The return of the Taliban in Kabul looked fatal for the fortunes of Turkmenistan’s dream to build a trans-Afghan natural gas pipeline.
With an internationally proscribed militant group in charge of Afghanistan, the idea of raising credit from any major global financial institution to fund work on the TAPI pipeline became remote. But there are indications that Ashgabat is working behind the scenes to change that.
Karachi-based news website Business Recorder reported on November 11 that the Turkmenistan-based head of the TAPI consortium, Muhammetmyrat Amanov, revealed in an exchange with Pakistani officials that Ashgabat is in talks with the United States to explore ways of easing sanctions on Afghanistan.
This whole project creates a fraught predicament for Washington and the West more broadly. U.S. officials no longer talk about TAPI, although they do evince anxiety over the ways in which Central Asia is strategically hemmed in by Russia and China. All of which notionally means there may be wiggle room for compromises.
Pakistan, meanwhile, keeps seeking to convey that it is eager to stop the talking and get down to practicalities. As the Business Recorder notes, Amanov’s Pakistani interlocutor was one Major General Tabassum Habib, the head of the Special Investment Facilitation Council, or SIFC, a vehicle created in June with the aim of streamlining procedures around this very kind of undertaking.
Another step forward on another vector of gas exports was taken on November 8, when representatives from state-owned Turkmengaz met with officials from Iraq in Ashgabat. The meeting produced a protocol outlining the commercial terms for the delivery of 9 billion cubic meters of gas annually over a period of five years, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry stated. Gas will be provided to Iraq by means of a swap arrangement with Iran. The commercial terms in question have not been made public.
Not that Russia is prepared to sit on its hands and watch Turkmenistan get too cozy with alternative suitors.
As has been widely reported, Russia on October 7 began pumping natural gas to Uzbekistan via Kazakhstan, thereby reversing the traditional direction of the Central Asia-Center pipeline system. Moscow aspires to get Kazakhstan reliant on its gas too, and there is every indication that will happen before too long.
Speaking to Kazakhstan government newspaper Kazakhstanskaya Pravda in an interview published on November 8, Russian President Vladimir Putin returned to the idea of getting Turkmenistan involved in this set-up.
“In the future, we consider it advisable to hold consultations with our colleagues from Turkmenistan. They traditionally participate in these transactions. And their involvement in such an interaction will be in our common interest,” he said.
Putin does not spell out how precisely Turkmenistan would get involved.
Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev last October expressed eager interest in his country buying up to 1.5 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Turkmenistan. And in August, Uzbekistan reached a short-term deal with Turkmenistan for the supply of up to 2 billion cubic meters of gas per year. Uzbek Energy Minister Zhurabek Mirzamakhmudov said at the time that a conversation is happening around the possibility of reaching a longer-term deal.
Nothing in Putin’s remarks explains why Turkmenistan would need Moscow’s intercession in facilitating any of these sales agreements. Indeed, Ashgabat has previously reacted with unusually public hostility to this very idea.
In August, the Foreign Ministry reacted to remarks by a Russia diplomat not dissimilar to the ones made by Putin this month by releasing a comment from Turkmengaz deputy head Myrad Archayev implying the very notion was an assault on Turkmenistan’s sovereignty. Ashgabat seems most exercised that Moscow appeared to be talking over it and taking its participation in any regional energy for granted.
All hurt feelings aside, it is difficult to overlook the oddness of the fact that Russia is providing – or negotiating to provide – volumes of gas to both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan far in excess of anything Turkmenistan is talking about. Ashgabat is sitting atop huge reserves and is nevertheless unable to compete on volume for markets right across the border.
At the November 10 Cabinet meeting, Tangryguly Atahalliyev, the deputy chairman of the Cabinet, rattled off a familiarly nonsensical litany of figures about great successes being achieved in the agricultural sector. He noted, inter alia, wheat is being grown with the latest in farming technology and that “necessary measures are being adopted to harvest grown cotton without loss.”
The recitation is of interest only in the light of a November 10 report by Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan that sheds light on how cotton and wheat are being growing simultaneously in some fields as a consequence of crop failures earlier in the year. As the website explained, heavy rains in the Lebap province in April required cotton crops to be resown, but since the wheat timetable is so unremitting and inflexible, grain seeds later had to be sown in the same fields. One upshot of this is that the cotton will have to be picked by hand, not with the machines that state television likes showing. And caring for the different crops in the requisite manner within the same space adds only more time-consuming labor to the process.
Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news on November 13 carried news of special interest to long-time Turkmenistan-watchers. A source at the Foreign Ministry told the outlet that there is talk the deputy head of the ministry, Vepa Khadzhiyev, who has been most visible in recent years for his duties as a Taliban liaison, may be dispatched to a UN-related posting in Switzerland. He may be replaced by Batyr Niyazlyev, who has just ended his stint as ambassador to Russia.
Even more dramatic, though, is the bruited departure of Rashid Meredov, who has been Foreign Minister since July 2001 and outlived countless ministers over that period. Meredov is described by the unnamed Turkmen.news source as the official “who has the last word when it comes to making foreign and domestic political decisions.”
The thinking behind this speculation is that President Serdar Berdymukhamedov is eager to rid the government of the leftover cronies of his predecessor: his father and de facto co-leader of the country, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. The options would either be to ship Meredov off to a posting in the United States or keep him closer to home for good measure.
“This is a politician who knows too much to be blithely allowed to go overseas. A club of retired officials has already formed around Berdymukhamedov senior – Meredov can go and live out his last years there,” the source noted, somewhat preemptively burying the still relatively youthful 63-year-old foreign minister.
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