Originally Published 2007-07-23 00:00:00 Published on Jul 23, 2007
The May 2007 summit at Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan between Russia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan has once again brought the Central Asian Republics (CARs), especially Turkmenistan, in the limelight of international energy politics.
Gas powers energy politics in Central Asia

The May 2007 summit at Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan between Russia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan has once again brought the Central Asian Republics (CARs), especially Turkmenistan, in the limelight of international energy politics.

The summit cut a deal on constructing a gas pipeline around the Caspian Sea and modernising the existing Soviet period pipelines in the region. It also agreed to include Uzbekistan in future negotiations, which makes it three out of five CARs. All the three CARS are rich in energy resources.

The new pipeline will transport Turkmen gas from western Turkmenistan via Kazakhstan to Russia and onward to Europe. The pipeline scheduled to be operational in 2009 will deliver 10billion cubic feet of natural gas per year to Russia.

One of the advantages of the new pipeline, as compared to the Trans Caspian pipelines, is that it will give the CARs “a cheaper, safer and therefore more attractive alternative”. The decision to upgrade existing Soviet-era pipelines also gives the CARs extra advantage.

Though both Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have categorically said that it is economic consideration that has initiated the pact and there is no “politics” involved in the whole scheme but a deeper look into the deal reveals significant geo-political ramifications.

The trilateral deal has major implications for several countries, especially for Russia, US, EU, and China, all of which are competing with each other for the region’s wealth. Europe, which is dependent on Russia for its energy requirements, has been engaged of late in carving out its independent Central Asian policy to have direct access to the Central Asian energy resources. The timing of the deal with Russia is thus significant especially taking into account the recent European initiatives like the June 3o meeting in which EU declared its Central Asian Policy for the first time. 

At present Russia buys Central Asian gas at US$100 per thousand cubic metres and sells it to Europe at US$300; thereby making it imperative for Russia to maintain its dominance in this sector. The deal is thus indicative of the growing Russian influence in the CARs. It also gives a major fillip to Russia’s ambition to maintain its status as the major gas exporter. 

The May Summit appears as a blow to the designs of the West to built pipelines in the region bypassing Russia. The pact is seen as a loss for the West because two largest repositories of oil and gas in the region ie Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have sided with Russia. With the continuing US tension with Iran, Turkmenistan, also rich in gas reserves, siding with Russia poses a threat to US energy interests. Moreover Kazakhstan’s cooperation is vital for the success of the US-supported Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

Another geopolitical implication of the trilateral pact is controlling the growing Chinese presence in the Central Asian energy sector. Russia is apprehensive of the Kazakhstan–China pipeline route, which became operational in 2006. The former President of Turkmenistan, Niyazov, had planned to build an export pipeline carrying Turkmenistan’s gas to China, which if implemented would be a threat to Russia’s monopoly over Turkmen’s gas.  

Linked with these geo-political implications is the difficulty of pinning exact numbers to the region’s wealth. For example, though Turkmenistan claims to have discovered new gas reserves no one is certain about the actual figures. It is still unclear whether Turkmenistan has sufficient reserves to meet the energy requirements of US, China, Russia at the same time; thereby increasing the rivalry among countries to get direct access to the energy resources. In that case whoever has the first access is in a better position. Nevertheless the present deal is a “diplomatic victory” for Russia as against the other external powers in the region if not a major economic success in the short run.

Turkmenistan coming out of its isolationist policy is an indication that even the CARs today are carefully carving out their national interest vis-à-vis other external powers in the region. The US and EU criticism of Turkmenistan’s human rights condition and the lack of democracy are major hurdles in developing vibrant economic cooperation. Thus partnership with Russia gives Turkmenistan the desired external support free from any ideological baggage.

Does the new deal indicate end of all other pipeline proposals in the region? As of now none of these Republics have shelved the pipeline projects supported by the West. In fact, it seems, they want to keep other options open to strengthen their bargaining position with Russia. For example, the statement by Turkmenistan President Berdymukhammedov that it “would be premature to write off the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline” suggests that CARs too are playing very cautiously. There are also reports that the Turkmen President has met officials of Chevron, US-based energy Company, to identify avenues of cooperation and to acquire ‘modern technology for oil and gas sector’. Berdymukhammedov on his fiftieth birthday celebration categorically mentioned that Turkmenistan will maintain “equal relationship” with all countries. Similar sentiments were also expressed by President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan.

The rivalry over the resources of the region will get intensified in the coming days especially with the continuation of Middle East crisis, Iraq war and the Iran standoff. The region would hence continue to be a centre of power politics and the present deal is just one such indication of this power play in the region.

Angira Sen Sarma is a Research Assistant with Observer Research Foundation

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