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Turkmenistan: Energy Analyst Discusses Impact Of Niyazov's Death

A gas-compressor station in Turkmenistan (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) PRAGUE, December 21, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Federico Bordonaro is managing editor of "Power And Interest News Report," an independent organization that analyzes conflicts and international relations. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten spoke to him about the potential geopolitical and economic impact of the death of Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov.

RFE/RL: Turkmenistan is one of the world's leading natural-gas producers. Russia is Turkmenistan's biggest market. The two countries recently concluded a 3-year agreement on future gas deliveries. How important is Turkmenistan to Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly? And how might Niyazov's death affect Gazprom's business strategy?

Federico Bordonaro: Gazprom's strategy is like [the strategy] of great chess player. What Gazprom is trying to do is to avoid, to prevent -- especially the European players -- from finding efficient diversification routes. So what Gazprom does is this: not only is it already the main exporter to the European Union, but it tries to control some key [foreign producer] markets, such as Turkmenistan, such as Algeria.

RFE/RL: So what happens if new leaders emerge in Turkmenistan who want to reduce Russia's control over Turkmen gas?

Bordonaro: If there is political chaos, if there are new forces popping up in Turkmenistan that are not interested in pursuing the same autocratic and pro-Russian strategy of the former leader, Russia will have to renegotiate. And we can expect all other players to step in and to try to seduce -- so to say -- the new leadership to diversify the gas routes.

RFE/RL: Who are some of the players that could woo Ashgabat?

A Russian tanker heading for the Turkmen Caspian Sea port of Turkmanbashi (TASS file photo)

Bordonaro: The European Union, with the new German presidency that is going to take the helm of the rotating presidency on January 1, is very interested in enhancing its industrial and commercial ties with the Central Asian countries. Probably Kazakhstan was, up to now, the main focus of the new EU German presidency, but now we can maybe expect that they will make some moves toward Turkmenistan.

RFE/RL: What about other potential players?

Bordonaro: Another important player is China, of course. China needs more and more natural gas in order to secure its strong economic growth. And then, I wouldn't forget the United States. The United States has tried in the past to check the Russian resurgence and its influence in Central Asia. And it could be that the United States might have a candidate, a political force that could be more pro-Western, but we have to be very cautious in making predictions now.

RFE/RL: What about Iran?

Bordonaro: The Iranians will certainly try to have influence in the new Turkmen policy. But [their] capability of getting such new influence remains to be seen. The problem is that if the Turkmen ruling class has interest in pursuing a strong partnership with Russia and with Gazprom, I do not think that Iran can successfully insert itself in the game and change anything. If, on the contrary, there is a new ruling class coming up, then Iran will probably try to forge ties with the South Asian countries and try to form a bloc of influence in Turkmenistan.

RFE/RL: What role does South Asia have to play? Can you explain?

Bordonaro: There are already some important projects to bring Turkmen gas down to the Indian Ocean. These projects also involve Pakistan, so they are very delicate from a diplomatic point of view. On the other hand, they could also help Pakistan and India to forge more friendly relations. And it's very important to note that Russia wanted to control this process and to control the process of conveying gas resources from the Caspian toward South Asia and the Indian Ocean.

RFE/RL: And what about the proposed Nabucco Pipeline, which could run through Iran and Turkey to Europe, bypassing Russia? Do you see this as a feasible option?

Bordonaro: You have many political questions. Iran, of course, but also Turkey. What happens, for example, if the tensions between Europe and Turkey augment in the next six-12 months? Of course, Turkey is interested in continuing to be an energy hub between Central Asia and Europe. But if the European Union ends up irritating the Turkish government too much, projects like the Nabucco Pipeline could have a setback, I think. But generally speaking, the Nabucco Pipeline is an excellent opportunity for Europe to really diversify its gas acquisition, because no Russian territory would be involved and possibly no Gazprom influence would be involved.

RFE/RL: All these pipeline projects would require a lot of foreign investment. Can Turkmenistan count on that?

Bordonaro: Turkmenistan had a high political risk for [foreign] investment, because of its autocratic political structure, so it wasn't very secure to invest in Turkmenistan, because there was always the possibility that the government was going to nationalize everything and Russia could actually manipulate the government there. So now the key is that if a new ruling class is able to structure a more favorable environment for foreign investment, then Turkmenistan could actually have new chances to build new infrastructure and therefore to be able to diversify its gas routes.

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