Vol. 1, No. 8 (May 15, 2008)

The Azerbaijani-Turkmen rapprochement and its consequences

Stephen Blank, Prof.
Strategic Study Institute
US Army War College 

One of the most interesting but also most unnoticed trends in the international relations of CIS governments is taking place between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.  Specifically, the growing rapprochement and increasing cooperation between these two states could have significant geo-economic and thus political consequences.  It will be remembered that until the death of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in late 2006 these relations were almost nonexistent due to differences over energy fields in the Caspian, more precisely over the revenues to be obtained from these prospective fields.  Since Niyazov’s death and the accession of his successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov the drive for a rapprochement, which to be fair was first bruited about at the end of Niyazov’s tenure, has accelerated.

In June 2007, both states announced accords to explore the possibility of joint exploration of what Baku calls the Kapaz field and Ashgabat calls the Serdar field in the Caspian.  In March 2008, Baku agreed to pay Ashgabat a $44.8 million debt for gas supplies delivered over a decade ago.  One month later, both states launched a program of military and military technical cooperation.  Berdymukhammedov has visited Baku blessing these initiatives and Ashgabat has announced its intention to supply Europe with 10 million BCM of gas.  By doing so he rekindled hopes for the Nabucco pipeline planned by the EU to bypass Russia or alternatively for the US-European sponsored Trans-Caspian pipeline (TCP) that would connect Central Asian producers of energy like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan with Azerbaijan and the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline.  Azerbaijan is already a member and the prospect of Turkmen membership, and more importantly, of a real pipeline connecting them, would considerably alter the current energy situation in and around the Caspian.

If this rapprochement continues and become consolidated, particularly around energy (obviously both sides are marginal military actors) it will have significant consequences for both players.  Obviously, Turkmenistan will take another huge stride towards greater energy independence from Russia and greatly enhance its ability to supply other consumers directly, eliminating the need for a middleman who can impose its price preferences upon Turkmenistan and other Central Asian producers.  Thus, its enhanced freedom of action will redound as well to the other Central Asian states’ comparable drive for direct access to their customers in both Europe and Asia.  This would be at Russia’s and to a lesser degree Iran’s expense, as Moscow has sought to maintain a neo-colonial price policy on Central Asian states.

For Azerbaijan this rapprochement also offers an opportunity to bypass the sterile and unending debates over the delimitation of the Caspian since a pipeline or at least generate pressure to do so because the projected Turkmen-Azeri pipeline that might now become a possibility could go through what is accepted by all of the littoral states except Iran as the part of the sea that is not claimed as anyone’s territorial waters.  This does not mean Russia will not try to frustrate this project for the reason mentioned above and to maintain its ability to pressure the other littoral states and Central Asian producers.

This rapprochement also enhances Azerbaijan’s ability to play a role as a central energy player as both provider and transmitter of energy to Europe and thus increases its importance to Europe, regarding European energy security.  This is a key goal of President Ilham Aliyev stated in the May 2007 energy summit in Cracow.  Of course this rapprochement is also a response to Russia’s 2007-08 efforts to lock up Turkmen energy supplies.
But apart from the benefits of weakening Russia’s hold over Central Asian energy, enhancing its energy independence, opening up possibilities for breaking the logjam over Caspian delimitation, and strengthening Azerbaijan’s position vis-a-vis European energy agendas, there is another key gain to be registered from this rapprochement, especially if it does become consolidated.  In the history of the CIS Russia has consistently tried to block regional cooperation either of a bilateral or multilateral nature from which it was excluded.  It naturally prefers to deal directly with individual states whereby it can maximize its leverage vis-a-vis smaller, and weaker, states.  Yet this example of bilateral cooperation if it can develop and become an enduring cooperation offers both Baku and Ashgabat major opportunities for providing both an example for others and an increment in their strength vis-à-vis Moscow.  

In general many experts and even some political leaders like President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan have advocated enhanced regional cooperation among CIS members.  But for such cooperation to succeed and be seen as viable, it may be necessary for some group of states to show the others how it can be done and how it can succeed in gaining benefits for both or all sides.  The increased possibilities for both sides here to benefit from this rapprochement and strengthen their position vis-à-vis both Russia and Europe, thereby restraining Moscow’s ability to interfere with their goals, can become an example for other states to pursue more open cooperation among themselves.  In turn, the success of such cooperation can open the way to new opportunities for these states to enlarge their room for maneuver both individually and collectively.  For these reasons the lack of notice of the Azerbaijani-Turkmen rapprochement is undeserved.  What happens here may not stay here and can have noteworthy spillover effects across the CIS.

* The views expressed in this article do not in any way represent those of the US Army, Defense Department, or the US Government.