President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov made remarks at the ceremonial launching of the East-West gas pipeline on December 23. The Turkmen leader urged Russia and Kazakhstan to resume the trilateral cooperation on the construction of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline. He assured that “Turkmenistan seeks to take specific and effective steps to implement the agreements achieved earlier.” On the same day, the Turkmen leader had a meeting with Rosneft Company President Igor Sechin, who expressed desire to “enhance the cooperation with Turkmenistan that has huge resources and economic capacity.”
Actually, it is the first sign of the possible thaw in the relations that spoiled several years ago over Turkmen gas. As demand for gas in Europe fell, Gazprom restricted and later stopped the import of gas from Turkmenistan. Experts say gas accumulation in the pipeline resulted in a man-caused disaster. Turkmenistan suffered certain losses. This year, the discrepancies over energy supplies continued. Turkmenistan blamed its Russian partners for failing to redeem some debts that accumulated then. As Russia rejected the claims, Ashgabat declared Gazprom bankrupt and appealed to the Stockholm Court of Arbitration. As for the construction of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline, the idea emerged yet in 2007. The project provided for transportation of gas from the Caspian Sea deposits and other deposits of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to Russia. In May 2007, the presidents of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia signed a trilateral document that became a basis for the implementation of the project. Later in December 2007, the three countries signed a trilateral intergovernmental agreement on the construction of the gas pipeline. Gazprom planned to join the project. However, the abovementioned and some other contradictions cast a doubt on the project. Today, it appears that the situation may change. What is the reason for that? What should Russia expect from such developments? Senior researcher from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Shokhrat Kadyrov addresses these and other questions in an interview with EADaily.
What made the Turkmen president come out with such a sudden statement on reanimation of the Trans-Caspian project?
The main gas reserves of Turkmenistan are in the east of the country, while the country needs to supply gas not only to China and Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, but also to Europe. Hence, the idea of an internal gas pipeline with a sound name “East-West” emerges. The gas from the east of the country is necessary not only for export, but also for pumping it into the petroleum reservoirs located mainly in the Caspian Sea region. This is how the Turkmen oil (the country has less oil than gas) can be pumped/extracted from deep wells. Along with the use of special substances, the extraction can be increased by 30%. In case of interruptions with supply of gas and substances, the country has to resort to the field shutdown/re-activation suffering up to 50% loss of oil. Turkmenia supplies oil in tankers to the Persian Gulf countries via Iran, which brings more revenues to the budget than export of gas.
Turkmenistan implemented the East-West gas project on its own funds unlike the gas pipeline to China, the Turkmen section of which was built by Russia. However, the things were different then and the relations with Russia in the gas sector were rather successful. Recently, after Turkmenistan started to sell gas to Russia for the European price, the demand for it decreased dramatically. That is why Turkmenistan has to fund the East-West project and the Turkmen section of the Trans-Caspian pipeline on its own.
By speaking of the project’s reanimation, the Turkmen president tries to determine the key topic of the future negotiations with the Russian president who, as Valentina Matviyenko said, plans to travel to Turkmenistan in 2016. He thinks Russia should approve the cooperation in the supply of its own and the Turkmen gas to Iran, as it opposes the construction of the Turkmen pipeline running to Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea bottom worrying for the environment of the Caspian Sea more than for the one of the Black Sea (NABUCCO-2).
Does Russia really need such cooperation?
It is clear that Russia does not need any new gas pipeline with new supplies of the Turkmen gas. It has the old Soviet gas pipeline system Central Asia-Center. The old pipeline differs from the new one, as it runs not only to Russia but also to Iran. Actually, it is not so much about the reanimation of the Trans-Caspian project as about the emergence of Putin’s Alliance of gas exporters within the former Soviet Union, first of all, Turkmenistan and Russia. The first Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov refused from it, as he was afraid of losing control over the country’s resources. The second president does not refuse from it and builds a pipeline to link it to Kazakhstan/Russia.
Although Iran has more gas reserve than Turkmenistan (35 trillion, the 2nd place in the world and 10% of the world’s total gas reserves), it has faced other tasks after the U.S. rescinded sanctions against it. Iran seeks to sell gas to Europe via Turkey. It cannot do without the Turkmen gas at least at first. Actually, it will be not so much reanimation of the Trans-Caspian project as such, but part of the big original “Iranian” project “Nabucco,” the arrangement on which was made with Shell yet in 1997 – gas supply from Iran to Turkey and Europe. Russia’s permission for the Trans-Caspian “Nabucco-2” is not needed. Neither there are any military problems as it was with the gas pipeline Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI).
Is it a change of Ashgabat’s foreign policy vector?
Turkmenistan cannot be blamed for changing its vector. Turkmenistan has enough experience of SWAP supplies of energy and gas with Iran. Turkmenistan sells resources on the border with Iran, in the given case. Russia’s relations with Iran are even warmer than the ones with China. The historical links of Central Asia and Russia are based on the Iran-Russian relations.
Is Russia able to provide security to Turkmenistan? It is becoming a very relevant issue.
Theoretically, it can, of course. However, neither Russia not Turkmenistan seek such interaction in practice. Russia does not need new hotbeds of confrontation along its borders. Turkmenistan fears that Russia’s military assistance in terms of deployment of troops may cost it sovereignty, if not power shift. Yet the present-day military assistance not always implies involvement of regular army. A smart mining of the vulnerable areas on the border by foreign specialists - Russia is known with its blasters – will be enough to secure oneself against external interference.