MONTREAL - Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, two relatively small countries in geo-political terms, are demonstrating the foresight and political skills that will help them - rather than the likes of the fuel-hungry United States, European Union and China - take the driver's seat in the next phase of evolution of Central Eurasian energy geo-economics.
Most significant, Azerbaijan in the next few months will have to choose - rather than have a decision forced on it - between the EU-backed Nabucco and Russia-backed South Stream pipelines for large gas exports to Europe.
At the end of last year, I wrote that three phases could be distinguished in the realm of Eurasian energy development since the disappearance of the Soviet Union. The years 1993-1998 were given over mainly to new proposals for energy exploration and development; during the 1999-2004 period some of these ideas died and other moved towards fruition; and from 2005 to 2010, the ones that had not died (or entered suspended animation) were born and began to operate. (See A delicate dance of power, Asia Times Online, December 24, 2009.)
For the purpose of ordinary-language descriptions, I called these the phases of "bubbling up", "settling down," and "running deep". I also indicated that those three phases were merely subphases of a "metaphase" of "bubbling up" in the development of the consecutive development of Eurasian energy geo-economics lasting until the mid-2040s.
> Central Asia Map
It would be followed by metaphases of "settling down" and of "running deep", each also lasting prospectively about 18 years and each composed of three subphases manifesting the same sequence. If that is so, then we are now in the transition from the bubbling-up metaphase to the settling-down metaphase or, more exactly, from the "running deep of the bubbling-up" to the "bubbling up of the settling-down." What exactly does this mean?
As I pointed out last year, the fundamental triangle of Central Eurasian geo-economics comprised the bilateral Russia-Kazakhstan, Russia-Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan relationships. Over the course of the bubbling-up metaphase just ended, the US, the EU, and China extended their influence into the Central European energy provinces, and more particularly into the Caspian Sea basin.
In the scientific theory of complex systems, from which this framework is taken, the second phase represents the emergence of autonomous goal-setting by the state actors that have newly emerged as central to the constellation of Central Eurasian geo-economic energy relations.
> Caspian Region Map
These are, in the first instance, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. These have been the subjects of energy geo-economics but they are now becoming its objects: this means that they are acquiring the ability to set their own goals rather than having their goals set for them by others, and that they have developed the means to achieve those goals. (The technical term for this is "autopoiesis". )
For both of these countries, the key has been to seize control of the means to exploit their own natural resources and to use the power given by those resources to assert autonomy in the decision making about the routes of exports and the ultimate consumers. These trends have come even more to the fore than when I first pointed them out at the end of 2009, and we may expect them to be accentuated further in 2011 and the years ahead.
Azerbaijan has diversified its potential export partners by continuing its energy trade with Russia and Turkey while exploring possibilities to deliver natural gas to Bulgaria and Romania. (See Caspian pipeline knots tighten, Asia Times Online, April, 23, 2010.) Minor trade with Iran also continues.
Baku's decision between the Nabucco and South Stream pipelines will come definitively in the first half of 2011, perhaps by the end of the first quarter. At present, more pieces are in place for Nabucco than for South Stream. (See Azerbaijan wants Nabucco's cards on the table, Asia Times Online, November 18, 2010.)
> Nabucco Pipeline Map
At the same time, Turkmenistan has taken definite steps to liberate itself from the stranglehold that Russia had until recently upon the country's gas exports. This was a breakout year for Turkmenistan, with a heady list of achievements made towards that goal: the construction of an export pipeline already supplying 10 billion cubic meters per year (bcm/y) to China with an end-stage target of 30 bcm/y; the slight increase in exports to Iran; the abandonment of the Caspian Coastal Pipeline for exports to Russia; and the very real long-term possibility of exports to Europe via Azerbaijan either under or over the Caspian Sea. Capping these, was this month's signing of a quadripartite framework agreement for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, which has long on the drawing boards. (See Tectonic shift under way in Turkmen gas, Asia Times Online, May 28, 2010; Turkmenistan signals Nabucco intentions, Asia Times Online, September 24, 2010.)
It may seem odd that it would be relatively smaller countries such as Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan that are taking control over the next phase of evolution of Central Eurasian energy geo-economics.
However, this is in the nature of complex systems, which are systems of which the behavior cannot be predicted from an examination only of their parts. (The canonical example of a non-complex system is an automobile factory: looking at what enters and what happens inside, one can predict what comes up. This is not so with complex systems, such as the biological cell, the human being, or the regional geo-economic system.)
Next year and the first half of the oncoming decade will see more of such developments. It is even possible that Uzbekistan will achieve some energy geo-economic significance beyond its own region. It is one of the largest gas producers in the region, but much of this is domestically consumed; other quantities go to southern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, but next to nothing is exported beyond Central Asia.
Turkmenistan is one vertex of the fundamental Central Eurasian triangle mentioned above. The other two vertices will also play an important role in determining the future flows within the Central Eurasian energy geo-economic system, but they operate at a different scale of magnitude, and it is the scale that makes all the difference: it is why, if one concentrates on the larger powers such as the US, the EU, and China, the crucial and autonomous influence of such a smaller country as Azerbaijan can easily disappear from view.
Dr Robert M Cutler, educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The University of Michigan, has researched and taught at universities in the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, and Russia. Now senior research fellow in the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Carleton University, Canada, he also consults privately in a variety of fields.
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