The president of Turkmenistan is due visit Moscow on November 1 for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin against the backdrop of a worsening domestic economic crisis.
Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry announced the trip in an uninformative one-line statement, so there is no immediate insight into what the focus of the encounter will be. The Kremlin's own statement on the meeting was not much more helpful.
Key areas in bilateral cooperation will be the main subject of discussion at the talks. The two presidents are also expected to exchange views on current regional issues, the Kremlin said.
That cryptic statement suggests there is every chance that Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov will be seeking to whet Russia's appetite for resuming its purchases of Turkmen gas.
The countries have over the years signed more than 100 bilateral agreements covering a range of areas of cooperation. A key document was the April 23, 2002, Friendship and Cooperation Treaty.
Russian business are actively involved on the Turkmen market in sectors such as auto and industrial machinery, telecommunications, and in the oil and gas business. Around 190 companies working with Russian capital operate in Turkmenistan. In 2009, Russia's ATERI, previously operating under the ITERA brand, signed a production sharing agreement with Turkmenistan over an offshore sector of the Caspian Sea.
But nothing ever quite superseded direct gas sales for importance.
Russia bought 45 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan in 2008, but that has through a series of commercial and diplomatic vicissitudes dwindled to nothing. Russian gas behemoth Gazprom definitively ceased its gas supply agreement earlier this year.
That has contributed in part to a notable downturn in Turkmenistan's economic fortunes, as evidenced by the fate of the national currency and, most recently, the shortage of basic wares in stores.
Beyond dialogue on energy, however, Turkmenistan has been seeking to expand its trade relations with Russia in other ways.
At last week celebrations to mark Turkmenistan's 25th anniversary of independence, the visiting governor of Russia's Astrakhan oblast, Alexander Zhilkin, announced that his region could host a wholesale and logistics facility for Turkmenistan.
Russia and Turkmenistan could exchange goods through it. I proposed to the president that we conduct all transactions in rubles. He was interested. This kind of operation could in part contribute to the North-South Transport Corridor, Zhilkin said.
The North-South Transport Corridor is a multinational initiative whose ultimate objective is to streamline the movement of trade and goods between a far-flung series of nations, including India, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Oman and Ukraine. Turkmenistan is not formally a member of the initiative, although it has nudged toward greater participation by India and, now, Russia.
Zhilkin said that he learned from his exchanges with Berdymukhamedov that the Turkmen leader had been following progress in the development of initiatives like the North-South Transport Corridor and that ports like Olya in the Astrakhan Oblast could prove fruitful for Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan intends to integrate itself into this work. Berdymukhamedov believes that Olya is essential from the point of view of developing traffic between Turkmenbashi [port] and Russia, Zhilkin said.
Berdymukhamedov is also reportedly interested in establishing air routes between the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, and the city of Astrakhan in view of the growing number of Turkmen students and businessmen traveling to the Russian city.
As Turkmenistan attempts in sputtering fashion to wean itself away from its reliance on gas, similar efforts to integrate or at least reach out to neighboring economies could begin to multiply.
Source: Chronicles of Turkmenistan