Just a few years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine an official from Turkmenistan visiting Brussels to discuss exporting natural gas directly to the EU.
But when Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov meets with European Union officials in Brussels, discussing his country's participation in projects to bring natural gas to Europe will be high on his agenda.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have traditionally been the most resistant of the Central Asian states to Western influence, but both are increasingly showing an interest in breaking that mold.
Federico Bordonaro, a senior analyst at the Italy-based analysis group equilibri.net, says that Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, having watched the approach of their neighbors, appear to be sold on the advantages of a multivector energy-export policy.
Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan were the first countries to take this approach, and the two Caspian littoral states are now "both participants in this new energy game in the South Caucasus and Central Asian regions," Bordonaro notes.
He says that "the benefits from this multivector foreign policy are that actually these countries have much of their prosperity coming from the sale of oil and gas and the more they can diversify their export routes the better it is for them."Human Rights vs. Geopolitics
Turkmenistan's and Uzbekistan's poor human rights records have long posed hurdles to interacting with the West. The two countries regularly attract criticism from Western governments and rights groups, more so than neighbors Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
In the past, Ashgabat and Tashkent have made clear that such issues are not anyone else's business. But as both countries try to break the dominance Russia holds over their energy (largely gas) export routes, they appear to be opening up.
"I think that Turkmen, the Uzbeks, and the other Central Asians, they don't want Russia to play too big a role in their energy markets because these have political implications and political influence inside their countries, they don't want to be turned into satellites once again by Russia," Bordonaro says.
"Turkmen and Uzbeks have now seized the opportunity to challenge the Russian hegemony in their own markets and they are reaching out to the Europeans."
Path of the planned Nabucco pipeline
Turkmenistan has been almost totally dependent on Russian pipelines to export its gas (some 50 billion cubic meters [bcm] annually), except for a modest pipeline to Iran (that exports some 8 bcm). A new pipeline to China is set to start operating toward the end of this year (with a 30 bcm capacity).
But Western companies have had little success -- that is, until recently. "Turkmenistan has allowed the Germans to explore the Caspian Sea Basin in order to exploit huge gas reserves and the German major RWE was chosen in April to do this and this was a groundbreaking agreement because it was the first time that the Turkmen actually allowed a major European energy company to do anything of the sort," Bordonaro says.
While just last November Uzbek President Islam Karimov said that Russia was meeting all of Uzbekistan's gas export needs, last month calls were made for Italy and Spain to invest in Uzbek energy projects. This was a rare overture indeed, seeing that Tashkent has allowed only companies from Russia and East Asia to participate in energy projects on its territory for the last half-decade. Filling Pipelines
January provided examples of increased activity when Turkmenistan, along with Kazakhstan, sent representatives to an international conference in Budapest on the EU-backed Nabucco project, intended to pump Central Asian gas through a pipeline from the Georgian border westward to Austria.
The same two Central Asian countries and Uzbekistan sent representatives to the EU "South Corridor-New Silk Route" summit in Prague in May.
The Russian state-controlled gas giant Gazprom has enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the export of Central Asian gas since the Soviet Union collapsed, but a deal between Gazprom and Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan last year that appeared to be capable of sinking the Nabucco project has backfired for the moment.
Gazprom had promised to pay the Central Asian states "European prices" for their gas, effectively preventing anyone in Europe from offering a better price.
But the "European" price of gas at the time the contracts were signed was higher than the price is now. Turkmenistan has argued that its deal with Gazprom was for over $300 per 1,000 cubic meters -- last year's cost -- although on the global market the price has fallen under $300 and is heading toward $200.
Adding significant tension to their relationship was the explosion of a key pipeline connecting Turkmenistan and Russia in early April. There is still a dispute between the two countries' gas companies about who was at fault, while the Turkmen government was prompted to place an article titled "Who put the mine under the Turkmen-Russian pipeline?" on its official website, turkmenistan.ru.
The article does not answer the question about "who" put a mine (if it was a mine that caused the explosion) under the pipeline, it is rather a history of the difficult relationship Turkmenistan has had with Gazprom.
But the outlining of the argument, purely from the Turkmen point of view, helps make clear the new realities in both Ashgabat and Tashkent.
As Bordonaro puts it, "Now it seems that the Turkmen and the Uzbeks are reminding the West that the deals are possible and that they don't want to be monopolized by the Russians and Gazprom."