TCS Daily

Trouble in the Pipeline

By Evgeny Morozov - July 19, 2006 12:00 AM

In the past few months Ashgabat, Turkmenistan's capital, welcomed more delegations from Minsk, Moscow, and Kiev than did Brussels, London, and Washington combined. However, it is not the giant sculptures of its president Saparmurat Niyazov or the rotating 3D models of his holy book Ruhnama that have attracted so many visitors. Rather it is Turkmenistan's ample gas reserves, which are bound to pit the three Slavic states of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine against each other -- and leave the EU as the ultimate loser in the new Great Game.

Just two weeks before the G8 meeting devoted to energy security, Turkmenistan did its bit to contextualize the discussions. After Ashgabat reneged on the contracts it had signed with Moscow and Kiev earlier, Turkmenistan assumed a strategic and indispensable role in securing EU's gas supplies during the coming fall and winter. Will it prove a more reliable partner than Russia?

Reliable? Maybe. But problematic for sure. Ashgabat smells billions in the air and is on a mission to have it all. Hence its demands to renegotiate older deals with Russia (by which the latter buys Turkmen gas at $65 and sells for $220) and Ukraine (by which the discounted Turkmen gas goes to Ukraine through a secretive Swiss company instead of flowing to Kiev directly). Also hence the possibility of a gas deal with Belarus, which is under fierce pressure from Russia to accept higher gas prices or relinquish control of its energy transit system.

Direct deals with Turkmenistan -- bypassing Russia -- would be the ideal solution for Belarus and Ukraine -- and thus for EU, which relies on the latter two for almost all of its imports of Russian gas. There is only one problem: getting that much gas from Turkmenistan to EU without using the Russian pipelines is impossible.

Ashgabat has been smart enough to avoid direct confrontation with Moscow, leaving all negotiations on how the Turkmen gas will be transported to the national capitals and Kremlin. Niyazov is right to believe that the Turkmen gas will not remain unclaimed for too long. To spice things up, he boasts of expanding energy cooperation with China, striking supply deals valid through 2039. The high demand for the Turkmen gas gives him enough maneuvering space to stage covert intrigues, which set Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine against each other -- and entrenches his own dictatorship in the meantime.

Unlike the three Slavic states that are fighting over energy and the distribution of rents, EU has more substantial assets to squander in this battle. In the next six months, Niyazov -- whether abetted by Kremlin or not -- can eviscerate Brussels of its traditional high stance on human rights and democracy promotion. All he needs to do is exploit the inconsistencies inherent in EU's thinking on Turkmenistan: while Brussels aspires to be critical of the human rights situation in the country, it cannot risk alienating Niyazov and pushing him in Moscow's tight embraces.

So, in its desire to lessen EU's dependence on Russian energy, Brussels has no choice but to side with Niyazov. The problem is that the Kremlin will hardly pass a chance to expose this. The Comrade Wolf, as Vladimir Putin characterized the US and its efforts to suck up to the energy rich authoritarian regimes of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan while criticizing more democratic Russia, is a label that is easily extendable to EU's own efforts to cuddle Niyazov. Wait until December -- and the geopolitical forest of Eurasian energy might be populated not by one but by two twinned and energy-hungry Comrades.

To expose the EU's duplicity on this matter, the Kremlin just needs to highlight the chasm that exists between the EU's stances on Belarus and Turkmenistan. While Lukashenko has his assets frozen in the EU states, Niyazov still enjoys uninhibited access to foreign cash, even thought Global Witness, an international NGO exposed Turkmenistan's secret bank account with Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt. While the European Commission talks about kicking Belarus from the EU's Generalized System of Preferences on trade, the European Parliament is about to vote on the new trading treaty between EU and Turkmenistan. There is more to this list, and the Kremlin will be justified in asking why a more oppressive dictatorial regime in Turkmenistan enjoys such popular support in the EU -- and will be justified in offering an energy-related answer.

However, if Belarus strikes a direct gas deal with Turkmenistan, the EU will need to decide between supporting a union of two dictators that hurts the Kremlin but keeps both of them in power indefinitely or normalizing its decaying relationship with Moscow, which can eventually ensure the EU's energy security and weaken Niyazov and Lukashenko's domestic positions. Until now, the EU has shunned the second option. Before turning into a Comrade Wolf and retiring to full-scale energy partisanship in the Eurasian forests, it'd better give it a try.

The author is a TCS Daily contributing writer. He blogs at



Re: Trouble in the Pipeline
Can't argue with the facts, but the anti-European conclusion is a little off-base. *All* foreign policy of every country/state/region in the world has at least an element of hypocracy and double standards.

The EU *can* put pressure on Belarus because of its proximity, so it does. But there's little pressure it can exert on Turkmenistan.

And to suggest that Russia is more democratic than Kazakstan and Azerbaijan? Well, it is, but that's like saying that one turd smells slightly better than another.

What deserves wider exposure, in my view, is Russia's use of gas and the control of gas pipelines throughout the region to exert control - first of its border states that were lost when the USSR collapsed, then over the EU itself.

Its control is reflected in the price it screws out of Turkmenistan for gas because the only pipelines out of Turkemnistan go through Russia over Gazprom pipelines. Gasprom, of course, was nationalised by Putin so that it could more directly be used as a *tool* of Russian foreign policy.

The screw that's being turned on Belarus is part of that strategy - Russia wants control of the Belarus pipelines as a means of extending its control over the country.

The EU - Germany in particular - are fools for relying on any gas coming from or through Russia.

yes, but not all is that simple
Well, Putin didn't really nationalize Gazprom--it was first USSR's ministry of gas and then the state-run company. I actually think that on Putin's watch Gazprom's ownership system was liberalized to ensure that 49% of the shares are owned by parties other than the state. So while Gazprom's nationalization would make the stories about Putin's control over energy even scarrier, factually this is not correct

Second, I don't think that the "screw that's being turned on Belarus" aims at anything else but getting ownership over Belneftegaz and thus establishing even tigther control over the gas that is shipped to EU. So, I don't think Russia has imperialist ambitions when it comes to Belarus -- all it wants is to be able to coordinate its pricing by having control over as many of its export routes as possible.

So, my overarching point with this comment is that while Russia is tempted to use energy as a foreign policy tool, I would say that its actions do not give much support for this claim. Remember that Russia never really turned off gas to Europe; all it did is turn off gas to Ukraine--and then Ukraine started stealing the Russian gas intended for Europeans... So, while I don't believe in Kremlin's stories that it is all about business relationships between two independent subjects, I often find stories about the reemergence of Russia's energy empire even further from the truth...

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