COMMENT: After Turkmenbashi, danger and opportunity

By bne IntelliNews January 22, 2007

Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation in Washington -

Many may think that Turkmenistan is on another planet, but Western governments and energy companies are carefully waiting for the outcome of the power struggle in the country since its dictator, Saparmurad Niyazov, president-for-life and self-proclaimed Leader of all Turkmen (Turkmenbashi), died suddenly on December 21.

Turkmenistan is a keystone of Central Asian geopolitics, third in importance after Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Western businesses and policies will benefit if the post-Turkmenbashi transition is used by the US and the EU to open the doors of this reclusive nation for its reintegration into the region and the world.

The oases-studded country, boasting the fifth largest natural gas reserves on the planet in a population of only 4m, could have been as rich as Kuwait. But Turkmenbashi ran his realm into the ground, preventing Western companies from developing its riches.

Instead, the cruel and bizarre leader was selling all of the country's gas to Gazprom for half-price and some shoddy goods barter. Only in 2006 did he negotiate a 54% increase in the price to $100 for 1,000 cubic meters (cm) to Gazprom. The Russian firm then resells the Turkmen gas at an 100%-plus profit, increasing its own wealth and influence, as well as that of its Russian and Ukrainian affiliates such as the shady RosUkrEnergo.

A more rational strategy for Turkmenistan would be to diversify its gas pipelines, thus terminating the Gazprom monopoly. Apparently, says Professor Fred Starr, director of the prestigious Central Asia Institute at the School of Advanced and International Studies, before Turkmenbashi died he was considering the building of up to three new gas pipelines: to China; to India and Pakistan via Afghanistan (TAP), and across the Caspian to Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Due to its strategic location, the US was seriously considering a military air base in Turkmenistan if Washington were ever to undertake a military operation against the Iranian nuclear program, or to supply Afghanistan. But such a development would make both Teheran and Moscow mad.

The interim boss of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, the former minister of health and vice premier, is a dentist and a rumoured close relative of the late dictator. Thus far, Berdymuhammedov has played his cards close to his chest, hinting about some liberalisation, but refusing to let the opposition back into the country. He seems to enjoy the support of the commander of the powerful Presidential Guard, Akmurad Rejepov, who conducted the arrest of the Speaker of the Parliament shortly after Niyazov's death.

Father of pluralism

The new leader has so far expressed tentative intentions about taking Turkmenistan in a more pluralistic direction. While he promised to allow the Internet, return to 10-year secondary education and revisit the issue of pensions, Berdymuhammedov is maintaining the Turmenbashi cult of personality and refuses to allow the opposition to return from abroad, or to let multiple parties compete in forthcoming elections. "Kazakhstan is a good model of where Turkmenistan should go," says a senior Turkmen diplomat.

Russia is comfortable with Berdymuhammedov, who must guarantee supply of 50bn cm of gas to Gazprom until 2009. Two other powers are watching developments in Ashgabat like hawks: China, which would like to gain access to Turkmen gas, and neighbouring Iran, which would like to prevent the country from becoming a pro-US base for future intervention.

Western interests in Central Asia can be summarized in three words: security, energy and democracy. The Turkmenistani transition provides unique opportunities in all three areas. However, after the February 13 presidential "elections," the window for change will close, and the new oligarchy will take over. Turkmenistan’s new rulers want security for their one-party state and regime, while maximizing profits from gas for the benefit of their country’s development – and their own.

The US and EU have so far chosen to play it safe, declaring that they want to cooperate with the new leaders. No US-style democracy promotion campaign when oceans of natural gas are at stake. The West, however, could use this transition as an opportunity to extend to the new government a series of economic and political incentives.

For example, the US and EU could link the spectre of seizing Turkmenbashi's ill-gotten gains to an economic programme to create a "level playing field," which would allow Western, including Polish, energy companies fair and equal access to Turkmenistan’s undeveloped resources. And Turkmenbashi's billions should be used for the benefit of the Turkmen people – principally in the areas of health and education.

Turkmenistan is in the most important period of its political existence since independence. The way its future develops will influence not just Central Asia, but Europe's energy security and the US relationship with Iran as well. US policy towards this transition should be based on Turkmenistan's security, energy and democracy – priorities which will enhance US interests in the region.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Davis Institute at the Heritage Foundation and the author of 'Eurasia in Balance' (Ashgate, 2005).

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