Friday

22nd Feb 2019

Turkmenistan: We're not sure why Barroso is coming

  • Turkmenistan: Barroso will be greeted by a full honour guard at Berdymukhammedov's palace (Photo: d_proffer)

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will on Saturday (15 January) hold a one-hour-long tete-a-tete with one of central Asia's most controversial leaders. But with Brussels not aiming to make any concrete offers on gas purchasing, the Turkmen side is unsure what the meeting will achieve.

The Barroso delegation will land in Ashgabat late on Friday before going to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's palace the next day to be greeted with a full guard of honour normally reserved for heads of state.

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The commission plans to hand over a draft legal study on how Turkmenistan could link-up its gas fields with Azerbaijan and to seek verbal assurances that Ashgabat will one day ship gas directly to the EU, bypassing Russia.

A Turkmen diplomatic source told this website that Mr Berdymukhammedov is unsure why the commission is sending over its big gun at a time when the EU has "no new offer" and "no new ideas" on how to get Turkmenistan to join its flagship Nabucco pipeline project, however.

"After the signing of Tapi [a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas project], the Europeans are a bit nervous about possible reserves and whether the gas will flow ... It's just a political meeting: Barroso wants to put his weight on the scale to convince Turkmenistan to go with the Trans-Caspian pipeline," the contact said, referring to a Nabucco component pipeline seen as key to getting the Nabucco project off the ground.

Turkmenistan believes that the Trans-Caspian pipeline is an "unrealistic" option, not least because of opposition from Russia, which would have to give its approval as one of the Caspian Sea littoral states, the Turkmen diplomat added. "It will be politically difficult to give this message immediately after the European visit. So some time will probably pass before such a statement [against the Trans-Caspian] is made," the source said.

The Nabucco pipeline lies at the heart of the EU's plans to create a so-called Southern Corridor to bring in gas directly from Caspian Sea countries to the EU, breaking Russia's monopoly on exports from the region. But Russia is currently promoting a rival so-called South Stream pipeline designed to ship more Caspian gas to the EU under the Black Sea.

Meanwhile, NGOs such as the UK-based Global Witness warn that the EU should not pin its energy security hopes onto administrations as unreliable and morally repugnant as the current one in Ashgabat.

Recently leaked US diplomatic cables paint a colourful picture of the man Mr Barroso will shake hands with on Saturday. One cable, dated 2009, described Mr Berdymukhammedov as "vain, suspicious, guarded, strict, very conservative, a practiced liar, 'a good actor' and vindictive ... not a very bright guy."

Another cable from 2007 said he had raised the level of bribes required from Western companies to do business in the country by 15 percent compared to his predecessor.

A European Commission source noted that President Barroso will bring up the issue of human rights and democratic reforms at the meeting: "There has been a timid and modest start to reforms, it's moving, albeit at a slow pace, and the President will encourage his Turkmen counterpart to take this further."

The Barroso delegation, which includes energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger, will spend two days in Baku before the Ashgabat visit.

The EU team intends to sign a joint declaration on energy co-operation with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and expects the Azeri side to ask about progress on EU visa facilitation during the trip. "We want to lock them in, particularly the Azerbaijanis, on the strategic option of the Southern Corridor. The declaration says exactly this, if we can get the text through," the commission contact noted.

In a related development that may indicate the US is losing faith in the Nabucco project, the US ambassador to Rome told La Stampa, the Italian daily, on Monday that Nabucco and South Stream could somehow be merged in the future. A commission spokeswoman later said Brussels is "not considering" the option.

Competition from South Stream is set to heat up in 2011 after the South Stream consortium opens its new office in the Swiss canton of Zug, a location favoured by offshoots of Russia's Gazprom, the South Stream majority-shareholder.

"Preparations are underway, and we are looking forward to opening our office in the near future," the South Stream consortium's chief and the former CEO of Dutch energy firm Gasunie, Marcel Kramer, told this website. "As is common practice with infrastructure projects, South Stream will co-operate with a significant number of external specialists and consultants in different areas. This will likely include support in areas such as engineering, environmental assessment, legal advice and communications."

The Brussels-based PR firm Brunswick, which already lobbies for Gazprom subsidiary Nord Stream in the EU capital, is in a good position to clinch a South Stream PR contract. "I would not be against that," Brunswick partner Philippe Blanchard said.

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