TURKMENISTAN-PAKISTAN GAS PIPELINE PROJECT BACK ON THE AGENDA.
Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 100
Meeting on May 15-16 in Ashgabat, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niazov and Pakistan’s new chief of executive power, General Parvez Musharraf, revived a dormant project for the export of Turkmen gas. Much discussed during the mid-1990s, the original project envisaged construction of a 1,500 kilometer-long pipeline across Afghanistan, to carry at least 20 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas annually to Pakistan in the first stage. A follow-up stage would have involved additional quantities of Turkmen gas, to be liquefied in Pakistan and re-exported to Southeast Asian countries from the port of Karachi on the Indian Ocean. The U.S. company UNOCAL was the project leader, and the Pakistani-armed Taliban authorities of Afghanistan were to play the role of host government for the pipeline. The Taliban leadership agreed to guarantee the pipeline’s security in return for badly needed transit revenue. Plans to add a highway and an electricity transmission line, running parallel to the pipeline, expanded the pipeline project into one for an energy-and-transport corridor, all the more attractive to the countries involved and to potential investors. Russia and Iran opposed the project in the hope of perpetuating Turkmenistan’s dependence on Russian and Iranian export routes, and to deny revenue to the Taliban while supporting the Talibs’ enemies in the Afghan civil war. Although Tehran’s and Moscow’s proteges were eventually defeated and the transit route reliably cleared, the project had to be shelved in 1996 amid international ostracism of the Taliban.
The project’s revised version, as outlined by Niazov and Musharraf, adds the option of an Iranian route as an alternative to the Afghan route from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan. Second, it lays greater emphasis than the previous version had on the parallel, overland transport and telecommunications corridor, in the interest of boosting the parties’ overall foreign trade outside the energy sector. Third, it broadens the project’s political context in the interest of ensuring international backing or at least defusing opposition. To that end, Niazov and Musharraf agreed to nudge the Taliban toward signing an armistice with the Northern Alliance and negotiating a power-sharing agreement with that alliance. The two heads of state will make a joint presentation of the pipeline and transport project at the upcoming Tehran summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) in an effort to attract political and financial backing. Seemingly intent on mending fences with India, Musharraf proposes to route Turkmen gas to the vast Indian market.
Niazov seems well placed to try the role of political broker in the region situated between the Caspian Sea and the Indian subcontinent. For all of his egotistical policies, “Turkmenbashi” is the sole leader in that region to have maintained good relations with and access to all the mutually antagonistic parties and their external backers. With Musharraf’s support, Niazov now offers to host in Ashgabat a peace conference of all the parties to the inter-Afghan conflict, which are variously supported by Pakistan, Iran and Russia via Tajikistan, not to omit an Uzbekistan inclined to reenter the arena of conflict.
Basically cut off from international gas markets since 1991, and desperately short of revenue, Turkmenistan is currently negotiating on four fronts simultaneously, in the hope of opening at least one export route. Theoretically, the four possibilities are: Afghanistan-Pakistan, Iran, Russia and the trans-Caspian route to Turkey. The Afghanistan-Pakistan option, however rational in its own right, faces daunting political hurdles and lacks any financial basis at this stage. A route via Iran would place the hand of that competitor country on Turkmenistan’s export valve. At present, Tehran is only willing to import a meager amount of Turkmen gas to supply Iran’s northern regions cheaply, obviating the need for Iran to construct pipelines from the Persian Gulf to the north of the country.
The Soviet-era export route has reopened this year for only a fraction of the pre-1991 quantities. Gazprom and the Russian government have agreed to purchase 20 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas in 2000, but the financial terms are onerous to Turkmenistan, and the pipeline less than reliable even in the short term because of its obsolesce, which should soon necessitate capital repairs. On Niazov’s invitation, Russian President Vladimir Putin begins today a visit to Turkmenistan. The Turkmen president hopes at least to discuss–pro forma–a thirty-year deal for the export of 50 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas annually to or through Russia. Such grand prospects seem entirely unrealistic at this point, first, because Moscow’s extant price offer would force Turkmenistan to export at a loss, and, second, because Moscow itself can hardly afford offering an attractive cash price.
The trans-Caspian project, by contrast, is both realistic and economically favorable to Turkmenistan. The country would gain hard currency revenue, long-term access to the fast-growing gas markets in Turkey and further afield, a politically friendly recipient country in Turkey, and the security that comes with circumventing two unscrupulous competitor governments. Led by the Bechtel, General Electric and Shell companies, and supported by the United States, the project has entered the endgame negotiating stage, with Turkmenistan holding out for maximum commercial advantage. Putin’s visit to Ashgabat looks like a spectacle stage by Niazov for leverage with the Western consortium (Ashgabat Television, Turkmenpress, AP, Reuters, May 15-17).
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