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Gas in exchange for security: Minister Lavrov’s Turkmen game

Today, on January 27, Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov starts his visit to Turkmenistan.  The major issues on agenda of his talks with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is security and energy.  Undoubtedly, the Afghan issue will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“During Lavrov’s visit to Ashkhabad, two blocs of issues will be discussed. These are issues of possible cooperation in the field of security and issues related to the trade-and-economic relations.  More specifically, they will discuss the resumption of the interrupted gas supply and Russia’s involvement in the security of Turkmenistan,” Alexander Knyazev, PhD in History, expert in Central Asia and Middle East, told EADaily.

A year ago, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov refused from Moscow’s assistance in the field of security. Then, the negotiations were held again by the Russian foreign minister. Turkmenistan anticipated a significant aid from U.S. then. Now, the situation has changed and Ashkhabad no longer pins hopes with U.S. The issue of gas import may become just a subsidiary coin if Turkmenistan eventually agrees to accept Russia’s participation in the regional security in any form. Yet Ashkhabad promised Washington and even Tashkent to refuse from Russia’s aid. Meantime, Turkmenistan leadership is due to find itself in a helpless situation also because of the recent signs of domestic instability. In particular, Knyazev says, the situation is not stable in Maryisk (Mary Welayaty), Turkmenistan, where the illegal arms transit from Herat, Afghanistan, is directed to.  The shipped weapons are stored at arm dumps. The main participants are Afghan ethnic Turkmens.  It is known that they shipped small weapons and some quantity of man-portable air defense systems.  This province of Turkmenistan is known with its complicate inter-tribal relations. Tekin Turkmens from Maryisk do not get along with Tekin Turkmens from Akhal who dominate in the government structures in Ashkhabad. There are even some separatist sentiments. The situation in Turkmenistan is uneasy, though the leadership tries its best to conceal it.

Alexander Knyazev is due to think that Ashkhabad may offer an exchange scheme: Russia participates in the control over the security field after it resumes import of the Turkmen gas. “Both these issues are rather painful,” the expert believes. In his words, there is nearly no cooperation between the two countries in the security field. In 1999, the operative group of the Russian frontier troops was pulled back from Turkmenistan. The group was deployed there after the collapse of the Soviet Union and since then, Turkmenistan has the lowest level of cooperation with Moscow among the post Soviet states. “Even the security services do not exchange information. In the field of military-technical cooperation, Ashkhabad has been cooperating with Ukraine, Turkey for many years. Ashkhabad is not involved in any post-Soviet alliances. It just has a status of ‘observer’ in the more than half dead CIS. Ashkhabad keeps recalling its neutral status that was declared yet under Turkmenbashi (Saparmurat Niyazov – the first president of Turkmenistan),” Knyazev told EADaily.

In fact, on its “neutrality path” Ashkhabad has lost hold on reality. Approving its neutral military doctrine in 2009, Turkmenistan systematically reduced its troops, sometimes even superseding subdivisions, troops etc. It appears that Ashkhabad really began thinking that all the threats will fade away as soon as it declares itself neutral. To reduce the domestic threats, it will be enough to reinforce the Interior Ministry, National Security Ministry and the presidential guard.  Naturally, there was evident imbalance at the power-wielding agencies and the country has become extremely vulnerable, if not helpless, before external challenges, especially when it comes to protection of the borders. Therefore, Turkmenistan is in the risk zone in view of the developments in Afghanistan.  Russia is extremely concerned over that situation considering the relatively open land border of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, which is in a common space with Russia. So, it is logical that Russia seeks to somehow involve in the security of Ashkhabad.

Turkmenistan, in turn, seeks to resume export of gas to Russia. With markets continuously shrinking, Gazprom does not need the Turkmen gas. Last January, in the course of Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Ashkhabad, it was announced that Russia would import 4 billion cubic meters of gas instead of the planned 10 billion cubic meters of gas. Earlier this month, Russia informed Turkmenistan of its intention to stop import of gas. Actually, Turkmenistan needs a new sales market for its gas. China imports nearly 61% of total gas produced by Turkmenistan but in exchange for the loans it provided earlier for the development of gas fields and construction of related infrastructures.  Another importer of the Turkmen gas is Iran, but the import is limited as Iran has its own reserves of natural gas and imports gas from Turkmenistan just for its near border consumers. All the other export directions and projects are just hypothetical as their implementation is problematic. It is widely rumored that President Berdymukhamedov has recently talked his team about the interrupted cooperation with Russia saying “Only Russians can give money!”

Such a statement by the Turkmen leader can be assessed as an order to resume the gas partnership with Russia. The price is Russia’s access to security issues. Yet Moscow also needs to weigh all “pros and cons.”  After all, partnership in the field of gas will mean for Moscow to buy the unnecessary Turkmen gas amid heavy economic situation.

EADaily Central Asian Bureau

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