Hubs for Gas and Militaries: The World Powers Court Central Asia
The world's great powers are all vying for influence and access in Central Asian countries, which are important supply hubs in the Afghanistan war and could become pivotal in reducing Europe's dependence on Russian natural gas. Despite the interest, the countries in the region still haven't come up with a vision for a common future.
The politician with the round cheeks and unpronounceable name is the greatest son of his country, of Central Asia and perhaps even the entire world -- at least if one is to believe a book published in May, called "The Grandson Fulfills the Grandfather's Dream."
In the work, which was distributed to schools and universities, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, 53, the president of Turkmenistan since December 2006, is described as follows: "His authority comes from God. No problem is too much for him. He is not only a doctor who treats the sick, but a great person who assumes full responsibility for the fate of his people -- a unique combination that astounds everyone. The successes under the leadership of our revered president are turning the world's attention to our country."
His capital is called Ashgabat, or "City of Love." But there is nothing lovely or graceful about the buildings that make up the city's skyline, from tasteless apartment towers to cold glass palaces, and from the gleaming white parliament to gilded monuments. Turkmenistan's capital combines the bland grayness of Soviet architecture with the hideousness of Western wannabe avant-garde, an ostentatious past with a gaudy present. It is a fitting combination for the capital of a country that often looks like a Stalinist Disneyland and is led by a supposedly infallible president.
Berdymukhammedov is actually an improvement. He has toned down the cult of personality nurtured by his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, the country's first president, a Soviet-era ruler who called himself "Turkmenbashi," or "Father of all Turkmen." Dozens of monuments still celebrate the man. When he was in office, citizens couldn't even get a driver's license without quoting his wise sayings. The current president keeps a slightly lower profile, as evidenced by the smaller number of posters showing his likeness.
Turkmenistan is in the lower half of the United Nations Human Development Index, and it ranks 171st out of 183 nations on the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom. It is ironic that President Berdymukhammedov, a dentist and former health minister, heads a country whose healthcare system the organization Doctors Without Borders holds in such low regard. Amnesty International is critical of Turkmenistan for its persecution of members of the political opposition.
Not surprisingly, many find Ashgabat and its authoritarian leadership disconcerting. But anyone who concludes that Turkmenistan, larger than Germany by a third but with a population of barely more than 5 million, is a banana republic and thus of no interest to Europe is mistaken. Berdymukhammedov's bizarre realm is floating on a bubble of natural gas. Turkmenistan is estimated to have the world's fourth-largest reserves and is one of the top exporters of the precious natural resource.
Pipelines and Military Bases
Turkmenistan, the least populous of the five nations between the Caspian Sea and the Pamir Mountains that emerged from the former USSR, is a perfect example of why Central Asia will play an increasingly important role in world politics. With new pipelines planned for Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the region will be critical to the future energy supply of Europe, as well as to China and India. The West is also determined to stem the flow of drugs to Europe via Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as to put a stop to a wave of Islamist terror coming from Central Asia. In a modern-day version of the "Great Game" of the 19th century, today's major powers are competing for strategic interests and military bases along the old Silk Road.
Despite the lack of unity among the rulers of the five Central Asian countries, who are at loggerheads over borders and the use of water rights, their forms of government are similar. They believe that the only way to stay in power is to rule with a heavy hand. This explains why a bizarre, irrational cult of personality in Central Asia does not contradict a policy that cleverly plays off the major powers against one another. President Berdymukhammedov is a case in point. He claims to be neutral and open to offers from all sides, while unscrupulously taking advantage of his opportunities to engage in highly lucrative deals.
Reducing Europe's Gas Dependency on Russia
The People's Republic of China has reached an agreement with Ashgabat under which Turkmenistan will supply Beijing with up to 40 billion cubic meters of gas in four years. A declaration of intent for the construction of a giant pipeline through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India was signed a few weeks ago (although the plan will remain utopian unless the political situation in the region settles down). And in the next few months implementation of the Nabucco pipeline project is also expected to begin. The consortium behind the project, which is to supply natural gas to Germany and other countries, includes the German utility RWE, which holds a 16 percent stake, and counts former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer among its consultants.
A group of European partners launched Nabucco in 2002. The name is taken from the Verdi opera of the same name, which the partners attended to celebrate their first meeting in Vienna. The pipeline will run from Erzurum in Turkey through Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, ending at Baumgarten in Austria. The plans call for other pipelines to be connected to the Nabucco pipeline in Turkey, bringing gas from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, and eventually from Iraq and even Iran. The goal is to reduce Western Europe's energy dependency on Russia. Construction of the 3,300-kilometer (2,050-mile) pipeline is slated to begin in 2012, at an estimated cost of 7.9 billion ($11.2 billion).
However, the massive project only makes sense if there is enough natural gas available. Azerbaijan is expected to be one of the two main suppliers, with an initial projected annual delivery of 8 billion cubic meters, while Turkmenistan is to deliver 10 billion cubic meters. But can Ashgabat deliver, is it willing to deliver, and at what price will it deliver? For months now, an instructive game of "pipeline poker" has been played on the global stage, one that has triggered growing nervousness among the Western players. The key player is Berdymukhammedov.
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