Russian -Turkmen Gas Stalemate Continues

by Roman Kupchinsky

The Russian-Turkmenistan gas conflict, which began in April 2009, is far from over according to reports about Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s meeting in Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan on September 13 with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdumykhamedov.

RIA Novosti reported that although Berdumykhamedov stated that all questions relating to the resumption of gas sales to Russia had been solved,the key disagreements had not been addressed at the meeting and were left to negotiating teams between Russia’s Gazprom and Turkmengaz. The Turkmen president’s only comment on the controversial price of his country’s gas to Russia was that it would it would be part of “a formula” yet to be decided.

Alexander Medvedev, the head of Gazprom Export, a fully owned subsidiary of Gazprom which is responsible for the contract with Turkmenistan, was reported as saying that Gazprom hopes that it will reach an agreement in the near future on the resumption of gas purchases from Turkmenistan. The volume of such purchases is approximately 50 billion cubic meters a year – almost all of which has traditionally been resold by Russia or by opaque intermediary companies such as the Swiss-based trader RosUkrEnergo which Gazprom partially controlled, to Ukraine.

Alexei Miller, the head of Gazprom, noted that his company is holding “substantial” talks with Turkmengaz about renegotiating the December 2008 contract signed by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The key topic in these talks is to establish a new pricing formula which will be more favorable to Russia.

With Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko due to arrive in Turkmenistan on September 14 where he intends to present Berdumykhamedov with an offer to buy Turkmen gas directly, thereby avoiding Gazprom Export as an intermediary, the stakes for Russia will increase substantially and Alexander Medvedev’s Gazprom Export may stand to lose millions of dollars in fees it charges for its intermediary services.

If Yushchenko can convince the Turkmen leadership to sign a direct purchase contract for 2010 with Naftohaz Ukraine, the Ukrainian state gas monopoly, the Russian side would find it difficult to sabotage such a deal.

Turkmen gas to Ukraine is transported through the Central Asia-Center pipeline which is largely owned by Russia. If Gazprom refuses to allow Turkmen gas into the pipeline to transit to Ukraine, this might raise serious doubts in Europe as to Russia’s motives for doing so.

Yushchenko’s major challenge will be to negotiate a price for Turkmen gas which is lower than the current price scheme agreed to with Russia. If he can get a better deal he stands a chance to sign a contract. If, however, the Turkmen leadership is skeptical of Ukraine’s ability to pay for this gas, the deal with be scuttled.

It is no wonder then that Miller has questioned Ukraine’s ability to pay for gas in 2010.

The BBC reported that “When he [Miller] had asked officials at the Ukrainian gas company Naftohaz Ukraine how bills would be paid in 2010, they had answered by swearing broadly and saying they had no idea.”

Miller confirmed that Ukraine had recently asked if it could use future transit fees from Russia to help pay Gazprom for gas supplies. The Gazprom CEO said he had informed the Russian government, but had been instructed to stick strictly to the contract.In fact Miller reported on this development to Dmitry Medvedev who forbade him from doing so, not to Vladimir Putin.

“I hope there will be no new catastrophe,” Miller said ominously – apparently not ruling out a new Russia-Ukrainian winter gas crisis.”

Was this a warning to Turkmenistan not to sign a direct supply contract with a potentially insolvent Ukraine?

The other significant aspect of Medvedev’s visit to Turkmenistan is that the Russian President appears to be making an attempt to supplant his predecessor, Putin, as the man in charge of negotiating gas deals.

If Dmitri Medvedev cannot bring Turkmenistan back into the Russian fold he might be facing defeat in what some regard as a deadly power struggle among the Russian elites over control of Gazprom.

Speaking at the Valdai Club of foreign academics and journalists on September 11, Putin hinted that he is thinking of coming back in 2012 when President Dmitry Medvedev’s current term expires. This apparently might be a plan to prevent Medvedev from running for a second term

The two leaders, according to Putin, would not compete, but “We’ll reach an agreement.”