Washington's Game in Turkmenistan

by Mike Whitney

www.zmag.org, December 27, 2006


Did Turkmenistan's President, Saparmurat Niyazov, really die of cardiac arrest or is he just latest victim of Bush's "regime change" epidemic?

That may sound paranoid, but it's easy to be skeptical of an administration which openly promotes torture, "extraordinary rendition" and "targeted assassination" as sound foreign policy. These practices indicate that moral restraint is not high on the list of Bush priorities.

Besides, Niyazov met all the criteria for regime change; he controlled massive natural gas reserves and he refused to take orders directly from Washington. Typically, these are the only factors which matter when Bush decides which leader is next on his "hit list".

Niyazov was probably on the same "Enemies List" as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chavez and Saddam Hussein, the other foreign leaders whose only crime is that they control vital supplies of dwindling resources. Like his contemporaries, Niyazov represented an obstacle to the American oil giants extending their corporate empire through Central Asia and the Middle East. Now that he's dead, the power struggle can begin in earnest.

Turkmenistan has reserves which amount to a whopping 22.5 trillion cubic meters, the second largest supplies in Asia. Nearly all of Turkmenistan's gas is pumped through Russian energy giant Gazprom's pipelines. As economist Mikail Delyagin said, "Because of Gazprom's mismanagement, the European part of Russia cannot exist without Turkmen gas. Control over it is a categorical imperative for Russia's development during the next 10 years". (Victor Yasmann RFE/RL Current Affairs)

Disruption of gas supplies from Turkmenistan would be a severe blow to Gazprom's economic vitality. This ensures that Putin will be deeply involved in the selection of the country's future president. It also sets the stage for another clash between Moscow and Washington.

The Bush administration's objectives in Turkmenistan are the exact opposite of Putin's. The Bush team wants to build a pipeline under the Caspian Sea to pump natural gas reserves to the West through Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and out the Mediterranean corridor or down through Bush's "new colony" in Afghanistan through Pakistan to the coast. If the Bush plan goes forward it would be a major setback to Gazprom which depends on Turkmenistan's gas to supply Ukraine and Europe. As Stratford says, "Without those shipments, Russian state energy firm Gazprom would find it impossible to satisfy both domestic Russian natural gas demand and fulfill its export contracts to Europe and Turkey".

The administration's plan would also sabotage Niyazov's prior commitments to China which has signed contracts for a pipeline to bring natural gas through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. China's future depends heavily on Turkmenistan. According to Alex Nicholson of the AP, "Niyazov promised to pipe 30 billion cubic meters of gas beginning January 2009. (China) also won an invitation last month to tap the giant Iolotan fields, which the late president declared, contained 7 trillion cubic meters of natural gas-or more than even Saudi Arabia's proven reserves."

"7 trillion cubic meters of natural gas"?!?

No wonder the Bush administration is paving the way for intervention.

At the very least, Niyazov's death has turned out to be another "great opportunity" for Uncle Sam and it looks like Bush may have already put the pieces in place to take full advantage of it.

For example, as soon as Niyazov's death was announced, his second in command, Ovez Atayev, was removed from power by Deputy Prime Minister, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, under the trumped charges of "harassing and humiliating his daughter in law". The charge is blatantly absurd and politically motivated. But is Washington behind it?

The elimination of Ovez Atayev is just the first of the many fortunate "coincidences" which seem to benefit western interests. Now that the president is dead and his successor is under indictment, there are reports that a number of prominent ex-patriots will soon be returning to Turkmenistan to take part in the political "free-for-all".

Haven't we seen this performance before?

Much of what is taking place in Turkmenistan resembles the Bush-script for toppling Saddam and replacing him with expatriate stooges who were assembled and briefed outside of the country before the 2003 invasion. Is this just a reenactment of that same worn libretto?

The media, of course, is playing its traditional role of championing Washington's interventions by demanding "free elections"; another comical part of the Bush-kabuki which never seems to change. Turkmenistan has no history of free elections, but the western press sees an opportunity to serve its constituents by fomenting dramatic political change; change that is designed to install a US-friendly client. Once again, Bush's "Global Democratic Revolution" is being invoked to strengthen America's grip in Central Asia.

If we look back at the "color coded" revolutions which were orchestrated by American NGOs and American intelligence agencies, we can see that (despite the planning and huge commitment of financial resources) they accomplished nothing of lasting value. Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan are back within Russia's orbit and Georgia will soon follow. (or lose access to Russia's natural gas)

Eurasia is Russia and China's backyard and they've build up the necessary defenses to keep Washington out. Bush can waste-away in Afghanistan for another 5 or 6 years dreaming of "victory", but his "Grand Plan" for the region is basically in ruins. The United States will not prevail in Central Asia any more than it will in Iraq.

Nevertheless, the plan is going forward and Bush apparently has the requisite agents in place to give him hope for success. According the RIA Novosti, "Many people in the former president's inner circle were oriented towards Europe."


The power struggle is bound to be ferocious and Washington is preparing to be right in the thick of it. Bush has little choice but to do everything he can to establish an American stronghold in Eurasia's energy-center. The geopolitical stakes are just too high to ignore. The country is perfectly situated between Russia and Iran on the Caspian Sea. In fact, the Pentagon's own maps show Turkmenistan at the very center of CENTCOM's global resource war; a pivotal location for military installations and pipeline corridors. It provides ready-access to an estimated 2 trillion in oil reserves in the Caspian Sea as well as the massive natural gas supplies.

At the same time, a US-friendly president in Ashgabat could block arch-rival Gazprom from extending its dominance throughout the region by handing over critical gas reserves to western energy corporations.

This is not a battle that the Washington warlords can afford to lose, but victory will not be easy. Neither Iran nor Russia can allow Bush to take over Turkmenistan without a fight. Iran would be surrounded on all sides by the US and cut off from its neighbors to the north by hostile American forces. At the same time, US military bases would be set up even closer to the Iranian capital of Tehran.

For Russia, an American client in Turkmenistan would be a stiff challenge to its role as the region's superpower; creating the looming possibility that NATO would get an even bigger foothold in Central Asia and threaten the delicate balance of power.

Turkmenistan is a key piece in the new "Great Game"; the ongoing struggle for supremacy in Central Asia. Whether Washington played a part in Niyazov's untimely death or not is almost irrelevant. The Bush-Cheney oiligarchy have demonstrated a willingness to fight-to-the-death for every thimbleful of oil or natural gas left on planet earth. This makes the likelihood of a sudden eruption of violence in Turkmenistan all the more probable.

As the weeks go by, we can expect to see the usual indications of US involvement; the CIA-funded public demonstrations, the "democracy promoting" coverage in the media, and the comical parade of ex-patriots who matriculated in US right-wing think tanks. The whole charade is being cobbled together as part of a failed strategy to control the world's remaining resources.

The faces may change, but the routine is always the same.

While attending Niyazov's Soviet-style funeral, US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said that the president's death signaled "a new beginning" in relations, and that, he "hoped Turkmenistan would reform, move towards democracy and curtail human rights abuse."

Once again, "Democracy is on the march!"

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