BACKGROUND: For several years, Turkey has promoted greater integration between Turkic states in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Ankara played a main role in upgrading the status of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States, which in 2021 changed its name to Organization of Turkic States (OTS). Turkey has ambitions to turn OTS into a serious international organization, which would foster closer economic and political ties between its members, and become a serious geopolitical player. Ankara aims to attract Turkmenistan to join OTS, using cultural and ethnic ties as a vehicle for closer energy cooperation. Cooperation with Turkmenistan, which has the 6th largest gas reserves in the world, can help Turkey realize its long-standing goal of becoming a natural gas hub for Europe.
Although Turkmenistan already holds an observer status in OTS, Ashgabat is in no rush to become a full member. In September 2022, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu announced that Turkmenistan would join OTS in November during the organization’s summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan nevertheless refrained from joining. During the mid-December 2022 trilateral summit of Turkish, Azerbaijani and Turkmen presidents in Awaza resort, Turkmenistan, Turkish President Erdogan with Azerbaijan’s backing apparently also sought to get Turkmenistan’s approval for joining OTS. Baku and Ankara have a joint interest in convincing Turkmenistan to export its natural gas via Azerbaijan to Turkey, which would upgrade the Southern Gas Corridor.
IMPLICATIONS: The summit in Awaza was touted as a historically important meeting between the three leaders, however, it brought no tangible results. Turkey and Azerbaijan failed to secure Turkmenistan’s approval to join OTS. Ashgabat prefers to remain neutral and simultaneously maintain positive relations with the other significant regional powers China and Russia. Although Turkey and Russia would gladly see Turkmenistan in international organizations under their auspices such as OTS or the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union, Turkmenistan has held on to the neutral status stipulated in its constitution.
Hence, Turkmenistan has declined to take part in closer integration between the Turkic nations of Central Asia and the South Caucasus in order not to endanger its relations with Russia. Moscow is particularly concerned that Ankara will gain a foothold in Central Asia and sees OTS as a vehicle for expanding Turkey’s influence in the region. Russia’s is currently preoccupied with its war in Ukraine and its influence in the South Caucasus and Central Asia is weakening, which presents an opportunity for other regional powers to make inroads into this space.
Turkmenistan’s decision to refrain from joining OTS was met with approval in Moscow. Faced with Western sanctions and blocked access to Western markets, Russia needs new strategic partners and alternative trade and energy export routes. Hence Russia’s recent overtures to Turkmenistan and efforts to deepen the strategic partnership with Ashgabat. In particular, Moscow wants to boost the capacity of the International North–South Transport Corridor and include Turkmenistan as a transit country and a hub for Russian goods exported to South Asian markets. Preparations are underway since Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin during his recent visit to Ashgabat on January 19 signed several important intergovernmental agreements regulating phytosanitary standards, migration and closer cooperation between customs services. Simultaneously, Russia appears interested in joining the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) project – a planned massive gas pipeline with a capacity of up to 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually, intended to carry Turkmen gas in the south-eastern direction. Russian top officials, including Energy Minister Nikolai Shulginov, have recently declared Moscow’s interest in partaking in this project, which coincides with Russia’s new strategy to divert its hydrocarbon exports away from Europe to South Asia.
During the summit in Awaza, Turkey and Azerbaijan sought Turkmenistan’s commitment to export its natural gas to Turkey via the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Aware that Russia will object to any major trans-Caspian pipeline, the sides apparently discussed alternative options for bringing Turkmen gas westwards. From Azerbaijan, gas could be transported through the existing pipeline infrastructure of the Southern Gas Corridor whose capacity can be expanded to accommodate additional gas volumes. As an alternative to a traditional pipeline, Turkish officials have floated the idea of transporting liquefied Turkmen gas across the Caspian Sea in ships. Erdogan also endorsed an interconnector pipeline project, which would carry 10-12 bcm annually from Turkmenistan’s offshore gas fields to Azerbaijan’s gas pipeline system. Nevertheless, these talks also ended without much progress. Ashgabat clearly does not want to endanger its expanding partnership with Moscow and exporting Turkmen gas to Turkey and further to Europe would bypass Russia.
Turkmenistan also appears more interested in increasing its gas exports to China. On January 5-6, Turkmenistan’s President Serdar Berdimuhammedov made his first visit to China after succeeding his father in early 2022. In a joint statement, Berdimuhammedov and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping declared to speed up construction of Line D of the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline, which will the pipeline’s throughput capacity with 30 bcm. The leaders also committed to multiple other energy projects including second-stage development of the Turkmen Galkynysh gas field.
There might also be another reason for Turkmenistan’s current disinterest in exporting its gas westwards. According to energy analysts John Roberts and Julian Bowden, Ashgabat is not interested in a low-capacity interconnector pipeline and wants to revive the idea of a Trans-Caspian Pipeline with a capacity of 30 bcm annually, connecting Turkmenistan to Italy. However, such a pipeline will be more costly and take far more time to construct than a simple connector, and as such is not acceptable for the EU which needs to find alternatives for Russian gas as soon as possible.
CONCLUSIONS: Shipping its gas westwards to Turkey and Europe would decrease Turkmenistan’s dependence on its largest gas customer – China and bring more revenue to its troubled economy. Meanwhile, Ashgabat decided to decline Turkey’s and Azerbaijan’s realistic offer to export its gas to new markets, and has opted for closer cooperation with China and Russia instead. However, this might not ultimately be beneficial for Turkmenistan since it will only intensify its already significant dependence on China, which clearly has the upper hand in their relations. Also, stronger cooperation with Russia in the trade and energy spheres is in its initial stages and Moscow has other partners in the region – such as Iran or Azerbaijan – which it can rely upon to realize its plans to reroute its trade and energy exports to South Asia. Russia has demonstrated in the past that it is not a reliable partner for Ashgabat when it abruptly stopped buying Turkmen gas at a time when Turkmenistan was grappling with an economic and gas export crisis.