Will the Caspian become a “Turkic” sea?

Date of publication: 9 March 2021
Ankara seeks to reformat the energy map of Eurasia

Turkey’s regional ambitions, which in 2020 provided strong support to Azerbaijan in the preparation and during the military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh, extend to both the western and eastern (Kazakh and Turkmen) shores of the Caspian Sea. The successful implementation of cross-border projects for the export of “blue fuel ” in Central Asia to the west, supported by active political, diplomatic and lobbying efforts, can significantly change the balance of power in the region.

On November 15, a few days after the end of the active phase of hostilities in the South Caucasus, the commercial operation of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) was launched, for the export of natural gas from the Azerbaijani Shah Deniz-2 field to Turkey and transit through it to the countries of Southern Europe. The capacity of this gas pipeline, consisting of the Trans-Anatolian (TANAP) and Trans-Adriatic (TAP) gas pipelines, is 10 billion m3 of gas per year at the first stage and 20 m3 – at the second, and this is probably not the limit. The main volume of fuel is contracted for deliveries to Italy (8 billion m3) and Greece.

The increasingly obvious trend to replace “fossil” energy resources with renewable sources did not prevent the active participation in SGC, in addition to Turkish and Azerbaijani contractors, also the Italian campaign Snam, the Belgian Fluxys (19%), the Spanish Enagas and the Swiss Axpo. In addition, the project managed to receive investments from the Asian Development Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank.

Speaking at the 7-th meeting of the SGC Advisory Board in February, Azerbaijani Energy Minister Parviz Shahbazov stressed that the commissioning of the Trans-Adriatic gas pipeline is not the end of the SGC project, but, on the contrary – the beginning of new opportunities: “We and our partners are creating a new map of Eurasia that encourages the geo-economic environment and sustainable development, as well as global cooperation. Having completed the first stage of the SGC, we are thinking about the next phase. The second stage will ensure the production of Azerbaijani gas from undeveloped fields, which will create new transit opportunities for new suppliers”.

However, as can be assumed, one is talking about the development and exploitation of fields not only in the Azerbaijani (Babek, Absheron, Umid, etc.), but also in the Turkmen sectors of the Caspian Sea, including until recently an arguable issue between Ashgabat and Baku. First of all, one is talking about the offshore oil and gas structure “Kapaz” (in the Azerbaijani version) or “Serdar” (in the Turkmen version), which received the symbolic new name “Dostlug” (“Friendship”) after the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on January 21. Speaking during the signing ceremony of the document (online), President Ilham Aliyev expressed confidence that this joint declaration will soon be supported by a full-fledged agreement designed to become “very effective for energy cooperation in the Caspian Sea and beyond”.

Among the possible reasons that prompted the parties to engage in a constructive dialogue after decades of disputes and mutual claims are the difficult socio-economic situation in Turkmenistan, as well as the active mediation efforts of Turkey. According to the Minister of Energy, F. Denmeza, his country “is ready to provide all possible political, technical and economic support to both countries” – Baku and Ashgabat-in the hope that the development of “Dostlug” will open the way for Turkmen gas to the markets of Turkey itself (strengthening its position as a regional energy hub) and further to Europe.

Ideas are circulating about the transfer of liquefied natural gas from Central Asia through the Caspian Sea, followed by transportation by the Baku – Tbilisi – Akhalkalaki – Kars railway, or even to Nakhichevan and Turkey via the Meghri corridor, if it works. F. Denmez recently announced a planned increase in the volume of gas storage facilities on Turkish territory from today’s 4.5 billion to 11 billion m3 by the end of 2023.

It is known that Ankara actively promoted the long-standing American idea of laying an underwater Trans-Caspian gas pipeline between the eastern and western shores of the Caspian Sea, bypassing Russian territory. However, against the background of the coronavirus economic downturn, turbulence in the world energy markets and the above-mentioned European obsession with “alternative” oil and gas energy sources, this idea has somewhat faded and is no longer being promoted so zealously even by its former backers. However, there are also alternative technical solutions, including, for example, the construction of an interconnector capable of bringing Dostluga gas into the YUGK system through the infrastructure of the Azeri – Chirag – Guneshli field block, developed by Baku jointly with Western companies. It can be assumed with a high degree of confidence that Turkey will also provide all the necessary assistance and assistance to Ashgabat and Baku in this matter.

On February 23, Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov paid an official visit to Ankara, where he held talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In addition to the signing of the program of cooperation between the foreign ministries of the two countries, a trilateral meeting (already the fifth in a row) was held between Rashid Meredov, Mevlut Cavusoglu and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov. According to the official report of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, the key topic of the talks was “intensification of cooperation along the Lapis Lazuli Corridor”.

The project of the Lapis Lazuli Corridor through the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey, which originates in Torgundi (Herat province), and is supported by Western countries, primarily the United States, includes not only a very dubious economic, but also a clear geopolitical component. Bypassing the territories of Russia and Iran, it directly involves Ashgabat and Baku in Washington’s Afghan strategy, which can have, to put it mildly, contradictory consequences, including an increase in cross-border crime, drug trafficking and smuggling.

The document adopted following the meeting of the foreign Ministers of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan states the importance of implementing transit projects and, in particular, emphasizes the importance of effective communication between the Caspian ports of Turkmenbashi and Alat. It seems that the “lapis lazuli” negotiation format can also give an additional impetus to the multilateral negotiations on cooperation in the Caspian Sea.

In this regard, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry once again noted the importance and timeliness of signing the agreement on “Dostlug”. A month after this event and a few days before R. Meredov’s visit to Turkey, President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov received the head of Lukoil, Vagit Alekperov. “We welcome Lukoil’s intention to participate in the development of the field and are ready to consider specific investment proposals,” the Turkmen leader stressed. In turn, V. Alekperov assured that the company headed by him will make every effort for the successful implementation of the project: “Advanced and economically feasible technologies will be used as much as possible. In parallel, the search for new deposits will be carried out.”

Of course, Erdogan and his team, focusing not least on the ethno-linguistic and cultural-historical proximity with the three Caspian countries, are doing everything possible to strengthen their economic and military-political influence in the region. However, taking into account the diverse Chinese, Russian and Iranian interests in the region, the transformation of the Caspian Sea into a “Turkic” sea hardly looks like a real prospect.

Andrey Areshev, political scientist



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