From being Cold War adversaries, Turkey and Russia have taken significant steps in recent years towards deepening their economic and political ties, to the point that some Turkish pundits started describing their relationship as a "strategic alliance." Trade between the two countries has blossomed (although much of it is in the form of Russian gas flowing into Turkey), while Ankara and Moscow have also agreed to scrap visa requirements for one-month-long stays.
But recent events regional events, which have found Ankara and Moscow taking divergent views, are putting the budding relations between Turkey and Russia to the test. Russia's heavy investment in Greek Cyprus has not gone unnoticed by Ankara. But an even greater challenge is being posed by the uprising in Syria and Moscow's continuing support for the Assad regime. As analyst Ziya Meral writes in a recent piece for Bitterlemons-international.org:
....just as the so-called "Arab spring" has soured the budding romance between Syria and Turkey, there are underlying anxieties over how long Turkey can keep calm about Russian involvement in Syria.
From the Turkish point of view, Russian interests in Syria are thin. A small symbolic naval base, seemingly lucrative yet limited arms sales, and assertion of the usual bravado of "standing against colonial western interventionism" are no compensation for what Russia stands to lose through its dangerous Syria policy.
In the wake of Israel's recent find of massive amount of offshore natural gas in its little patch of eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus (the Greek side, that is) is hoping that it too is sitting on top of large energy reserves. The Cypriot government has given the green light to an American energy company to start exploring for gas in the island's waters later this year, but there is one major problem that stands in the way of Cyprus's plans: Turkey. From a report by the energy analysis firm Platt's:
There is still one stumbling block to Cyprus becoming a gas power though--namely its uneasy relations with Turkey. Israel and Cyprus have reached agreement on their maritime borders and each has accepted the other's exclusive economic zone. But Turkey, which occupies the northern part of Cyprus, has said it does not accept the agreement.
The Turkish government claims any agreements concluded by Cyprus are void unless and until the island is reunited and both the Greek and Turkish communities are represented.
Turkey has termed the offshore gas exploration activities "unlawful and in violation of international law" and as the planned date of drilling approaches, Ankara has stepped up its campaign. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned that Ankara would "take appropriate measures" if Greek Cypriots went ahead with drilling plans.
The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported that the country's embassy in Washington is planning to convey Ankara's reservations regarding Noble's plans to begin drilling to the US government.
And the Turkish foreign ministry warned that agreements and exploration activities in the southern Mediterranean "would negatively affect the settlement of the Cyprus question and lead to new conflicts among the countries in the region."
Something must be going right in the rickety relationship between Dushanbe and Moscow.
In late March, Moscow increased fuel export duties on petroleum products destined for Tajikistan, the poorest country to emerge from the former Soviet Union. This blog speculated on possible causes: Could it have been pressure to allow Russian troops to reassume control over the Tajiks’ wide-open border with Afghanistan, which Moscow says is a conduit for millions of dollars of heroin blighting Russian youth? Or something thornier, such as whether Moscow should pay to station its troops on Tajik soil?
Certainly, Russian primo Vladimir Putin isn’t the kind of leader who responds to irritations with charity. In May, prices for gasoline in Tajikistan jumped 44 percent thanks to his tariffs. But in a sudden about-face, the all-powerful Putin has signed a decree actually lowering – slightly, immediately, even retroactively – those fuel duties. Light crude prices will decrease by a modest 3.7 percent as of July 1, CA-News reported on July 5.
Putin is no doubt concerned by what the US Embassy, in a WikiLeaked cable, described last year as a “poorly trained, poorly paid, underequipped and often under-fed” Tajik border force that allows 40 tons of opiates to enter Russia each year.
Is that zombie of energy politics, the Nabucco gas pipeline, coming back to life once again? Of course, for every "Nabucco's comes back to life" story there's the corresponding "final nail in Nabucco's coffin" story, but a recent agreement to be signed in Turkey offers some hope for the pipeline's boosters. From a report in New Europe:
Turkey gave a boost to the ambitious Nabucco gas pipeline project, which aims to pump Caspian or Middle Eastern gas to Europe, ahead of upcoming elections by planning an official signing ceremony in Kayseri on 8 June of Project Support Agreements (PSAs) between the Nabucco Companies and the responsible Ministries of the five transit countries (Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Turkey).
