Vol. 2, No. 18 (September 15, 2009)

Ashgabat’s Azerbaijan dilemma

Fikrat Sadykhov
Professor of Political Science, Western University, Baku
Political Analyst

Ashgabat has officially expressed its intention to strengthen its military position in the Caspian.  At an expanded session of the Turkmenistan Security Council, which took place on the occasion of the opening of the new building of the Police Academy in Ashgabat, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said that by 2015, Turkmenistan will build a naval base on the Caspian to defend the sea border of the country.  That border, he noted, always must be ready to combat smugglers and terrorists, the goal of whom is the destabilization of the situation inside the country.  In reporting this, Turkmenistan’s state television said that “Turkmenistan does not have any territorial claims on any territory and does not consider any state as its enemy.  Instead, it considers its borders frontiers of peace, friendship and good neighborly relations.”
It is, however, necessary to recall that literally on the eve of the president’s announcement, the Turkmenistan government accused Azerbaijan of exploiting oil fields which supposedly belong to Turkmenistan.  In this connection, Ashgabat even declared that it was ready to turn to the International Arbitrage Court for a resolution of this dispute.  The most interesting thing here is that the disputed issues and more precisely the pretensions of Turkmenistan to ownership of several oil and gas fields in the Caspian have existed between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan already for quite some time. 
But Turkmenistan’s striving to defend with its own forces its sea borders is something Ashgabat has begun talking about only now. 
By the way, Turkmenistan has a sea border not only with Azerbaijan but also with Russia, Kazakhstan and Iran, each of which has its own naval flotillas.  Ashgabat up to now had limited itself to the purchase of naval patrol vessels.  The Turkmen leader explained the need to rearm the national army and the strengthening of the military strategic position on the sea by pointing to the increasing activity of international extremist and terrorist groups that are interested in drug trafficking.  On this basis, the Turkmenistan president said, the naval forces will be dislocated on a permanent basis, although he did not specify precisely where this naval facility would be located.  Berdymukhammedov also declared that the border service of Turkmenistan would buy new patrol boats and that for the Turkmenistan fleet it would buy two contemporary ships armed with rockets.  In addition, and in order to increase the effectiveness of the protection of its borders, he indicated that Turkmenistan plans to conduct regular large-scale naval exercises.
Beyond any doubt, the newly declared position of Turkmenistan concerning its plans to construct a naval base says that Turkmenistan is dissatisfied with the development of events on the Caspian and above all that despite its significant hydrocarbon reserves, Ashgabat has not been involved as actively as Azerbaijan in regional projects.  Moreover, the Turkmenistan president’s declaration suggests that he is dissatisfied with the way in which negotiations on the final status of the Caspian Sea have been proceeding.  
With regard to the question of the division of the Caspian seabed, Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan do not have any pretentions toward one another.  On this question, among our countries there exist both bilateral and trilateral accords.  The sides have also come to a unified position on the definition of the coordinates of the dividing lines.  The two other littoral states, Turkmenistan and Iran have not agreed to this, and as a result, despite many years of discussions, the status of the Caspian has not yet been defined.
It is of course difficult to imagine that because of the Caspian a serious military conflict between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan could begin.  And although there were certain tensions between Baku and Ashgabat at the end of the 1990s, the most recent declaration of President Berdymukhammedov hardly can be considered a call to military action.
In Ashgabat, the government understands perfectly well what it is doing.  Today is not the beginning and even not the end of the 1990s.  Azerbaijan today is an important regional player with growing economic and military capacity, it is actively involved in large-scale oil and gas projects, and Baku cannot be frightened easily by the strengthening of naval forces in the region.  That is all the more so in this case because according to Ashgabat’s official declaration, it is building up these forces to oppose terrorist and extremist organizations, a task that is entirely a good thing.  The only question that arises is why it is necessary to wait until 2015?
As far as the declaration of the Turkmenistan side concerning an appeal to the International Arbitrage Court, then this is more likely than anything else an attempt to demonstrate to the regional community Turkmenistan’s interests and readiness to defend them by all available means.  But Azerbaijan has not violated the interests of anyone else and does not intend to be hostile to Turkmenistan.  More than that, in the period when problems with Turkmenistan concerning the sea border did arise, Azerbaijan showed admirable restraint and declared that it was stopping all work in the area until the final resolution of the status of the Caspian Sea.  What more could it have done?
It is more likely that the Turkmen declarations will stop at this.  The tone of official Ashgabat since the president’s statement has become distinctly softer.  What’s more, on the horizon is the development of the Nabucco program to which Turkmenistan is beginning to show direct interest.  President Berdymukhammedov, Interfax reports, has said that “Turkmenistan, which supports the principles of the diversification of the export of its energy production to world markets intends to use existing possibilities for participation in major international projects like, for example, Nabucco.”
The Turkmenistan leader is a sufficiently pragmatic politician who well understands what is going on and is more than capable of evaluating the situation.  And that, in the current circumstances, is far more important.