The arrival of Austrian President Heinz Fischer in Turkmenistan earlier this week on an official visit is the latest of top-level diplomatic exchanges between the world leaders and the Central Asian nation. The main purpose of the visit was to explore further bilateral economic cooperation, likely focusing on Turkmenistan’s vast gas reserves. President Fischer appealed to Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to contribute and support the creation of the Nabucco pipeline, a gas pipeline that is to run 3,300 kilometers from Turkey to Austria with gas from Iraq as well as other Central Asian nations, such as Turkmenistan. The pipeline would give a gas supply to the European Union from a source other than Russia, something which has long been in the interest of many EU nations.
Fischer’s visit to Turkmenistan follows a series of other visits and bilateral dialogues between Turkmenistan and other nations. China recently held high-level meetings with the country in an effort to strengthen economic and diplomatic ties with Ashgabat. The US also held official talks with the Turkmenistan Government earlier this year in order to discuss “the full spectrum of its bilateral relationships.” (Source) Those two nations are only a few of the long list to have engaged in discussions with the Berdymukhamedov administration, with dignitaries from India, Pakistan, Russia and the European Union having visited Ashgabat over the last year. The majority of these visits have been undertaken in order to secure deals to obtain Turkmenistan’s gas supplies, which are among the largest in the world.
Such visits and meetings are indicative of two things. Firstly, it helps reinforce the fact energy security is a top global priority and, more importantly in the context of this piece, that Turkmenistan continues to be one of the countries at the forefront of addressing energy security needs. Earlier this month, auditors Gaffney, Cline & Associates estimated that the South Iolotan gas field, located in the south-eastern part of the country, contains between 13.1 trillion cubic metres and 21.2 trillion cubic metres of gas which, if accurate, would make it the second largest gas field. (Source) This has helped make the country appealing to those nations with increasing energy security needs, such as the rising economies of the Global South and the developed world, who continue to face increased competition from the former for global energy supplies.
Turkmenistan’s appeal to the world as a result of its energy supplies is nothing new. It was a major reason why former President Sapamurat Niyazov was able to autocratically rule the country until his death in December 2006. The fall of the Soviet Union saw a development of the domestic oil and gas industry, which allowed it to be a reliable energy supplier in the post-Soviet era. However, Turkmenistan has found a recent greater appeal with other countries for two main reasons; its location and relative domestic stability, especially compared to other global energy suppliers at the present time.
Being situated slightly west of China means it could transport energy supplies from Turkmenistan without a need for shipping, which eliminates potential sea-based problems such as privacy. This is a similar case for India, who can also import Turkmen energy via land. For the EU, importing Turkmen (and other Central Asian) gas supplies to Europe via a pipeline lessens its reliability on Russia for its gas supplies, a reliability it has long sought to do away with. Turkmenistan has also remained relatively stable under the leadership of President Berdymukhamedov. This is significant in regards to energy security due to the instability that had plagued nations such as Bahrain (situated in the Persian Gulf) as well as Yemen, Somalia and Egypt, which are located along shipping lines between the Persian Gulf and Europe & the US.
As previously mentioned, China has been that has engaged in high-level discussions with Turkmenistan this year in an attempt to address its energy interests. In August 2010 Chinese Foreign Minster Yang Jiechi met the Turkmen President and Foreign Minister for bilateral talks. That followed an agreement in March in which Turkmenistan agreed to increase natural gas supply to China by 20 billion cubic meters a year to a total of 30 billion cubic meters. (Source) This is evidence not only of China’s continually growing energy needs, but also of its preference to have Turkmenistan as a key partner in helping it address its energy security requirements.
India has also recently attempted to strengthen its relations with Turkmenistan as part of its own increasing energy security needs. In a rare sign of unity and agreement, India and its regional arch-rival Pakistan signed an intergovernmental agreement on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline with Turkmenistan in December 2010. India also held talks last week with a delegations headed by Turkmen Petroleum and Mineral Resources Minister Bairamgeldy Nedirov which centred on securing a contract to sell gas to India. (Source) Like China, India too has been focusing on Turkmenistan to help in addressing its energy security requirements, so much so that it has been willing to work with Pakistan in order to secure Turkmen gas.
The developed world has also upped their involvement with Turkmenistan as a way to diversify their sources of energy imports. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake Jr visited the country, as well as Uzbekistan, in February where a review of the Annual Bilateral Consultations, a US initiative to discuss bilateral issues with Central Asian nations, was conducted. Other traditional sources of energy imports, such as the Persian Gulf, remain of prime importance to the US. However, the current instability in nations such as Bahrain & Iraq along with its constant rivalry with Iran, has led it to place a greater significance on Turkmenistan and Central Asia in general for its energy needs.
A growing priority to address energy security has also led to meetings between Turkmenistan and the European Union on at least two occasions so far this year.
EU Ambassador to Turkmenistan Norbert Jousten held talks with the Turkmen Government in September to discuss bilateral cooperation in the energy sector. This followed a visit to Turkmenistan by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on in January, where energy issues were widely discussed between both Presidents. (Source)
As was the case in last week’s visit by Austrian President Fischer, the EU’s attempts to obtain Turkmen energy are due to its desire to have an alternative supplier of gas to Russia. Turkmenistan’s vast gas resources and relative proximity to Europe has increased its appeal as an alternative gas supplier to the EU.
2011 has so far seen a major focus on Turkmenistan from any of the world’s largest powers and governmental entities. The US, EU, EU member states, China, India, Pakistan, as well as other countries such as Russia, Japan and Iran have held meetings with the Turkmen Government over issues surrounding its extensive energy supplies. Such desire by those countries to strengthen relations with Turkmenistan is set to remain for some time as competition for global energy supplies continues to be strong and Turkmenistan, despite concerns over its human rights record, remains stable. As such, Turkmenistan is set to be among those at the forefront of global energy security needs for some time.