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    Central Asia
     Dec 22, 2011


Page 1 of 2
THE ROVING EYE
Playing chess in Eurasia
By Pepe Escobar

Bets are off on which is the great story of 2011. Is it the Arab Spring(s)? Is it the Arab counter-revolution, unleashed by the House of Saud? Is it the "birth pangs" of the Greater Middle East remixed as serial regime changes? Is it R2P ("responsibility to protect") legitimizing "humanitarian" bombing? Is it the freeze out of the "reset" between the US and Russia? Is it the death of al-Qaeda? Is it the euro disaster? Is it the US announcing a Pacific century cum New Cold War against China? Is it the build up towards an attack on Iran? (well, this one started with Dubya, Dick and Rummy ages ago ...)

Underneath all these interlinked plots - and the accompanying hysteria of Cold War-style headlines - there's a never-ending thriller floating downstream: Pipelineistan. That's the chessboard

 
where the half-hidden twin of the Pentagon's "long war" is played out. Virtually all current geopolitical developments are energy-related. So fasten your seat belts, it's time to revisit Dr Zbigniew Brzezinski's "grand chessboard" in Eurasia to find out who's winning the Pipelineistan wars.

Got tickets to the opera?
Let's start with Nabucco (the gas opera). Nabucco is above all a key, strategic Western powerplay; how to deliver Caspian Sea gas to Europe. Energy execs call it "opening the Southern Corridor" (of gas). The problem is this Open Sesame will only deliver if supplied by a tsunami of gas from two key "stans" - Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.

The 3,900-kilometer Nabucco will hit five transit countries - Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Turkey - and it may end costing a staggering 26 billion euros (US$33.7 billion) [1].

Construction - endlessly delayed - might start by 2013. Essentially, everything is still a bloody mess. Nobody knows about prices, or the details of transit rights. Turkey is also eager to resell the gas on its own. Moreover, if Baku and Ankara decide to develop in tandem the Shah Deniz phase II [2] fields in Azerbaijan to feed the pipeline, they will need an extra $20 billion in investment.

Turkmenistan's president, the spectacularly named Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, sticks to his trademark wobbly script (Check him out singing his original hit "For You, My White Flower" ). He always says the European Union's myriad proposals "would be studied" and cooperation with the Europeans is "a strategic priority" of his foreign policy. But the EU's Holy Grail - an ironclad agreement to get the gas - is ever more elusive. The Russians and even the Azeris bet this will never happen.

Our man Gurbanguly, savvy operator that he is, would prefer to hatch his eggs in a Chinese basket - rather than in those far-away euro-messy lands. That's why he wobbles - feigning he's open to any offer. He knows better than anybody that for the Europeans Nabucco is the key to be released (a bit) from the grip of Russia's Gazprom. At the same time he keeps in mind how to maximize his Chinese profits while not antagonizing Russia.

Every European bureaucracy (not) worth its name is behind Nabucco [3], and most of all an eager European Commission (EC), the EU's fat salary-infested executive branch. The EC's do-or-die strategic priority is to link the Turkmen port of Turkmenbashi to the Absheron Peninsula in Azerbaijan via a Trans-Caspian Gas pipeline (TCGP) [4]. It's a breeze; I did the trip on a vodka-infested Azeri cargo ship and it took me only 12 hours.

But how to pull it off? Moscow locked up all Azeri gas. Gazprom locked up all the surplus gas from Turkmenistan. The only option would be Iran. Now tell that to the US Senate - who has declared economic war [5] against Iran.

Let's go TAPI!
A detour to AfPak is in order. Not even the deities who lord over the Hindu Kush know if the $7.6 billion (and counting), 1,735-kilometer TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline will ever be built.

For Turkmenistan's Oil and Gas Minister Bayramgeldy Nedirov, "There are no doubts that this [TAPI] project will be realized." [6] Pakistan and India - after infinite haggling - have finally agreed on pricing. Roughly a third of the pipeline's cost will be financed by the Philippines-based Asian Development Bank - since both Afghanistan and Pakistan are essentially broke.

Imagine a steel serpent entering western Afghanistan towards Herat, going south underground (to prevent terrorist bombing) parallel to the Herat-Kandahar road, then taking a detour via Quetta - home of Taliban supremo Mullah Omar - to Multan in Pakistan and finally reaching Fazilka, on the Indian border.

