As the United States and the European Union strive to build an energy export route from the Caspian region, and specifically from Turkmenistan, through the proposed trans-Caspian gas pipeline, the question remains as to whether the project will ever come to fruition. The pipeline would benefit both Turkmenistan and its Western partners, but could damage the Central Asian country's relations with Russia, which continues to play a strong hand in the regional energy game.
The pipeline would connect Turkmenistan's natural-gas reserves to Europe, bypassing Russia by connecting Turkmenistan to the pipelines running through the Caucasus. Turkmenistan, which claims to possess some of the world's largest gas reserves, will therefore be able to decrease its dependence on Russia and also open its economic doors to the West.
In addition to its energy resources, Turkmenistan has an advantageous location at a crossroads of Russian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern trade that gives the United States further reason to seek a working relationship with the former Soviet republic.
For more than a decade, there has been talk of a trans-Caspian pipeline that would carry the energy resources of the Caspian region to Europe. However, since the death in December 2006 of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, who had kept the country isolated since 1991, the United States has made an effort to build stronger ties with Turkmenistan under current President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
In the past year, Washington has sent over 15 delegations to Turkmenistan to hold discussions on key issues such as education, human rights, economics, and security. The United States is advocating strong economic reform that would encourage foreign direct investment and allow Turkmenistan to become a more viable trading partner. It is also stressing the importance of military cooperation, a healthy education system, and democratic freedoms.
But although Berdymukhammedov has actively initiated reforms in many sectors, such as increasing the number of compulsory years of education from nine to 10, supporting the arts, allowing Internet cafes to open in the capital, Ashgabat, and dismantling Niyazov's cult of personality, he still maintains strict control over the government and shows signs of developing a personality cult of his own.
Michael Laubsch, the executive director and president of the Eurasian Transition Group, a nongovernmental organization in Germany, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that the promises made by Berdymukhammedov on human rights, education, Internet access, and other critical issues are merely cosmetic, and that "no substantial reforms have been made."
The United States has good reasons for pushing Turkmenistan to return to the international community, according to Alexandros Petersen, program director of the Caspian Europe Center of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Brussels.
"First, it is important that the West have access to Turkmenistan's vast natural-gas reserves through a trans-Caspian transit corridor. It is also important for Turkmenistan that those reserves not only go through Russia or China, but that there is a diversity of consumers," Petersen tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service.
"Second, it is in the interests of the United States that Turkmenistan develop a Western-oriented outlook to its foreign policy," he adds. "This is the first step toward greater integration and stability in the Caspian region and improvement of governance within Turkmenistan. Third, from a geopolitical point of view, it is vital that the United States keep a strong presence in the Caspian region and Central Asia."
Steve LeVine, the chief foreign affairs writer for "Business Week" and author of "The Oil and the Glory," says that the United States is promoting this alternative energy route "to counterbalance Russia's growing economic and, by extension, political influence in the United States' strategic backyard, which is Europe."
Europe is dependent on Russia for much of its energy supplies. According to LeVine, "the United States fears that Gazprom's growing hold [on those supplies] is translating into political power and influence in the European theater, and the United States seeks to assert its own leverage into the equation." That amounts to what LeVine calls an "anti-Russian policy."
At the same time, Berdymukhammedov also has good reason to pursue reforms -- even at a cosmetic level -- to ensure the development of Turkmenistan's relationship with the West, particularly in the energy sector. As Petersen suggests, the Turkmen leader sees the success that has stemmed from his neighbors' "multivector" foreign policies and would like to imitate them in order to attract "Western energy investment and expertise," and to allow for greater "flexibility" in Ashgabat's foreign policy.
Playing All Sides
However, building stronger ties with the West and fostering reforms at home aren't the only items on Berdymukhammedov's foreign-policy agenda.
The Turkmen president is conducting energy talks with Iran, planning to begin gas exports via a pipeline to China in 2009, fortifying a budding relationship with NATO, and, as a result of a recent summit with Azerbaijan, encouraging energy cooperation across the Caspian.
Laubsch of the Eurasian Transition Group suggests that Berdymukhammedov is making strategic moves in the energy game in which the United States and EU are competing alongside Russia and other Central Asian countries. Laubsch says that Berdymukhammedov wants to send a message to Moscow that Turkmenistan is no longer dependent on Russia, and that any future relationship between them must be "balanced."
That message will become even clearer if Turkmenistan agrees to the trans-Caspian gas pipeline. Not only would Turkmen-Russian relations become strained, but the pipeline could also hinder Ashgabat's relationship with Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly. Therefore, LeVine says, the United States must be fully behind Turkmenistan in order for the pipeline project to be brought to completion.
According to the Eurasian Transition Group's recent "Asia-Prime Central Asia News Digest," if Turkmenistan agrees to the pipeline project, as it is expected to do, it would mean a "geopolitical disadvantage for Russia," and could cause Gazprom to have "doubts in the Turkmen ability to fulfill promises for all signed contracts between the two countries."
'Russia Has Won The Game'
For now, the pipeline project has stalled as Washington deals with its primary foreign-policy concerns, and Turkmenistan's international relations recover from the legacy of former President Niyazov.
LeVine argues that while the United States' diplomatic attentions remain elsewhere, Moscow has continued to pursue its energy strategy in Central Asia, which means that "effectively, Russia has already won the game." As President Dmitry Medvedev's recent visit to Turkmenistan reveals, Russia is not giving up on its interests in the region, and continues to make attractive offers to Turkmenistan for access to its gas reserves. He also argues that Turkmenistan is "terrified of what Russia can do" if it falls out of favor with Moscow, and therefore cannot pull away from Moscow's sphere of influence without greater U.S. support.
It remains up to the United States to build that relationship and reap the energy benefits. LeVine suggests that if the United States wants to assertively encourage the pipeline, the next "administration needs to appoint a serious envoy...[who] knows how to speak the language that the Russians understand," such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser under former President Jimmy Carter.
For his part, Petersen says that "it is worth noting at the moment [that] Turkmenistan's foreign policy outlook is more important for Russia than it is for the West, and that really needs to change."