Turkmenistan Between East and West: An Interview with Sebastien Peyrouse

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Sebastien Peyrouse, Research Professor of International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. Dr. Peyrouse is an Associated Scholar with the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris, France and has published widely on Central Asia, with an emphasis on Turkmenistan. He has authored or co-authored five books, among them Turkmenistan: Strategies of Power, Dilemmas of Development (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2011).

SD: The EU Energy Commissioner Marcos Sefcovic recently met with Turkmen President Gurbanguly t   Berdimuhamedow and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev to propose new energy supply arrangements due to the concern about the future reliability of gas exports from Russia via Ukraine and Moldova. Considering that both Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan both still rely heavily on Russia as an export partner, how likely is it that the EU will be able to secure these energy commitments? How might Russia respond to these efforts in its relations with both countries?

Peyrouse: Energy relations between the EU and Turkmenistan is already a long story. The EU has been trying for years to negotiate energy agreements with Turkmenistan, but that hasn’t really worked out so far for several reasons. The first of these is the pressure Russia has placed on Turkmenistan to avoid closer energy relations with the EU. Russia always tried to keep a kind of monopolistic position on Turkmen energy, a position which has been however more and more challenged by China for several years and by a loss of influence of Moscow on Turkmenistan. The second reason is that, although some European governments, companies and lobbies try to push for closer relations with Turkmenistan, signing this type of agreement raises strong opposition in Europe considering the extremely poor record of human rights in Turkmenistan. A third reason is that the very unfriendly business climate investment in Turkmenistan dissuades foreign investors to commit to long-term, significant projects. Considering the difficult nature of negotiating with the Turkmen government, many think that such projects won’t be necessarily sustainable.

Obviously, Turkmenistan needs to finds new gas export partners. With the Ukrainian crisis, Central Asian states have become increasingly concerned about the state of the Russian economy. Today, China is definitely the most important partner, but its growing monopolistic presence in the Turkmen gas sector raise more and more concerns on the impact it could have in terms of political influence. This therefore opens a window of opportunity to the EU. It’s however too early to say if the EU and Turkmenistan will forge a stronger relationship.

SD: Berdimuhamedow has been actively involved in outreach to EU leaders, particularly in Eastern Europe. His recent visit to Slovenia underscores his desire to expand the Turkmen customer base for its rich energy reserves. But how prevalent are human rights concerns in bilateral dealings between the EU and Turkmenistan?

Peyrouse: Any kind of European big trade deal with Turkmenistan raises opposition. For example, the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Turkmenistan has not been ratified, while EU signed PCAs with the other Central Asian republics, even with Uzbekistan which also has a very low human rights record. This however does not mean that human rights concerns will necessarily prevent Turkmenistan and the EU from reaching agreement. The EU never succeeded in reconciling its contradictory agendas and diverse actors. Europe involves many actors, which gives it richness, but also limits its capability to act as a unified player. It is a complex structure with three heads—the Commission, Council, and Parliament—and with different spokesmen. In practice, EU’s objectives and interests have competing logics: the European desire to diversify gas export routes and reduce its dependence on Russia has led to a sudden relaxation of human rights pressure. Moreover, member states have conflicting perceptions of their interests in the region, some willing to emphasize the values agenda, while others consider that it is impossible to impose democracy from the outside and that it is necessary to maintain a dialogue by, among others, trading with the Central Asian regimes, even with Turkmenistan, the most repressive one. The EU’s policy remains torn between different approaches, with an already visible trend to prioritize energy and security over the values agenda. If profitable, human rights probably wouldn’t be an insurmountable obstacle.

SD: Turkmenistan is largely considered only for its rich energy reserves and for nothing else. What other areas, economically and politically, can it develop in order to secure greater regional influence? Is it possible to develop greater attractiveness for other areas, such as transportation or agriculture?

Peyrouse: The economy of Turkmenistan is far from being diversified. Apart from gas, the economic potential of this country is limited. Cotton is certainly one area which could be developed. Many other sectors, like the tertiary sector, have yet to be developed and cannot be considered as a possible way to attract greater interest in the Turkmen economy. If Iran is finally reintegrated to the international arena, we can expect more transportation to and from Iran through Turkmenistan, though this will never be a main axis of continental transportation. As long as the regime remains unpredictable and corrupt, and the climate of investment unfriendly, Turkmenistan’s attractiveness will remain very limited.

SD: Much has been made in recent months of the Trans-Caspian pipeline. How do you view it, particularly now given the looming reemergence of Iran?

Peyrouse: This project has been very well-publicized in Europe, and has indeed received a great deal of support from various bodies. However, the same message that this project will be developed has been delivered for the past 20 years, and never succeeded for reasons already mentioned. Beyond human rights issues and Turkmen government’s unpredictability, doubts are raised on the profitability of this project: Turkmenistan already signed big gas deals with other countries, especially with China, which constitutes the majority of its total natural gas exports (Turkmenistan is supposed to ship 80 bcm to China once the fourth pipeline of the branches connecting the two countries is completed). As a result, even if the TCP is constructed, Turkmenistan will be able to export limited amount of natural gas to the EU (Sefcovic declined to say how much gas Turkmenistan could supply annually to Europe). Many stakeholders consider that it doesn’t make sense for the EU or the other involved parties to invest heavy funds, fearing that they will not receive a great return on their investment in the short and even medium term. Despite Turkmenistan statement that it is ready to send gas to Europe, Ashgabat has always been reluctant to sign a big gas deal, fearing Russian’s reactions, all the more that Russia has systematically opposed the TCP project. Iran’s resurgence may also complicate the effort in that it will probably oppose the TCP and favor any project engaging directly Iranian gas. If Tehran proves to be a reliable partner, it could very well make more sense for the EU and its partners to develop a pipeline from Iran rather than underneath the Caspian Sea, whose status has not been decided yet and continues to raise tensions between its littoral states.

