Turkmenistan’s gas export interests will inevitably lead to an estrangement from key ally Moscow in years to come, a top expert on Central Asia says
Alexei Malashenko, a specialist on Central Asian politics and political Islam at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, was speaking on a visit to Kyrgyzstan on November 3. He was attending a round-table debate hosted jointly by IWPR and the Institute for Public Policy in Bishkek.
As well as discussing Turkmenistan’s gas export options, Malashenko also spoke about possible scenarios for Uzbekistan when current president Islam Karimov is out of the picture.
IWPR: Ashgabat recently accused Moscow of obstructing its efforts to develop energy ties internationally. In your view, what are the most realistic projects for diversifying Turkmenistan’s gas export routes that President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov’s government should now be looking at?
Alexei Malashenko: Berdymuhammedov, like his predecessor Turkmenbashi [the late Saparmurat Niazov], is pursuing a multi-vectored foreign policy. Like Niazov, he will accentuate first one, then another of these vectors. Developments in Turkmen-Russian relations can be seen as part of this.
However, it’s also quite true that Europe has less need for natural gas than it used to. That could also be sad for Russia in the future, as it will mean it becomes less important to Turkmenistan [as the main export route to Europe]. That will be a serious and lasting effect.
Turkmenistan will focus attention on the southeast, above all on the pipeline project from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India, and also on China.
The Americans have two interest here – first, they see a pipeline through Afghanistan as a factor for stability there; and second, they’re hoping that if the pipeline goes to India via Pakistan, that would help improve relations between those two countries. And Turkmenistan will reap the benefits.
IWPR: At the moment, how can Turkmenistan recoup the losses it’s suffering from the reduction in gas supplies to Russia, given that it’s tied to using Gazprom’s pipeline network at the moment?
Malashenko: It will survive this; it isn’t a disaster. America has shown itself to be fairly far-sighted about this. If it [Turkmenistan] loses out on Russia and the problems that entails, and on exports westwards to Europe, it can turn to… India, Pakistan and China.
Gazprom has expressed an interest in being part of the Trans-Afghan Pipeline project, though I’m not sure of the details of this. But Moscow was told quite plainly that they [western backers of this project] would manage fine without it. That was a slap in the face, especially as President Dmitry Medvedev had just been in Turkmenistan.
IWPR: How is this going to affect Turkmen-Russian relations?
Malashenko: The dust will settle eventually, but the rigid attachment to Russia will no longer be there.
Russia has been behaving in a markedly more considered way towards Central Asia in recent years. What we’re seeing is a more pragmatic view of the extent of its influence. It’s also worth noting that there’s been no criticism of Turkmenistan in the Russian press.
IWPR: It’s inevitable that there’s going to be a transition of power in Uzbekistan in coming years. This will be a serious test of the durability of the Uzbek political system. Various predictions are being made about it, with some forecasting a complex process of modernisation and others saying that what the country needs is an Uzbek version of Vladimir Putin. How do you envision this period of transition?
Malashenko: Regime change has been predicted for many a year, and a lot has been said about the Uzbek leader [President Islam Karimov] being in poor health. It makes one wonder whether he hasn’t put these stories out himself.
Has he groomed a successor? No. Karimov has flattened the ground around him and the moment any little shoot appears, he plucks it out.
The Uzbek power succession can only be discussed in the form of a number of scenarios. One of these would involve a consensus deal among the [political] clans – Bukhara, Tashkent, Samarkand and Fergana, the last mentioned of which has always been the poor cousin, if not in opposition.
I am not sure that Uzbekistan’s next leader will be someone from Karimov’s family. There has been talk of it, but it’s come to nothing. It’s more likely to be something consensual, into which the Fergana clan is also drawn. It will be described as an interim administration, but there’s nothing as long-lasting as an “interim” arrangement. Will there be an Uzbek Putin? No, it will be something different.
A second possible scenario would see a conflict among several clans. If that broke out, the Islamic factor would emerge. In a situation of turmoil, the Islamists could become a sustained force. Hizb ut-Tahrir’s influence would increase many times over in a conflict.
IWPR: How likely is it that the “siloviki” [security chiefs] would come to power?
Malashenko: I doubt that will happen. Islam Karimov has always played on the divisions among them. He acts as both boss and mediator.
By Inga Sikorskaya
This article originally appeared in IWPR.net and is produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, www.iwpr.net