Berdymukhamedov reflects on Singapore experience

Victoria Panfilova, columnist of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, specially for Vestnik Kavkaza
Berdymukhamedov reflects on Singapore experience

The main goal of President Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov's two-day visit to Singapore was attracting investment, finding new opportunities for gas exports and saving the country's half-dead economy. The speech of the Turkmen leader at a meeting with a Singaporean businessman was unusual. Sometimes Berdymukhamedov was delighted with the achievements of the city-state and its economic miracle, but then he suddenly began to heap mild reproaches on Singaporean business and express regret over the weak economic ties with Singapore.

The President of Turkmenistan spared no words in presenting "his country's very favorable investment climate." The receiving party, aware of the true state of affairs in Turkmenistan, may have been surprised by the descriptions, but they didn’t show it. Berdymukhamedov also promised to provide Singaporean entrepreneurs state support, if they decide to do business in his possessions, as well as tax, customs, insurance and visa benefits, whatever it takes to get Singaporeans to the Turkmen gas fields.

The president did not hide his dissatisfaction with the fact that only five enterprises operate in his country and only six projects with the participation of Singapore capital are being implemented there. Berdymukhamedov made it very clear that he was dissatisfied with the situation in the Turkmen gas sector, despite the fact that foreign players had stepped up there - the EU and China were ready to take up the construction of a methanol plant with natural gas feed, while Chinese also expressed interest in laying the Trans-Caspian pipeline along the bottom of the Caspian Sea.

But, apparently, the partnership with China is alarming Turkmenistan. Beijing is tough when it comes to national interests. As a result of the gas partnership, China, having invested in the gas industry, now receives Turkmen blue fuel for free - in repayment of loans granted to Ashgabat. It seems that Turkmenistan wouldn't mind finding new partners to work with under softer schemes. But outpacing China, if it is already interested in something, taking into account global economic realities, is not an easy task.

According to deputy director of the Center for Strategic Estimations and Forecasts Igor Pankratenko, Beijing has publicly announced its readiness to become the main investor in the Trans-Caspian pipeline, and if it works out, the project will immediately take on a real shape, because apart from the uncertain status of the Caspian Sea, another major obstacle was the lack of money. But China still puts tough conditions. The Heavenly Kingdom wants a considerable share in the gas sector of Turkmenistan. Therefore, it is logical that Ashkhabad would like to shake a safer hand on the issue of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline. But it's a big question whether Singapore will risk plunge headlong into an ambiguous project.

A number of experts believe that Berdymukhamedov’s visit is unlikely to significantly increase the interest of Singaporean business circles in Turkmenistan - the state in which not everything is clear and unambiguous, where business rules are different from those generally accepted, and which economy, like all other areas, is highly dependent on the leader's desire and will.

Most experts doubt that Singapore will undertake the implementation of the Trans-Caspian project, they even doubt that the project will be implemented in the foreseeable future. And it is not a matter of technical complexity, lack of funds or the difficulty of reaching a consensus on the Caspian Sea by littoral states. The question is where to supply Turkmen gas. There is a difficult situation in Europe. The Old World does not need the amount of gas that is supplied there today and will probably be supplied in the near future. But the Americans are pushing hard, increasing the supply of their liquefied gas. The situation has already reached the point where traditional exporters of gas to Europe cheapen prices, so as not to be left behind. With this in mind, the expensive Trans-Caspian project raises a question in terms of payback, and they know how to count the money in Singapore . Otherwise, there would not have been a Singapore miracle, which Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov admired during the visit.

Thus, in the near future, Turkmenistan is doomed to cooperate with China in the gas industry. Beijing also knows how to calculate benefits and risks. Therefore, it is worth assuming that China is ready to lay a political price in the pipeline, which Singapore will never do. However, it is easier for Beijing not to "obsess" about the Trans-Caspian project, but to agree with Ashkhabad on the purchase of additional volumes of gas and supply it to its depressed areas. China will lay a certain political price in this gas, but in terms of resolving painful issues with the same Xinjiang-Uygur autonomy and Turkmenistan's greater dependence to it.