Turkmen-Russian Gas Relations Continue to Sour

by Roman Kupchinsky

Compounding Russia’s ongoing problems with its European and C.I.S. gas clients is the geopolitically sensitive case of Turkmenistan. On June 2, 2009 The Moscow Times reported that Gazprom demanded that this prime Central Asian gas producing country either slash the price of gas it sells or reduce the volume it ships to Gazprom. The reason for the request was that Gazprom had no immediate need for expensive Turkmen gas at a time when its own exports had dramatically decreased due to depressed Ukrainian and E.U. demand for gas.

The Turkmenistan conundrum has placed the Russian government in a dire squeeze. It exposes the total failure of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s strategy to maintain total control over Turkmen gas production which was meant to: A.) Supplement declining gas production in Russia; B.) Prevent Turkmenistan from supplying gas to the Nabucco pipeline.

The announcement was made by Valery Golubev, a former KGB agent who is now a deputy director of Gazprom responsible for sales to C.I.S. countries. Golubev stated: “Since Europe is not taking the gas anymore, we said, ‘Dear colleagues, there is no market for your gas at such a price.” But it was Putin who in late December 2008 announced that he had made a deal with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to buy Turkmen gas at “world prices.” Did Putin grossly miscalculate the demand for Turkmen gas or was he guided by other, more personal motives? It is well known that Turkmen gas was sold on the European market not only by the discredited company RosUkrEnergo, but also by various subsidiary companies of Gazprom Germania, Centrex and other Gazprom-affiliated intermediaries.

Golubev, speaking in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk, reminded Turkmenistan that they have no choice but to ship their most valuable export through Russia since no other pipeline routes exist, at least not for the next five years.
“There are no alternatives. Gas to Europe can be supplied from Turkmenistan mainly through the Central Asia-Center gas pipeline system,” he said, the news agency reported.

A Turkmen official said last week that if talks failed, it could take Russia to the International Court of Arbitration. Presumably the Turkmen government would attempt to prove that Gazprom was not meeting its obligations under a “take or pay” contract signed with Turkmenistan. However, the contract between Turkmenistan and Russia has not been made public and it is not clear what the payment terms were.

At the same time Gazprom kept insisting that Ukraine meet the terms of its “take or pay contract” and while Putin was forced in mid-May 2009 to forego penalizing Ukraine for not meeting its contractual commitments it remains unclear if this a tactical move to give his pro-Russian friends in Kyiv room to maneuver and win the upcoming presidential elections or was it a slight of hand to cover-up his inept handling of the gas purchase agreement with Turkmenistan in December 2008?