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Rethinking Turkmenistan – Azerbaijan Relations

On the 8th of August, Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov paid an official visit to Baku, where he was welcomed by First Deputy Prime Minister Yagub Eyyubov, Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov, and other officials. This year Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are celebrating the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations. In this regard, the leaders showed eagerness to boost cooperation between the two countries. “Peoples of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan are bound by history. We have lived together for centuries, we have been friends, and we have lived as brothers. Today we are successfully developing as two independent states,” said President Ilham Aliyev at a meeting with his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov in Baku.

Being at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan fruitfully cooperate, representing their mutual interest in various fields: politics, economy, humanitarian and social spheres, as well as within international organizations. Although then-president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov’s approach towards Azerbaijan over the legal status of the Caspian Sea caused concern in Baku, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan continue to maintain warm friendly relations.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the greatest disagreement between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan arose because of three oil-rich sections on a trans boundary sea territory: Azeri (Khazar/Omar), Chirag (Osman) and Kapaz (Serdar). Baku relies on maps of the Soviet period, when the deposits were developed by Azerbaijani oilmen, Ashgabat appeals to the world practice of determining ownership by location – these deposits are located closer to the coast of Turkmenistan than Azerbaijan. This exacerbates the problem of the legal status of the Caspian Sea.

Aggravation between the two countries occurred on June 16, 2012, when Turkmenistan unexpectedly began seismic exploration in the Kapaz field sending a research vessel to the field which occurred during a negotiation process on the construction of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline.

The Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline project involves the construction of a 300-km pipeline along the bottom of the Caspian Sea to the coast of Azerbaijan. This project is the optimal solution for the delivery of Turkmen energy resources to the European market and Turkmen gas can be transported through the existing pipelines to Turkey, which borders European countries. The project may be implemented as a part of the huge Southern Gas Corridor project, designed to transport gas from the Caspian region to European countries. Therefore, Ashgabat is eager to encourage Azerbaijan to invest in its energy infrastructure, as it wants to be connected to the Southern Gas Corridor from Azerbaijan to Europe. This requires the construction of the long discussed Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP). Despite first being proposed in the 1990s, the pipeline itself still remains on paper. While Ashgabat insists on the construction of the pipeline, official Baku prefers to avoid possible confrontations with neighbors Iran and Russia, since the latter is supposed to be just a transit country for delivering natural gas.

According to the agreement reached in 2008, Baku and Ashgabat have mutual obligations not to start exploration and development of the disputed field unilaterally, until a final decision is made. In response to this demarche, the ships of the Azerbaijani Navy forced the Turkmen ship to leave the area of the field. After that, for two weeks, the war continued at the level of diplomatic protest notes. The conflict gradually came to naught, and bilateral relations returned to normal, as the approach to the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway (BTK), held on October 30 and meetings on various political levels with the signing of documents in the transport sector intensified.

On August 8, in Baku, within the framework of President Berdymuhammedov’s visit to Azerbaijan, a ceremony of signing a number of Azerbaijani-Turkmen documents, including the regulation of transportations, took place.

A protocol was signed on amendments and additions to the agreement on the organization of cargo transportation within the framework of a direct international rail-ferry service between the ports of Alat (Azerbaijan) and Turkmenbashi (Turkmenistan), the operation of freight cars and containers, their accounting by numbers and calculations for their use.

By the end of this year, Turkmenistan is expected to put into operation a new port in Turkmenbashi with a throughput capacity of 17-18 million tons which takes into account the previously operating port. It will reach 25-26 million tons.

Obviously, the start of the work of the BTK makes it possible to intensify the transportation of goods along the international transport corridor East-West, and Turkmenistan – to become one of the leading transport hubs in Central Asia for the transport of goods from Turkey and Europe to China and Afghanistan. “Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway will greatly enhance the transit opportunities of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan,” said President Ilham Aliyev.

While Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan are fraternal nations, years of misunderstanding caused an explicit schism between two countries since the beginning of 1990s. Azerbaijan is more open to close cooperation with regional countries, as well as, international organizations, while Turkmenistan maintains its neutrality.