It is a long story, and common one: the U.S. has been strategically negligent with regards to Turkmenistan. After Turkmenbashi’s death, the ascension of Stomatologbashi represented a golden opportunity to reform the region’s energy politics: natural gas export routes could be diversified, and Russia’s strategic ambition to monopolize not just Caspian but European energy policy would have been blunted.
Alas. Since then there have been some halting steps taken by a Bush administration clearly uninterested in the region, but nothing really of note. Until now. Steve LeVine has broken an important story: Condoleeza “Five Minute” Rice is rumored to be appointing Thomas Pickering, one of the most respected diplomats ever to emerge from the State Department, to take over the job of coordinating the U.S. diplomatic push in the Caspian region.
It is welcome news: while Russia, China, and Iran have been schmoozing Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov with their heads of state and top officials, the U.S. has contented itself with relatively low-level functionaries until very recently. High-level administration support for a coordinated, coherent outreach is long overdue, but very welcome: it shows President Bush might finally be giving the region the attention it warrants.
So where will this go? This new courtship may be too little, too late: Russia and China both have offered fantastic deals to Ashgabat, including China’s offer to entirely self-fund a $26 billion pipeline going east. Living in the age of oil nationalism means authoritarian countries with massive state-owned corporations can cut strategic deals at rates no western commercial company would ever contemplate; the end result is that Russia’s close, accessible network and China’s massive capital investments are difficult to counter.
Additionally, human rights concerns remain. Conditions in Turkmenistan are among the worst in all of the Former Soviet Union, and while the few signs of openness in the last year have been encouraging, there remain very serious problems in Turkmenistan. Neither Russia nor China place human rights stipulations on their diplomatic or commercial dealings; the U.S. and EU tend to.
So while this new appointment is certainly a welcome and long overdue sign by the Bush administration, it is difficult to avoid thinking this is little more than pittance far too late in the game to have much impact. Pickering might be able to pull a qualified geostrategic defeat out of this tangled mess, but everyone involved would be pretty surprised if he can fully undercut Moscow and Beijing at this late stage in the game.