This message was long overdue, Peter Poptchev, Ambassador at Large for Energy Security and Nabucco Coordinator for Bulgaria, told New Europe on 3 June in the sidelines of the South East Europe Energy Dialogue in Thessaloniki, organized by the Institute of Energy for South-East Europe (IENE). “The meeting of the parties to the Nabucco intergovernmental agreement in the Turkish city of Kayseri will be a strong political message to the outer world that Nabucco is up and running, it is developing, it is considering very important new options. It’s a strong political message. We have needed such a message for a long time. Now it has come,” Poptchev said.
Sometimes the quarrelsome Central Asian republics need a father figure. Lucky for them, Moscow is more than happy to play surrogate.
Officials in Kyrgyzstan are complaining that Uzbekistan has been illegally stealing gas in a disputed border region since the two countries became independent.
"The gas issue has been Kyrgyzstan's main headache for 20 years. Today they [Uzbekistan] owe us some $5 million. We should consider this issue and adopt relevant provisions," a parliamentarian from the ruling Social Democratic Party said on May 13, CA-News.org reported. Kyrgyzstan should seek “the return of the underground gas storage facility Severniy Sokh and the Congara-Galcha gas and oil fields located in Batken Region which are being used by the national [oil and gas] holding company, Uzbekneftegaz," deputy Egemberdi Ermatov said.
Kyrgyzstan has few gas fields and limited technical expertise. So at the same time, officials are lining up an eager partner: Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom.
Also on May 13, Deputy Prime Minister Shamil Atakhanov announced talks with Gazprom to form a new joint venture to supply gas to Kyrgyzstan. The deal will “break our dependence on Uzbek gas,” he said in comments carried by the KyrTAG news agency, and, he hopes, will win Kyrgyzstan back the disputed fields.
Kyrgyzstanlooks more and more like Moscow’s yo-yo.
Petrol prices and concomitant inflation are set to skyrocket again in the poverty-stricken Central Asian country after Moscow suddenly decided yesterday to reimpose a duty on fuel deliveries. The new rate -- about $408/ton, according to 24.kg -- is considerably higher than the one that had been in effect earlier this year, and any meager gains the Kyrgyz economy has experienced in the past few months would be wiped out by the increase, set to start May 1.
Even before this latest blight, the World Bank was warning of Kyrgyzstan’s susceptibility to worldwide inflation, brought on in part by rising petrol and food prices. One bit of good news, a World Bank representative said just today, had been the recent end to these very duties.
So why now? Only a few weeks ago the Kremlin told Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev that Russia would drop fuel duties, which it had first imposed in April 2010 in a move that helped push former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev out of office. Depending on how you count, this would be the third or fourth time Moscow has imposed duties in the past year or so, only to drop them later.
Moscow is deploying its fine-tuned instrument of influence over the poorest and most dependent Central Asian states, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. For the second year in a row, the Kremlin has slapped fuel duties on one of the countries in spring, just before the planting season when farmers need to top up their tractors. The move, cruel though it may be, has proven effective in bending the region’s recalcitrant despots to Moscow’s will or even, as in the case of Kyrgyzstan, helped oust ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
A week ago, Moscow suspended tariffs on fuel deliveries to Kyrgyzstan after Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev kowtowed at the Kremlin and promised to cut American middleman out of fuel deliveries to the American base at Manas Airport.
Tajikistan received duty-free Russian light refined fuels (gasoline, kerosene and aviation fuel) until mid-2010. The sudden introduction of tariffs then pushed prices at the pump (or the rusting tin funnel, as is often the case in Tajikistan) up 30 percent and fomented fears Russia was playing the same game it honed with Bakiyev. In December, however, officials from both sides announced they had almost worked out a deal to resume duty-free imports. Now, those tariffs are not disappearing, but increasing by an extra 5.3 percent.