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Tapping Turkmenistan without Russia

berdy040908.jpgThere’s a very interesting opinion article in the Wall Street Journal today about Europe’s efforts to bring Turkmen gas directly to the EU without first going through Russia, arguing that the new President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov offers the first cautious optimism in decades. If Europe can summon the political will to land this deal, they argue, it “would loosen Moscow’s inordinate power over the Continent’s sources and import routes for natural gas.

Europe’s Caspian Opportunity By ALEXANDROS PETERSEN and MANJA VIDIC April 9, 2008 Talk of a trans-Caspian pipeline to bring Turkmenistan’s vast natural gas reserves through Azerbaijan to the European Union has gone on for over a decade. So far, it has remained just that – talk – while Russia and China have been busy making actual deals for Turkmen gas.

But change may finally be on the horizon. Since becoming Turkmenistan’s president in late 2006, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has made it clear that he wants to improve relations with the West, and particularly with energy-hungry Europe. He visited Brussels last November, a revolutionary move given Turkmenistan’s post-Soviet isolation under the totalitarian leadership of Saparmurat Niyazov.Now the so-called EU Troika – consisting of EU Council representative Javier Solana, External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Foreign Minister Dimitri Rupel of Slovenia, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency – will visit Ashgabat tomorrow. Among other issues, they will discuss a trans-Caspian energy corridor. Europe must finally muster the political and financial will to make Turkmenistan an attractive offer for such a pipeline.Doing so would loosen Moscow’s inordinate power over the Continent’s sources and import routes for natural gas. The Caspian region holds the world’s third-largest energy reserves. Estimates of the natural gas under Turkmenistan’s Kara Kum desert alone range from two trillion to 20 trillion cubic meters; Ashgabat has just hired a British firm to audit those reserves. Even before the results have come in, though, Moscow has offered the Turkmens top ruble to keep the gas flowing northward instead of to the west. Beijing also recently signed a contract, leaving Brussels to play catch-up.Of course, several countries lie between Turkmenistan and the EU’s borders. But Mr. Berdymukhammedov’s openness has led to new possibilities for cooperation in the Caspian region. That’s especially true for Azerbaijan. In previous years Ashgabat’s relations with Baku were distinctly cool, mainly due to a debt dispute and arguments about rights over energy reserves in the undelineated Caspian. But in early March the two capitals resolved the debt issue and restored full diplomatic relations. With the required political will in both capitals, a submarine pipeline could link mainland Turkmenistan with Azerbaijan by 2013. Once it reaches Azeri soil, existing infrastructure and other planned pipelines can bring it to Europe.Another less-discussed possibility would be to link the two countries’ offshore rigs in the Caspian Sea, which in turn are connected to the shores. The capacity of such a system would pale in comparison to a true pipeline. But the advantage is that it could be built much faster, presenting Ashgabat and Baku with an early opportunity for cooperation. Gas exports to Europe could thus begin before the completion of the main trans-Caspian project.A trans-Caspian dimension is crucial for European energy diversification. Overdependence on Kremlin-controlled resources and transit routes means that almost half of the EU member states are susceptible to the sorts of price hikes, cut-offs and bullying that Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine and EU member Lithuania have experienced.Just last week, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, the whole world could see how Moscow’s energy pressure dictated the course of the Western alliance. Berlin, citing Russian displeasure, publicly opposed awarding Georgia and Ukraine with Membership Action Plans, the first major step toward joining NATO. It is no coincidence that Russia’s Gazprom is busy realizing the Nord Stream gas pipeline, directly connecting Russia and Germany and bypassing those EU members with more pro-Washington foreign policies – the Baltic states and Poland.The days of cheap gas from Central Asia are over, even for Russia. This should only bolster Europe’s resolve to avoid the Moscow middle man and go directly to the source. Hopefully, tomorrow’s Troika visit to Turkmenistan is a step in that direction. There is no more time to lose. While Brussels officials seem to understand that trans-Caspian action is necessary, the political will must come from the major European capitals. Europe’s determination for energy diversification must match Moscow’s will for monopoly.Mr. Petersen is program director of the Caspian Europe Center in Brussels. Ms. Vidic is program director of ISS Energy at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Ljubljana.