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Turkmenistan: Niyazov Visits Moscow For Gas Talks


http://gdb.rferl.org/0efe8cd3-88c4-4443-92ae-56db02ce0b77_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/0efe8cd3-88c4-4443-92ae-56db02ce0b77_mw800_mh600.jpg Turkmen President Niyazov (R) with Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko (file photo) (epa) Turkmenistan's reclusive president flies to Moscow for talks likely to focus on tying up the loose ends of Russia's gas deal with Ukraine -- and on persuading Russia to pay more for Turkmen gas.


PRAGUE, 21 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov will on 22 January make a rare trip outside his country. His last foreign excursion was in May 2005, when he attended ceremonies in Moscow to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.


Moscow will again be the destination.


A number of sensitive issues could feature on the agenda. Putin will likely ask for assurances that Niyazov will protect the religious, educational, and other rights of ethnic Russians in Turkmenistan, while Niyazov, who is noted for his autocratic style of rule, may ask questions about Turkmen opposition leaders living in Russia.


"There is a problem with prices because…Turkmenistan is getting only a fraction of the price for this gas that Russian and Ukrainian businessmen and officials are getting when they resell it to Europe.”


"There is a problem with prices because…Turkmenistan is getting only a fraction of the price for this gas that Russian and Ukrainian businessmen and officials are getting when they resell it to Europe.”

"There is a problem with prices because…Turkmenistan is getting only a fraction of the price for this gas that Russian and Ukrainian businessmen and officials are getting when they resell it to Europe.”

Iran's nuclear program is also a topic important for both leaders: Russian experts are helping Iran to build nuclear power facilities, while Turkmenistan shares a long border with Iran.


But Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent, Moscow-based defense analyst, has no doubt about the issue that will dominate the meeting.


“The main topic will be gas," he says.


Energy, always a cornerstone of the Turkmen-Russian relationship, has become an even more pressing concern since the recent dispute over deliveries of Russian natural gas to Ukraine.


Turkmenistan, along with Central Asian neighbors Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, found itself involved in the energy crisis after Moscow and Kyiv resolved the matter on 4 January only by agreeing that a percentage of the gas Ukraine receives would come from Central Asia, and chiefly from Turkmenistan.


Alex Vatanka, the Eurasia editor of London-based "Jane's Country Risk," believes the deal was reached hurriedly, with the reaction of Western Europe to Gazprom's decision to shut off supplies to Ukraine spurring Russian officials into action.


"Those negotiations were essentially in reaction to swift criticism in Western Europe and a Russian desire not to jeopardize its ties," Vatanka says. "That’s why the Russians very quickly got the Ukrainians back to the negotiating table and reached an agreement."


But Moscow may not have consulted fully with Central Asian suppliers before agreeing terms with Kyiv, leaving loose ends to be tied up.


One question that Niyazov is likely to pose is how the deal might affect the large debt to Turkmenistan that Ukraine has run up since the late 1990s.


You Raise, I Raise


Niyazov's main concern, though, is the price Russia will pay for Turkmen gas. "Right now the problem is that Turkmen gas is being sold to Ukraine through Russia, but part it is then re-exported from Ukraine to the West," says Felgenhauer. "There is a problem with prices because…Turkmenistan is getting only a fraction of the price for this gas that Russian and Ukrainian businessmen and officials are getting when they resell it to Europe.”


Russia’s state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom currently pays $60 per 1,000 cubic meters for Turkmen natural gas. That is already higher than the $32 Gazprom was paying just a few years ago. But it far short of the roughly $230 that Russia was recently demanding that Ukraine pay and the $95 finally agreed upon. Niyazov reportedly now wants to increase the price to between $80 to $85 per 1,000 cubic meters.


Niyazov's bargaining position is weakened by its lack of export options. Except for one pipeline connecting Turkmenistan and Iran, the Soviet-era pipeline owned by Gazprom remains Turkmenistan’s only way to export its natural gas.


However, recent comments by Niyazov suggest he is trying to find alternatives. Niyazov "declared himself more than willing to travel to Beijing," Vatanka notes. "Why would he consider Beijing? It boils down to exporting to new markets [with] China being a huge potential customer."


Gazprom's decision to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine may also have given Niyazov greater leverage, Felgenhauer believes.


"Since Russia has twice in January partially cut the volume of gas it’s sending to Europe, right now the European Union is seriously contemplating the possibility of financing the building of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, from Central Asia, by-passing Russia under the Caspian Sea and then through Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and into Europe," says Felgenhauer. "That gives Niyazov a serious bargaining chip."

RFE/RL Central Asia Report


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