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Where will Turkmen gas flow?

MOSCOW. (Alexei Malashenko, member of the RIA Novosti Expert Council)

Saparmurat Niyazov, the late president of Turkmenistan, left his heirs numerous problems. If resolved successfully, these could bring benefits to the country or, at least, its elites, but at present they are giving the government a headache.

In 2005, Russia signed a gas supply contract with Turkmenistan for the next 25 years, establishing control over the country's gas exports. However, Niyazov managed to raise the price of gas supplied to Russia from $44 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters as soon as 2006. Simultaneously, he signed a 30-year supply agreement with China and was in talks on a similar contract with India.

The real size of Turkmenistan's gas reserves is unknown. Figures range from 2.8 trillion cu m (proven reserves) to 40 trillion cu m. The government in Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital, has so far refused to allow independent experts to check the true reserves in, for example, the recently discovered field in Iolotan, hailed as "unprecedented" (1.7 trillion cu m). It is from here, from the Sag Kenar block, that Turkmenistan plans to supply gas to China. Sooner or later someone will have to tell the truth about the country's gas might.

The current leadership has not yet announced its gas-production plans for the near future. According to official sources, output will amount to 120 billion cu m by 2010 and climb to 250 billion cu m by 2030. However, independent experts are certain that the output will still be the same in 2010 as it is now and may reach 120 billion cu m only in 2030. Last year, the country's gas production grew by a mere 1%. If the experts are correct, then the contract with China either will not be honored or Turkmenistan will have to re-orient its supplies from their traditional destination, Russia, to the unknown Far East.

So the agreement signed with Russian gas giant Gazprom in 2006 turns out to be a myth, and the new government will have to explain all this to Russia. Relations with the latter are a priority for Turkmenistan, as President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, elected in February 2007, told Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov. Many experts believe that they will remain so until the eastern gas pipelines have been built. But then it is unclear what to do about the gas exports promised to the West, which European countries are extremely interested in and which are supported by Turkey and the United States. As gas to Europe will flow at the "real" European price, will there be enough political will, or even gas itself? The issue of liquefied gas shipments also remains open. It is not too relevant now, but it will gain importance in the future.

This is the background against which the new Turkmen state will evolve, an evolution that is expected to liberalize it a bit. The earlier label, "totalitarian," will be replaced by "toughly authoritarian." At the same time, we will soon witness a struggle for the sympathies of local elites, who, in fact, will make the final decision on pipeline routes. Given all that, the influence of external factors on the country's domestic situation will be as strong as ever. What strategy will these external factors pursue? There are two possibilities. The first one is to work equally with all Turkmen elites, becoming a cautious mediator between the factions within it. The other is to consider the possible outcome of a domestic confrontation and to side with the future winner. Each option has its own risks and costs, but also its advantages.

Russia and China have opted for the first possibility. Other countries are quite likely to choose favorites from among the more Western-leaning politicians. Moreover, after a split in the Turkmen establishment, each group will be looking for a sponsor abroad.

There is also another sensitive issue, but it is for Europeans and Americans to decide: should they insist on the spread of democracy, defense of human rights and the solution of other humanitarian problems? So far, these matters seem of little interest to competitors for Turkmen gas, just like under Niyazov. (This puts the position of Western countries at the same level as that of China and Russia.)

Still the heirs of the late president cannot be compared to a rich bride who has to choose only one groom, either from China, Russia or Europe. Ashgabat can always pursue a multi-directional policy, developing economic ties with different parties without making a final commitment.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti. -0-