Developing Competition over Turkmenistan and Belarus

Dmitry Sidorov,

Obama should invite their presidents to the White House before China and Russia take control.

The Obama administration should reach out to two world leaders with unpronounceable names and unpalatable regimes--and invite them to Washington.

Leaving President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus and President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan out in the cold would be a major mistake, and Moscow will pounce on it immediately. The White House needs to show that it has the will to make a play for gas-rich Turkmenistan, which holds the key to solving a small but important part of the international energy equation, and for strategically located Belarus, which is rethinking its long-standing alliance with the Kremlin.

Turkmenistan's gas reserves rank fifth in the world. Recent developments there are troubling for Europe, which depends on gas imports controlled by Moscow--some of which are from Turkmenistan--and for the U.S., which is seeking to open up new export routes worldwide for hydrocarbons.

China is rapidly constructing a pipeline through Central Asia that will soon reduce the volume of Turkmen gas available for export to Europe, and Beijing has given Turkmenistan $2 billion to explore new gas fields. With any luck, there will be enough for existing exports, future exports to China and new projects. But luck provides slim comfort in the energy game.

Washington and Europe are moving with the speed of a mortally wounded turtle, while the Chinese hare is racing ahead. American and European diplomats have held endless talks about new pipelines with the Turkmen since 1991. In its latest attempt, the Obama administration invited the Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov to Washington. So far the result is nil. China's pipeline is still the first real large-scale alternative to the existing Russian-controlled routes out of Turkmenistan, and it becomes operational in 2010.

Beijing is doing all the right things to exploit differences between Russia and Turkmenistan and take advantage of Turkmenistan's natural desire to increase its export options. Moscow has not been pleased. Turkmenistan has even suggested that Moscow may have been behind an April explosion that disabled one of Turkmenistan's export pipelines. If the allegation is true, it suggests that the ongoing financial crisis has done little to blunt the Kremlin's traditionally assertive policy in a place it still considers its backyard.

I would argue that financial difficulties are no impediment to Moscow's aggressive posture. Crisis or no, the Kremlin decided long ago on a policy of opposing what it sees as a weak, divided West. The most recent example comes from Belarus, "Europe's last dictatorship," located on the political fault line between the European Union and Russia.

Belarus' president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, like his Turkmen colleague, has little love for democracy and human rights. His recent statements and gestures, however, indicate that he is moving--slowly, painfully, but surely--toward Europe and the U.S.

A few weeks ago, Lukashenka refused to travel to Moscow to join the leaders of six other former Soviet republics in signing a Russian-sponsored pact to create rapid-response forces. Lukashenka also accused Russia of trying to bring his country "to its knees" by refusing to provide loans and banning dairy imports from Belarus in retaliation for Minsk's efforts to improve relations with the West. Earlier, the Kremlin failed to convince Lukashenka to join Russia, Hamas, Transnistria and Nicaragua in recognizing the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war.

The longer the West stays on the sidelines of the developing competition over Belarus and Turkmenistan, the harder it will be to achieve anything in a region where Russia seeks to re-establish its writ, and other players are muscling in on the margins. Meanwhile, Washington seems reluctant to appoint an ambassador to Turkmenistan and is going slow on talks with Belarus to ease sanctions and bring a U.S. ambassador back to Minsk.

What's worse, it looks like the Obama administration is betting on Russia and treading softly for fear of angering the Kremlin before the president's July visit to Moscow. The administration has a one-track mind for new arms-control agreements with Russia, a short-sighted policy based on a miscalculation of Russian influence and intentions on Iran. Unfortunately, this misguided focus has left no room for a real strategy to increase U.S. leverage in the region.

Opponents of direct talks with Turkmenistan and Belarus might object that an absence of democracy and lack of respect for human rights should prevent Washington from dealing too closely with these countries. The argument is laughable. U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia have been friendly for decades. And many of the places where the U.S. is now looking to improve ties are hardly bastions of democracy and human rights--Russia, anyone? Cuba? Iran?

The Obama administration faces a steep learning curve when it comes to managing the vagaries of geopolitical push-and-pull. Achieving the right balance between toughness and engagement is already shaping up to be a major challenge with front-burner countries like Iran and Russia. It will be just as hard, and just as crucial, with the lesser authoritarians.

The presidents of Turkmenistan and Belarus should get their time with President Obama, who can apply his rhetorical and political skill to the tricky task of assuring them of support while nudging them toward productive change. An opportunity has presented itself. But it will fade into history if no one moves to seize it.

Dmitry Sidorov is the bureau chief for Kommersant Publishing in Washington, D.C.