The Courting of Turkmenistan

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News from the annual UN General Assembly (UNGA) session is dominated by sound bites from the green marble podium, bromides broken up only by the occasional tearing up of a UN Charter by a Libyan dictator or by the steady shuffle of diplomats departing the perfidies of an Iranian president. But the real work at the UN is more likely to take place in the hallways of the Waldorf Astoria - the storied New York hotel turned diplomatic frat-house during UNGA week. Case in point: This week's Waldorf "bi-lat" between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, President of Turkmenistan, home to the world's fourth largest natural gas reserves, and lately the most sought-after partner in Central Asia.

The post meeting de-brief captured the mood perfectly. Pressed by a reporter "Did the matter of human rights come up?" Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake replied: "It does come up. It's just in these bilats, ... we've only got a certain amount of time, and so we touch on the most important things."

Call it resource-politik: The de-valuation of moral concerns ranging from human rights to fundamental political freedoms in the quest to secure resources critical to our own continued development.

It's a game everyone can play, and these days almost anyone is. Witness Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who included Turkmenistan on his nine nation swing earlier this month. In his Ashgabat photo op, Chavez point-blanked the Turkmen leader with an invitation to become a founding member of a new "natural gas OPEC." Reports indicate that Berdymukhammedov failed to respond. Undeterred, at his next stop in Belarus, Chavez enrolled Turkmenistan as a charter nation in what he jauntily termed his updated "Axis of Evil." Blandishments of his Venezuelan visitor aside, Turkmenistan's leader appears to be keeping his options open, and plenty of countries are interested.

Turkmenistan hasn't always been so high on the international A-List. Ranked among the world's most corrupt and least-free nations (Turkmenistan sits in an eight-way tie at the very bottom of Freedom House's world rankings), the country was long ruled by the self-styled Turkmenbashi ("Leader of All Turkmen"), who as President-for-Life poured millions into a cult of personality so extravagant he renamed the days of the week and months of the year (even the toughest tyrant has his softer side: Turkmenbashi renamed April after his mother). After the implosion of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan labored along as a one-party state with a one-product economy -- hydrocarbons - 80% of which it sold to a single customer, Russia. Term-limited by his own mortality, Turkmenbashi died in December 2006; Turkmenistan's political apparatus promptly churned up a choice of six candidates, all from the country's sole political party.

Turkmenistan's new top man, Berdymukhammedov, rumored to be Turkmenbashi's illegitimate son, captured 89% of the vote in an election outside observers pronounced "neither free nor fair." In what passes in Turkmenistan for a flurry of reform, Berdymukhammedov let his fellow countrymen go back to their old calendars and even opened a single state-run Internet café in the capital.

In terms of resource-politik, what has put Turkmenistan in play is an April explosion in the pipeline that carried Turkmen natural gas to Russia, and on through the Russian system to end users in Europe. Amidst charge and counter-charge as to who was to blame for the explosion and who is responsible for repairing the damage, Turkmenistan's natural gas exports came to a halt - along with its hard currency earnings.

Loss of the Turkmenistan's primary market for its primary export sparked a diversification drive. In addition to pumping full-out to its remaining export market in Iran, Turkmenistan finalized a deal to supply China's rising natural gas needs. Turkmen emissaries ventured to New Delhi to discuss another prospective pipeline provisioning India, while Berdymukhammedov himself went to Bulgaria this August to ink a gas deal with that EU member state. Longer term, Turkmenistan signaled openness to become a supplier to the much discussed and much delayed Nabucco pipeline that would bring non-Russian natural gas to Europe. At the Waldorf, the session with Secretary Clinton produced a commitment to joint exploration for oil and gas on the Caspian Sea shelf.

As these deals make clear, natural gas is Turkmenistan's golden ticket to economic development. Its location confers a unique ability to provide gas to Europe, Russia, India, China and the Middle East, giving Turkmenistan leverage to play what Central Asian expert Michael Laubsch calls "pendular politics," swinging between regional and economic powers in a quest for comparative advantage.

To be sure, the same 360-degree openness to pipeline partnerships will expose Turkmenistan to pressures from all points. Its existing trade relationship with Iran, for instance, might present Turkmenistan with a lose-lose choice: Alienate the U.S. by helping Iran evade so-called "crippling sanctions," or raise Russia's ire by cutting Iran off. Quarrels over Caspian Sea drilling rights create opportunities for conflict, even as repair of the ruptured pipeline offers the prospect of returning the Russia-Turkmenistan relationship to business as usual. Whether any of this will hold still long enough to allow the building of pipelines pointing east, west or south remains to be seen.

Bigger picture, Turkmenistan is just one nation -- one square in one corner of the Rubic's-cube of options occasioned by resource-politik; a world where global economic demand creates a spot-market for political partnerships. The question for  Washington: is American foreign policy - and the American public - prepared to play this game?

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