After noting the other-worldly personality cult of Sapurmurat Niyazov, a.k.a Turkmenbashi ("the father of all Turkmen") and noting his passing late last year, media outlets have spent very little attention reporting what exactly is happening to Turkmenistan. But the presidential elections next month there are of huge importance.
Turkmenistan straddles Afghanistan and Iran, and has a long border with future big players Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (map). At the very least, it is in a strategic location. What makes Turkmenistan even more important is gas: the country is sitting on upwards of 260 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, making it one of the world's largest suppliers. For a long time it has been a major conduit for Russian gas and oil to Europe. Furthermore, it is one of the few recalcitrant pieces of the "Near Abroad" -- Russia's former Soviet Republics. As such it carries great symbolic weight for Moscow.
Russian energy monopoly Gazprom recently elected to cut off former Soviet states from its gas shipments unless they yield to 400% rate increases. Most recently, Belarus refused and shut down oil shipments to Europe, causing a minor panic as Germany and Poland had to run off their strategic reserves. Across the EU, legislators are wondering at their over-reliance on Russia energy.
In response to its own Gazprom crisis last year, Ukraine has decided to stop importing oil from Russia and go entirely with Central Asian sources -- mostly Turkmen and Kazakh. Both the Duma and President Putin singled out Ukraine President Yushchenko over his "turning away" from the Kremlin and toward America. His country was, in essence, punished for not being sufficiently pro-Moscow.
A big part of the reason Gazprom could get away with all this thuggery was that it had established a favorable working relationship with Turkmenbashi. Though Turkmeni gas still flows through the Russian gas pipeline system (through the massive Central Asia-Center pipeline), it is much cheaper than Russian gas—about $65 per 1000 cubic meters compared to Russia's $230. That being said, most former Soviet states negotiated with Gazprom to buy a blend—in Ukraine's case, a $95 blend of mostly Turkmeni gas. Put differently, Russia can re-sell Turkmeni gas at a comfy profit, allowing it to partially subsidize its own energy while overcharging for what comes from Turkmenistan. Breaking this relationship would radically reshape energy politics across the Former Soviet Union, as Russia would have to compete on its own terms, and Turkmeni gas could price Gazprom out of several markets.
If Turkmenistan were to stop giving Moscow so much deference and allied its interests with, say, the United States, the implications would be vast. Allowing American interests an inroad into Caspian gas would be a big coup for pro-American governments in the region, namely Georgia and Ukraine. The U.S. should be thinking of ways to ingratiate itself to the new leadership—at this point, most likely Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who has shown sympathy with Russia. If Russia maintains its stranglehold on Turkmen gas, the U.S. will have missed a critical opportunity to stake out some non-Russian sources of natural gas.
An America-friendly Turkmenistan could greatly curtail Moscow's energy influence, as it wouldn't have the easy tap of ultra-cheap Turkmeni gas to offset its higher sale price for those "deals" it cuts with desperate leaders. Recent Constitutional reforms suggested by Berdymukhammedov also offer cause for hope. There is a very real possibility of liberalization: reforming not just the economic and energy sectors, but schools, information infrastructure, health care, even allowing home ownership. Even though they came wrapped in the rhetoric of "continuing the politics of Turkmenbashi," they in fact represent a radical departure from the at-will governance of Niyazov.
Indeed, the possibilities created by a liberalizing government and a leadership receptive to negotiating gas deals should have everyone drooling all over the desert east of the Caspian. Turkmenbashi's death couldn't have come at a better time for the U.S.—world discontent with Russia's energy policies are reaching a near-fever pitch, and the winner of the next election looks likely to at least entertain some Western ideas. The ground is fertile, in other words, for breaking Moscow's energy dominance in Eurasia.
You can find more of Joshua Foust's writings here.