Friday, December 22, 2006

Suddenly, Turkmenistan


Saparmurad Niyazov, paranoid dictator of Turkmenistan, died suddenly this week and it’s power struggles, ahoy! in Central Asia for natural gas, land and post-Soviet democracy, as successors scramble for power:

Early signs of internal discord were evident in an official announcement that the speaker of the parliament's lower house, who under constitutional rules should have become acting president, had been placed under criminal investigation.

With winter closing in, the global energy industry was monitoring the surprise news from Turkmenistan closely. Turkmen gas is already an important element in state-controlled Gazprom's ability to meet customer demand at home and abroad and could become vital as demand rises over the next decade.

The United States has lobbied Turkmenistan, so far unsuccessfully, to build a pipeline across the Caspian Sea that would bypass Russian territory to deliver gas to the outside world. European countries have quietly supported the idea, which would reduce their dependence on Russia for supplies of natural gas.

The strategic competition known as the Great Game that bedeviled Central Asia more than a century ago may get a rerun as Western-oriented and exiled opposition leaders return to Turkmenistan and jostle with Russian surrogates for power in the vacuum left by Niyazov's death.

Complicating the mix are tribal politics and the loyalties of the powerful security services.

The Niyazov government was dominated by the Akhal Teke tribe, but the desert country's major gas fields lie in areas dominated by other tribes. Tensions over distribution of power and benefits from the sales never surfaced because Niyazov maintained an internal security cocoon that smothered dissent.

Largely desert country. Centralized power on one tribe’s ground, valuable resources on another tribe’s. Repressed peoples yearning to breathe free. Dissenters returning from abroad for hastily called elections. Tension between Islam and secularism.

If I were as paranoid as Niyazov was, I’d wonder why the 21st century’s maximum craziness all seems to occur in countries that border Iran.

I’m not saying Ahmadinejad’s bloody fingerprints are all over this, but because Iran borders so many countries—besides those I linked to above, it shares frontiers with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Turkey, and half a dozen Gulf states—the U.S. must deal with Iran eventually, particularly as Tehran closes in on working nuclear weapons. Better, I think, to start befriending the Islamic Republic now than later; by being in a position to influence Tehran, Washington would be better able to influence the politics of Iran’s neighbors, with benefits for U.S. interests.

Remember that Iran was helping to sustain Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance before 9/11, and had absorbed millions of Afghan refugees on its own. No one knew how valuable these Iranian actions would be to the West until 9/11 threw Afghan politics into high relief; without Iran, there would likely have been no Northern Alliance left for the U.S. to ally itself with, and many more Americans would have died to force the Taliban out of the country.

1 comment:

GT said...

In terms of Turkmen politics, my accusatory finger goes much faster to Russia than it does to Iran. Iran does not have a history of using energy politics as a weapon, while Russia does. Russia has a lot more to lose from a shift in Turkmen politics, as much of their export gas comes from there. In addition Ahmadinejad does not have much influence over foreign policy, especially after the recent elections. The foreign competition in Turkmenistan seems to be between Russia and TCP proponents (EU, Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan).

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