Russian Foreign Minister breaks the ice with Turkmenistan
President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow has invited his Russian colleague to visit Ashkhabad. He announced this at the meeting with the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov. Experts believe that the long-running conflict between Russia and Turkmenistan is over. Lavrov’s visit was predetermined by the opening of a new building of the Russian embassy to Turkmenistan. Central Asian Television (CA-TV) reports that the Turkmen authorities want all foreign diplomatic missions to be situated on one street of Ashkhabad; and new buildings of white marble have been constructed.
“It is nice to see that the capital of Turkmenistan has gained another building which we can be proud of, as it sets out for new achievements,” Sergey Lavrov said, opening the office of the diplomatic mission. He also pointed out that the new building of the Russian embassy would be a symbol of long-term partnership and strategic relations between Russia and Turkmenistan. The long-term nature of the relations was registered in written form by the heads of Russia and Turkmenistan, and it was confirmed again in November at the Tehran meeting.
“The visit of Lavrov is aimed at ending a certain crisis in Russian-Turkmen relations in late 2015. The crisis was reflected in the official note by the Turkmen Foreign Ministry (officially it was addressed to Kazakhstan), but in it Russia was blamed for “exaggerating” a nonexistent threat from Afghanistan and threats from Daesh. It seems the friendly nature of the statements by Lavrov and representatives of the Turkmen leadership during the visit by the Russian Foreign Minister means that the crisis is going to be over. This is the main result of the visit,” Andrei Kazantsev, the head of the Analytical Center of IMI MGIMO, told Vestnik Kavkaza. The expert thinks that “only time will tell whether the rhetorical confrontation will end with restoration and a growth of real cooperation.”
Ivan Ippolitov, a scientist of the Central Asia Sector of the Center for Studying Problems of Post-Soviet Countries of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (RISS), pointed out that Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Ashkhabad coincided with heavy snow in Turkmenistan’s capital. It is a rare phenomenon in the country, and according to Turkmen customs, it is thought to be a good sign. The Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov mentioned that. “Considering many signs, the visit took place in a friendly atmosphere,” Ippolitov said.
Initially, it was announced that economic issues wouldn’t be the main topics at the meeting. However, it was a sphere where the Russian and Turkmen sides had most of their disputes. “Let’s remember the long-running dispute between Gazprom and the Turkmen government on the further fate of the contract of 2003 on the Russian company’s importing of gas from the country,” Ivan Ippolitov told Vestnik Kavkaza.
The contract required the export of 70-80 billion cubic meters of gas to Russia through the gas pipeline Central Asia-Center. Before 2008, almost all Turkmen gas (41-42 billion cubic meters annually) was exported to Russia, according to a fixed price – $240 for 1000 cubic meters. However, as oil prices fell, and gas prices were dependent on oil prices, it was unbeneficial for Gazprom to pay, and the Russian company suggested reconsideration of the gas price. However, Ashkhabad didn’t meet the company halfway, referring to the contract. In 2009 Gazprom bottlenecked the gas pipeline, and there was an explosion there. After a long break, Gazprom began to buy Turkmen gas again, but the volumes were much smaller – no more than 11-12 billion cubic meters; in 2015 – 4 billion cubic meters. Earlier this year, the Russian gas monopolist broke the 25-year old contract on purchasing Turkmen gas on a unilateral basis. The Russian gas company reported that the reason for that was “the unconstructive position by the Turkmen side on decreasing the gas price.”
Ivan Ippolitov believes that the issue might be touched on at the current meeting: “It can be settled (to satisfy both sides) only due to mutual compromises. Some details of this may appear later.”
Andrei Kazantsev thinks that Gazprom pays big money for Turkmen gas, and considering the drop of demand for Russian gas in Europe, it is pointless to buy it. “That is why in January 2016, Gazprom Export informed Turkmengaz about the end of purchasing. It was a sensitive blow to Ashkhabad. Turkmenistan needs gas purchasers, as its main partner, China, actually doesn’t pay real money to Ashkhabad [China imports gas for debt and credit services of the Turkmen side - VK]. And no progress can be seen. Turkmenistan suggested that Russia restore the project of the Caspian Gas Pipeline. However, Russia doesn’t need it, as it doesn’t use even the existing facilities to import Turkmen gas. Moreover, the Caspian Gas Pipeline may turn into the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline, while Russia together with Iran has always been against its construction,” Kazantsev points out.
Experts believe that a more important issue is the security sphere in the context of a worsening situation in Afghanistan.
“Russia and neighbors of Turkmenistan in Central Asia need guarantees that terrorist activity (especially Daesh) won’t be shifted from Afghan territory to Turkmen territory. It would mean a serious growth of the threat to all Central Asian countries and Russia. The best guarantee would be an accumulation of cooperation in the security sphere between Russia and Turkmenistan. There are certain steps toward the direction, but it is too early to speak about serious shifts,” Kazantsev says.
Ivan Ippolitov pointed out that, over the past two years, the situation on the Turkmen-Afghan border has worsened. And there are reasons for fearing greater problems. At the same time, Sergey Lavrov stressed that the issue had the most positive development toward a settlement. According to him, the sides signed a program of cooperation between the Foreign Ministries for 2016. It includes joint events on a settlement of tasks of fighting common threats: drug trafficking, terrorism, conflicts. Lavrov especially stressed cooperation on the Afghan problem.
“It seems we should expect a certain intensification of Russian-Turkmen cooperation in the security sphere, including the military and technical one. At the same time, we should remember that Turkmenistan, being a non-aligned state, may approach Russia politically, but would do it very carefully and try to compensate for the rapprochement at expense of other foreign political directions – on the grounds of the multi-vector principle,” Ippolitov thinks.
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow presented ideas at the talks with Lavrov, which were interesting for Ashkhabad as much as for Moscow. For example, he suggested a return to the project of the transport transit corridor. “There is a ferry line,” the President of Turkmenistan said. “Moreover, all our ships are repaired in the Astrakhan region.” According to him, “there are many good opportunities and investment potential” for development of bilateral contacts.
The visit by Lavrov coincided with the opening of the 43rd session of the Special Working Group on the Development of the Convention of the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in Ashkhabad. It takes place at the level of deputy foreign ministers of the Caspian countries. This year, the 5th Caspian Summit will take place in Astana; and at the moment certain issues on a settlement of the Caspian's legal status are being actively discussed.