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Apr 28, 2009 | 16:17 GMT

5 mins read

Turkmenistan: Tense Relations With Russia

MIKHAIL KLIMENTIYEV/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Turkmenistan's relationship with Russia has been on the rocks since an April 9 natural gas pipeline explosion. Ashgabat has attempted to express its frustration with Moscow by reaching out to the West to develop and transport its energy, but Russia has successfully maneuvered to keep Turkmenistan within its grip for the long term.
The political relationship between the isolated and energy-rich Central Asian country of Turkmenistan and Russia is looking very tense these days. The two countries historically have maintained close ties, but recent events have made it appear as if Ashgabat is abandoning its relationship with Moscow. However, looks can be deceiving. Turkmenistan and Russia exchange approximately 50 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas annually. However, when a natural gas pipeline running from Turkmenistan to Russia burst April 9, that transfer came to an abrupt halt, and relations between the two countries began to turn. According to news reports, Russia reduced its intake of the natural gas imports due to unusually mild spring temperatures and an overall drop in domestic demand and foreign exports as a result of the ongoing economic recession, but failed to tell its Turkmen supplier that it was taking in less natural gas. Because Ashgabat continued to pump supplies at the usual level, the natural gas backed up, creating a sharp change in pressure and filling the pipeline past capacity, causing the rupture. Moscow has called the situation an accident and strongly suggests that there are no political undertones to the pipeline blast, but the series of events that followed make the situation very suspicious. Turkmenistan was initially furious at Russia's negligence, with the country's Foreign Ministry calling the event "reckless and irresponsible." Ashgabat decided it would lash out against Moscow by publicly pursuing energy deals with countries other than Russia, specifically those from the West. Because Turkmenistan has significant oil and natural gas reserves, this is Ashgabat's most strategic and effective method of showing its displeasure at Russia's expense. Turkmenistan signed an agreement with Germany's energy giant RWE on April 18 to give the company the right to develop offshore energy deposits in the Caspian Sea as well as to discuss transporting Turkmen gas to Europe. According to STRATFOR sources in Turkmenistan, Ashgabat chose RWE because it is a Western company, but because it is a German firm Turkmenistan feels it is not reaching out too much to the West — which it is wary of and would (in Moscow's eyes) be a step too far. However, RWE is a shareholder in Nabucco, a planned natural gas pipeline designed specifically to circumvent Russia in bringing Central Asian and Caspian energy supplies to Europe. Germany — and the rest of Europe — has touted the RWE deal as a signal that Turkmenistan, which is known as one of the world's most isolated countries, is opening up to the West. The European Union normalized relations with Turkmenistan shortly after the deal was signed, and the United States advocated its partnership with Ashgabat and encouraged the diversification of pipelines transiting from the country. But upon closer inspection, the deal with RWE and subsequent gestures made by the West are just that — gestures. The agreement with RWE to develop an offshore natural gas block would be an extremely complicated venture, especially in the landlocked Caspian. This would require billions of dollars — hard to come by in the current economic crisis — and likely would take decades to complete, given the vast infrastructure required to transport the natural gas over large distances. So the deal is highly prospective. And without any change to energy relations, political and economic relations between Ashgabat and the West likely will remain relatively stagnant as well. In reality, Turkmenistan understands that such deals are unlikely to bear fruit; it simply needed to show its anger without fundamentally altering relations with Russia. But even this symbolic agreement has ended up backfiring on Ashgabat. According to STRATFOR sources in Moscow, as soon as the RWE deal was announced, Moscow countered the move by threatening to pull back its security support for Ashgabat, which includes weapons sales and even rumored Russian troops stationed within Turkmenistan's borders. This shook Ashgabat to its core, as it is usually paranoid about invasion from Western powers or its neighbors, but it is especially concerned since the emergence of the larger and more powerful Uzbekistan onto the regional scene. Without Russia's military backing, this fear could very well turn into a reality. And so, Turkmenistan immediately began searching for ways to pander to Moscow. STRATFOR sources in Russia have said Ashgabat and Moscow are forming a new deal in which Russia would take over ownership of natural gas pipelines running from Turkmenistan to Iran — a highly coveted and strategic (and more importantly, already-existing) set of assets that Russia has wanted for some time. Russia is quite willing to take advantage of Ashgabat's paranoia, especially as regional dynamics are shifting. The deal would also give Moscow ownership of two big pipelines going to Iran (the other coming from Armenia), which would translate into more leverage in its evolving relationship with Tehran, a major player in the region. At the end of the day, Turkmenistan is still stuck in balancing its desire to reach out to non-Russian foreign players and its fear that only Russia can protect the state from the West and other regional rivals. Until Ashgabat makes a decisive break with its invasion anxiety (which is not completely unfounded) and actively removes its restrictions on foreign players in the country, Turkmenistan will remain as beholden to Russia — and nearly as closed off to the rest of the world — as it has been in its reclusive past.

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