Turkey reaches out to Turkmenistan

By bne IntelliNews February 23, 2007

Nicholas Birch in Istanbul -

Turks have always been welcome in Turkmenistan. In the 1990s, the late Turkmen president Saparmurad Niyazov used to force cognacs on his visiting counterparts while he necked coloured water. If he wanted a shopping centre built, or another monument to his megalomania, he turned to Turkish construction companies to do the job.

In return, he only ever offered a little natural gas, Turkmenistan’s only real resource. Judging by the number of top Turkish officials who attended the February 14 inauguration of the new Turkmen president, Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov, it’s an oversight Turkey hopes the new administration will rectify.

"We rather let Turkmenistan drop in recent years," says Erdal Safak, one of a handful of senior Turkish journalists who hitched a lift with Turkish Premier Tayyip Erdogan when he flew to Ashgabat last week. "Erdogan made it absolutely clear he intended to remedy that."

"We’ve done everything we could to establish good relations with the new government," agrees a senior Turkish diplomat, "and we have reason to believe dialogue will bear fruit."

Dependent on Russia for 60% of its gas supplies, Turkey sees Turkmenistan is a means of diversifying its own resources. But Turkmenistan also has a key role to play in Turkey’s broader strategy to turn itself into an energy corridor and the "fourth artery" for Russia-dependent Europe.

Pipe dreams

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which connects the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, was opened with great fanfare in Turkey last year. Now Turkey’s sights are set on gas.

December saw the opening of the South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP), connecting Baku to the eastern Turkish city of Erzerum. Long sceptical, the European Commission now seems convinced of the need for Nabucco, a pipeline taking Caspian and Middle Eastern gas all the way from Erzerum to Austria.

Turkey’s hope is to see these two pipelines extended from Azerbaijan across the Caspian seabed to Turkmenistan. But building the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), as this Turkmen extension to SCP-Nabucco would be called, isn’t going to be easy. Previous efforts to get it off the ground stumbled on inter-governmental disputes over the ownership of the land-locked Caspian Sea.

And there are concerns about whether there will be enough Turkmen gas to fill the pipeline. In 2003, Niyazov signed an agreement with Moscow to provide 80bn cubic metres (cm) every year for 25 years, while China will be getting an annual 30bn cm from 2009 onwards. Plans for a trans-Afghan pipeline to India and Pakistan are also developing fast.

With Turkmen gas reserves conservatively estimated to be 3 trillion m3, "there’s plenty left, but somebody is going to have to dig to get it," reckons Pamir.

There are hints, though, that Turkey’s hopes of a direct link to its ethnic cousins in Turkmenistan may be more than a pipedream.

According to Turkish business daily Referans on Wednesday, Turkey’s energy minister, Hilmi Guler, and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki reached a verbal agreement on February 21 to transit Turkmen gas via Iran to Turkey.

With Iran facing UN sanctions if it fails to meet today’s deadline to stop enriching uranium, plans for a deepening Turko-Iranian partner are unlikely to go down well in Washington.

What is likely to make the US far happier are growing signs Azerbaijan may finally drop its opposition to the TCP. In the past, Azerbaijan had opposed the scheme on the grounds that it should be its gas, not Ashgabat’s, that was flowing west into Turkey. Increasingly dependent for its own consumption on expensive Russian imports, Baku now appears to have done a U-turn.

As Sabit Bagirov, former head of Azeri state oil and gas company SOCAR put it on February 14: "the election of the new [Turkmen] president will help to develop relations between our two countries. The Trans-Caspian Pipeline is now the number one issue on our agenda."

Talking to Turkish journalists on the way back from Ashgabat last week, Erdogan seemed keen to take credit for Baku’s change of heart.

"I talked to my brother Ilham [Aliyev]," he said, referring to Azerbaijan’s president. "We’ll meet up for a brotherly meeting. We’re brothers after all."

Dreams of a pan-Turkic brotherhood have a history of going nowhere. Former Ottoman leader Enver Pasha died for the idea in 1922 in what is now Uzbekistan, fighting the Bolsheviks. Exhumed after the fall of the Soviet Union, pan-Turkism didn’t even put up a fight second time round.

Amid widespread talk that Turkey might exert brotherly pressure on Turkmenistan to jettison its fondness for political repression, Erdal Safak is understandably cautious.

"A totalitarian Turkmenistan would tend to Russia, so it’s in Turkey’s interests to support democratisation," he says. Judging by Berdymukhammedov’s inauguration, though, which took place an hour after election results were announced, "these are early days yet."

Send comments to Nicholas Birch

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