Last week, the Central Asia Caucasus Institute in Washington held a forum titled “Engaging Post-Turkmenbashi Turkmenistan,” in which expert David Merkel commented on U.S. policy toward the region, energy relations, and the need to control Gazprom’s ambitions for expanded influence in the country. From Joshua Kucera in Eurasia Net:
Washington needs to act decisively to ensure Turkmenistan’s gas reserves do not remain under the near-total control of the Russian gas conglomerate Gazprom, a leading US expert on Central Asia said. Most energy experts believe Gazprom will act aggressively in the coming months to expand its already considerable leverage over the Central Asian natural gas market, said David A. Merkel, who from June 2005 until last month served as the director for Aegean, Caucasus and Central Asian affairs on the National Security Council in the White House. “The question is, for Gazprom to do what it wants to do – improve market share in Europe over the next several years – it needs to do one of three things: either make a lot of investments in its infrastructure three years ago, drastically change the domestic market of its gas, or have a stranglehold on Central Asian gas,” he said at a March 15 event, “Engaging Post-Turkmenbashi Turkmenistan,” hosted by the Central Asia Caucasus Institute in Washington. … Merkel said he believed substantial new gas fields discovered in Turkmenistan will boost that country’s gas-export capability to a level that far exceeds current expectations. “I think Turkmenistan’s reserves are often understated. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Turkmenistan has sold its reserves over and over again. I don’t have any definite proof, but I think a conservative estimate of the reserves puts it at closer to ten [trillion cubic meters] than to two to three,” Merkel said. He said the US should encourage Turkmenistan to hire a European firm to do a geological survey of its natural gas. While US officials are keen to encourage Turkmenistan to diversify its gas export options, Washington still opposes Ashgabat sending gas southward, to Iran. Merkel said that he believes that any firm that potentially helps build a pipeline to Iran could faces economic sanctions under US law, but that shipping oil through such a pipeline might not be. S. Frederick Starr, the head of CACI and moderator of the event, said no country has suffered more than Turkmenistan from Washington’s policy toward Iran. He added that this policy may now hinder US and European efforts to encourage Ashgabat to send gas exports westward. “We, over a 15-year period, have said [to Turkmenistan] ’You have to swallow this, but we’re not going to give you anything compensatory,’” he said. Merkel also said that the United States should not focus solely on the new president, Kurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. While there have been no signs as of yet of internal instability, that could change, he said. “It’s advisable to insulate ourselves from future personality changes and communicate not only with the president but also with others in the government,” he said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].