Turkey? For many a European, it is a precarious candidate for accession on the eastern edge of the EU. A farflung NATO outpost, a last offshoot of Western civilisation, bordering on nightmarish nations like Iraq and Iran. But this past summer, an astounding number of the world’s potentates undertook a pilgrimage to Turkey, of all places. It was about energy. In this regard, Turkey lies right smack in the middle. It may have little in the way of resources itself, but several Central Asian countries, along with Russia and the Middle East, will soon be pumping fuel to Europe through Turkish pipelines. And which way those pipelines will run has become a cliffhanger involving high stakes and major geopolitical risks.

One traditional supply route runs from East to West. For 15 years Turkey has been under discussion as a transit country for the riches discovered in and around the Caspian Sea since the collapse of the Soviet Union. That includes the natural-gas fields in Turkmenistan; Kazakhstan’s offshore Kashagan Field, the biggest oil field discovered in the past quarter of a century anywhere in the world; and Azerbaijan. For a long time it was not clear how all that was supposed to reach Europe. But on 13 July five heads of State came up with an answer in Ankara: they agreed the Nabucco gas pipeline from Turkey to Central Europe and then held a sumptuous ceremony to mark the occasion, over which Turkish premier Erdoğan presided like the ringmaster of a great energy circus.

A mini-Nabucco from Bakou to Erzurum

Nabucco is an attempt by Europeans and Turks to transport natural gas to the EU without giving gas goliath Russia any say in the matter. That is why the Kremlin and its energy giant Gasprom have always pronounced the project insane – and why Gasprom rushed in to buy up energy reserves in the Caspian Sea. Moscow has barraged other East-West pipelines in the past, like the mighty crude oil pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan, through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. Around the same time, a natural gas pipeline was built from Baku to Erzurum, Turkey, a sort of mini-Nabucco. And a new conduit to Greece was laid in western Turkey.

These projects have been passionately pushed by the US, the object being to bring Caspian riches into the market without any meddling from Moscow. But it would be wrong to infer that the Turks have been securely roped in on the American side in the global scramble for energy resources: witness Vladimir Putin’s surprise visit shortly after the Nabucco summit in Ankara. Alarmed by the signing of the Nabucco Intergovernmental Agreement, Putin promptly called the Turkish prime minister and proposed laying a Russian pipeline to Bulgaria through the Turkish section of the Black Sea. The upshot was South Stream, which is to bring natural gas to Europe –bypassing the Ukraine. But it is also considered a rival project to Nabucco. In fact, Gasprom recently secured gas supplies in Azerbaijan that might also be pumped into the European pipelines. A spate of headlines ensued declaring Nabucco dead. So has Turkey betrayed the project and Europe with it?

Strengthening Turkey's EU accession?

To answer this question, we must first ask what Turkey got in exchange for backing South Stream: plenty. The Turks exacted a Russian commitment to supply oil for a pipeline from the Black Sea port of Samsun to Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. The pipeline is now under construction and should take some of the load off the Bosporus, on which titanic tankers narrowly scrape past Istanbul day in, day out. Once in place, it will make Ceyhan the most important oil port in the eastern Mediterranean. Concomitantly, Erdoğan and his buddy Putin made a deal to build Turkey’s very first nuclear power plant. Turkey imports close to 64 per cent of its natural gas from Russia. “We need new suppliers,” says Yurdakul Yigitgüden, ex-undersecretary in the Turkish ministry of energy and natural resources.

Fortunately, Turkey is spoilt for choice. There is, in fact, a third direction that makes Turkey a supply hub in the region: from South to North. Shortly after Putin’s visit, the emir of Qatar dropped in to talk to Erdoğan about another pipeline into Turkey. Qatar happens to possess the third-biggest natural gas reserves in the world. And even more important is Iraq, in the north of which vast natural gas fields have been discovered in recent years. Since then, serious thought has been given to a gas pipeline running from northern Iraq to Turkey. One after the other, Turkish and European companies are now securing gas shipments from Iraq – with political backing from the European Commission.

So Turkey has not betrayed Nabucco. The pipeline will carry mostly Middle Eastern gas, from Iraq as well as from Egypt and Qatar – plus some gas from Azerbaijan, possibly from Turkmenistan, too – and maybe even from Iran. Turkey would then oust the Ukraine as the top transit country for Europe-bound Russian gas. All these pipelines put together will swell Turkey’s sway over Europe. A peripheral country? An unloved aspirant to accession? “We expect to be treated with respect,” says Suat Kiniklioğlu, foreign policy spokesman for the governing AKP party. Will Turkey’s growing clout also open the door to the European Union? That alone probably will not suffice, but it should cement EU ties to Turkey. So we are going to have more to do with the Turks than, say, the French would like.