The death of Saparmurat Niyazov, the idiosyncratic dictator of Turkmenistan, the former Soviet republic, could trigger a new round in the fierce battle between the United States and Russia for control of Central Asia‘s huge oil and gas reserves.
Turkmenistan is the second-largest natural-gas producer in the former Soviet Union, after Russia. The country holds 2.9 trillion cubic meters of gas, though estimates vary on the actual size of reserves.
Saparmurat Niyazov, 66, whose death was announced this week, left no clear successor. That circumstance, analysts said, is likely to allow Moscow and Washington to jockey for influence over the country’s gas supplies.
Moscow currently buys the majority of the country’s gas exports at discount prices, exploiting the fact that the landlocked country has only the Russian pipeline system to ship to outside markets.
The gas is crucial to the Kremlin’s worldwide gas strategy. Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, dominates the European market but needs additional supplies to bolster its own strapped deposits. Turkmen gas is currently sent to Ukraine, which frees up Gazprom’s reserves.
“I think obviously Russia is going to make a play to keep this country in its orbit, and make it quickly,” said Martha Brill Olcott, a Central Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Turkmen gas is much too important, especially this winter.”
However, America and Europe have their sights set on Turkmenistan‘s reserves as well. Central Asian gas, piped across the floor of the Caspian Sea, then through Turkey and the Balkans, could help break Gazprom’s hold.
Washington actively promoted a trans-Caspian pipeline in the late 1990s, but the demands of the mercurial Niyazov proved to be a stumbling block, U.S. officials said at the time.
Niyazov, however, revived the idea of a pipeline along the Caspian seabed with European officials in the months before his death.