Expert: Turkmenistan is unreliable partner for Nabucco

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The EU-favoured Nabucco gas pipeline focuses on gas imported from Turkmenistan, but the authoritarian state cannot be a reliable partner, Michael Laubsch, an expert on Central Asia, told EURACTIV Germany in an exclusive interview.

Michael Laubsch works for the 'Eurasian Transition Group', an NGO.

He was speaking to EURACTIV Germany's Alexander Wragge.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

How good a chance is there that Turkmenistan will become a major gas supplier to Europe and reduce its dependence on Russia, perhaps with the Nabucco pipeline?

It is quite difficult to predict whether or not Turkmenistan would be able to participate in the Nabucco pipeline. Unless the political situation in Iran changes, Nabucco has to focus on Turkmen gas – otherwise the project doesn't make sense economically. This is the first assumption we have to take when talking about the realistic steps towards a diversification of Europe's gas imports.

Having said this, I personally cannot predict the chances for Turkmenistan's input unless the country openly publishes its real gas resources, and this fact is the major question mark for any further planning for the Nabucco project. The EU should therefore demand independent and objective test drillings and publication of the results before investing a huge amount of assets.

How big are the difficulties of transporting gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea?

The investments for a pipeline below sea level are immense. Technically it can be done of course, but the investment might only be worth it if the quantity of future gas exports through this channel is secure.

How good are current relations between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan? Can they establish a win-win relationship in the context of Nabucco?

Although tensions between both sides are still a reality, joint economic interests might help to solve those problems. In my opinion, Azerbaijan is probably in a more stable situation than Turkmenistan. The energy resources there are well documented, unlike in Turkmenistan.

But it is not only a question of bilateral relations, as the legal status of the Caspian Sea is probably the most important obstacle.

Also, I would say that future relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey are also key. Unless existing tensions between Azerbaijan and Turkey regarding the construction of the pipeline are resolved, the chances of a rapid implementation of Nabucco are decreasing.

What role does the dispute over the status of the Caspian Sea play? [Oil reserves in the Caspian basin are estimated to be worth several trillion dollars. Negotiations over the demarcation of the Caspian Sea have been going on for nearly a decade among the littoral states bordering the Caspian – Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran.]

Probably a very important one. The legal status of the Caspian Sea, combined with the estimated energy resources this sea or lake has, makes it a very likely security and stability risk for the region. Unless all Caspian countries solve this problem, Western investments in the region will be at risk.

Would you say that gas supplies to the EU would mean an emancipation of Turkmenistan from Russia?

In theory, a diversification of export routes always means emancipation for a country's economic and financial interests. But it might be different for Turkmenistan. Already during [Saparmurat] Niyazov's reign [he was Turkmenistan’s president for life from 1990 until his death in 2006], Turkmen foreign and energy policy was based on so-called pendulum tactics: although it had close relations with Russia, the Turkmen administration tried to make Russia and the EU go against each other. The main aim was always to obtain better conditions from the Russian side.

It has to be underlined that Turkmenistan is more dependant on Russia than on the European Union, mainly because Russia has – beside its energy interests in Turkmenistan – geopolitical interests as well.

We can say that the EU only has energy interests, but it is definitely not a geopolitical player. Therefore I would predict, bearing in mind the current and past foreign policy concepts of the Turkmen governments, that the EU only plays the role of a smokescreen for Turkmenistan.

How important is the Chinese influence in Turkmenistan?

The influence of China is definitely increasing in Turkmenistan. In my opinion, China is and will be the main rival to Russian interests in Turkmenistan, because both countries have geopolitical interests in mind when assuring deeper relations with this Central Asian country. Therefore, I would predict that during the next decade the Chinese influence in Central Asia will increase, while the Russian influence will decrease and the EU concept can be ignored because of the lack of success.

How likely is it that China will obtain access to Turkmenistan's gas reserves instead of the EU?

Having said that the Chinese influence will increase in Central Asia and in Turkmenistan, I would predict that Bejing could also win the energy game, if there is one. At the same time, China's policies are realistic and sooner or later they will also demand independent test drillings before future Chinese investments in the Turkmen energy sector are made. We already saw an indication last year, concerning a new planned pipeline: the Chinese side gave up the project after the Turkmen government did not allow test drillings at gas fields.

How would you describe the government in Turkenistan? Is it a dictatorship?

Yes, it is a dictatorship. All decisions are made by an individual without the participation of parliament or other interest groups in the country. Although the president frequently announces reform projects for political, social and civic life in Turkmenistan, these reforms are only promises or of a cosmetic nature.

Substantial changes compared to Turkmenbashi's time [Turkmenbashi is the self-given title of Niyazov, meaning Leader of the Turkmen] haven't been made yet: human rights, freedom of speech and a pluralistic approach to policy have not materialised. Therefore, it is undoubtedly an authoritarian regime.

In the case of large gas supplies for Nabucco, the EU would depend on Turkmenistan. Can the EU rely on the government in Turkmenistan?

This is a paradox in itself: Brussels' plan regarding the Nabucco project was to decrease the Union's energy dependency on Russia, as this country is politically unpredictable and with its mix-up of political and economical interests.

In essence, would all those aspects not change with Turkmenistan on board, or would there be a clear difference?

It would be probably even worse, because Russia needs a close economic relationship with the EU, and Turkmenistan does not.

If the EU works closely with the government in Turkmenistan, are moral concerns justified?

Of course they are justified. All these arguments by Western politicians who say that an intensified economic relationship would also mean a change of political culture are more or less hypocritical.

Looking into the Central Asia Strategy – where the commitments to human rights, freedom of speech and pluralism are the main principles for further EU engagement in Central Asia – and looking at reality, how the EU is negotiating with dictatorships like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan illustrates this hypocritical approach.

Does Europe speak with one voice on Turkmenistan? Or do you think that the diversity of EU representatives (Ashton, Oettinger, Van Rompuy, Barroso, etc.) is confusing for the Turkmen government

It is not yet clear how those different executive bodies of the EU could speak with one voice. But even if the foreign policy and the energy policy of the EU were unanimous, there are still 26 governments with different interests regarding Central Asia and Turkmenistan. Therefore, there is still a long way to go until the EU will really be speaking with one voice. 

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