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    Central Asia
     Sep 13, 2012


Turkmen navy backs eastward stance
By Dmitry Shlapentokh

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.

Dominated 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 own.

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.

With diminishing 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.

Dmitry 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.

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Europe risks losing Turkmen gas opportunity
(Jul 25, '12)

Ashgabat soothes Caspian row
(Jul 13, '12)


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