The Awaza tripartite summit, a lacklustre event

The much-awaited meeting of the presidents of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan finally took place in mid-December. For all the buzz of three Turkic, and more specifically Oghuz, countries meeting trilaterally, the outcome of the Awaza summit has been modest. The latest developments in the region and wider Eurasia left little room for significant agreements between the parties.

After various attempts, the tripartite summit between the Turkish, Azeri and Turkmen leaders got underway at the resort of Awaza. The meeting had been postponed multiple times since 2015 and was meant to have taken place last August, but it was rescheduled at the request of the Turkish president due to the fires that ravaged much of Turkey this summer.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ilham Aliyev were hosted by Serdar Berdymukhamedov at his father’s vanity project of Awaza, a largely empty and overpriced touristic resort on the shores of the Caspian Sea. The Turkish and Azeri leaders had time to meet with Serdar’s predecessor and current chairman of the upper chamber of the Turkmen parliament. Despite relinquishing the presidency earlier in the year, Berdymukhamedov Senior still manages the country’s relations with foreign leaders.

The three presidents then held talks in a narrow format before presiding over a signing ceremony of five main documents: an agreement on trade and economic cooperation, a framework program for cooperation in science, education and culture, and three memorandums of understanding on the establishment of a joint consultative commission for cooperation in customs affairs, on further development of cooperation in energy and on further development of cooperation in transport. None of the documents signed indicate any ground-breaking agreements or initiatives.

A 25-point joint statement followed, which summarised the achievements of the Awaza summit and announced that the next meeting will be held in Azerbaijan.

Turkmen gas heading West?

For all the talk for further cooperation and stronger links between the countries, the elephant in the room was energy, and more specifically Turkmen gas. According to the joint statement: “The sides […] emphasized the special importance of natural gas supply.”

Turkey’s aspiration is to become a transit corridor for Turkmen gas to reach Europe, as it currently does for Azeri gas. Erdogan did not hide his intentions in this regard, stating that the three countries should start working on transporting Turkmen gas to the West. That means via Azerbaijan and Turkey. He also offered Turkish help to develop the joint Azeri-Turkmen Dostluk gas filed in the Caspian.

But it seems unlikely for Turkmen gas to flow west through the Caspian anytime soon. In an article for the Atlantic Council, experts John Roberts and Julian Bowden, both with a vested interest in the topic, explained that the only way the Turkmen authorities plan to export gas via the Caspian would be through a full-blown Trans-Caspian pipeline. The project would cost more than $20 billion and take years to be completed. Ashgabat rejects other smaller scale alternatives that would take less time to implement, including a connector pipeline between Turkmen and Azeri gas fields or shipping compressed natural gas.

It is worth noting that any flow of Turkmen gas that would eventually end up in Europe would be detrimental to Russia’s interests. Moscow, together with Tehran, has already been opposed in the past to the construction of the Trans-Caspian pipeline on alleged ecological grounds. If Ashgabat is only betting on the Trans-Caspian pipeline, a project with an unknown future, the Turkmens have no short or even medium-term plans of exporting gas to the West, much to Erdogan’s displeasure and to Putin’s relief. Since the invasion of Ukraine the Russian leaders has, for various reasons, been especially attentive to the Turkmen regime. It is therefore unlikely for Erdogan’s plans of carrying Turkmen gas to Europe to become a reality. Or at least not soon.

However, Erdogan will not give up that easily. On the way back from Awaza he announced the Turkmen president would visit Turkey early next year, and that he hoped for the issue of export of Turkmen gas to Europe to be resolved then.

The Turkish president might be more successful when it comes to electricity. During the summit Erdogan expressed Turkey’s readiness to import electricity from the other two countries, stating that “[…] we are ready to work on electricity transmission from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to our country.” Ashgabat already exports electricity to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Iran, so adding Turkey to the list would be beneficial to its interests. But how that would happen (via Iran?) was not detailed at the meeting.

Turkmenistan and the Turkic club

Ankara would have liked for the Awaza summit to be a meeting of three members of the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS). However, that was not the case. The Turkish Foreign Minister had announced back in September that Turkmenistan would join the Turkic club as full member during the OTS summit in November. But that never happened. Despite concessions made by the Turkish side, seemingly the introduction of visas for Turkmen citizens and the suppression of Turkmen activists in Turkey, Ashgabat remained an observer at the OTS.   

Erdogan once again used the opportunity presented at Awaza to lure Turkmenistan to the organisation, saying that its full membership would strengthen the group. The joint statement also covered the topic, stating that “The parties expressed their appreciation for Turkmenistan’s participation in the Organisation of Turkic States as an observer state.”

Already in late November, during the Turkmen Foreign Minister’s trip to Ankara in preparation for the Awaza summit, the Turkish president brought up the topic of Turkmenistan’s membership of the OTS. Nevertheless, for the time being it seems Turkmenistan will remain an observer.

A lacklustre event

The much-awaited trilateral summit between the presidents of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan ended up yielding few results. At least in the short-term. Besides the creation of a working group to improve energy cooperation between the three countries, the outcome was modest, to say the least. Cooperation was a term used throughout the event, but without any concrete actions to follow it up.

The aspiration to export Turkmen gas to the West via Azerbaijan and Turkey has a major obstacle, and that is Turkmenistan itself. Despite the importance of Turkish-Turkmen economic ties, with bilateral trade turnover reaching $2.54 billion in the first nine months of 2022, and the constant exchange of visits by officials from both sides, Ashgabat remains a tough nut to crack for Ankara.

The Turkmen regime is highly unlikely to change its policy course and upset the internal and external balance of power. That includes initiatives such as joining the OTS or exporting gas to the West. Both moves, especially the latter one, that would, coincidentally or not, upset Moscow. And that remains a challenge Erdogan has not yet been able to overcome. Nevertheless, while the trilateral summit has probably not reached its objectives, it will be worth keeping an eye on Serdar Berdymukhamedov’s upcoming trip to Turkey next year.

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