Turkmenistan

Putin’s Caspian Coup, Cheney’s Iran Plan

In a major coup, Russian President Putin has clinched a deal to export Central Asian gas via Russia’s preferred overland route and has almost certainly dealt a fatal blow to Vice President Cheney’s vision of a submerged Trans-Caspian pipeline that would bypass Russia.

Putin claimed his Great Game prize at a weekend meeting with Turkmenistan President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov and Kazakhstan Presdient Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Cheney had personally courted Kazakh President Nazarbayev in a bid to win support for the Trans-Caspian pipeline.  And the US had made similar overtures to Turkmenistan President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov after the sudden death of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, in December 2006.

Kazakh President Nazarbayev had been slated to attend an energy summit of ex-Soviet bloc leaders meeting in Poland to discuss pipeline projects designed to bypass Russia.

Instead of bypassing Russia, Nazarbayev bypassed Cheney.

This is an enormous victory for Putin in the increasingly intense Great Power rivalry between Russia and the United States.

Turkmen President Berdymukhamedov, seemingly eager to forestall an inevitable US-led smear campaign against his authoritarian regime, has held out hope that the Russian pipeline agreement does not preclude alternatives, including the Trans-Caspian pipeline:

Turkmen ambassador to Austria Esen Aydogdyev told the Viennese daily Der Standard that ‘Turkmenistan has enough gas to export it in all directions; the project involving a trans-Caspian pipeline remains an option. The West doesn’t need to have any worries.’

Austrian oil and gas company OMV AG plays a leading role in the consortium currently planning the Nabucco natural gas pipeline and recently confirmed its commitment to the project.

Nevertheless, officials in the US and Russia appear to read the situation differently.

Russian Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko, clearly gloating, suggested that Cheney’s pipeline is now dead:

“In my view, technological, legal, and environmental risks that are involved in the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline project make it impossible to find an investor for it, unless it is viewed as a purely political project and unless it does not matter what this pipe will pump,” Khristenko told journalists in Turkmenbashi on Saturday.

Khristenko’s American counterpart, US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, appears to view the outcome as a significant setback for US efforts to help break European dependence on Russia.

U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Monday that a deal to pipe gas from Turkmenistan to customers in the West via Russia was bad for Europe.

Speaking at a press conference on the sidelines of an International Energy Agency meeting here, Bodman said: “It would not be good for Europe. It concentrates more natural gas to one supplier.”

Implications for Iran

Putin’s Caspian delight may have significant implications for US policy toward Iran.  Cheney had been hoping to use the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, along with the Baku-Tiblis-Ceyhan oil and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas pipelines, to bypass Iran and Russia.  The gas would eventually flow to Europe through the NABUCCO pipeline.

Now, Cheney will arguably be forced to choose between “the lesser of two evils.”

From the perspective of Great Power politics, there is no question: Cheney will try to reconstruct an alliance with Iran.

The only question now may be how Cheney will rebuild ties between the US and Iran: diplomacy or regime change.  For the vice president, mere “containment” of Iran is no longer an option.  Cheney will not be likely leave office without an alliance with Iran.

One challenge, among several, is to pry Iran away from Russia.

Several weeks before the news of Putin’s Caspian coup, Nikolas K. Gvosdev–a self-proclaimed Washington “realist”–published an article in the National Interest entitled, “The Other Iran Timetable.”

Gvosdev argued that Europe needed Iranian gas for the NABUCCO pipeline:

[T]here is only so much time before Europeans will decide that Iran, which has the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas, is a critical part of ensuring their energy security. So far, the United States has been largely successful in convincing Europeans to delay proposed investments in Iran’s natural gas sector and has expressed strong disapproval of plans to connect Iran to the so-called NABUCCO pipeline (designed to bring Caspian gas via Turkey to Europe).

But NABUCCO has limits. Many Europeans are skeptical that there is enough Caspian gas to really make a difference for their consumption… In the end, I was told, for NABUCCO to make sense, it will have to include gas from Iran.

This means that sooner or later Europe’s ability to give Washington support on isolating Iran will give way to its own needs for energy….

[W]as this is a case of advising, “Whatever you do, do it quickly”—meaning that if the United States were to pursue forcible regime change the preference would be to do it sooner?… [B]y 2011 or 2013, large-scale European investment in Iran will begin no matter whether it is still the Islamic Republic or some other form of government…

Right Zionists like Michael Ledeen were once champions of engagement with Iran.  That idea seems to have collapsed after 1991.

During the middle of the 1990s, Cheney was himself a leading petro-realist, advocating direct engagement with Iran.  That idea seems to have collapsed by July 2001.

Will Cheney and the Russia hawks go wobbly on Iran now that the US appears to have lost Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan?

