Turkmenistan and the Geopolitical Tightrope between Russia/Iran and NATO/EU Powers
Nuray Lydia Oglu, Hiroshi Saito and Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
The nation of Turkmenistan is of major geopolitical significance because of its shared borders with Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Of equal significance is the coastal area that links Turkmenistan to the Caspian Sea; thereby sharing a potent area with Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation. This reality means that current strains between the Russian Federation and NATO/European Union powers can be felt within important geopolitical decisions that Turkmenistan needs to make. However, the one biding factor prior to the recent clash between Moscow and Washington was the need to remain neutral when applicable.
Energy politics, NATO encroachment, tensions between Iran and Turkey over Syria – and elements of distrust between Tehran and Washington – adds further complexity to an already complex issue. On top of this, Iran is worried by Turkey’s role in being a transit for Takfiri sectarian terrorists against Syria, with the knock on effect being further destabilization in Iraq.
Also, the crisis in Afghanistan remains up in the air. Therefore, Turkmenistan is worried about the growing menace of Takfiri forces, the possible menace of ISIS (IS – Islamic State), political Islam undermining indigenous Islam, and if Iraq is anything to go by – after America and allies pulled out – then the possible reality of new destabilization in Afghanistan. These important factors, and others, mean that Turkmenistan is increasingly feeling the global tensions that persist.
In the area of energy politics it is clear that the European Union (EU), Azerbaijan and Turkey have a different objective compared to Iran and the Russian Federation. This reality is clearly visible when viewing the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) because Moscow and Tehran oppose the TCP based on geopolitical and economic factors. Despite this, the EU, Azerbaijan and Turkey have made positive overtures that include areas outside of the TCP. Therefore, Turkmenistan needs to weigh up the TCP carefully given the geopolitical importance of energy politics alongside other important factors.
Zaur Shiriyev at The Jamestown Foundation states: “From Turkmenistan’s point of view, Gazprom’s declaration that it would cut its imports by nearly two-thirds—to 4 billion cubic meters (bcm)—has serious implications. The Russian financial crisis and decline in oil prices has had a direct impact on Turkmenistan’s internal market; notably, it has devalued its currency by 19 percent versus the dollar (Hurriyet Daily News, February 17). These various factors have strengthened Ashgabat’s motivations for seeking alternative markets for its gas. But Turkmenistan’s traditional approach to pipeline politics—that of “zero financial burden, hundred percent effectiveness”—remains unchanged, and so Ashgabat is interested in exporting to markets through existing pipelines or where there are opportunities for expansion, like with the China route. Despite Ashgabat’s dissatisfaction with Gazprom’s decision to cut gas imports, after twenty years of neutrality, Turkmenistan’s approach is unlikely to change; it will almost certainly maintain political sensitivity in its approach toward Moscow. This is particularly important given the broader atmosphere of confrontation between Russia and the West. Ashgabat is highly unlikely to actively support the European Union’s energy diversification strategy, as this would contradict the strongly business-based approach of the Turkmenistani leadership toward gas politics.”
The situation in Afghanistan and the rise of Takfiri Salafi forces in several nations is also worrying the political elites in Turkmenistan. Not only this, the murky role of NATO Turkey being an open conduit for several terrorist and sectarian forces against Syria also complicates the positive hand being plied by Ankara. Also, if NATO powers and allies can create a political vacuum in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and then leave, then how trustworthy are NATO powers in being a genuine partner in the fight against terrorism? Indeed, even political elites in Washington are questioning the current Erdogan government in Turkey therefore divisions within NATO clearly exist.
Turkmenistan refrained from joining the Collective Security Treaty Organization and clearly the Russian Federation must be disappointed by this reality. Of equal significance is the fact that Turkmenistan is only “a guest” of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization despite the powerful geopolitical significance of this organization. However, the decreasing role of America and NATO within Afghanistan may lead to Turkmenistan focusing more strongly on the Russian Federation, China and Iran.
It is abundantly clear that Turkmenistan prefers the geopolitical status quo but this may hinder the economic growth of this nation. Also, the growing menace of terrorism, Islamist indoctrination and the threat of greater destabilization in Afghanistan may lead to Turkmenistan to look towards the Russian Federation and Iran.
After all, it is abundantly clear that in Iraq it is Iranian military forces that are on the ground and helping the central government of this nation. This fact highlights the current weakness of the Obama administration in America. Therefore, while Turkmenistan doesn’t want to take sides, it is equally true that America is losing its influence in Afghanistan and Iraq respectively. However, for Turkmenistan, the economic equation is also of equal significance therefore the political tightrope will remain until brave decisions are taken by this nation.
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