Turkmen navy backs eastward
The fact that Turkmenistan has engaged in
naval maneuvers in the Caspian Sea could well have
been the subject of science fiction a generation
ago. Indeed, Turkmenistan, one of the most
backward republics of the former USSR, is covered
mostly by desert, and one could little imagine any
serious conflict over an area of the Caspian Sea
during the Soviet era.
throughout the 19th century by the mighty empire
of the czars, Turkmenistan was later fully
dominated by the USSR. Iran/Persia, the only other
state that has controlled the Caspian coastlines,
has kept a low profile since the early 19th
century. However, the collapse of the USSR and the
discovery of huge gas and oil resources in the
Caspian have changed the picture completely. Not
only have several states emerged on its shores,
but all of them claim their share of its petroleum
reserves. And they do not get along with one
another. This could well have
serious implications for
regions far away from the Caspian shores.
Turkmenistan has come into possession of
considerable amounts of gas, which it is anxious
to sell to Europe. Indeed, European leaders are
actively wooing Ashgabat. And, as usual when high
profit is at stake, governments immediately forget
about less-than-stellar human-rights records.
Landlocked Turkmenistan has, however, few
options for delivering its gas westward. The first
is to use old Soviet pipeline routes, now under
the full control of Russia. Moscow was anxious to
prevent Ashgabat from becoming an independent gas
supplier and originally clinched the deal that
stipulated Turkmenistan should send gas to Russia.
By buying Turkmen gas, Russia would be the only
supplier to Europe and could keep prices high.
However, Russia soon discovered that it lost money
on the deal, and the project died out.
Amid declining interest in Moscow,
Ashgabat increasingly turned its attention to
alternative routes. It implied that the gas
pipeline on the bottom of the Caspian Sea should
be directed westward, via Azerbaijan and, of
course, bypass Russia. The West, including the US,
was very fond of this proposal, since Turkmen gas
would be essential for the Nabucco gas line.
However, problems immediately emerged. To
start with, Russia threatened military action.
Moscow began to increase its military presence on
the Caspian Sea, and has recently engaged in
military maneuvers. Azerbaijan also became
hesitant. It was not only that Baku was not
anxious to engage in a military confrontation with
Russia but also that it claimed the same gas/oil
field in the Caspian that Ashgabat regarded as its
Conflicts over this disputed field
have subsided in the past two years or so but have
not disappeared completely: They flared up anew
recently, leading Turkmenistan to build up its
navy and engage in the first naval maneuvers in
its history. The other Caspian states, Iran,
Russia, Azerbaijan and even neutral Kazakhstan,
also disagree in regard to their portions of the
sea and have built up their navies in the area.
None of this means that the Trans-Caspian
Gas Pipeline and Turkmenistan's participation in a
Nabucco-type project are out of the question. The
deal is too profitable for Ashgabat to be
abandoned, and negotiations with Baku have
continued. Still, the general tension in the area
and Turkmenistan's naval maneuvers make the
successful implementation of the pipeline look
less and less likely. And it is not Russia but
China that emerges as the clear beneficiary of the
death of the pipeline.
chances to send gas westward, Turkmenistan has no
other major market but China. Ashgabat has been
sending increasing quantities of gas in that
direction since the projected completion of the
pipeline in 2009. Currently, it has a new
agreement with Beijing that implies an even
greater quantity of gas will be sent eastward.
The naval maneuvers, then, might indicate
that Ashgabat is no longer thinking much about
Baku as a partner for sending gas westward but as
a rival claimant of the gas field, which could now
be directed eastward.
Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of
history, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences,
Indiana University South Bend. He is author of
East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life
of Themistocles, 2005.
2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights
reserved. Please contact us about sales,