At a summit meeting in the Kremlin on April 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to press his Turkmen counterpart on a variety of issues, notably Caspian energy. But during his first official visit to Moscow Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov refrained from making any new commitments.
During his meeting with Putin, Berdimukhamedov pledged to further discuss increased Turkmen gas exports to Russia via a proposed pipeline to be built along the Caspian shore. The new pipeline would allow Turkmenistan to export more gas, because the existing Central Asia-Center pipeline network has a capacity of only 50 billion cubic meters per year.
Subsequently, Russia and Turkmenistan moved to improve their common institutional framework. In their joint statement, Putin and Berdimukhamedov supported the bilateral commission on economic cooperation co-chaired by Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin and Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov, which is due to meet in Ashgabat in June 2007. Putin also accepted an invitation to visit Turkmenistan, probably in May.
In contrast with the unpredictability and isolationism of the late Saparmurat Niyazov, Ashgabat now says it puts an increased emphasis on its ties with Russia. On April 20, President Berdimukhamedov discussed his trip with members of the Turkmen government. He told a cabinet meeting that Turkmenistan viewed Russia as its reliable strategic partner.
Caspian issues were supposed to be on the agenda of the Russia-Turkmen summit meeting in Moscow April 23-24. However, the joint statement only said on that both sides discussed issues including the Caspian Convention and the Second Caspian Summit April 24, while no agreements were announced.
Nonetheless, the new Turkmen leadership indicated a willingness to do more to settle the Caspian dispute. On April 11, Berdimukhamedov ordered the creation of a special Turkmen commission on Caspian issues, including the legal status of the sea and cooperation with other littoral states.
The Caspian littoral states’ deputy foreign ministers met in Ashgabat on April 24-25 to attend the 21st session of the special working group designed to draft a convention on the Caspian Sea’s legal status. The meeting was reportedly held following a direct order by Berdimukhamedov.
Representatives of Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan reiterated their shared intention to work out a consensus on the issue and draft a convention to regulate Caspian affairs. The next meeting is due to take place in Tehran (Azeri Press Agency, Interfax, April 25).
Ahead of the meeting, Mehdi Safari, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Asia, Pacific, and the Commonwealth of Independent States said on April 23 that Tehran would host the Caspian summit “soon.” He said that three expert meetings had been held in Tehran to draft a joint statement for the summit. But Safari conceded that differences remained on a number of issues, notably security, military, shipping, the presence of third parties, and the Trans-Caspian pipelines (IRNA, April 23).
Russia has opposed plans to build subsea Trans-Caspian pipelines, officially on environmental grounds. But Moscow apparently viewed these plans as an attempt to circumvent its own pipeline network. In September 2006, Niyazov promised Gazprom not to consider a subsea gas pipeline spanning the Caspian. During his stay in Moscow, Berdimukhamedov refrained from committing — or distancing — himself from this promise.
Russia also moved to announce yet another Caspian-related initiative. In his annual state of the nation address on April 26, Putin suggested that the Caspian littoral states should consider building a second line of the Volga-Don shipping canal. Subsequently, Russian transportation minister Igor Levitin said that Russia would propose that the Caspian states form an international consortium to build the canal (RIA-Novosti, April 26). Built in 1952, the 100-kilometer (60-mile) Volga-Don canal has an annual freight capacity of 16.5 million tons.
In the meantime, Azerbaijan made little secret of its uneasiness about Russia’s strict rules regulating maritime and naval transit between the Caspian and the Black Sea through the Russian river routes.
Earlier this month, Azerbaijani officials reportedly complained that Russia had allowed only a 25-passage quota for Azerbaijan in 2006, including 14 ships via the Volga-Don to the Caspian from the Azov and 11 ships back. Officials also criticized Russia for being slow to announce the Azerbaijani quota for 2007 (Azerbaijan Press Agency APA, April 3).
But Russia’s strict rules hardly come as a surprise, because Moscow has long warned against an “outside” military presence in the strategically important Caspian region. Officially, Moscow is against a buildup of foreign forces, which could destabilize the region.
In the wake of the failed Caspian Sea summit in April 2002, the second Caspian summit has been subject to endless delays. Instead Moscow has pushed for a series of bilateral deals, instead of an overall agreement among all five littoral states.
Russia has been trying to forge a multi-national force, known as CASFOR, in the Caspian Sea, suggesting that Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran should take concerted efforts to security threats in the Caspian region, but the idea of CASFOR has proved slow to materialize.
As, Russia increases its economic and security interests in the strategic Caspian region, Moscow’s opposition to perceived outside meddling there grows accordingly.