Thursday, December 21, 2006


Mostly whenever the name Saparmurat Niyazov has come up in American news, it has usually been in the context of what a wacky guy he was. He named the month of January after himself, and the month of April after his mother. He published a book of his "wisdom" and mandated that every Turkmeni read it and internalize it. He put statues of himself everywhere in the country that he could. All very wild and woolly stuff.

Or maybe Niyazov was just crazy like a fox. After all, every nation, no matter how free and democratic, indulges in some degree of myth-making regarding its founders. Even though Western countries have at least managed to keep their myth-building until some respectable amount of time has passed after the leader in question is gone, the retroactive institutionalizations are rife with little white lies and tales designed to subconsciously nudge the unknowing observer in a certain direction.

Niyazov seemed more inclined to model himself after Kemal Ataturk, who inculcated a similarly monomaniacal cult of unifying personality, albeit in perhaps a more benevolent overall direction (unless, of course, you're Kurdish or Armenian). Turkey, for all its manifest faults, is now generally seen as heading in the "right" direction -- that is, stumbling toward modernization and relative political freedom. Niyazov's putative long-term goal was similar, so much so that he initially wanted to call himself "Ataturk" as well, until Turkey threatened to cut off diplomatic relations. So he chose "Turkmenbashi", which means essentially the same thing -- "father of all Turkmen".

"Father of his country". Where have we heard that one before?

Not to even remotely compare Washington with an unrepentant thug such as Niyazov, but both were hard men faced with hard circumstances, that of unifying and aligning fractious, rationally self-interested constituencies. Washington did it right, by building upon an enlightened plurality, educated people from abroad, Scottish Enlightenment principles, and open debate over what values and direction the new nation would encompass. Niyazov took advantage of an illiterate, insular constituency, inured to years of Soviet repression, and built on those ugly principles.

Still, it is a point of interest, if an admittedly esoteric one, that we never explore this supposed human need for external direction and leadership. Perhaps I'm just an anarcho-syndicalist at heart, or maybe I'm just hard-wired to ignore rah-rah rituals such as parades and mindless symbolism. These things appear to me to be matters of degree, if very stark degree in some cases. But the core principles of blind fealty and unquestioned loyalty, even in the face of external evidence to the contrary, seem universal. It's just that many cultures and histories, being more ancient and thus having cross-cutting grudges and enmities, utilize their ritualism for more overt control purposes.

Pound for pound, the real issue of the importance of Niyazov's passing will be almost completely ignored, and that's a shame, because it's a real opportunity to look at a textbook example of the future energy supply issues we face.

Although Turkmenistan this year has sent around 40 bcm through Gazprom's pipelines to Ukraine, the Russian company hopes to raise Turkmen imports to 60-70 bcm in 2007 and 70-80 bcm annually from 2009 to 2028 to shore up its own reserves.

For comparison, in 2005 Germany consumed 86 bcm and the United States 633 bcm.

As well as supplying Ukraine, Turkmenbashi was planning a gas pipeline via Afghanistan and Pakistan to India and another pipeline to China, marrying Beijing's desire to secure energy reserves with the advantage of diversifying away from Europe.

Turkmenistan has 2.9 trillion cubic meters of gas reserves according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, but experts say the true figure may be higher, since information is sketchy and Soviet-era audit methods make comparisons difficult.

Turkmenbashi himself said last month his country had a 7-trillion cubic meter field and told parliament in October that foreign experts had estimated Turkmenistan's total hydrocarbon resources at the equivalent of 45.44 tcm, according to a transcript obtained by Reuters.

Even if those figures turn out to be fantasies, Turkmenistan remains the home of Central Asia's biggest gas reserves and one of the world's biggest gas powers.

The problem is that in Niyazov's monomaniacal drive to consolidate power, he either murdered or chased away many of the most competent people, the sort of people one needs to run a complicated, modernizing energy infrastructure. The power vacuum is very likely to attract Russian and Iranian interest, since Turkmenistan lies sandwiched between the two countries, and of course the U.S. oil company presence in nearby Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan will be sniffing around as well. So it turns into another commercial proxy squabble, this time between pro-U.S. and pro-Russian entities in Turkmenistan. Fun stuff.

1 comment:

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