With Russia politically weakened by the Ukraine imbroglio and the European Union more intent than ever finally to establish its autonomy in energy policy, Turkmenistan has opened up again the possibility for exporting its gas under the Caspian Sea, through the South Caucasus and Turkey to Europe. Ashgabat turned away from Russia following an industrial dispute in 2007, and in 2009 China become its main gas export market. The country holds nearly one-tenth of total proven global reserves yet does not wish to become overdependent on the Chinese market. In 2009, Russian unilaterally cut imports from 40 billion cubic meters per year (bcm/y) to 11 bcm/y and has recently announced that imports from Turkmenistan for 2015 will fall to 4 bcm/y. Ashgabat does not wish to risk repeating such an experience with China.

Brussels signed memoranda of understanding on energy cooperation memoranda with Azerbaijan in 2006 and with Turkmenistan in 2008. With the promotion of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) and the initiative to create an Energy Union, these documents have come up again for attention in the present international situation. In particular, the EU will try in 2015 to organize a trilateral meeting with the two states, in order to discuss the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP), which it has until recently completed, after years of work, the reconstruction of the so-called East-West Pipeline across the southern part of the country. This pipeline would take up to 30 bcm/y from gas deposits in the southeast up to the coast of the Caspian Sea, where it could be inserted into the TCGP if the latter is built.

Azerbaijan has recently suggested its openness to allowing Iranian gas into the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline (TANAP) in the event that sanctions on the country for its repeated violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions are removed. However, this looks rather unlikely at the moment. As much as U.S. President Barack Obama might wish to concede the Iranian demand that all sanctions be lifted immediately upon the prospective June signature of a comprehensive document, not just the Republican Congress but also other members of the P5+1, notably France, oppose this. Under this political pressure, even Obama says today that sanctions could be removed only gradually over the duration of the prospective ten-year agreement. The Tehran regime maintains this condition to be unacceptable.

Although it is Azerbaijan that, as TANAP operator, will determine what gas goes into the pipeline, still it makes little sense for Turkey to empower its neighbor Iran, which conducts a foreign military and diplomatic policy antithetical to Turkey’s unchanging geopolitical interests. Turkey has been holding consultations with Turkmenistan on TANAP access and should continue to promote this solution. For Turkmenistan as well, working to participate in the SGC seems to be a more viable possibility for Turkmenistan than, for example, continuing to wait for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline to come to fruition.

The only anchor for Turkish foreign economic policy in the extremely volatile present-day situation is through the South Caucasus into Central Asia. Azerbaijani gas exports into Southeastern Europe will help also to stabilize Turkey’s neighborhood toward its west. The history of Turkish-Iranian energy relations shows also that Baku is a much more dependable partner than Tehran. Ashgabat would be the same. It would be to Turkey’s advantage to coordinate with the EU’s attempt to triangulate with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, in order finally to build the TCGP.

Robert M. Cutler
Robert M. Cutler is Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He was for many years a senior researcher at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Carleton University.

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