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Qishloq Ovozi

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov takes part in the opening ceremony of the East-West pipeline at the Belek compressor station, some 500 kilometers northwest of Ashgabat, on December 23.

Russia appears to be practicing a bit of "divide-and-conquer" politics in Central Asia, and state-owned Gazprom is spearheading the campaign.

On January 4, Russia's main news agencies quoted a "source" within Gazprom Export, the Gazprom wing charged with handling gas imports from other countries, saying Russia would not be importing any gas from Turkmenistan this year. Shortly after, those same Russian news agencies quoted what they said was the same source saying a new deal had been reached for gas supplies from Uzbekistan.

At the time, the "source" provided no further details. He or she did not need to; the reasons seem clear enough.

Turkmenistan has been a thorn in the Kremlin's side for many years now. Turkmenistan downgraded its participation in the CIS to "associate" status a decade ago and Ashgabat does not participate in any of the Russian-led intra-CIS groupings, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

More recently, Turkmenistan, which has the world's fourth-largest gas reserves, has been pushing to open new export routes, including one to Europe that would put Turkmen gas in direct competition with Russian gas.

And all this happened as Turkmenistan continued to sell gas to Russia. In fact, not so long ago Russia was Turkmenistan's primary gas customer, buying some 45 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas in 2008.

That amount has dwindled, and Gazprom announced at the start of 2015 it would purchase only 4 bcm of Turkmen gas, not the 10 bcm the Russian company bought in 2014. Ashgabat complained bitterly about the 2015 reduction and later accused Russia of failing to pay for gas it received.

Small wonder that Gazprom, already with more of its own gas than it can sell, has now canceled all purchases of Turkmen gas.

But at the Qishloq, we think there is more to this development than just gas purchases.

As mentioned, the Gazprom Export "source" said the company would continue to buy gas from Turkmenistan's neighbor Uzbekistan. In 2015, Gazprom also reduced the amount of gas it bought from Uzbekistan, from 4 bcm in 2014 to 1 bcm.

Gazprom chief Aleksei Miller confirmed a new agreement for gas purchases from Uzbekistan on January 5 and sources in his company said Gazprom would buy at least 3.1 bcm from Uzbekistan this year.

Uzbekistan's ties with Russia are not much better than Turkmenistan's ties with the former colonial master, and like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan is not a member of the CSTO or EEU.

Not surprisingly, the Turkmen and Uzbek leaders have seen in recent years they share much common ground and the relationship between the two countries is probably the best it's been since 1991 independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And not only has that left Russia with little influence in either country, it is an example of how some former Soviet republics in Central Asia can do without Moscow's help, the sort of example the Kremlin would rather not see.

By rejecting any more purchases of Turkmen gas while at the same increasing the amount of Uzbek gas, Gazprom is creating a rift between the two Central Asian countries.

Turkmenistan only has two other customers for its gas at the present -- China and Iran -- and the Turkmen economy is beginning to show strains from lower prices of gas on world markets. It is a symbolic slap in Ashgabat's face that Turkmenistan will not be selling even modest amounts of gas to Russia, and instead that revenue will be going to Turkmenistan's neighbor.

There is more subtext here. Although Uzbek-Russian ties have never been great since the fall of the Soviet Union, Tashkent has allowed Gazprom and Russian company LUKoil to explore and develop gas and oil fields in Uzbekistan. This makes it difficult for Gazprom to cut ties totally with Uzbekistan. In fact, the gas Gazprom said it will buy from Uzbekistan is probably coming from gas fields Gazprom is developing.

Ashgabat has never allowed Russian companies to develop the huge onshore fields in Turkmenistan. The only company that has such a contract is the China National Petroleum Corporation. That makes it easy for Gazprom to cut ties with Turkmenistan.

There is one more point worth considering when reviewing Russia's refusal to buy Turkmen gas, and it has nothing to do with hydrocarbons.

On January 3, the Russian news agency Interfax reported, Aleksandr Sternik, identified as the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Third CIS Department, announced Russia is ready to assist Turkmenistan with security problems along the Turkmen-Afghan border. Sternik said, "Russia, Turkmenistan's neighbors, its partners in the CIS have been monitoring with friendly attention the efforts of Turkmen friends to strengthen what actually is our common southern borders." (Qishloq Ovozi has reported on these security problems, for instance, here, here, and here.)

Ashgabat denies there is any security problem along the Turkmen border with Afghanistan.

Sternik also mentioned that along the Turkmen-Afghan border "more resources are needed for solid protection than, for instance, on the Uzbek-Afghan border." Again, Russia draws a distinction between the situations in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Gazprom's January 4 announcements were a low-cost move that could pay big political dividends for the Kremlin in its effort to restore some of the lost Russian influence in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (right) meets with Saudi Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman in Riyadh on January 3, 2016.

Usually, when Tajik President Emomali Rahmon visits Saudi Arabia the trip does not generate much news outside of Tajikistan. But Rahmon's January 2-4 visit, though it was undoubtedly planned months in advance, came as both Tajikistan and Saudi Arabia found themselves in fresh disputes with Iran.

