Seizing on an opportunity created by Turkmenistan's political transition, Turkey is trying to expand its share of Caspian Basin natural gas exports, thereby reducing its own energy dependence on Russia. Turkey's natural gas export strategy relies on a two-pronged diplomatic offensive that strives to improve relations with both Turkmenistan and Iran.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a frequent visitor to the Turkmen capital Ashgabat since the sudden death in late December of the Central Asian country's despotic ruler, Saparmurat Niyazov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Erdogan's most recent trip occurred on February 14 to attend the inauguration of the new Turkmen leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Erdogan's visits sought to revive bilateral relations, which had become strained during Niyazov's last years in power.
"We rather let Turkmenistan drop in recent years", says Erdal Safak, one of a handful of Turkish journalists who accompanied Erdogan on the mid-February trip to Ashgabat. "Erdogan made it absolutely clear that he intended to remedy that."
"We've done everything we could to establish good relations with the new government," agreed a senior official in the Turkish Foreign Ministry. "And we have reason to believe dialogue will bear fruits."
Turkey's interest in Turkmenistan, like everybody else's, stems from the fact that the Central Asian nations possesses huge reserves of natural gas. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Dependent on Russia for over 65 percent of its domestic gas supplies, Turkish officials see stronger relations with Ashgabat as a means to reduce Turkey's energy dependency on Moscow. More importantly, it sees Turkmenistan as crucial to its broader strategy to turn itself into an energy corridor, a "fourth artery" for Russia-dependent Europe.
All eyes now are on natural gas. With the European Commission increasingly convinced now of the need for Nabucco, a gas route that would connect central Europe to the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum pipeline opened in December, Turkey wants the pipe extended eastwards under the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan. Building this Trans-Caspian Pipeline will not be easy. Previous efforts to get it started foundered on inter-governmental disputes over the lack of a territorial treaty covering the Caspian Sea. Opposed to the TCP, which it sees as a threat to its own bargain-priced imports of Turkmen gas, Russia is unlikely to drop its objections now.
As with the BTC, there are also questions about the viability of the TCP project, says Necdet Pamir, an energy expert at the Eurasia Centre for Strategic Studies in Ankara. "Yes, there's no shortage of Turkmen gas, but significant volumes have already been dedicated to Russia," he points out, referring to Turkmenistan's 2003 commitment to provide Russia with 80 billion cubic meters (bcm) every year for 25 years. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Such developments only seem to have sharpened Ankara's determination to fight for its share. Turkey appears to be hedging its bets on TCP becoming reality by striving to build better relations with Iran. A late February visit to Turkey by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki appears to have energized bilateral relations.
Better ties serve both nations' interests. Iran, which is coming under growing international pressure over its controversial nuclear program, is currently striving to frustrate US efforts aimed at diplomatically isolating Tehran. Accordingly, Mottaki, during his Ankara visit, reportedly offered the Turkish Petroleum Corp. (TPAO) long-sought rights to explore for new energy sources in Iran.
According to various Turkish media outlets, Mottaki and Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler also agreed in principle on a gas export arrangement under which Turkmen gas would be pumped around the Caspian Sea, via Iranian pipelines, to Turkey, and possibly beyond.
The Turkish-Iranian dialogue continued to gain momentum on March 1, when Erdogan held phone talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a variety of political and economic issues, according to the official Iranian news agency IRNA.
Details of the export agreement are expected to be discussed when Iranian Oil Minister Kazem Haziri Hamaneh visits Ankara on March 22. At this point, it is not certain whether Turkey envisions the Iranian option as a back-up plan, in case TCP's existing obstacles can't be surmounted, or whether Ankara believes a route via Iran can function in tandem with a trans-Caspian corridor. Even if Iran and Turkey can hammer out the details on an export arrangement, Turkey would likely have to find a way to overcome stiff US resistance before natural gas could start flowing via Iran.
Turkey isn't the only country trying to nudge Turkmenistan into committing to the TCP project. Azerbaijan, a close ally of Ankara's, is also trying hard to woo Berdymukhamedov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Ferai Tinc, a Turkish journalist who accompanied Turkish premier Tayyip Erdogan to Ashgabat, says Erdogan and Berdymukhamedov agreed to begin talks on the TCP route "shortly."
"I talked to my brother [Azeri president] Ilham [Aliyev] too", she quoted Erdogan as saying. "We'll meet up for a brotherly meeting. We're brothers after all."
Cynics tend to laugh at such talk of Turkic brotherhood. Pan-Turkic dreams have a history of going nowhere. Former Ottoman leader Enver Pasha died for the idea in 1922 in what is now Uzbekistan, fighting the Bolsheviks. Resurrected after the fall of the Soviet Union, talk of a great Turkic confederation has not got beyond annual meetings.
"It was a nice Mediterranean holiday for the Central Asian delegates," says Suha Bolukbasi, a Central Asian specialist at Ankara's Middle East Technical University, referring to the latest Turkic summit that took place in Antalya on November 17 last year. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
But Bolukbasi's cynicism has its limits. "Relations between the Turkic countries have changed as much as they have become realistic," he says. "In that sense, things are moving in the right direction."
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East. This article contains reporting from Mevlut Katik.