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Line "D" of the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline network was meant to have been the largest single gas conduit connecting Turkmenistan to any consumer state. (file photo)

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and his government just cannot seem to get a break lately.

Not that they necessarily deserve it. But all the same, Turkmenistan's last realistic hope to export a significant amount of additional natural gas to a customer has just evaporated.

Line "D" of the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline network was to be more than just the largest of four pipelines connecting western China to gas fields in Turkmenistan -- it also would have been the largest single gas pipeline connecting Turkmenistan to any consumer state.

Line D was supposed to carry some 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas annually to China. The line took a different route. Lines A, B, and C all went from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan before reaching China. To include all the Central Asian states, Beijing decided to route Line D through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and then into China.

Already at the end of 2014, it was clear that there were problems in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with forming joint ventures with Chinese companies to construct and later operate the pipeline, and some disagreements over the route.

Neither of those Central Asian countries was going to receive any gas from the line, but they would have taken in millions of dollars in transit fees.

At the end of 2016, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, contacted an official in Kyrgyzstan involved with the project who said there had not been any meetings with Chinese officials about Line D since December 2015.

But it was Uzbekistan and China that appear to have officially put a halt to Line D; RIA Novosti reported on March 2 that China National Petroleum Corporation and Uzbekneftegaz had indefinitely postponed construction of the pipeline on Uzbekistan's territory.

Economic Crisis

This is a real blow to Turkmenistan. The country is experiencing the worst economic crisis in its 25-year history, in large part due to Turkmenistan's dependency on revenues from gas sales.

This is partly due to the drastic fall in gas prices in the last three years, but also due to Russia canceling its contract for Turkmen gas imports at the start of 2016 and the suspension of Turkmen gas supplies to Iran at the start of 2017 over a contract dispute.

That leaves Turkmenistan with only China as a customer. There are already three operating gas pipelines from Turkmenistan to China. Lines A and B can each carry 15 bcm and Line C can carry 25 bcm, for a combined 55 bcm of gas annually to China, though all the lines have not yet reached full capacity.

Since the three lines pass through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, also gas-producing countries, both of which have contracts to supply 10 bcm to the pipelines, though Kazakhstan has already signaled it wants to export more gas to China.

That leaves 35 bcm of space in the three lines for Turkmenistan.

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov had initially hoped to have increased Turkmen gas exports severalfold by 2030.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov had initially hoped to have increased Turkmen gas exports severalfold by 2030.

It is always difficult to find reliable figures on Turkmenistan's gas industry, Turkmenistan is thought to have exported some 30 bcm of gas to China in 2016. If true, that means there is little extra room in the pipelines. With the postponement of Line D, Turkmenistan can expect to increase its gas exports no more than 5 bcm in the coming years.

The price China pays Turkmenistan for gas is said to around $185 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas, meaning if Turkmenistan does pump the extra 5 bcm of gas into the pipeline it would receive less than $1 billion annually for that. That would help, but it won't prop up Turkmenistan's sagging economy.

Price War?

It gets worse. China loaned Turkmenistan billions of dollars to develop Turkmen gas fields and build the pipelines to China, so some of the gas Turkmenistan ships to China goes toward paying off Ashgabat's debt.

Worse still, after Russia canceled its contract for Turkmen gas, Russian gas giant Gazprom renegotiated deals with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. According to a recent article in Russia's Life News, Gazprom reached a deal to pay Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan some $140 per 1,000 cubic meters. The article said Gazprom annulled the contract with Turkmenistan because Ashgabat was demanding $240 per 1,000 cubic meters.

So Turkmenistan faces the possibility of a price war with its Central Asian neighbors to supply gas to China.

Berdymukhammedov talks often about projects that will enrich Turkmenistan even further, such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. That pipeline would carry 33 bcm of Turkmen gas. Turkmenistan says it has started construction of its segment of TAPI, though there has been no proof of this so far, and Pakistan claimed to have started its section in early March.

That leaves some 700 kilometers of Afghan territory between them, and the proposed route would run through areas where there is frequent and fierce fighting.

Berdymukhammedov has boldly predicted construction of TAPI would be completed in 2019, but Pakistan said at the end of January that it would be delayed by at least one year -- and even that estimate is likely very optimistic.

No one even talks about the Trans-Caspian Pipeline anymore. That was supposed to carry some 30 bcm of Turkmen gas west toward Europe.

Iran Reroutes Supplies

Turkmenistan probably just lost Iran as a customer. Winter is coming to an end, and Iranian officials have spent the weeks since the suspension of Turkmen gas supplies rerouting domestic electricity supplies. Construction of internal gas pipelines from southern Iran to areas in the north that were supplied by Turkmen gas has speeded up. Iran probably won't need Turkmen gas next winter.

So that leaves Turkmenistan with 35 bcm of space in the pipelines going to China, part of it going toward debt repayment.

There is no other gas-export project likely to be built within the next decade.

Quite a disappointment for Berdymukhammedov, who was boasting just a few years ago about exporting 180 bcm by 2030.

Kyrgyz opposition leader Omurbek Tekebaev (left) and President Almazbek Atambaev had enjoyed cordial relations until last summer. (file photo)

The detention of Omurbek Tekebaev, the leader of Kyrgyzstan's Ata-Meken party, has provided opponents of President Almazbek Atambaev and his Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) with a fresh rallying point.

