Pipeline explosion raises tensions between Turkmenistan and Russia
Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is calling for talks with Russia as part of efforts to repair a damaged natural gas pipeline and, more importantly, damaged Turkmen-Russian relations after last week’s pipeline explosion. Berdymukhammedov said he is prepared to call for an independent investigation into the cause of the April 9 explosion that struck the Central Asia-Tsentr-4 pipeline that connects Turkmenistan to Russia.
Turkmenistan's immediate reaction was to blame Russia’s Gazprom for the blast, saying Gazprom’s subsidiary in Turkmenistan, Gazpromexport, decreased the amount of gas it was drawing from the pipeline without informing Turkmen officials.
Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry called the action “reckless and irresponsible.”
Russian officials have remained diplomatic about the issue, leaving Russian media to take the lead in directing blame toward Turkmenistan.
On April 9, Anatoly Dmitrievsky, director of the Institute for Oil and Gas Issues at Russia’s Academy of Sciences, appeared on the Russian television program Vesti. In comments that were widely publicized by Russian print media, Dmitrievsky blamed Turkmenistan’s aging pipeline system for the blast, saying it was “built in the late 1960s and start of the 1970s, is rather worn and in need of repair and reconstruction.” Dmitrievsky said it could also have been the fault of Turkmen dispatchers monitoring the pipeline.
The Turkmen government website (Turkmenistan.ru) responded to Dmitrievsky’s comments the following day, saying the Russian academic’s comments “did not correspondent to reality,” and rejected the academic’s comments as an “attempt to negatively portray the work of the dispatcher service of Turkmenistan.”
Standing Up To Moscow
Regardless of the cause of the blast, one thing appears clear: the fact that gas has stopped flowing between Turkmenistan and Russia seems to suit both sides.
Michael Laubsch, an expert on Central Asia and the head of the Bonn-based Eurasian Transition Group (ETG), says Turkmenistan may be sending a signal to the West by showing it is standing up to Moscow.
“At the moment one can definitely say that the relations between the two countries are a little bit troubled,” Laubsch said. “It’s a typical signal of the Turkmen government to play its pendular politics again, showing the West that it’s now a powerful nation and it also wants to struggle with the big Kremlin.”
There may be other reasons for the sudden fall-out between Turkmenistan and Russia. On April 6, Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko expressed his dismay that Turkmenistan had not set a follow-up meeting with Russia after President Berdymukhammedov’s late March visit to Moscow. Turkmen and Russian media reported ahead of the visit that Berdymukhammedov and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev were to sign a number of agreements, but at least one of those, construction of the East-West pipeline in Turkmenistan, was left for a later meeting. Shmatko said the Russian side was ready to sign the remaining agreements, but Turkmenistan had not communicated about any future meeting.
The Russian newspaper “Kommersant” reported on April 13 that Turkmenistan may now feel its position is strengthened since the pipeline explosion “could be a topic of speculation at a conference on the reliable and stable transit of energy pipelines" to be held in Ashgabat on April 23-24. “Kommersant” wrote that discussions on the pipeline explosion “could continue at a summit for the Nabuccco gas pipeline project...which will take place in Prague on May 7.”
The Russian daily “Vremya novostei” reported on April 14 that the pipeline rupture is actually good for Gazprom. It stated that Gazprom’s agreement last year with three Central Asian states to pay “European prices” for their gas now appears to have been a “mistake.” Gazprom made the deal with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan when the price of gas was rising to record highs; now the price is falling and, according to “Vremya novostei,” Gazprom “lost more than $1 billion purchasing gas in the first quarter” of 2009.
Falling prices are accompanied by declining purchases. Much of the Turkmen gas that Gazprom buys goes to Ukraine, but “Vremya novostei” reported that Ukraine’s state gas company Naftohaz bought only 2.6 billion cubic meters in the first quarter of 2009, paying only $940 million.
Demand further west in European Union countries is also declining, making it difficult for Gazprom to absorb the large amounts of gas it is contracted to buy from Central Asia.
President Berdymukhammedov again blamed Gazprom for the pipeline rupture.
“We see the Turkmen-Russian gas pipeline disorder as a result of external factors, not as a result of any internal disorders,” he said. “Why I am saying this? Because Russia’s Gazprom company disseminates false information in the Russian media saying the pipeline is worn out and [denying its own] technical errors.”
Berdymukhammedov ordered Deputy Prime Minister for Oil and Gas Tachberdi Tagiyev to meet with Gazprom officials and outlined Turkmenistan’s next steps if talks with the Russian company fail.
“Unless Gazprom admits its faults, then we will invite independent experts to examine the causes of the blast,” Berdymukhammedov said. “If we are responsible for the disorder, then we will fix the damages. If Gazprom is responsible for the blast, then they have to pay for the repairs and compensate Turkmenistan for pipeline damages.”
On the day of the pipeline explosion, the Turkmen government said it would take two to three days to repair. But as the dispute with Russia and Gazprom drags on, and both sides wait for the other to accept blame, there are no reports that repair work is being done.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service contributed to this report
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.