02/14/2008, 00.00
TURKMENISTAN
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Turkmenistan’s new course: playing the gas card between Russia, Europe and China

In his first year as president, Berdymukhamedov has shown he can play hard-nosed politics. An ally of Russia, he’s proven he can stand up to everyone and that he wants deals and pipelines that are not beholden to Moscow.

Ashgabat (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A year since he became president of Turkmenistan in a sham election on 11 February 2007, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has not carried out the reforms he promised but has instead indulged in his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov’s “personality cult.” He has however shown signs that he is moving away from Niyazov’s isolationism and changing the status quo in Central Asia, especially when it comes to energy.

Freedom of movement, of expression and information are no greater than a year ago, and the police still control all activities.

Some of the changes are just window-dressing like the much ballyhooed move to open Internet cafes which are actually under close police supervision and too expensive for most Turkmens.

What is not trifling is his decree banning individual satellite dishes in the capital, a move that greatly restricts access to foreign news broadcasts.

He did restore benefits to tens of thousands of elderly Turkmen citizens (on average 500,000 manats or about US$ 20) but there are no price controls on basic foodstuffs and other essentials.

Berdymukhamedov has made however a major break with some of Niyazov’s do-nothing policies.

With Turkmenistan's proven gas reserves at the end of 2005 amounting roughly to 2.8 trillion m3, Niyazov agreed to supply 162 billion m3 of gas to Russia between 1 October 2006 and the end of 2009. Similarly, the Central Asia nation is supposed to supply 14 billion m3 to Iran in 2007.

Although Berdymukhamedov aligned his country with Russia, signing last December an agreement to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Russia via Kazakhstan, he is also supplying Russia with less gas than it agreed to. At the same time he is negotiating with China, the United States and others.

China in fact is carrying out exploration on the right bank of the Amu Darya (with estimated reserves of about 1.7 trillion m3 of gas and 79 million tons of oil). Along with Turkey, China is also exploring the Iolotan gas field (with reserves between 1.5 and 7 trillion m3 but located at a great depth). And a pipeline to China is also in the works.

With US backing, Ashgabat also seems to be interested in a Trans-Caspian pipeline that would be an alternative to the route via Russia, linking the ports of Türkmenbaşy and Baku in Azerbaijan, less than 250 kilometres from one another.

Turkmenistan is also negotiating deals with other Central Asian countries at the exclusion of Moscow.

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