SD: It is well known that Russia, China and the EU all have an interest in Turkmenistan’s energy resources. How might Ashgabat benefit from balancing each of these powers off of each other?

Peyrouse: Diversification would be beneficial to Turkmenistan mainly because it is overly reliant on China. If China were to reduce its natural gas imports it could have a catastrophic effect on the Turkmen economy. As such, diversifying its exports would be a way of preserving its economic future. In this sense, it would be beneficial for Ashgabat to improve relations with the EU. It would allow Ashgabat to obtain more aid for various areas of development and to try to increase its reputation in the international community. This might drive Turkmenistan to enact limited commercial and political reforms, if not democratic reforms.  In Turkmenistan even beginning a process by which it could liberalize certain aspects of its political or commercial apparatus is extremely difficult, but the need for diversification could create an opportunity.

SD: Indian Prime Minister Modi recently embarked on an unprecedented tour of Central Asia. Is India’s interest in Central Asia more of a pipe dream or does Delhi seriously view itself as a competitor in Central Asia? Do you believe that Turkmenistan and India could collaborate, perhaps through TAPI or through any other pipeline?

Peyrouse: In principle, Turkmenistan is interested in working with India. This would be an opportunity for Turkmenistan to diversify its economic partners. But it is another situation which we have heard about for quite some time. The main project linking Turkmenistan to South Asia is the TAPI, which has been negotiated for many years. There are a number of potential complicating factors in relation to it. The project has changed its direction multiple times. Today, the geopolitical context for the project remains largely unfavorable: relations between India and Pakistan are still very tense and the security situation in Afghanistan and in Pakistan has deteriorated. Moreover, the operation of the deposits feeding TAPI will certainly require further time given the current state of the Turkmen gas industry. Prospects of TAPI’s completion in the short-term remain all the more subject to caution as its costs have been revised significantly upwards, and could increase to about $10 billion according to the Asian Development Bank. Finally, the potential reintegration on the international arena of Iran, which is a big gas producer and could export more to South Asia, further limits the TAPI economic relevance.

India is very aware that working with the Turkmens is difficult. Geography also plays a role. While India has openly expressed its interest in developing stronger relations with Central Asia, it is not in close proximity to the region. This makes the development of any major infrastructure project difficult because other actors will inevitably become involved. It is moreover a latecomer in Turkmenistan. It is bereft of any short to medium-term ability to unseat the major powers such as Russia and China. Its influence cannot even be compared to that of Turkey or Iran, or even to that of countries with an important economic impact such as South Korea. India has not been able to achieve the objectives that it defined in its “Look North” policy at the end of the 1990s and has been unable to prevent China from becoming the new kingmaker in Central Asia.

SD: Turkmenistan has acutely suffered from water scarcity in recent years. How much of this can be directly attributed to the policies of its neighbors redirecting or altogether halting the flow of the Amu Darya river, which is the source of some 68% of the water for the arable land of Turkmenistan?

Peyrouse: In Turkmenistan’s case the main issue is internal. All of Turkmenistan’s irrigation infrastructure was built during the Soviet era and is now old and terribly inefficient. Moreover, water conservation is not a priority in Turkmenistan; it is the country with the highest rate of water usage per capita. There is no culture of water conservation and there has been no effort made to motivate the Turkmen populace to use less water.

The lack of concern in relation to water is perhaps best illustrated by the proposed Golden Age Lake project. This artificial lake will require a tremendous amount of water to develop, and it serves no practical purpose other than to glorify the current president. This is concerning for a country that already experiences heavy water shortages, even if the president claims that it will have the opposite effect and essentially solve the country’s water problems. All water experts have denounced this project, which will exacerbate the country’s water situation.

Improving the situation will also prove difficult for international institutions. The Turkmens have been largely unwilling to collaborate on an institutional level with organizations that could help modernize its water infrastructure, and collaboration with other Central Asian states is improbable: Turkmenistan systematically refuses to be involved in multilateral summits and negotiations. There could be a window of opportunity for the EU to assist in mitigating Turkmenistan’s water shortages, but that would require for there to be a change in Turkmenistan’s modus operandi: It would have to open itself to outside assistance, which at least as far as we have seen thus far is unlikely.

SD: There have been few reports of Turkmen citizens radicalizing and joining extremist groups in the Middle East despite increasingly frequent reports coming out of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Do you think this is because extremism is simply not as big of an issue in Turkmenistan or is it happening and just not being reported?

Peyrouse: Even if Turkmenistan does not recognize it, extremism is a raising concern in the country. However, Turkmenistan is much less threatened by the ISIL or spillover from Afghanistan than by local upstarts of extremism. The social domestic situation has worsened: There is growing poverty in the country and an existing lack of faith in the government to implement reform. Many people do not have access to education or to the health care system. Food security is not guaranteed despite the country’s wealth. Most Turkmens are aware that corruption is rampant and, at the same time, of the country’s big economic potential. One of the consequences is that a small though growing minority of Turkmens now view extremist Islamist narratives as the only remaining recourse they have against the Turkmen government and to solve their daily social difficulties.

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