Turkmenistan has confirmed that it will directly supply the European Union with 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year, EU officials have announced. It's a relatively minor commitment, but it could lead to a major revision of the Caspian Basin energy equation, breaking Russia's dominance of export routes.
Top EU officials held talks with Central Asian foreign ministers April 9-10 in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat. In the wake of those talks, several EU representatives, including French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, hinted that Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov had consented to exporting gas straight to the EU, bypassing Russia. On April 13, the EU external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, confirmed in an interview published by the Financial Times that the bloc would receive 10/bcm annually from Ashgabat.
How the gas will actually get to EU countries remains to be worked out. Ferrero-Waldner mentioned three possible routes two of the options involved construction of a pipeline across the Caspian Sea and the other involved liquefying the gas and shipping it aboard tankers across the sea. Turkmen officials have remained silent on the topic. US and EU leaders have long looked to Berdymukhamedov for a pledge to export Turkmen energy via a planned trans-Caspian route. The Turkmen leader has repeatedly expressed interest in such a venture, but has not been forthcoming with a specific participation commitment. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Nevertheless, Ferrero-Waldner's announcement could very well turn out to be a building block for greater energy cooperation. At the very least, the announcement would seem to provide a big boost for the planned, but troubled Nabucco pipeline. [For background see the Eurasia insight archive]. All envisioned scenarios at present would necessitate construction of the pipeline to get the gas to European markets.
At present, the EU is dependent on Russia for the bulk of its energy supplies. Brussels has been pondering ways to cut this dependence, given that the percentage of gas that the 27-member group imports is projected to rapidly escalate in the coming decades. According to one estimate, 85 percent of the EU's gas needs in 2030 will come from imports. In 2000, the EU imported only about 50 percent of its energy requirements.
In moving forward with direct EU exports, Berdymukhamedov appears to be taking care not to engage in the kind of high-profile displays that could anger Russia. EU officials, meanwhile, also have an interest in proceeding cautiously. Many EU member states are interested in enticing Iran to export natural gas to Europe via Nabucco. The Turkmen pledge would only be enough to fill about one-third of Nabucco's projected annual capacity, but it could still be enough to get the project off the ground. Once construction has commenced, it might be easier for the EU to overcome US opposition to Iranian participation in Nabucco. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Initial indicators are that Ashgabat has succeeded in not alarming Russia. The reaction to the news in Moscow seemed muted. For example, the Rosbalt news agency quoted Alexander Shtok, a Moscow economic analyst, as asserting that EU officials had sought a greater commitment from Berdymukhamedov. Thus, the EU mission to Ashgabat was "unsuccessful," Shtok contended. Other experts, citing Turkmenistan's tangled involvement in the Russian-sponsored Prikaspiisky pipeline, say that Berdymukhamedov can be quick to agree on a deal, but is capable of stalling when it comes to implementation. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The EU-Turkmen export arrangement appears to have been finalized during the April 9-10 meetings in Ashgabat. Those meetings focused on establishing a comprehensive cooperation framework, encompassing not only political and economic ties, but also cultural and educational contacts as well. It was impossible to hide the fact that energy cooperation was topic number one. It was equally difficult to conceal the reality that human rights-related issues were not a high priority for the participants on both sides.
Speaking on the eve of the summit, Farid Tukhbatullin, a prominent human rights activist and head of Vienna-based Turkmen Human Rights Initiative, predicted that Turkmen officials would go to great lengths "to avoid discussing [human rights] problems." He added past experience had shown "that sensitive issues related to the restriction of civil liberties, political prisoners, the lack of independent media and many others are raised at meetings in this format just for form's sake."
Maria Lisitsyna, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who specializes in Central Asian affairs, indicated that the EU's regional approach contains flaws that hamper civil society development. The five-year EU strategy is outlined in a paper published in 2007. In it, the EU expresses a desire "to promote the stability and security" of Central Asian states, and to "assist in their pursuit of sustainable economic development and, poverty reduction."
A significant flaw, according to Lisitsyna, is that the EU is not tailoring policies to specific countries in Central Asia. "One can hardly expect that the strategy will bring about real changes in the field of human rights if it isn't supported by clear-cut criteria for each country," Lisitsyna said. Another factor hampering the democratization process is that the EU talks with Central Asian leaders have lacked transparency.
"If the dialogue is not public, it's difficult to say how the strategy works or whether it is working at all," Lisitsyna said. "Since [the strategy paper's] adoption in June 2007, both sides haven't made a step forward towards the creation of an efficient mechanism that would help improve human rights situation."
Aisha Berdyeva is a pseudonym for a Turkmen reporter who specializes in political and economic developments.