As the date for Turkmenistan’s election, Feb. 11, nears, Washington and Moscow are stepping up their covert struggle for control of the fifth largest gas reserve in the world. Also at stake is the fate of this strategically situated Central Asian republic’s skies and air bases. Who gets them, the American or the Russian air force?
Both parties have a lot gain but also plenty to lose in the contest, which flared upon the death in Dec. 2006 of the long-ruling, megalomaniac autocrat, Sappar Niazov Moradof, who crowned himself Turkmenbashi, Father of all Turkmen.
Washington stands to forfeit a key foothold on the shores of the Caspian Sea, the secret pacts signed with the dead ruler permitting the US air force to fly over Turkmenistan en route to Afghanistan, landing rights in the Ashkabad military air base and, according to some intelligence sources, a secret okay for a big American air base to be constructed in the south, near the point where the Turkmeni, Iranian and Afghan borders converge.
Neither Washington nor Ashkabad has ever confirmed these reports.
The Americans are also believed angling to set up a gas route from Turkmenistan through Azerbaijan to Europe, bypassing both Russia and Iran. However, the two Central Asian nations have never settled their dispute over their Caspian Seabed frontier and are therefore hardly likely to cooperate on this project – especially when Azerbaijan has ambitions to outdo its neighbor as a major energy exporter to Europe.
Moscow’s interests in Ashkabad are as pressing as Washington’s.
Russian president Vladimir Putin wants control of, or at least a say in, the disposition of the Caspian Sea’s shores. He would also like to control all oil and gas transfers from Central Asia to Europe and route them through Russia.
Moscow is accordingly tightening its grip on the entire belt of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzia and Turkmenistan.
The new ruler talks about diversifying
Both powers share the same uncertainty about the new ruler, acting president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who is the only candidate out of six with a real chance of winning the smoothly choreographed presidential election.
Turkmenistan has only one legal party, the Democratic Party. Any real challengers have been disposed of in the style of the dead dictator Niyazov and opposition members simply barred from returning home. As extra insurance, Mukhammedov has assured the international community that Turkmenistan will honor its natural gas contracts if he wins the election.
Aged 49, Mukhammedov was the late ruler’s personal doctor and dentist, as well as a deputy prime minister. He is also reputed to be his illegitimate son, which may be why he survived countless purges.
Iran across the border is also eying the Turkmenistan election, aiming for a chance at Shiite religious expansion. Al Qaeda, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, on the other, are also watching for the first opening for them to penetrate the republic. Russia, for its part, would hate to see the rise of radical Islam in a country in its back yard abutting the volatile Chechnya and Ingushetia. The European Community is after a slice of the cake, eager to break Russia’s monopolistic grip on the flow of gas from Central Asia. In the game too are China and Pakistan, which is interested in Turkmeni gas.
Richard Boucher, Assistant US Secretary for South and Central Asia, spent hours at the funeral of the departed president in talks with Turkmen officials on the feasibility of a Caspian Sea pipeline. But in recent weeks, Mukhammedov has sidestepped several requests from the American ambassador for an interview. He is anxious to avoid annoying Moscow, Beijing or Tehran, before he bags the presidency.
The Bush administration’s difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan are also undercutting American influence in Ashkabad.
In mid-January, Berdymukhammedov hinted at his intention to diversify his government’s export options which are today dependent on Russia, with the exception of a single pipeline to Iran. He spoke of an agreement reached in April 2006 to supply China with 30 billion cubic meters of gas a year starting in 2009, and vowed to meet this obligation to Beijing. On another recent occasion, the leading candidate referred to the country’s need to deliver Turkmenistan’s energy resources, especially natural gas, to world markets. While Ashkabad under his rule may honor existing energy contracts, it would also seek new partners.