04/25/2007, 00.00
RUSSIA – TURKMENISTAN
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Oil and gas at the centre of Turkmen president’s visit to Moscow

Russia and the United States are vying for access to Turkmenistan’s rich energy resources. Once again Putin puts forward proposal to build pipeline that runs across Russian territory, but Berdymukhamedov makes no commitment. His decisions will play a key role in world energy politics.

Moscow (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s two-day visit to Russia ended yesterday. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to get him to strengthen bilateral ties in the trade and energy fields, he couldn’t get the Turkmen leader to make any definitive commitment.

Putin has his work cut out for, since Mr Berdymukhamedov’s election is February, the United States and the European Union have been trying to persuade the Central Asian country to ship its gas via a proposed pipeline that would go under the Caspian Sea, reach Azerbaijan and then flow west-ward. By contrast, the Russians want Turkmen oil to continue using Russian’s pipelines as it has always done.

A new undersea pipeline would not only be used by Turkmenistan. Its northern neighbour, Kazakhstan, is also interested. However, Russia wants to build an alternative route that would go around rather than under the Caspian Sea.

With this in mind, Putin played up Russian-Turkmen co-operation in the “decades of common life in a common state” and made his pitch for the alternative route to transport gas along the shores of the Caspian Sea.

But Berdymukhammedov did not make any firm commitments, saying only that “we’ll give this option to experts to judge. [. . .] They’ll work on it, and then we may return to it.

The new Turkmen leader also declined to publicly endorse a pledge made in September 2006 by his late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, to refrain from joining any project to construct an undersea Caspian pipeline.

Instead, a joint statement issued by the two leaders at the conclusion of the visit contained only vague references to a common desire to “strengthen mutual trade and economic ties.”

Putin “accepted with gratitude” an invitation to visit Turkmenistan and speaking specifically about energy said that “the results are very good, and there are good prospects for the future,” but without going into details.

Any further discussion will most likely be conducted during a visit by Putin to Turkmenistan’s capital Ashgabat around May 13, said Maria Kolodina, a spokeswoman for the Turkmen Embassy in Moscow.

For the Kremlin, maintaining its stranglehold on Turkmen gas is vital. Russia’s government-controlled gas conglomerate, Gazprom, relies on relatively cheap Turkmen imports to keep its energy operations running. That’s because Gazprom exports much of the natural gas extracted in Russia to Western European markets. At a 100 dollars per 1,000 cubic metres, Turkmen gas cost less than half what Russia charges Western Europe for its own gas. Turkmen gas is used instead to meet Russia’s own growing domestic demand.

Relations between the two countries have had their ups and downs. In September 2006, Gazprom accepted a 50 per cent price increase for Turkmen gas deliveries. In return, Turkmenistan pledged to supply Gazprom with 60 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas in 2007, 60-70 bcm in 2008 and subsequently export up to 80 bcm annually through 2028.

Berdymukhamedov said his country would honour the agreement.

But apart from gas supplies, Russian-Turkmen trade has been limited, with bilateral trade turnover reaching US$ 308 million in 2006.

For Russian officials Berdymukhammedov’s visit was thus an opportunity to explore new trade and investment opportunities. (PB)

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