Ashgabat, 21 October 2013 (nCa) — Dissimilarity in opinion is an essential part of dialogue, a crucial step toward reconciliation.
The high level international conference “Energy security and sustainable development – the OSCE perspective,” held 17-18 October 2013 in Ashgabat, is a case in point.
When you put 53 delegations from diverse countries, organizations and companies around the conference table, it is a matter of delightful surprise that only two of them disagree with each other.
While everyone agreed on the need to strengthen energy security across the OSCE space and supported the initiatives of Turkmenistan in the energy sphere, the point of difference was the construction of energy pipelines across the Caspian bed.
The Russian and Azeri delegates, in a calm and measured manner, explained their respective positions.
The Russian delegate said that any pipelines in the Caspian should be built only with the consent of all the five littoral states. He also voiced concerns about the ecological aspects of a gas pipeline across the rather unstable Caspian bed. Hew was of the opinion that no pipelines should be built in the Caspian as long as the legal status of Caspian (sea or lake) remains undecided.
The Azeri point man said that the Russian opposition to the pipelines across Caspian smacks of double standard because Russia has no qualms in laying pipelines at the Black Sea bed. He also said that whether a pipeline can be built across the Caspian should be a matter between the participating states only.
Reshit Meredov, the deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Turkmenistan, in his wrap up remarks in the concluding session addressed this issue.
He said that the position of Turkmenistan is clear: Pipelines across Caspian can be built if the participating states agree; there is no need for all the littoral states to agree.
He said that we are working to determine the legal status of Caspian but it is not necessary to determine the legal status of Caspian to build the pipelines.
Meredov added that Ashgabat is working with Baku for the supply of gas to Europe.
He agreed that the ecological aspects must be examined thoroughly before undertaking any pipeline in the Caspian.
President Berdymuhamedov delivered a keynote address at the start of the conference and also moderated the inaugural session. He said repeatedly during his speech and moderating comments that there should be no politicization of energy issues.
His remarks were omni directional; applicable equally to any country, organization or company that drags politics into energy transactions.
In order to find a common language about Caspian pipelines, it is necessary to decipher as to why Russian position is what it is.
In the recent months Putin’s Russia has demonstrated remarkable diplomatic adroitness in international affairs.
As we have seen in the Snowden affair and the Syria crisis, Putin has managed to create as close to win-win situations as possible.
Why, then, does Russia follow a seemingly unreasonable and untenable line in energy affairs?
It is partly traceable to the bellicose western policies of encircling Russia through NATO and EU expansion and the American hard-line stance that has remained sharply focused on Russia for more than a decade.
However, a significant part of the blame is also attributable to the home-grown factors: The gas sector of Russia is operating on outdated and inefficient infrastructure. The Gazprom facilities are in serious need of modernization — extraction and processing of gas is costly, transportation is through pipelines full of holes, and the top management is not sufficiently motivated to move toward commercial competitiveness.
This compels Putin to lend his muscles to the energy deals.
A valuable lesson here is the case of Turkmenistan which has modernized its gas extraction and processing infrastructure to meet its international obligations. The gas pumping and transportation facilities in the Turkmen territory are also the best in the region.
Another aspect, creeping slowly into Putin’s policies is the sense of exceptionalism. This would be dangerous in the long run.
As we have seen in the case of the USA, exceptionalism is a delusion; in fact, a self-induced hallucination. If Russia opts to go the path of exceptionalism, it will eventually end up where Uncle Sam is today: isolated, miserable and clueless; in a dark and blind alley.
A statesman of Putin’s stature, caliber and experience can and should do better.
If Russia is willing to outline its position in an open forum, as we saw in the energy security conference in Ashgabat, there are reasons to believe that the Russian side could be ready to reexamine the set of arguments on which its opposition to the Caspian pipelines is built.
Turkmenistan has rightly said that it is immaterial whether Caspian is a sea or lake – the question of pipelines is a matter between the participating states.
This argument stands on sound footing. The Caspian states have already sorted out several issues such as marine life, civil navigation, bio resources etc. without waiting for the declaration of the legal status of this unique water body. No one objected to that.
Why insist on the legal status only when it comes to pipelines?
The flaw in the Russian energy policies is not just in its Caspian stance. There is also the case of Ukraine.
Ukraine was traditionally a close partner of Russia but in the recent years it has drifted away. It is now seeking solace in the EU embrace but the warmth may be rather short lived.
The Ukrainian hulks of the soviet era are in no position to compete with the agile European manufacturers. Ukraine could end up being a dumping ground of European goods without the ability to balance its books. It could turn out to be the case of cutting the nose to spite the face.
But, has Putin given enough space to Ukraine to stay?
Both Putin and Yanukovich seem to be acting on short term interests, without caring for the long term consequences. This is sad. Why do short term benefits usually trump the long term prospects?
The middle ground, where the real life actually exists, is always hidden from the view.
The bone of contention is the forthcoming partnership agreement between EU and Ukraine. Should it be a matter of serious concern to Russia?
The middle ground here is rather obvious — Can Ukraine simultaneously be a part of the CIS customs union and the EU space?
Why should this be an either/or situation?
Returning to the Caspian pipelines, Russia and Ukraine don’t have any monopoly rights on shortsightedness. It is the favourite stance of dwarfish politicians the world over.
Europe and USA have been thumping their chests for decades that they would break the Russian monopoly on the European gas trade. This is partly why everyone is where they are today.
Does a single pipeline across the Caspian bed break the Russian monopoly?
How many pipelines must one put across the Caspian to match the mammoth Russia-Ukraine-Europe network?
Had there been the talk of creating additional routes of gas supplies to Europe without putting hot tar on Putin’s chair, things could have been different.
Russia also needs to understand that a pipeline across the Caspian bed will not put any significant dent to its gas trade with Europe.
Also, Azerbaijan must review its past policies and underline the things that should not have been done — in its dealings with Russia, Turkmenistan or any other Caspian country. The purpose here it not to embarrass Azerbaijan; they know perfectly well what we are talking about.
A small pointer for Europe and Azerbaijan: Shah Deniz doesn’t have the capacity to shake the world markets!
The Shah Deniz contracts so far show that the total volumes sold from Shah Deniz to Turkey and Europe in 25 years will be less than the volumes sold by Turkmenistan to China in every single year from 2015 on.
Europe and Azerbaijan have no reason to gloat.
Any success of the Caspian route depends entirely on the Turkmen volumes.
Two separate processes of negotiations are underway to find a way to send the Turkmen volumes to Europe through the Caspian: 1. The EU, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are working together to sculpt modalities for the Caspian route; 2. Simultaneously, Ukraine, as the current chair of OSCE, is coordinating with Turkey, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan toward the same end. The next round of the OSCE-Turkey-Azerbaijan-Turkmenistan talks will take place in November 2013 in Ukraine.
While the parties brainstorm to send Turkmen gas to Europe through the Caspian, the ecological and environmental aspects can be woven into the final arrangements.
The patron states can ask the consortium building the Caspian pipeline to arrange comprehensive insurance policy, covering all kinds of eventualities. This will allay some of the concerns of the littoral states including Russia.
Some part of the profit from pipeline operations can be diverted to a common fund for the preservation and promotion of the Caspian flora, fauna and eco-system.
The synthesis from the centuries of history of the mankind is that there are no absolute positions in politics; everything is subject to change, open to dialogue and adjustments. All we need is the will and patience to listen to and understand the position of the other side.
Hopefully, Russia will see the benefits of altering its stance; equally hopefully, Europe will see the wisdom of refraining from opposing Russian in every situation and at every corner.