To quote Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, "This is the stuff dreams are made of," since the Bill Clinton administration, way before 9/11 and the now virtually extinct GWOT ("global war on terror"). Cynics may read this as gas republic Turkmenistan - holder of the fourth-largest reserves in the world - doing better to promote economic development and security in Afghanistan than 100,000 US troops.

The gas for TAPI will come from the new South Yolotan-Osman field - which already supplies China (according to British auditor Gaffney, Cline & Associates this is the world's second-largest [7] gas field, after South Pars in Iran). Our man Gurbanguly, by the way, issued a decree changing the gas field's name to Galkynys - Turkmen for "Renaissance"; after all, Gurbanguly's reign has been baptized as "The Epoch of New Renaissance and Great Transformations". These "transformations" have nothing to do with the Arab Spring(s).

Here we find yet another clever gambit by our man Gurbanguly. He keeps an open door to Nabucco by freeing the gas from Dauletabad field in southeast Turkmenistan to flow via a domestic pipeline to the Caspian, and then to the oh so elusive TCGP. Even the (delicious) sturgeons in the Caspian know that without a TCGP, Nabucco is DOA.

At least for a year now our man Gurbanguly has been telling every diplomat and top oil exec in sight that he rejects Russia's interference over Turkmenistan's gas strategy. [8] But apparently he didn't inform the Russians.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev did visit Ashgabat - the Las Vegas of Central Asia - to talk business [9]. And then, in a daring plot twist, suddenly Gazprom proclaimed its love of TAPI! Just imagine; the Americans have been dreaming of TAPI since 1996, just for rival Gazprom to barge in at overtime. No one knew what Medvedev offered to Gurbanguly so he wouldn't keep entertaining fancy Louis Vuitton ideas. Perhaps nothing. We'll come to that in a minute.

Ask the babushkas
TAPI's direct competition is IPI - the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline (India, pressured by the US, has virtually dropped out; China is ready to pounce and turn it into IPC). Well, who else but Gazprom now wants to get into the IP groove as well [10], alongside China's CNPC? The Iranian stretch of the pipeline is virtually ready. The Pakistani stretch begins in early 2012. Still another Russian chess move - and Washington never saw it coming.

Even a wooden babushka knows what Moscow does not want; the Afghan chapter of the US Empire of Bases never going away. Then there's regime change in Syria (with the implicit end of the Russian Black Sea fleet using the port of Tartus). The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) advances in the Black Sea. The ever-expanding (at least rhetorically) US missile defense and the US's "New Silk Road" gambit to re-penetrate Central Asia [11].

It was Russia that authorized the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) to supply US and NATO troops in Afghanistan [12], an endless trek across Eurasia, including Uzbekistan - whose ghastly dictatorship US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised for its political "progress" - and Tajikistan. Pushing Moscow too far is not exactly a winning strategy.

Moscow also sees how Washington has antagonized virtually everyone in Pakistan - with the non-stop "war of the drones", the non-stop violations of territorial sovereignty, the non-stop threats to barge in and "take over your nuclear arsenal". Washington's priority is for Islamabad to attack the Pakistani Taliban in Balochistan and thus be dragged into a civil war against not only Pashtuns but also Balochis. As Moscow - and Beijing - survey the battlefield, all they have to do is bide their time while sipping green tea.

When former reds see red
The Russian-Chinese entente is not always a Bolshoi dance.

Russia wants to sell gas to China for $400 per 1,000 cubic meters (cm), the same price it charges Europe. The wily Turkmen charge the Chinese only $250. Beijing already spent $4 billion in South Yolotan (and counting); they want all the gas they can get to supply the hugely successful Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China pipeline (which they built), online for two years now [13]. Beijing is insatiable; oil major CNPC wants to import no less than 500% more gas from Central Asia by 2015 [14]. 

Continued 1 2  


Caspian pact remains elusive
(Dec 14, '11)

Moscow gives brutal warning on Trans-Caspian Project
(Dec 1, '11)

Baku takes control of gas export policy
(Nov 22, '11)

 

 
 



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