Reports about the official portion of Rahmon's visit to Saudi Arabia mention a meeting with Saudi King Salman, the signing of new bilateral agreements, and discussions about combating terrorism, extremism, narcotics trafficking, and transnational criminal organizations.

The word "Iran” is absent from these reports, though it was surely on the minds of Tajik and Saudi officials, and Rahmon's visit to Saudi Arabia was likely something officials in Iran were watching closely as well.

Tajik-Iranian ties have been good for many years, in part because Iran sees Tajikistan as a natural gateway for Iranian policies in Central Asia. But at the end of December, Iran invited the leader of the recently banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IPRT), Muhiddin Kabiri, to attend an international conference on Islamic unity in Tehran. Kabiri had fled Tajikistan months before, as it became clear the Tajik government was intent on closing the party. Since his departure, Tajik authorities have accused the IRPT leader of attempting to overthrow the government.

At the conference in Tehran, Kabiri was seated next to the head of Tajikistan's state-backed Islamic Council. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with Kabiri on the sidelines of the conference.

Kabiri's presence at the event drew sharp criticism from Tajikistan. The Tajik Foreign Ministry released a statement on December 29 saying it was "greatly concerned” that the leader of an "extremist and terrorist” organization was invited to the conference. Tajikistan's chief mufti, Sayidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda, spoke about Iran during Friday prayers on January 1, saying Iran had always claimed to be Tajikistan's friend but "at the conference we saw that Iran clearly showed disrespect to the Tajik nation and government.”

Saudi Arabia's recent trouble with Iran has been well publicized. The execution of one of Saudi Arabia's leading Shi'ite clerics, Sheikh al-Nimr, on January 2 sparked protests in Iran, including the torching of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. The next day, while Rahmon in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia cut its ties to Iran.

For Saudi Arabia, the Rahmon visit was an opportunity to dampen Iran's relations with Tajikistan, a country with which Tehran maintained excellent ties even as it came under international sanctions and was considered an international pariah. Prying such a good ally away from Iran would suit the Saudi government, which has warned about what it sees as growing Iranian influence in neighboring Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

For Tajikistan, Rahmon's visit -- which concluded with a pilgrimage to Mecca -- was a timely reminder to Tehran that Tajikistan has other friends in the Islamic world; friends in the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia pledged to provide some $108 million through the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) for the construction of major roads in the poorly connected eastern Tajikistan. It was pocket change for Saudi Arabia, but seeing as the IDB allocated only some $84 million to Tajikistan from 2002 until 2015, Rahmon came away from the trip with something more than usual.

Probably a few people remembered during Rahmon's visit that the majority of Tajikistan's people are Sunni Muslims, as in Saudi Arabia, not Shi'a, as in Iran. That fact has always tempered Tajikistan's relations with the Iranian regime.

Saudi-Iranian ties have been bad for some time now and are likely to remain so. But Tajikistan cannot afford to engage in political brinksmanship with Iran for long. Dushanbe needs Tehran.

When calling Iran an "accomplice to traitors” in last Friday's sermon, Tajik Mufti Abdulkodirzoda noted the linguistic and cultural affinities that helped Tehran forge ties with Dushanbe since the early days of Tajikistan's independence. Iran used those similarities to also gain an economic foothold in Tajikistan.

Iran is helping complete the Anzob or Istiqlol Tunnel (far behind schedule and dubbed by some the "tunnel of death”) to better connect northern and southern Tajikistan by road.

More importantly, Iran invested some $180 million, and endured countless objections from Uzbekistan, to help build Tajikistan's Sangtuda-2 hydropower plant, which has already become an indispensable supply of electricity for Tajikistan.

However, Iran retains ownership of Sangtuda-2 until about 2029 under a "BOOT” (Buy-own-operate-transfer) deal and that hinges on Tajikistan repaying the Iranian investment. Currently, both Sangtuda-2 and the Russian-built Sangtuda-1 hydropower plant are tens of millions of dollars in debt.

Iran has invested in many other projects in Tajikistan and, in return, Dushanbe has backed Tehran in international disputes, such as Iran's right to have nuclear power.

The Tajik government's strong reaction to Kabiri's attendance at the conference in Tehran is somewhat surprising.

Iran was one of the main players in arranging talks between the Tajik government and the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) during Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war. The IRPT was the backbone of the UTO and IRPT leaders sheltered in Iran during much of the war. The peace accord Iran helped broker included providing the Tajik opposition, including the IRPT, with places in the Tajik government.

That deal unofficially ended when, after nearly 18 years, the IRPT lost its last places in the government after the March 2015 parliamentary elections that some feel were rigged by the Tajik government.

Iranian officials reacted to Tajikistan's complaints by pointing out Kabiri and his party had been invited to Islamic Unity conferences in years past, before the IRPT was banned and declared an extremist group by Tajik authorities.

Tajikistan's position in world politics is not good at the moment. Western interest in the region is on the wane, while Russia and China appear interested in Central Asia but their domestic economic situations preclude significant investment or attention in the near future.

Iran is a different position. With sanctions on exports of Iranian oil and gas expected to be lifted soon, Tehran will receive a lot of attention and offers, making this an inopportune time for Tajikistan to aggravate a relationship that for nearly 25 years has benefitted both countries.

Based on material from RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi

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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. Content will draw 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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