The country's presidential election is scheduled for November and Atambaev is constitutionally prohibited from running, so this promises to be the most contested presidential election in Kyrgyzstan's 25-year history.

That makes Tekebaev's detention not only a political issue between his party, other opposition parties and Atambaev and his ruling SDPK, it also makes it an election issue in a country that has already seen two presidents chased from office by protests.

What just happened in Kyrgyzstan and why did it happen? Where could this lead Kyrgyzstan, a country still credited with being the most democratic in Central Asia?

These were some of the questions addressed in a Majlis, or panel discussion, organized by RFE/RL.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir.Joining the Majlis from Bishkek was Medet Tiulegenov, assistant professor of international and comparative politics at the American University of Central Asia. Also from Bishkek, Ryskeldi Satke, a researcher and freelance journalist who has written for many media outlets, including Al-Jazeera and The Diplomat, took part in the conversation. I'm always rooting for Kyrgyzstan, so I said a few things also.

Tekebaev was taken into custody by the State Committee for National Security early on February 26 when he arrived at Bishkek's Manas International Airport.

According to Satke "a political fight between the Ata-Meken faction and the president's circle, including the president himself" was at the center of Tekebaev's detention.

Previously Amicable Relations

Tekebaev and Atambaev were once allies, part of the interim government that took over when former President Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted in April 2010. They maintained amiable ties until last summer when Atambaev started pushing for a referendum to make changes to the constitution. The referendum took place in December and the amendments were passed.

Tekebaev was an author of that constitution and a provision in the text prohibited amendments until 2020.

Satke recalled: "There were a number of accusations since last year and… the referendum was one of those issues where the Ata-Meken faction was disagreeing with the president's version…since then this political rivalry escalated."

It did indeed escalate into what Tiulegenov called a "war of kompromats…a form of a wider deeper struggle, which happened in the wake of constitutional changes."

Over the course of the last half-year, Tekebaev and Atambaev have exchanged accusations about how each has acquired material wealth. Tekebaev was returning to Kyrgyzstan after visits abroad, one of which was to Cyprus where he collected what his Ata-Meken party said were documents linking Atambaev to cargo aboard a plane that crashed near the Manas airport in late January.

'Second Wave' Of A Power Struggle

The reason for detaining Tekebaev was the recent appearance of a video in which Russian businessman Leonid Maevsky claimed that he gave Tekebaev $1 million in late 2010 in order to acquire a stake in Kyrgyzstan's largest mobile phone operator, MegaCom.

Tiulegenov said, "The question many people are asking [is] why this person comes out almost seven years after all these events."

And Tiulegenov reminded us that Tekebaev is not the only member of Ata-Meken who is currently detained.Three other Ata-Meken members were arrested in November in connection with an offshore company that had links to MegaCom.

Tiulegenov suggested, "Maybe you can view it as a second wave of struggle by Atambaev to consolidate his power" recalling that Atambaev, "using the same tactic, using law enforcement agencies he controls as the president, opened up various criminal cases [against] the Ata-Jurt party."

Ata-Jurt was a party packed with former officials from the Bakiev administration. They were naturally opponents of the government that replaced Bakiev after he was chased from power. Ata-Jurt won the most seats (28) in parliament in the 2010 elections. As Tiulegenov explained, some of the parliamentary deputies from Ata-Jurt "were arrested or criminal cases were opened against them, and now Ata-Meken comes [into a similar situation]."

A Time Of Uncertainty

Moving forward, Satke pointed out that the detention of Tekebaev did not spark large protests and as a single issue is probably not sufficient to ignite the sort of passionate demonstrations Kyrgyzstan has seen in previous years. But Satke added that there are many perennial issues that could easily be added to opposition protests, including, among others, poverty, corruption, and chronic unemployment that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz citizens working as migrant laborers.

Satke also mentioned that "protests in the province of Naryn have been going on for quite a while over electricity rates, winter was harsh this year and many were complaining that electricity is too expensive them."

The Bakiev government's decision to hike utility rates in the winter of 2009-10 was the first issue to bring people out onto the streets. By the time protests hounded Bakiev from office in April 2010, this issue was practically forgotten, replaced by a dozen other complaints.

The run-up to the November election in Kyrgyzstan is already looking a lot like the elections when Askar Akaev was president (1991-2005). Back then, prominent opposition leaders often also found themselves in legal entanglements months ahead of important ballots and election campaigns became part party politics and part courtroom battles.

Tiulegenov said the fact that Atambaev must step down and cannot ever again be president is likely playing a role in the events surrounding the Ata-Meken party and Tekebaev. "It poses kind of a security dilemma… to safeguard yourself after stepping down from the presidential position."

Tiulegenov summed up the uncertainty of the coming months by noting, "We don't have, unfortunately, a lot of experience with what ex-presidents may do."

The discussion looked at these issues in greater detail and made some comparisons between what is happening now in Kyrgyzstan and crises in the country in the past.

An audio recording of the Majlis can heard here:

Majlis Podcast: The Fallout From Detaining A Kyrgyz Opposition Leader
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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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