With the unexpected death of Turkmen-President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov on December 21, 2006, many Western governments believed that a new era of openness and access to the country’s natural gas deposits, the fifth largest in the world, was about to begin. Six months later, it appears that, despite cosmetic changes by the new regime of President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, Turkmenistan is now firmly in the camp of the Russian Federation and its post-Soviet compatriots.
According to Deputy Chairman of the Turkmen Cabinet of Ministers and Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov, Berdimukhamedov is scheduled to attend an unofficial Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in St. Petersburg this weekend and subsequently visit Iran. Washington can derive small comfort from the fact that President Hamid Karzai of neighboring Afghanistan is also slated to visit Ashgabat. Meredov attributed his country’s growing international presence to the fact that “the number of visitors to Turkmenistan [is] increasing due to growing interest in the country all over the world” (Turkmenistan.ru, June 5).
In retrospect, Washington began to lose the race to influence the new Turkmen regime during the funeral arrangements for Niyazov. Many governments fell over themselves to send top-level politicians. These included Libya’s Muammar Qaddhafi, Afghan President Karzai, former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon, while Iran’s First Vice President Parviz Davoudi and Foreign Minister Manuchehr Motaki were also in attendance (IRNA, December 24, 2006).
Russia sent Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, accompanied by former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, while Gazprom boss Alexei Miller led a delegation of high-ranking officials from the Russian energy giant.
Chinese President Hu Jintao sent his special envoy, State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, to Ashgabat (Xinhua, December 24, 2006).
In contrast, Washington only sent Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, which was perceived as a diplomatic snub in status-conscious Central Asia, as the U.S. State Department has 24 assistant secretaries of state.
Ashgabat is now proceeding accordingly. While Niyazov suspended Turkmenistan’s full membership in the CIS on August 26, 2005, downgrading its status to associate membership, Berdimukhamedov’s attendance at the St. Petersburg summit clearly indicates that the policy is under review, and that Niyazov’s vaunted neutrality policies may be up for revision.
The implications of Berdimukhamedov’s appearance, combined with last month’s announcement of major natural gas deals between Russia and Turkmenistan (see EDM, May 16), clearly indicate that Washington’s hopes for a new beginning with Ashgabat are on the wane, while Turkmenistan’s deepening relationship with former Soviet republics are in the ascendancy.
To a certain extent, Ashgabat’s growing relationship with Moscow is a pragmatic acknowledgement of immediate geographical realities. With the notable exception of Azerbaijan, all post-Soviet Caspian riparian states are dependent on Transneft’s pre-existing, Russian-dominated pipeline monopoly for interim exports, and geographical constraints combined with funding issues have made massive projects such as proposed underwater Caspian export pipelines non-starters. Last June, five months before his death, Niyazov forced Gazprom to agree to a 54% gas price hike in a 25-year bilateral accord under which Turkmenistan would supply Russia with 162 billion cubic meters of gas at $100 per 1,000 cubic meters (tcm), up from less than $50 per tcm. After Niyazov’s funeral Berdimukhamedov hastened to assure the Russians that all existing contracts would be fulfilled.
Far more ominous, from Washington’s viewpoint, is a possible rapprochement between Turkmenistan and Iran, which would effectively destroy the U.S. policy of diplomatic isolation of Iran. While intense U.S. pressure on Turkmenistan’s Caspian neighbors Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia have precluded the development of oil swaps or significant pipeline arrangements with Iran, Washington has little leverage over Ashgabat at present, and any successful agreements by Teheran with Turkmenistan would effectively be the thin edge of the wedge in other Caspian states concluding similar agreements, which would have the added fiscal benefit of significantly shortening transit routes to East Asian markets. Of all the post-Niyazov developments, for the United States, Turkmenistan’s drift towards closer relations with Iran is by far the most significant.
The one silver lining aspect among the dark clouds forming over the Caspian for Washington is Berdimukhamedov’s meeting with Karzai. As a front-line state, Turkmenistan shares the concerns of its neighbors that Afghanistan moves toward stability after three generations of warfare. Given that Washington appears to be failing in its attempt to engage the new Turkmen leadership, initiating joint discussions over the future of Afghanistan may be the best place to start.