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[ANALYSIS] Erdoğan’s hidden agenda and Turkmen gas

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Fatih Yurtsever*

The EU has been looking for alternative sources of natural gas to end its gas dependence on Russia. The fact that the option of transporting Turkmen gas to the EU via Azerbaijan and Turkey appeared on the agenda accelerated cooperation between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. On December 14, 2022 a tripartite summit was held by the countries. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Turkmen leader Serdar Berdimuhamedov met in the western Turkmen city of Awaza to improve cooperation among the three countries in various fields, in particular natural gas transportation. Despite the parties’ willingness, it is uncertain whether the convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea will pave the way for construction of the Trans-Hazar pipeline, which will transport Turkmen gas to the EU via Azerbaijan and Turkey. So, in view of this uncertainty, why is Erdoğan so eager to get involved in a venture that will be helpful to alleviate the EU’s gas needs?

Legal status of the Caspian Sea

The Caspian Sea is a large inland body of water located between Europe and Asia, bordered by Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan. The legal status of the Caspian Sea has been a matter of dispute among these countries for many years, with significant implications for the development of its resources, including oil and gas reserves as well as for the rights of the countries that border it. In 2018 the five littoral states signed the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, which established a framework for the delimitation of the sea and the exercise of sovereign rights in its waters. The parties that signed the convention agreed to 15 nautical miles of sovereign territorial waters and a further 10 nautical miles of fishing area, beyond which will be common waters. However, the convention does not resolve the issue of delimiting the seabed and subsoil among the five coastal states. Although Azerbaijan has bilateral agreements with Russia and Kazakhstan on the division of the Caspian seabed, there is no similar agreement with Iran. Negotiations between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan over the delimitation of the seabed are continuing. On Sept. 12-13, 2022 a regular meeting of the Turkmen-Azerbaijani joint working group on the delimitation of the bottom of the Caspian Sea was held in Baku, with the participants agreeing to continue the negotiations.

The main challenge in building a seabed pipeline in the Caspian Sea arises from Article 14.2 of the convention, which regulates the protection of the marine environment of the Caspian Sea and states that “The Parties may lay trunk submarine pipelines on the bed of the Caspian Sea, on the condition that their projects comply with environmental standards and requirements embodied in the international agreements to which they are parties, including the Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea and its relevant protocols.”

Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP)

The Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) transports Azeri gas to Turkey and Europe. However, the pipeline’s total capacity can be increased up to 32 billion cubic meters (bcm); only 16 bcm are currently in use (EU: 10 bcm, Turkey: 6 bcm). The EU and Azerbaijan signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on a Strategic Energy Partnership on July 18, 2022. However, Azerbaijan’s own natural gas resources are not sufficient to meet the planned capacity increase for TANAP. For the EU to receive 20 bcm of natural gas through TANAP, at least 10 bcm of Turkmen gas must be transported to Azerbaijan through the TCP, a proposed subsea natural gas pipeline that would transport natural gas from Turkmenistan’s Turkmenbaşy to the Sangachal terminal in Azerbaijan. The idea for the pipeline dates back to the 1990s, but the project has faced numerous challenges, and construction has not yet begun.

It can be said that the Russian Federation’s focus on the Ukraine crisis, Turkmenistan’s intention to diversify natural gas sales and developments in bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan create a positive atmosphere for construction of the TCP.

Russia and the TCP

Since the prospects for the construction of the TCP are on the agenda, Russian Senator Alexander Bashkin wrote a commentary for News.am. According to him, construction of the TCP requires the consent of all Caspian states under Article 14.2 of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. Under these circumstances, Russia cannot consent to the construction of the pipeline on the grounds that the TCP may harm the marine environment of the Caspian Sea.

Erdoğan’s hidden agenda

The Erdoğan government seeks to expand its sphere of influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia by exploiting Russia’s declining political power in these regions due to changes in the geopolitical landscape caused by the Ukraine crisis. As a NATO member country, Turkey’s increasing influence in these regions is supported by the EU and NATO since it can curb the influence of Russia, China and Iran. On the other hand, countries like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan seek alternative natural gas and oil markets. The EU is one of the best options for these countries. The Erdoğan government has sought to position itself as a bridge between the EU and Caucasian and Central Asian countries. Increasing TANAP’s capacity would be a useful policy tool for the Erdoğan government. If TANAP operates at a total capacity of 32 bcm, supported by Turkmen gas that would be transported through the TCP, this will facilitate EU political support for Erdoğan. This is because the gas, the capacity of which is to be increased to over 16 bcm in the TANAP pipeline, should normally be used in the Turkish market, according to an agreement approved by the Turkish parliament. In other words, Turkey must sacrifice 16 bcm of natural gas through TANAP to ensure EU support for Erdoğan.

Russia and Iran have a legal argument arising from Article 14.2 of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea to block the construction of the TCP. However, the fact that Russia’s political pressure on Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan continues to decrease may make this project feasible in the near future. Iran does not have enough power to prevent this project without Russia’s support. Erdoğan will agree that the additional gas from the TANAP capacity expansion will go to the EU because he needs the political support of the EU and NATO to prolong his political life.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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