Is the Trans Caspian Pipeline Back? Russia Thinks So, and Maybe Turkmenistan Does, Too
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov surprised Caspian watchers this week by lashing out at the European Union’s perceived pipeline intentions in a speech at the Don State University.
"Our European partners are imposing the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline on Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, disregarding the fact that such issues should be resolved between the coastal nations rather than in Brussels,” Trend reported him as saying.
It was a bit perplexing why Lavrov would refer to the Trans Caspian Pipeline (TCP), when that project appears to have been dropped by the West as unfeasible for now, largely due to the long resistance of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to resolve their border demarcation issues, and Ashgabat’s reluctance to sign production-sharing agreements with foreign companies other than China. While for years there has been speculation about the TCP, and even moments when it seemed within reach, it has basically been shelved along with the ambitious Nabucco Pipeline project in favor of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) from Azerbaijan.
To be sure, some experts still hold out hope that Turkmenistan may turn around on this if TAP succeeds.
It’s unlikely the savvy Russian foreign minister somehow missed the memo on the Trans Caspian and was still reading an old script, however. No, Russia periodically reminds the world of its concept of agreement by all littoral states on Caspian projects (a principle, as experts note, that hasn't constrained its own pipeline projects).
To be sure, the enclosed Caspian Sea is a special situation. Lavrov’s backlash is likely about putting down markers for the future, when eventually something like the TCP may get built. Invocations of the need for group agreements – really gate-keeping by Russia and Iran – have sometimes contained veiled threats. All the littoral states have increased their militarization of the Caspian; last week the navy of Russia's close partner Kazakhstan conducted exercises in the Caspian to test rocket-artillery ships and bolstered the point with a meeting of Kazakhstani and Iranian naval commanders in Teheran.
Lavrov indicated that "talks are underway" to resolve the status of the Caspian Sea -- which mainly involves deciding whether the five-way split model Iran prefers will prevail, or whether each country will keep resources within its own borders. But these talks have been underway for 20 years and are not likely to conclude any time soon.
This month Turkmenistan hosted a conference of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe on energy security and sustainable development, where President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov spoke of the need to protect Caspian natural resources but also reiterated as attractive "the gas transportation route to Europe through the Caspian Sea and Azerbaijan,” Trend reported.
So most likely Lavrov was responding to high-level talks October 17 in Ashgabat among Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey and the EU held during the OSCE conference. The Turkmen leader commented that "substantive work is being conducted to establish a legal framework for the implementation of a project for natural gas supply from Turkmenistan to Europe in the future." The statement was as vague as the last hundred statements by the Turkmen leadership on this same topic for the last decade. As before, the issue has been relegated to a joint committee that will hold sessions and issue papers, as they have been doing since José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission came to Ashgabat in January 2011 -- nearly three years ago -- with a fresh mandate from the EU to negotiate gas purchase from Turkmenistan.
In July, Turkmenistan concluded a framework agreement with Turkey for gas supplies, and Trend commented that the Trans Caspian “could become a part of several large-scale projects, including AGRI (Azerbaijan Georgian Romania Interconnector) and TANAP (Trans Anatolian Pipeline), in which Ankara and Baku are actively participating" -- although the Turkmen leadership itself didn’t comment. It's possible that the success of TAP, TANAP and AGRI might eventually bring about a kind of creeping Trans Caspian, and maybe the parties will even skirt the border issue by conceiving of the trans-border project more collaboratively with an eye to the end result, as was long proposed by the US State Department.
Turkmenistan is craftily keeping the talk of inter-state pipelines within multilateral frameworks where it may be easier to get pushback against Russian aggression; hence the recent UN resolution at the General Assembly on pipeline security and the multi-party talks at an OSCE meeting. On October 30, the Turkish president Abdullah Gul called Berdymukhamedov to discuss energy security, and according to a report from Trend, the Turkmen leader indicated that dialogue within the UN and OSCE should be intensified on all aspects of “construction and operation of multiple pipeline infrastructures." But pipelines don't get built by UN committees; they get built by private and state companies when there are solid commercial agreements.
By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick