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  Nabucco and Baku–Ashkhabad’s contraposition

Ainis Razma, VDU PMDI doktorantas
2010 03 03

Today the gas pipeline Nabucco is probably the most important Western energy project in Eurasia. If implemented, it would significantly reduce energy dependence of the EU on Russia. Therefore Nabucco acquires a wide geopolitical dimension exceeding its possible economic benefit.

Nabucco route would bypass Russia, therefore it‘s quite understandable that Russia is against the project. Iran is also suspicious toward the Nabucco plans, since it can lose a possibility to become Central Asian state for gas transit.

Turkey is interested in the Nabucco project, since it could be useful both from the political and economical point of view in seeking membership in the EU. Georgia and Azerbaijan are also concerned about the project, since Nabucco would be connected to the South Caucasus pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum.

Gas to the Nabucco pipeline should come from Azerbaijan and Central Asia: first of all from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan; therefore the position of Ashkhabad and Astana is instrumental, maybe even fatal for Nabucco’s future.

However, both Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan do not have a clear position on the above issue. For them the Nabucco pipeline is one of the possible options, besides, it might complicate relations with Russia.

Even if the West manages to make an agreement with Central Asian states on gas supply via Nabucco, it is not clear how gas would reach this pipeline. In 1999 the United States suggested constructing a gas pipeline through the Caspian Sea between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, where the Trans-Caspian pipeline could be connected to the South Caucasus pipeline, and in Erzurum – with Nabucco. Therefore relations of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have huge impact on Nabucco’s perspectives; unfortunately, so far these relations are ambiguous.

When in spring of 2008 Azerbaijan settled the accounts for the gas supplied by Turkmenistan during the period of 1991-1992, the relationship between the states improved; however, the issue of ownership of disputable gas and oil fields of Azeri, Kapaz and Chirag is still unresolved. They are in the Caspian Sea in midcourse between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan; some of the deposits are used by Baku, whereas Ashkhabad is of the opinion that legal status of these deposits is not defined, and threatens to take Azerbaijan to the international court.

When G. Berdymuchamedov was elected president of Turkmenistan, both countries started negotiating this issue, but in July 2009 president of Turkmenistan threatened the international oil companies assisting Azerbaijan in exploring and exploiting disputable deposits, that the international court might commit them to pay compensations to Turkmenistan. But in January of this year,  G. Berdymuchamedov said to the ambassador of Azerbaijan that relations between the countries improved and that its further development was a strategic goal of Turkmenistan‘s foreign policy.

But disputes between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan on oil and gas deposits are part of much more complicated problem: division of the Caspian Sea water basin between five coast states: Russia, Kazakhstan,Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan.  It is obvious that before any infrastructure project crossing the Caspian Sea (e.g. Trans-Caspian gas pipeline) is risky without clear state borders.

Trans-Caspian pipeline appears in the very center of the geopolitical puzzle concerning the division of the Caspian Sea; therefore the entire Nabucco project becomes even more complicated.  Moreover that Russia and Iran are against the idea of this pipeline. According to Russia, this pipeline would cause an ecological danger, and it is impossible without the agreement between the five states. Iran appeals to the agreements of 1921 and 1940 with the Soviet Union, pursuant to which any unilateral actions with respect to the Caspian Sea are illegal. It seems that Russia and Iran are interested in retaining the tension in the relations of Baku and Ashkhabad, but for these states it is difficult to coordinate their strategy regarding the Trans-Caspian Corridor, since they are competing for Turkmenistan’s gas flows.

Whereas the U.S., EU and Turkey are interested in the further normalization of relations between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.Turkey agreed to be a mediator for Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, but freedom of its actions is rather restricted. This country is dependent on Russia and Iran which are the main gas suppliers; therefore it is difficult to expect that Turkey‘s mediation could be successful.

The United States demonstrates diplomatic ingenuity in the maters of the Trans-Caspian pipeline. During the forum „Turkmenian Gas and Oil, 2009“, which was held in Ashkhabad in November of the last year, the U.S. diplomat D.Stane said that America was ready to become a mediator in the dispute of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan concerning the status of the Caspian Sea, although regulation of the issue might take more time than expected.  The U.S.might suggest Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan establishing a joint hydrocarbon extraction venture to deal with extraction in the Kapaz gas deposit. None of these states have deep-sea gas extraction technologies; therefore a joint project might seem quite attractive for them.

The Statement of D.Stane’s boss R.Morningstar on 28 January in Washington was a surprise. He said that „it would be very welcome if Russia would join the Nabucco project as a supplier. Russia could supply gas to the Nabucco pipeline through the Blue Stream pipeline constructed to Turkey (...) If we had open conversations with Russians, we could receive interesting answers“.

If R.Morningstar‘s statement was discussed in a more wide context (Nabucco, Trans-Caspian pipeline and relations between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan), it could seem that the U.S. tried to say to these countries that Central Asian gas might run to Nabucco via different routes. Therefore, the Trans-Caspian pipeline shall first of all be a joint interest of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.

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