Will Right Zionists revert to their earlier support for an opening with Iran?  Or is Russia the “lesser of two evils” for Right Zionists, especially in light of Israeli interests in Turkmenistan and Iranian support for Hezbollah and Hamas?

Or, will Cheney and Right Zionists constitute a united front toward regime change in Iran?

Our Man in Turkmenistan?

Posted by Cutler on February 05, 2007
Great Power Rivalry, Turkmenistan / No Comments

Sometimes Great Power Rivalry can facilitate democratic or populist uprisings.  Sometimes, not so much.

In Turkmenistan, not so much.  At least, not yet.

The Washington Post has published a report on the “battle” to succeed the late Turkmenistan President Saparmurad Niyazov who died in late December.

Acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, 49, will almost certainly win when the Central Asian country’s citizens go to the polls Feb. 11. His opponents, a deputy minister and four regional officials, are willing foils, according to analysts and exiled politicians.

Murad Karyev, the supposedly neutral chairman of the Central Election Commission, has already said Berdymukhammedov is the best man for the job.

Any protests from the US and the idealistic “true believers” in the Bush Administration who reportedly really believe in democracy?  Not so much.

The opposition-in-exile has expressed frustration at what it sees as muted statements from those countries about the need for real democratic change.

In a previous post, I argued that in the Caspian energy pipeline rivalry between Washington and Russia, the Turkmenitstan stakes have been very high.  The Washington Post report explains:

For the outside world, the direction Turkmenistan takes will carry profound implications for energy security. The former Soviet republic is becoming the focus of competition among Russia, China and the West as they vie for its natural gas resources.

Most of Turkmenistan’s gas is now exported through Russian pipelines. The supply could become vital to the ability of Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, to meet rising demand over the next decade. But Western governments would like to see construction of new export routes that bypass Russia and diversify the supply chain, something Niyazov had resisted.

Thus far, however, all of the Great Powers appear content to compete exclusively for the loyalty of the incumbent authorities rather than making an appeal to dissident or popular forces:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has embraced Berdymukhammedov….

The United States and the European Union have stepped up contacts with Turkmenistan’s new leadership.

The US attempt to “flip” the Russian-backed incumbent regime, rather than facilitate rebellion against it, was already clear when Richard A. Boucher, Assistant Secretary For South And Central Asian Affairs, traveled to Turkmenistan for the Niyazov funeral.

Boucher met with Berdymukhammedov and has been clear ever since that he wants to cut a deal at the top:

I wanted to go to the funeral to express our condolences, first of all, to the people of Turkmenistan, but also to signal — to say clearly that we are ready for a new beginning if they’re ready to start something new. And I’m not sure how far I can elaborate it at this point. We’re certainly interested in a smooth and peaceful transition in Turkmenistan. We understand that people have lost their leader and they have hope for the future, but they also have some uncertainty about it, so we want to work with them as they move forward…

As we hope Turkmenistan will move forward to a new future, we’re quite ready for a new relationship…

QUESTION: Yeah, but [Berdimuhhamedov]… didn’t mention anything about the political reforms.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No, he didn’t. Obviously, we think that needs to be part of the package, creating a more open society, a more dynamic society, more creative society, a better economic opportunity for everyone. Those things all go together, and so we do think that needs to be part of the package; but — you know, where they need — where they’re ready to get started, we’re ready to get started as well. Education, access to information, economic opportunity, entrepreneurship, these are things that are fundamental to creating a more open society and we’d obviously like to see it become a society where people of Turkmenistan get the kind of justice and openness that they deserve.

QUESTION: Almost all Turkmen opposition are currently abroad. Will the United States support Turkmen opposition?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: What we have said, what we’ll continue to make clear is that we look for a more open society where everyone can participate in the social life, the political life, the economic life. That’s fundamental and that needs to be part of the change. But those decisions are going to have to be made in the end in Turkmenistan. And so we’re encouraging that kind of change, but I can’t — we’re not supporting particular people one way or the other. We’re supporting a more open society, and continue to make clear that that’s the direction that we think they have to go.

I know what you are thinking: That Boucher… he must be one of those naive, democracy-loving, idealistic, messianic missionary zealots from the crazy Cheney administration!

But let’s just wait and see.  It ain’t over until it is over.

If the US manages to flip the incumbent regime and get to the natural gas, then all will remain quiet on the US side.  But don’t forget: the incumbent regime is aligned with Putin.  Will Putin remain quiet if the US flips Berdimuhhamedov and he loses his monopoly on the gas?

If Putin pressures Berdimuhhamedov to show Boucher the door, will the US continue to remain silent?  Or will the US suddenly and conveniently discover the virtues of a democratic uprising in Turkmenistan?

