Turkmenistan: Homage to Anatolia

Turkmenistan: Homage to Anatolia
Crash, bang, wallop: President Berdimuhamedov oversaw large military exercises over last weekend. / Turkmenistan government website
By Akhal-Teke: A Eurasianet Bulletin October 27, 2023

Turkmenistan’s president was scheduled to travel to Turkey this week for talks expected to focus on natural gas transportation.

For decades, thoughts about how to send Turkmen gas westward have centred around the need to build a trans-Caspian pipeline to Azerbaijan. Presumed resistance from Russia has long been the main perceived stumbling block.

But that is only one part of the equation.

For buyers in Europe to be able to import useful amounts of Turkmen gas, the capacity of the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline, or TANAP, which crosses the length of Turkey, will also have to expand substantially.

Happily for that notion, Azerbaijan and Turkey agreed last year on a plan to expand annual capacity at TANAP from 16bn cubic metres (bcm) to 32bcm. Speaking at an energy forum in Istanbul in October 2022, Turkey’s then-energy and natural resources minister Fatih Donmez expressed confidence this increase could be implemented “in a short period of time.”

Speaking to Turkish news agency Anadolu in June, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Ankara predicted that the added capacity would enable Baku to up its Turkey-bound gas exports to 10.2bcm per year. Another 12bcm per year would be earmarked for Europe, the ambassador, Rashad Mammadov, told Anadolu.

The maths suggest room for Turkmenistan to also negotiate its way into TANAP. How that might look will be fodder for the conversations that President Serdar Berdimuhamedov and his delegation were set to have in Turkey when they visited on October 25-26.

In a neat bit of timing, Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov was in Luxembourg on October 23 for wide-ranging consultations with senior European diplomats on the sidelines of a Central Asia-European Union ministerial meeting.

Meredov was crystal clear on the energy agenda in his statement to the meeting.

“Speaking about cooperation in the energy sector, the Turkmen diplomat indicated that the transportation of energy resources is of crucial importance for Turkmenistan,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement about his speech. “Particular emphasis was placed on expanding gas exports to Europe through the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline.”

Berdimuhamedov’s trip to Turkey was preceded by what is now becoming a customary bit of grim gift-giving of sorts.

Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported that on October 17, several dozen Turkmen nationals, including one government critic called Serdar Durdylyev, were loaded onto a plane in Istanbul and sent back home. While many in this group appeared to have issues with their documents, Durdylyev reportedly had a valid residence permit when he was detained. This permit was annulled in nebulous circumstances and the activist was denied the chance to meet with a lawyer. His next stop is all but certain to be prison.

Long deemed something of a haven, Turkey has now become a highly risky place to live for Turkmens critical of their government. Not that these people have much choice. Russia ships Turkmens back home at will. And the European Union is a destination very few can hope to reach.

In fact, there are many destinations that are hard for Turkmens to reach for the simple fact that getting hold of an international passport can be so complicated.

Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news reported on October 19 that that in the city of Turkmenabat, the wait for receiving a travel document can be as long as 10 months. There is talk that the numbers of people seeking to leave the country is so great that children under the age of 18 may no longer be issued foreign passports. It is a similar story in other parts of the country.

Unnamed Turkmen.news sources have identified the culprit for all this as former president (and father of the incumbent) Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. The so-called National Leader is apparently outraged by the large numbers of people rushing for the exit. What most aggrieves him is how many Turkmens are applying for the US Green Card lottery. The number went up from almost 13,000 in 2016 to more than 56,000 in 2021.

While Berdimuhamedov senior wants to see fewer Turkmen people leave the country, he wants more Turkmen gas sent abroad – a point he made for the umpteenth time at the third international Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing last week. He dwelled in part on the progress allegedly being made on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India, or TAPI, gas pipeline project.

TOLO News website on October 13 cited a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Mines and Petroleum Ministry as saying the government in Kabul, the self-styled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, has addressed the matter of purchasing the land on which the TAPI pipeline is to be built. Experts consulted by TOLO News conceded, though, that more problems lie ahead.

“This project is now facing two major issues; the first is the recognition of the Islamic Emirate, which has slowed it down and is the subject of continuing negotiations. Another major problem of this project is the bilateral tensions between the countries involved, especially the dispute between India and Pakistan,” Seiyar Qurishi, an economist, told TOLO News.

One big sticking point, as ever, is money. TAPI member nations are betting on the Gulf.

On October 22, the chairman of Turkmenistan’s State Bank for Foreign Economic Affairs, sometimes called Turkmenvnesheconombank, met in Riyadh with the chief executive of the Saudi Fund for Development, Sultan Al-Marshad, to discuss cooperation on “vital sectors” in Turkmenistan.

Last month, Pakistan’s government announced – with possibly excessive confidence – that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were poised to invest many billions of dollars in major projects, including TAPI.

On October 21, President Berdimuhamedov headed out to the Kelete armed forces training centre to watch a session of joint military exercises conducted with the usual requisite spirit of Sturm und Drang.

Demonstrations included an attack drill carried out by drones against a foe of unspecified typology. Images of the exercise were relayed by Turkmenistan’s own TurkmenAlem telecommunications satellite, according to state media.

Another segment of the drill envisioned an incoming assault from the air, which was successfully repelled by a team of anti-aircraft gunners. The whole land, air and sea theme was driven home with another sequence that involved scuba-diving navy commandos.  

“As a result of the joint military operations of special forces … the illegal armed group suffered great damage,” state media reported.

Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.