Turkmenistan hosted an international conference, held June 24 under the auspices of the OSCE, on disarmament in Central Asia and the Caspian Basin. While ethnic tension remaining high in nearby southern Kyrgyzstan following a bout of violence there, the discussion in Ashgabat of how to make Central Asia a zone free of weapons of mass destruction seemed strangely academic. Yet, the meeting quietly covered the situation in Kyrgyzstan as well, and was an attempt to frame the larger issues of how to harden the Central Asian states against use as transit of nuclear materials by terrorists, how to bring Iran into a regional community of nuclear-weapons-free states, and how to address spill-over security concerns from the war in Afghanistan.
There are no nuclear weapons in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, now independent states; they were all moved to Russia in 1992 and missile silos in Kazakhstan were destroyed in 1996. Even so, concerns remain about the security of materials used for nuclear energy plants. There is also widespread concern about Iran's nuclear intentions. In Ashgabat, Teheran reiterated its support of nuclear disarmament in the region, but Iranian officials also noted Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons and remained silent about its own nuclear capacity and intentions.
The UN Centre for Preventive Diplomacy in Central Asia in Ashgabat has been trying to bring together Central Asian states and leverage Turkmenistan’s initiatives to resolve energy, water, border, and security conflicts. Little is known about the Centre’s activities, although after the April unrest in Kyrgyzstan, Ambassador Miroslav Jenca, who heads the centre, announced that the UN was spending $12 million on Kyrgyzstan's constitutional referendum, information confirmed by the UN Secretary General’s office on May 6.
The centre operates in a country with no press freedom, where the state media selectively covers international meetings. The OSCE Press Centre issued a statement about the June 24 conference in Ashgabat, saying that when Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev met with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, they discussed "the situation in Kyrgyzstan, environmental security, engagement with Afghanistan, and ways to work together in all three dimensions of security, the political-military aspects, the economic and environmental, and the human aspects." Official Turkmen media outlets said only that the meeting covered “opportunities and prospects for cooperation, focusing particularly on regional and global security and stability, combating drug trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime."
Foreign Minister Saudabayev cautioned at the conference that a serious obstacle to peace in Central Asia is the still-unresolved legal status of the Caspian Sea. The Kazakh OSCE Chair-in-Office described the Caspian Sea region as "the center of the region's most acute problems," listing Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear program, and Nagorno-Karabakh as the most severe crises, with drug-trafficking, organized crime, and terrorism all linked to these issues.
The lack of resolution of a border dispute in the Caspian Sea bed between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan (as well as Iran's differing concept of resource-sharing, rather than border delimitation) continue to hobble the prospects for the construction of the Nabucco pipeline, which would deliver gas to Europe. A Turkish expert on the region, Tunjay Babali, a fellow at the Harvard Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, advocated that Turkey and Azerbaijan go together to Turkmenistan and convince Turkmenistan to participate. Babali also indicated that it was up to Europe and Nabucco partner companies to fine-tune the issues of demand for gas and their willingness to finance the project. Babali did not mention the Caspian border issue, but focused on the need for an agreement on transit terms, adding that he hoped that Turkey and Turkmenistan would not spend two years coming to an agreement as Turkey had with Azerbaijan.
During a June 24 news conference in Ashgabat, the Turkmen government made its position clear: it is willing to discuss any "positive economically and commercially substantiated routes for transportation of energy resources," but it continues to adhere to its long-held position of selling Turkmen gas only at its border, "without participation in any international energy projects or schemes of gas sales outside the Turkmen border." A major US delegation, featuring diplomats and energy executives, visited Turkmenistan in mid-June in an attempt to open a bilateral energy dialogue. The Turkmen response was muted, however. During the June 24 news conference, Turkmen officials placed America in the same basket as Iran and China -- partners it views as supporting its strategy to diversify energy exports to new markets, with the unspoken implication that partners that invest without preconditions will get the most favorable arrangements. Meanwhile, Turkish business leaders and the Turkmen ambassador to Turkey indicated at a meeting in Ankara in mid-June that improved Turkmen laws to protect foreign financing would help spur Turkish investment, which already has surpassed $2 billion in Turkmenistan.
Russia -- the country formerly dominating energy corridors in Eurasia from which countries have been so earnestly diversifying -- seemed insecure about its own modest arrangements with Turkmenistan. After a compensation dispute following an explosion on the Turkmen pipeline in April last year, and ongoing differences about the price Ashgabat could accept for its sale of gas to Russia, Russia cut its previous purchase volume from a high of 50 billion cubic meters (bcm) to just 10 bcm for this year, although the amount may increase if demand in Europe, reduced due to the global economic crisis, increases in the coming year. Andrei Denisov, Russian first deputy prime minister, who participated in the Central Asian disarmament conference, met with President Berdymukhamedov on June 23. Turkmen state media portrayed him as lavishing praise on the Turkmen leader for his new book on medicinal plants.
In Moscow two days later, Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller expressed hope that his company's terms for purchase of Turkmen gas would not be reviewed and changed, after additions were made to a 25-year agreement effective January 1, 2010 to purchase up to 30 bcm a year. The price of the gas hasn't been publicized, but Miller has said it would be in line with European market prices for gas.
In mid-June, Robert Blake, US assistant secretary of state for Central and South Asian Affairs, praised what he deemed progress in human rights in Turkmenistan due to a law recently passed penalizing trafficking in persons. A report issued by the State Department on the status of trafficking worldwide indicated that Turkmenistan had not taken a particularly tough stance against traffickers, however.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Turkmenistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Sifting the Karakum blog.