Turkmenbashi

Posted by Cutler on December 21, 2006
Great Power Rivalry, Iran, Russia, Turkmenistan / No Comments

Saparmurat Niyazov, the President of Turkmenistan, is dead.

Turkmenistan–a Caspian Sea country which contains either the fourth or fifth largest natural gas reserves in the world and considerable oil reserves, as well–is a central site in the “Great Game” of inter-imperialist rivalry being waged between dominant forces within the US and Russia.

And if you care about US policy toward Iran, then the larger context of US-Turkmenistan relations might be of interest.

The gossip side of the news is simple. Niyazov was a nutty authoritarian dictator. The Times Online reports:

Saparmurat Niyazov, the colourful but authoritarian President of Turkmenistan, has died suddenly after 21 years of iron-fist rule which crushed his opposition and created a cult of personality that saw cities and even a meteorite named after him.

Mr Niyazov, who made himself President-for-life in 1999, died early today of a heart attack aged 66, according to a statement by the state-controlled media…

During his rule – extended in an unopposed presidential election in 1990 – he established a bizarre personality cult in which he was styled as Turkmenbashi the Great, or Leader of all Turkmens.

Obsessed with maintaining personal power, he ensured his presence was felt in every corner, commissioning thousands of hoardings and gold statues of himself across the country, as well as plastering his image on the national currency, carpets, vodka bottles and launching his own brand of perfume.

In a symbolic show of his unrestrained authority, the former Soviet leader also renamed the months and days of the week, titling January after himself – Turkmenbashi. His name has been given to a sea port, farms, military units and even to a meteorite.

From the perspective of Great Power Rivalry, however, the key question, is whether he was “our” nutty authoritarian.

Turkmenistan and Iran

Throughout much of the 1990s, the US worked very hard to win Niyazov away from Russian influence.

At first glance, this seemed easy enough. In 1997 Royal Dutch/Shell and Niyazov joined in a partnership to build a pipeline that would avoid Russia by carrying gas through northern Iran (“Shell to construct pipeline through Iran,” The Jerusalem Post, October 14, 1997, p. 10):

The Shell group… has responded to an invitation from the Turkmeni president and has agreed to be the lead party in trying to finance and manage the project, said a Shell spokesman in London.

The company believes it won’t run into opposition from Washington…

But Shell did run into opposition from Washington.

Turkmenistan, Iran, and Russia

The October 14, 1997 Jerusalem Post article reported a potential source of the trouble:

[T]he Turkmeni government has expressed its concern at Russia-based Gazprom’s decision to join Total SA in a $2b contract to develop the South Pars gas field in Iran. The Turkmenis fear the contract could prevent it from exporting gas reserves to Turkey.

Russian partnerships in Iran would, in fact, doom the Shell pipeline. The Boston Globe reported the story (“US warns against pipeline going through Iran, but few listen,” March 1, 1998, p.A12):

No one has welcomed the US policy promoting independence from Russia more than Turkmenistan…

Shell officials say they are wary of the US Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, designed to punish any company that invests more than $ 20 million in Iran. But they also express hope that Washington will soon abandon its efforts to exclude Iran from the Central Asian bonanza…

So do the Turkmens, who spent seven decades as a southern Soviet outpost with their 600-mile-long border with Iran shut tight. They are not about to let someone else tell them to close it again.

“I understand that the US has its interests as a superpower, but we have our interests, and we have to feed our people,” Yolbaz Kepbanov, Turkmenistan’s deputy foreign minister for economic affairs, said in the capital, Ashkabhad…

Perhaps in the spirit of supporting such independence, when the Iran-Turkmenistan pipeline was announced last July, Washington seemed tacitly to accept the deal.

But the number and scale of the projects involving Iran have increasedGazprom is planning to develop, along with French and Malaysian companies, a gas field in southern Iran.

As a result, Washington has restated its hard line. “US policy is to oppose all pipelines across Iran,” said a Western diplomat in Ashkhabad. “The Turkmens know the light is red, believe me.” But while Turkmen officials are aware of the US position, they say they are not bothered by it.

“Let the Americans say, ‘Don’t be friends with Iran,’ but we can’t do that, because we are a neutral country,” said Kepbanov, the Foreign Ministry official. “In our eyes, everyone is equal but Iran comes first. . . . We have to cooperate with them.”

The Israeli Connection

The US offered up an alternative–a pipeline under the Caspian Sea that would travel through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, skirting both Russia and Iran.

