Even though he might not be the most powerful dentist in the world (I’d wager that honor belongs to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad) As the world’s most powerful dentist, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov still wields enormous influence, mostly because of how much natural gas he sits on as the new dictator of Turkmenistan. Last month I was writing that there needs to be a big diplomatic drive to split Turkmenistan away from Russia, as Niyazov’s death represented an enormous opportunity to reshape energy politics in both Europe and Asia. I was intentionally vague on specifics, because a lot will be determined by how Berdimuhammedov plays his first few weeks in office, and what Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey all do. ISN Security Watch, however, relates some interesting ideas.
However, he said, as for the 25-year agreement with Gazprom, “[….] there have been examples when such agreements were nullified” in what would free Turkmenistan ‘s hands in building new export routes.
Turkmenistan, which sells it gas to Gazprom at US$100 per 1,000 cubic meters, has already had experience in arguing with Russia over energy. The country cut exports to Russia by 13 times in 1998 during a gas export dispute, according to Adzhar Kurtov, an expert with the Azia Analitika Foundation.
US has already made overtures to the new leader. Evan Feigenbaum, deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, met with Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov and others during a four-day visit that ended in late January, discussing issues including trade, democracy, human rights and security cooperation.
The EU has also expressed interest. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency – said after touring the region in December that Central Asia had an “urgent desire” for a EU role.
China, the US and the EU are keen on seeing Turkmenistan diversify its exports by building pipelines via Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea, respectively, but so far no progress has been made to those ends.
It could be possible to arrange a joint US/EU/China consortium for Turkmen gas, cutting Russia out and giving the rest, which all need cheap gas far more than Russia does, a much better deal. Local LNG prices matter since there is no global market for gas, as there is with oil—partially because of how late gas is to the energy game, partially because storing and transporting LNG is so expensive, prices are determined by local extraction cost, not the global cost. (This is, coincidentally, why rumors of Russia forming a gas cartel with countries like Iran was so worrisome).
Sorry for being so obviously America-centric here, but these initial steps are good ones. American engagement might also provide some incentives for Berdimuhammedov to follow through on some of his promises of reform—a more distant hope, to be sure, but not impossible. And it’s nice to see the possibility, however remote, of positive change in the region.