Turkmenistan’s gas transit and foreign policy of Turkey.

Kakamurad Khydyrov

The visit of Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay to Turkmenistan in July this year and, in particular, his statements about «three ways of gas transit from Turkmenistan to Turkey and on to Europe» have triggered serious discussion in analytical circles about the feasibility of these plans in the short term. It is clear that high gas prices in Europe in the context of the military operation in Ukraine have encouraged not only Turkey but also, apparently, Turkmenistan itself to discuss the prospects of supplying energy to the European market.

Naturally, Turkmenistan has not yet commented on the outcome of Oktay’s visit, apart from some off-the-record and official formulations on discussing promising areas for cooperation.

Meanwhile, according to Oktay, Turkey and Turkmenistan are agreeing on three possible ways to transport gas:

Use of the TANAP line across the Caspian Sea.
SWAP Iran-Azerbaijan-Turkey agreement.
In liquefied form to a pipeline in Azerbaijan.

These gas transportation initiatives are known and it is clear that they all have their difficulties, which are not only related to financing, but also to the political will of both Turkmenistan itself and other countries that have influence on the issues. Among them are Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, not to mention the West, which also benefits from the appearance of Turkmen gas in the market.

Of course, Azerbaijan itself could solve European problems, but it does not have enough gas to meet the European demand. Having a great desire to transport Turkmen gas through its territory, Azerbaijan has to follow its own official position expressed back in 2000 during the discussion of prospects of NABUCC — «Azerbaijan is ready to transport Turkmen gas through its territory, but the decision of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline must come from Turkmenistan itself».

In this regard, the activity of Azerbaijan in the Turkmen direction becomes logical. Thus, Foreign Minister of Turkmenistan R. Meredov held a meeting with Azerbaijani delegation headed by Minister of Economy M. Jabbarov who arrived in Ashgabat on a working visit on July 7, 2022.

Officially, «the parties discussed the progress of economic partnership, opportunities for building up the energy sector and diversification of energy supply schemes to international markets». However, unofficially, it is more likely that Azerbaijan wants the Turkmen leadership to officially announce that it wants to start building either a trans-Caspian pipeline or a short branch of the Caspian interconnector from the Dostlyk field to the Azerbaijani pipeline network. Naturally, this entails serious political risks for Turkmenistan and its arrangements with Russia. Here it has to be assumed that Ankara and Baku are exerting serious pressure on the Turkmen leadership to start looking into ways of shipping gas across the Caspian.

Turkey seeks to acquire as many sources of gas as possible in order to resell it to Europe. In particular Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan are now important energy suppliers for Turkey. Apparently, Turkey also wants Turkmenistan as a source of gas.

According to the experts, the Turkmenistan-Iran-Turkey swap looks the most realistic, with the capacity of the Tabriz-Erzurum pipeline at 14 billion cu.m. per year. However, this would not solve the needs of the whole chain of consumers. In this regard, all experts agree that only the Trans-Caspian pipeline can solve the issue of full-scale deliveries of Turkmen gas to the world market. But both Russia and, to a greater extent, China will oppose to it. Not to mention the fact that its construction is impossible under current conditions. Obviously everyone understands that, but the strange thing is why Turkey and Azerbaijan are pushing the project so hard, realizing it is not feasible. It can be assumed that Turkey is pursuing several important long-term goals.

Turkey appears to be in a hurry to announce a long-awaited breakthrough in relations with Turkmenistan in order to raise its profile in the dialogue with other Central Asian states, in particular Russia, China and the EU. This relates to statements about Turkmenistan’s membership of the Organisation of Turkic States. Oktay stated that at the next summit they «would like to see Turkmenistan among the permanent members». A number of media outlets have begun saying that the trilateral summit to be held after President Serdar Berdymukhamedov’s visit to Turkey will be a turning point in relations between Turkey, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, since it will take the form of a «union of the three Turkic-speaking states».

It is difficult to say whether Turkmenistan would agree to a separate union of the three states and then become a permanent member of the Organisation of Turkic States, as this would be about Turkmenistan’s neutrality status. However, in the current circumstances, it can be assumed that a declaration of special relations within the framework of «Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan» is likely. In other words, this agreement will not be called «Union», but will have a special strategic meaning and significance, which Turkey wants to fix. At the very least, it would reflect the extent to which Turkmenistan is willing to cooperate. Meanwhile, it is clear that Turkmenistan will never give up its neutrality status, understanding that this is the cornerstone not only of its foreign policy, but also of its security policy in the region.

It seems unlikely that Turkmenistan would be a permanent member of the Organisation of Turkic States. Turkmenistan has always been wary of both excessive Turkish influence and excessive multilateral commitments, even though decisions on Turkic integration are declarative in nature. Turkmenistan is likely to say it will consider the proposal within 1-3 years in order to send a signal to Turkey that it will not reject it outright.

It is also important for Turkey to claim success with the arrangements for the Caspian pipeline and the formation of a middle corridor from Asia to Europe, while making absolutely no difference to whether it will all work. However, it is also possible that another goal is to complicate relations between Turkmenistan and Russia in the short term. In particular, it is noted that there will be fewer opportunities to buy Turkmen gas from Russia, which will have an impact on earning additional revenues in previous volumes. Turkey, for its part, will be able to guarantee revenues from European consumers at a time when Europe has completely abandoned Russian gas.

In its active energy diplomacy in Turkmenistan, Turkey appears to be provoking an international reaction from Russia, China and Iran. Especially in the run-up to the July 19 summit of the three countries in Tehran, the fate of energy projects between Turkey and Turkmenistan cannot be ruled out. Here there is no doubt that Turkey will use all available influence factors, real or imaginary, on Turkmenistan’s leadership. In any case, it is important to understand that Ankara’s interests will be primarily taken into account, including on issues of Caspian gas transportation.

Turkey will also try to actively play in the Afghan direction — the development of TAPI and other projects related to Afghanistan may not be beneficial for Turkey at this stage. In this context, Turkey’s operational activity in Afghanistan can be predicted to increase.

Overall, the results of Turkmenistan President Serdar Berdymukhamedov’s visit to Turkey and the trilateral summit, the exact dates of which are not yet known, will now be important. However, judging by the activities of Azerbaijan and Turkey in Turkmenistan, one can already say these countries have serious intentions to influence Turkmenistan’s position in the customary system of international economic and political relations.

Kakamurad Khydirov, independent expert, specially for Prudent Solutions

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