This so-called “TransCaspian” alternative was actively promoted by an Israeli with very close relations to the regime in Turkmenistan. The Wall Street Journal covered the Israeli angle (“Israeli Is Subtle Player in Central Asia Oil–Ex-Intelligence Agent Advances Western Interests,” April 7, 1999):

A former Israeli intelligence agent… 53-year-old Yosef A. Maiman possesses probably the one key to success in the region: the ear of one of its autocratic leaders. For the past few years, Mr. Maiman has served as the right-hand man on energy matters to President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, home to the world’s third-largest natural-gas reserves.

In this role, Mr. Maiman has wittingly or unwittingly furthered the geopolitical goals of both the U.S. and Israel. How? By nudging the Turkmen leader to bypass Russia and Iran in building the country’s main gas-export pipeline.

The race to find a market for Turkmen gas, and a way to get it there, has picked up great speed of late. Mr. Maiman was the behind-the-scenes player in the $2.5 billion agreement that Mr. Niyazov signed in February with PSG International to build an export pipeline between Turkmenistan and Turkey. PSG is a joint venture between Bechtel Enterprises, a unit of Bechtel Group Inc., and General Electric Co.’s finance arm, GE Capital Services. Mr. Maiman acted as the intermediary between the Turkmenis and the U.S. firms.

The contract represents a victory for the U.S. The companies involved are both American. And for Washington, the pipeline deal freezes out Russia and Iran, which Mr. Niyazov had been reluctant to challenge. Russia and Iran quickly denounced the project. In early February, Russian gas monopoly RAO Gazprom teamed up with Italy’s ENI SpA and Dutch financial backer ABN-Amro Holding NV to build a competing gas pipeline across the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey…

This is the Great Game all over,” Mr. Maiman says during an interview in his office in Herzliyah, an Israeli resort town, referring to a late 19th century, three-way contest for control of Central Asia. “Controlling the transport route is controlling the product.”

Israel’s security interests in the region have been furthered, as well. “Maiman is the Israeli-Turkmenistan relationship,” says Shmuel Meron, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s director of Commonwealth of Independent States affairs. “He is our ambassador at large. He opens doors and understands the rules of the game.”

For a time, Niyazov seemed to be playing along.

During the US Presidential transition in November 2000, however, the Russians managed to flip Niyazov.

Turkmentistan: “A Lost Cause”

James Dorsey reported (“US Blues as Turkmenistan Opts for Russian Route,” The Scotsman, November 15, 2000, p.10):

Turkmenistan’s President Saparmurat Niyazov appears to have sounded the death knell for US-backed efforts to ensure that Caspian Sea gas is exported to world markets via Turkey rather than Russia.

Mr Niyazov has announced that he has reached agreement with Russian gas monopoly Gazprom to sell it up to 30 billion cubic metres of gas next year. “If everything works out, we shall have an agreement by mid-November,” he told the cabinet.

The deal would account for most of Turkmenistan’s gas exports and leave little over for a $ 2 billion, United States-backed TransCaspian pipeline which would have been built from the Central Asian state via Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey by a consortium involving the Royal Dutch/Shell Group and a US contractor, Bechtel.

According to a May 2006 report in the Financial Times (“Scramble to Grab central Asia’s Gas,” May 5, 2006, p.3, third-party on-link here):

Lengthy negotiations of a scheme to pipe gas from Turkmenistan across the Caspian to Azerbaijan broke down in the 1990s mainly because Saparmurat Niyazov, the authoritarian Turkmen leader, kept changing the terms. US energy officials now regard Turkmenistan, the central Asian republic with the biggest gas reserves, as a lost cause“.

A Massive Fight For Power

Will the sudden death of Niyazov allow US officials to salvage this “lost cause”?

As Reuters reports, the Russians are understandably content with the status quo and the incumbent regime:

Russia said it hoped Turkmenistan would stick to Niyazov’s course. “We count on the new Turkmenistan leaders continuing their course and further developing bilateral ties,” top Kremlin aide Sergei Prikhodko told Itar-Tass news agency.

The onus for regime “change” is on the US. Another Reuters report suggests a likely scenario:

“I expect there will be a massive fight for power now in Turkmenistan and it’s likely to take place between pro-U.S. and pro-Russian forces,” said a Russian gas industry source, who declined to be named. “Gas will become the main coin of exchange and the key asset to get hold of.”

For starters, one might learn the name of a key “political prisoner” in Turkmenistan: former Boris Shikhmuradov (also Boris Sheikhmuradov).

Shikhmuradov, former Turkmeni Foreign Minister, was arrested in connection with an alleged 2002 assassination attempt on Niyazov.

Among other things, Shikhmuradov has had good relations with Israel, having visited at the invitation of Yosef A. Maiman to discuss the sale of Turkkmeni natural gas to Israel (“Shell to construct pipeline through Iran,” The Jerusalem Post, October 14, 1997, p. 10).