Putin Seeks Closer Ties with Turkmenistan
Russia is keeping the pressure on the United States in Central Asia, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrovs recent tour of the region appeared to bolster Moscows ties with regions two most authoritarian nations, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Lavrovs Central Asian visit October 20-21 succeeded in restoring Russian-Turkmen relations, which had been damaged by Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazovs unilateral announcement in August that Turkmenistan was downgrading its status within the Commonwealth of Independent States.
. In a sign that confirms Russian-Turkmen relations are again on the upswing, Russias presidential press service on October 24 released the text of a note sent by President Vladimir Putin to Niyazov stating that Moscow "highly values traditionally friendly" relations with Ashgabat.
Russia and the United States, along with China, appear locked in an intensifying contest for influence in Central Asia. Following the September 11 terrorist tragedy, the United States rapidly expanded its strategic presence in the region. But the US geopolitical position has eroded markedly in 2005 - a fact underscored by Uzbekistans decision to evict US forces from an airbase, known as Karshi-Khanabad.
In mid-October, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in an effort to bolster support in those countries for a continuing strategic role for the United States in Central Asia. Lavrovs own Central Asian tour seemed designed in part to counter Rices regional foray and keep Washington on the diplomatic defensive.
The Russian Foreign Ministers chief aim during his visit to Ashgabat was keeping Turkmenistan on the sidelines of Central Asias geopolitical scrum. Turkmenistan is officially a neutral state, but, in the aftermath of the countrys renunciation of full-member CIS membership, officials in Moscow worried that Niyazov might agree to host US military forces at an air base near the desert oasis of Mary.
During the late summer, Russian media outlets published reports that a base deal was in the offing. Both Turkmen and US officials vigorously denied the reports.
Lavrov emphasized that Russia "respects" Ashgabats neutrality. In return, Niyazov sought to reassure Moscow, saying that Russias and Turkmenistans interests were "intertwined."
"If we start to set up military bases here, you [Russian leaders] will certainly not welcome it," Niyazov said in comments broadcast by Turkmen television on October 20. "Dont worry much, dear Russian friends, as in all of our [Turkmen] plans we take into account the interests of Russia."
Turkmen and Russian officials appeared to make some headway on another pressing strategic issue - the territorial division of the Caspian Sea. The five littoral states - Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan - have been unable to agree on a formula to divide the sea. A territorial treaty is needed if the Caspian Basins energy development potential is to be fully realized.
Lavrov noted that the Russian and Turkmen positions concerning a Caspian agreement have been "getting closer."
Lavrov also emphasized the need for the littoral states to ensure Caspian Basin security "without the involvement of armed forces of third countries." Russia is pressing for the formation of a Caspian Basin security force, dubbed CASFOR, which would comprise military contingents from all the littoral states, including Iran. Lavrov extended an invitation to Turkmen officials to attend a working group session, scheduled to be held in late November in Moscow, that will discuss CASFORs feasibility. Turkmen officials offered no immediate indication of whether they would attend the CASFOR talks.
Back in Moscow on October 24, Lavrov discussed Caspian issues with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. "The Caspian should remain a sea of security, cooperation and peace," Lavrov said after talks with his Iranian counterpart. Russia and Iranian interests in the Caspian are close or coincide, Lavrov added
Turkmenistans support for Russias geopolitical interests appears to have a price - namely higher fees paid by Russia for Turkmen gas. During his talks with Lavrov, Niyazov sought substantial increase in the price of Turkmen gas exported to Russia. Currently Moscow is paying $44 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas. The Turkmen leader wants to set the price at $50 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2006, and $60 per 1,000 cubic meters starting in 2007.
Russian officials have not indicated whether they will meet Niyazovs price.
As an added incentive to get Russia to agree to pay high gas prices, Niyazov suggested that he would hold off on a gas export agreement with Ukraine. "We [Turkmen officials] have told them [Ukrainian leaders] that we will sign it [an export agreement] only when Russia gives its consent to pump the gas through its pipelines," the Russian Itar-Tass news agency quoted Niyazov as saying.
In addition to putting Russian-Turkmen relations on much sounder footing, Lavrov visited the Uzbek capital of Tashkent on October 21. During a meeting with his Uzbek counterpart, Elyur Ganiyev, Lavrov stated that Russia and Uzbekistan are "united by the need to fight the threats of extremism and terrorism," Itar-Tass reported. The Russia foreign minister went on to note that there were "good prospects for developing bilateral and multilateral cooperation." Ganiyev reciprocated, expressing hope that the October 21 discussion would hasten "expanding cooperation."