Turkmenistan on Thursday defended its "sovereign" right to diversify gas export routes, as the West seeks to loosen Moscow's grip on the energy-rich but reclusive Central Asian nation, reported the AFP.
Turkmenistan hosted an international energy conference Thursday and Friday in the capital city Ashgabat. Speaking at the opening of the conference, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said Thursday that his country would not bind itself to delivering gas to only one customer.
Berdymukhamedov told foreign energy bosses at a major conference in the nation's flamboyant capital that Turkmenistan, like any energy producer, had every right to look for new customers.
"Today we are looking for conditions to diversify energy routes and the inclusion of new countries and regions into the geography of routes," he said, in an apparent snub to Russia, which has a near-monopoly on Turkmen gas exports. His comments came after relations between Russia and Turkmenistan soured dramatically in recent weeks. Earlier this month, Ashgabat, in a rare outburst of emotion, blamed Russian gas giant Gazprom for causing an explosion on a Turkmen pipeline by unexpectedly cutting its imports of natural gas, causing a pressure build-up.
Challenging Moscow’s control
Russia has direct control over almost all the oil and gas pipelines leading out of Central Asia. But China and Iran as well as the United States and other Western countries are all increasingly eager to challenge Moscow's control of access to the region's energy reserves, reported AP.
Russia sent Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's influential deputy Igor Sechin to the Ashgabat conference in an apparent effort to contain the fallout. The United States and European Union, keen to gain access to Turkmenistan's huge gas reserves, also sent their top officials to the gathering.
Sechin downplayed any possible rift between Moscow and Ashgabat following the pipeline explosion in Turkmenistan. "No accident will lead to an accident in relations with Turkmenistan," he said in his only comments to reporters.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso praised growing energy ties with Turkmenistan, which has begun opening up to the West since the 2006 death of longtime leader Saparmurat Niyazov. "Cooperation in the energy sphere is now well in hand," he said via video link to the conference.
"Our plan is to link up Turkmenistan with the European market through the South Caucasus," he said, adding he hoped to pay the nation a visit in the coming months. The EU wants to diversify its gas imports and has placed high hopes on the Nabucco pipeline project, which is supposed to supply the bloc with gas from the Caspian Sea region by 2012 to 2013 while bypassing Russia.
As Russia and the West slug it out over Central Asia's westbound gas exports, China is confident work on its 7,000-kilometer Turkmenistan pipeline project could be finished by as early the end of the year. Turkmenistan has promised that it may eventually deliver 40 billion cubic meters of gas to China through the route.
In a surprising twist, Iran has emerged as yet another contender for Turkmenistan's gas in February, when it signed a tentative agreement to develop the massive Yolotan-Osman field near Turkmenistan's eastern border with Afghanistan. Iran also sealed a deal to boost its annual purchases of Turkmen gas to 10 billion cubic meters. That is only one-fifth of what Russia buys, but Iran has ambitions to expand the energy trade with its northeastern neighbor.
US backs Turkmenistan
Meanwhile, the United States on Friday encouraged Turkmenistan to diversify its energy markets as Washington hopes to shake off Moscow's grip on this energy-rich but reclusive Central Asian nation.
Speaking at an energy conference in the Turkmen capital, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Krol said cooperation with Turkmenistan and other Central Asian states was high on U.S. President Barack Obama's agenda.
"We want to support partnerships throughout Eurasia, and we will advocate for those partnerships that respect the sovereign states in the region," Krol said at the conference, a rare international meeting in Turkmenistan. "We strongly support the diversification of energy markets and transit routes, both among Central Asian states and between this region and broader international markets," he said.
Some officials at the conference saw signs that Turkmenistan was in favor of Nabucco, including Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler. "There is a chance that Turkmenistan will join Nabucco," said Güler. The head of Austrian oil and gas giant OMV, Wolfgang Ruttenstorfer, sounded a similar note: "Turkmenistan is expressing support of Nabucco."