Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj paid her second visit to Turkmenistan in the past six months, shortly after Prime Minister Modi visited Ashgabat last July. The TAPI gas pipeline and Ashgabat Agreement on trade and transit are the main issues on the table for discussion, respectively concerning India’s energy security and regional connectivity.
The Ashgabat Agreement, which aims to develop a shortest trade route between Central Asian countries and Iranian and Omani ports, was initially signed between Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Oman and Qatar back in April, 2011 and was given additional support in 2014 when a Memorandum of Understanding was signed. Whilst Oman called for early completion of basic technical requirements so that the corridor can be operational by 2015, Qatar withdrew from the agreement in 2013. However, Kazakhstan promised to join instead, which will increase the project’s significance and extend it further into Central Asia. The Iran-Turkmenistan-Kazakhstan (ITK) railway line will be the major route according to the Ashgabat Agreement, which became operational in December 2014 and was also included as part of India-funded North-South international transport corridor (NSITC).
Turkmenistan is attempting to consolidate its position as an important regional transit and transport hub, and has leveraged its geographical location though other rail projects as well including Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan (TAT) rail line from 2013, Afghanistan-Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey transportation corridor in 2014, Iran-Turkmenistan-Kazakhstan railroad and TRACECA (Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia) comprising the EU and 14 Eastern European, South Caucasus and Central Asian states.
As the Taliban insurgency puts Afghanistan’s ambition to be an Asian transportation hub in question, Turkmenistan is seizing the opportunity by continuing to make these deals. This strategy also works well with India’s “Connect Central Asia” initiative. By increased involvement in Central Asia, India aims to participate in regional transportation connection developments outside of China’s One Belt One Road and Belt and Road Initiatives, to supplement the INSTC, diminish Pakistan’s leverage to cut India’s connectivity westward and optimize routes to the EEU and the EU.
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- David Cameron and Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev secured 40 trade deals worth 3 billion pounds. The deals involve four new gas plants and a steel production facility in Kazakhstan, as well as agreement on daily flights between the two countries. Cameron hopes the steel agreement will aid the UK’s crisis-hit steel industry, whereas Nazarbayev stated his country is seeking to diversify its economy in the midst of crisis due to falling oil prices. The meeting was criticized by human rights activists, who called on Cameron not to strike deals with dictators accused of human rights violations. Downing Street, however, said Cameron has raised the issue of human rights at the meeting, followed by Nazarbayev’s statement on his commitment to reforms against corruption, for improvements to the justice system and ensuring liberal government.
- Oil production in Tajikistan fell by 37.7% in the past nine months compared to the same period in 2014. Due to oil production’s direct effect on other industries, the gasoline production has respectively decreased by 43.3%, diesel fuel by 43.8% and masut by 42.8%. On the other hand, as a result of increase on cotton fiber and hosiery products, volume of textile and clothing production has increased by 3%. The country’s unstable economic and political situation largely stemmed from extreme drop in oil prices and recession in Russia, which sharply decreased remittances from Tajik migrants in Russia, amounting nearly half of the country’s GDP. Tajikistan has undertaken multiple measures to deal with the crisis including development of import substitution policy to replace imports with domestic products.
- Armenia and the EU proceed in a new comprehensive political and economic agreement as the head of EU delegation expressed confidence that the third party’s negative involvement would not derail the process. The EU ambassador to Armenia, Yerevan Piotr Switalski expressed hope that the negotiation would be based solely on Armenia’s sovereign decision without Russian involvement. Last month, the EU Commission authorized launch of negotiations with Armenia to replace the Association Agreement. In September 2013, Armenia unexpectedly discontinued the agreement and joined Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) instead. Since then, Armenia and the EU have been exploring possibilities of a less ambitious accord that would not contradict Armenia’s EEU commitments.
- In the framework of his Central Asian tour, John Kerry met Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, who hailed the new dynamic relationship between the two countries. Kerry being the first secretary to visit the country since James Baker in 1992, stressed the opportunity of greater U.S. investment in the country and broadened security cooperation if the government improved human rights record. Turkmenistan, which holds some of the world’s most plentiful natural gas reserves has emerged as an important country for the U.S. due to its shared borders with Afghanistan. However, the country ranks among the most corrupted nations and is also notorious for extreme human rights abuses including torture and repression.
- The EU and the U.S. have temporarily lifted sanctions on Belarus including a travel ban and asset freeze for the president Aleksandr Lukashenko, however, the arms embargo will remain in place. Although not much has changed in the country since introduction of the sanctions, some link the western move as a response to Lukashenko’s release of political prisoners in August, his refusal of Russian proposed military base construction in Belarus and Minsk’s positive role in negotiations between Kiev and separatists in Ukraine. Most notably, Minsk is seeking to defuse a potential conflict with Russia over normalization of relations with the West. Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey emphasized Minsk’s attempt to improve peace and stability in the region but not at the expense of relations with Russia. The country’s poor economic condition is at stake as Belarusian authorities try to pull the economy out of recession by securing financial bonuses from the West.
- China’s vice president signed several deals with Afghanistan on infrastructure and security support during his rare visit in Kabul. China emphasized that it is not seeking to fill the gap left after expected decrease in the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan, but promised to engage commercially in the country’s rebuild, respectively promising $79 million this year for building housing in Kabul. China has become increasingly worried about extremists and separatists in its western part of Xinjiang in which Afghanistan security is considered as key to the region’s stability.