Staunton, Sept. 23 – Since 1991, Moscow has had to deal with a Turkmenistan unprepared to ally with Russia but also unwilling to link itself more closely with the West. But now the situation is changing, with Ashgabat retaining its standoffishness to Russia but increasingly willing to cooperate with Turkey and thus with the West.
Not surprisingly, Russians and those who back increased ties between the post-Soviet states and Moscow are alarmed because Turkmenistan can serve as a bridge for Turkey and the West into Central Asia as a whole, undermining Russian influence in places where until recently it had been strong.
Aynur Kurmanov, a Central Asian commentator who favors strong ties between the region and Moscow, says that in his view, “Turkmenistan is playing a dangerous game by encouraging the penetration of NATO into the Caspian region and Central Asia” (politobzor.net/show-239954-opasnaja-igra-turkmenii-nato-pronikaet-na-kaspij.html).
According to the analyst, Ashgabat’s shift in its petroleum exporting strategy away from routes northward through Russia to ones across the Caspian and out via the Baku-Jeyhun corridor is costing Russian a lot. Flows from Turkmenistan via Russia have dropped by 50 percent in recent months.
Not only does that have a negative impact on the Russian budget, but it intensifies competition between Moscow and Baku over shipping. Ashgabat insists the shift is purely business, but its assurances can’t be relied on for at least two reasons. On the one hand, all such choices are controlled by the country’s leader and are political.
And on the other, and more seriously, Kurmanov continues, sending oil and gas bypassing Russia hurts Moscow and helps Turkey and its Western backers in their efforts to expand their influence beyond the Caspian into Central Asia. Ashgabat should start thinking seriously about what this means.
It is clear to everyone that the rapprochement between Ashgabat and Ankara will ultimately involve NATO in the region given that Turkey is a member and does what the Americans want, Kurmanov says. And keeping the Western alliance out of the Caspian basin is a bedrock principle of all Caspian littoral states.
Moreover, both China, which wants to dominate pipelines in the region, and Iran, which opposes the expansion of Turkish influence to its north and more generally, are against what Turkmenistan is doing; and they together with Russia are likely to adopt a new and harder line in Ashgabat, possibly inflicting pain in places the Turkmenistan government isn’t expecting.