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Turkey: Prospects for Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline Seem Brighter

  • Michael Lelyveld

Turkish President Suleyman Demirel's mission to Turkmenistan has generated positive statements about the trans-Caspian pipeline. But the region may not have long to rely on his diplomatic skills. RFE/RL's Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 3 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Last week's meeting of Turkish and Turkmen leaders produced a change in tone over the future of the trans-Caspian pipeline, even if doubts continue about the substance.

Most reports of Turkish President Suleyman Demirel's visit to Ashgabat were decidedly positive, stressing the determination of Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov to overcome the hurdles facing the trans-Caspian gas line.

At a joint news conference, Niyazov promised Demirel: "Even if we have to go through hell to get the gas to you, we will deliver it. We will get the gas to you somehow," according to the Reuters news agency.

The Russian news agency Interfax reported that Niyazov called the trans-Caspian project "good for Turkmenistan, Turkey, other countries in the region, and Europe."

The statements stood in sharp contrast to critical comments by Niyazov in recent weeks about the progress of the plan to build a 2,000-kilometer line across the Caspian, through Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey and on to Europe.

Less than two weeks ago, the Turkmen president declared that the U.S.-backed project "has come to a standstill." Last month, he angrily charged that U.S. officials had pressured him to accept terms for sharing the pipeline's capacity with Azerbaijan.

But at his meeting with Demirel, Niyazov seemed to change his outlook entirely. He took pains to call the trans-Caspian line "our main gas export project," stressing that it would not be hampered by negotiations on gas sales to Russia or Iran. Niyazov said that he had agreed to lower the price of the gas sold to Turkey at Turkmenistan's border with Azerbaijan from $53 to $45 per thousand cubic meters.

On returning to Ankara, Demirel announced that he had reached new agreements with Niyazov and that the project would be speeded up. Some energy experts were skeptical. Platt's Oilgram, an industry newsletter, noted that Demirel had not come away with a formal renewal of the mandate for the pipeline consortium, which technically expired in February.

But there still seems to be little doubt that Demirel's trip made a difference, at least in Turkmenistan's public pronouncements on the project. After his talks with Demirel, Niyazov appeared to ease at least one major demand on the U.S.-led consortium for a $500-million payment to Turkmenistan. Earlier, Niyazov had reportedly rejected an offer of a $354-million credit for the country's agricultural sector as too small.

Much of Demirel's influence stems from his ability to share a fraternal embrace of Turkic heritage with Niyazov. Whether or not real deals materialize, Niyazov can hope that Demirel will use similar persuasions with Azerbaijan over its transit demands to make the pipeline possible.

But those persuasive powers which could draw the region together may soon suffer a blow because of the Turkish parliament's refusal to allow Demirel another term as president. A vote to amend the constitution, opening the door to a second term for Demirel, failed last week. A second attempt is expected in a matter of days.

As the elder statesman of Turkish politics, Demirel has no real successors who could play a similar regional role after his term expires in May. On the narrow issue of pipelines, Demirel is also scheduled to visit Kazakhstan this month to help win commitments for the Baku-Ceyhan oil line, another project that depends on regional cooperation.

The loss of Demirel's authority may come at a critical time for the Caspian projects. Aside from his calming effect on competitive tensions, there are concerns for the stability of Turkey's government under Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit.

A political collapse is hardly likely to promote economic development, on which Turkey's gas consumption depends. The uncertainty could prove to be a problem not only for the U.S.-backed pipeline projects but also for those involving Russia and Iran.

Analysts have already raised doubts about Turkey's ambitious forecasts of growth in consumption and its pledges to buy gas from a long list countries, including Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.

There seemed to be little reason for optimism last week when the government reported that Turkey's gross national product plunged 6.4 percent in 1999. The record decline, blamed on last year's earthquake, was far more than the 2.1 percent drop projected by the International Monetary Fund in December.

The Caspian countries, which look toward Turkey for mutual interest and ethnicity, may have new reasons for concern. Without the help of leaders like Demirel, they will face the test of relying on their own diplomatic skills.