the other hand, do not exclude the possibility of both Russian and Trans-Caspian pipelines to export Turkmen gas. The centrist parliamentarian Asim Mollazade, chairman of the Democratic Reforms Party, stated on May 24, “Both pipelines can work parallel to each other.”
In order for the Trans-Caspian pipeline to become a reality, it will need significant backing from the West, primarily from the EU and the Bush administration. Financial assistance and political assurances will make the project more tangible and will offer the regime in Turkmenistan substance rather than mere words and papers. The estimated cost of $5 billion for the Trans-Caspian pipeline will be almost impossible to bear by the local governments, despite the increasing oil and gas revenues into their budgets.
Russia has already waged a full-scale war for the oil and gas resources of the Caspian basin. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Baku last week to engage Baku in energy talks with Russia and prevent its full-scale commitment to align with Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, and the Baltic states for the export of Caspian oil and gas. The May 11 energy summit in Poland (see EDM, May 14) seemed to have put some suspicions in the hearts of Russian policymakers.
While in Baku, Lavrov said that he supported the idea of energy collaboration in the region and added “Azerbaijan and Russia always try to find ways to export their energy to the world markets without hurting each other.”
Azerbaijan’s political leaders well understands Berdimukhamedov’s sensitive situation. Leading a country located at the crossroads of Western and Russian energy and political interests, President Ilham Aliyev himself has to balance between these world powers and survive in the dynamically changing and never-ending competition. His Turkmen counterpart still needs to consolidate his power domestically and build relations with the West. Thus, the process of dialogue with Turkmenistan and its gradual engagement into regional, East-West energy projects will likely go slowly and with a great deal of wariness toward the Kremlin.
For that reason, it is extremely important for the Turkmen and Azerbaijani leaderships to improve their bilateral relations in other fields, wherever possible. For example, last week Turkmen Minister of Ecology of Makhtumguli Akmuradov traveled to Baku to participate in a conference organized by his Azerbaijani counterpart, Huseyn Bagirov, and to sign a memorandum on the protection of the ecology of the Caspian Sea. The framework convention on the protection of the Caspian environment has been adopted at the insistence of the UN Development Program and envisions the short-term and long-term activities to prevent the destruction of the sea’s flora and fauna.
(Day.az, Today.az, Interfax, Echo, Zerkalo, May 22-25)