Evaldas Ignatavicius, Lithuania's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ashgabat, November 3, 2011.
An energy conference last week in Ashgabat proved an opportunity to see the shifting vectors of Caspian pipeline prospects. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), currently chaired by Lithuania, convened the high-level meeting November 3-4 titled "Integrating Global Energy Markets--Providing Energy Security,” osce.org reported.
While the speeches were packed with generalities, such as the need to "discuss instruments for the enhanced engagement of international organizations in the regional and multilateral energy co-operation dialogue" the conference was largely an opportunity for the EU to promote Western-oriented pipelines -- and see how much Turkmenistan was warming to them.
In a speech to the conference, President Berdymukhamedov did not disappoint, and said European-directed pipelines are “among the most important goals of Turkmenistan’s energy policy” and being "actively developed," regnum.ru reported.
The Turkmen leader said “energy markets and demand for gas were being studied,” and cited the opening of a Europe House in Ashgabat as well as the signing of a memorandum of understanding on energy cooperation with the European Commission, which now has the mandate from 27 countries to negotiate for gas purchases from Turkmenistan.
Study isn’t the same thing as actual construction, but Berdymukhamedov indicated “Turkmenistan's readiness for mutually profitable cooperation with all interested parties.“ While the president did not mention the word "Nabucco“ this time, he made a strong statement of support in principle for building the Trans-Caspian pipeline between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan,
It is still not clear how quickly Ashgabat is prepared to move to eliminate its Caspian Sea border disputes with Baku, and resolve any other obstacles to the pipeline construction.
Despite their bilateral resolve to get gas to market, neither the EU or Turkmenistan can operate completely independently within the Caspian, with all the interlocking puzzle pieces. Elhan Shahinoglu, head of the Atlas Center for Political Research in Baku, said in an interview with regnum.ru that both Baku and Ashgabat were prepared to give the green light to both the Trans-Caspian and Nabucco pipelines, but this has irritated Tehran, which is pressuring Baku, the EU's partner, through various provocations. These include a threat to stage a conference hostile to Azerbaijan and a storming by Hezbollah of Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tebriz.
Three years ago, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev himself came to Baku for talks with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev to discuss new gas contracts and the prospects of resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict -- but these came to naught, says Shahinoglu. With Russia failing to deliver, in his view, Aliyev decided to go ahead with the gas agreement with Ankara and also cleared the way to cooperate with the EU on the Trans-Caspian pipeline. Now Aliyev is saying national interests rather than "balance" will dictate his foreign policy, says Shahinoglu.
Not surprisingly, Russia's gas monopoly Gazprom is howling. "Gazprom Chased Out of the Caspian," cries one headline on regnum.ru; "Berdymukhamedov Pledges Support to Romania to Implement Anti-Russian and Anti-Iranian Projects in the Caspian," wails another.
Russia's Foreign Ministry has called the European Union's aggressive new initiatives with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan "outside attempts to interfere in Caspian affairs."
In mid-October, President Medvedev held a meeting of the Russian Security Council regarding the Trans-Caspian pipeline and said Russia had to formulate a position and convey it to its Caspian partners in the event they made any decisions, regnum.ru reported. Turkey and Azerbaijan then went ahead and signed an agreement about development of the Shah Deniz II fields, which Taner Yyldyz, Azerbaijan's energy minister, said "changed the existing balance in the region" because a pipeline would go directly to Europe around Russia.
Now there is some concern that a decision to go against Russia on these pipelines could delay resolution of the long-frozen Karabakh conflict. Meanwhile, Lamberto Zannier of Italy, the new secretary general of OSCE, is proposing that Turkey be brought in to mediate the conflict, and that the long-standing Minsk Group be disbanded -- a prospect that Moscow may see as elbowing it aside.
Even assuming the brewing complications with Iran and Russia could be resolved in Baku, there’s still the border dispute with Ashgabat, which Turkmenistan has said lately should be resolved bilaterally without concern for Iran or Russia -- without anything new from Baku.
Perhaps it feels no pressure to do so. Alexandros Petersen, an, advisor at the European Energy Security Initiative, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said in a recent interview with news.az:
There is a lot of potential for a Trans-Caspian option, but Ashgabat and Baku have to be committed to coming to a settlement and cooperating on export and transit. Turkmen gas is not essential for a Southern Energy Corridor project to begin construction. The Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), Interconnector Greece-Italy (IGI) and BP's new South East Europe Pipeline (SEEP) are all designed to move forward with only Shah Deniz II gas from Azerbaijan. However, if the Southern Energy Corridor is going to be a game changer for European energy security, then Turkmen gas should be connected to the route, together with future Azerbaijani supplies from fields other than Shah Deniz. This should and will likely occur in a second phase, once the initial capacity is there to ship imminently available Azerbaijani supplies.
Petersen thinks "there is little Moscow can do other than make loud, but rather empty pronouncements" and that Iran is not likely to use force against Azerbaijan as it did 10 years ago.