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Russia: Criticism Of Turkmenistan May Aim To Please Azerbaijan

  • Michael Lelyveld

Russia's latest round of diplomacy in the Caspian region wound up last week with unusually heavy criticism of Turkmenistan. The criticism by Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhny may have been aimed at pleasing Azerbaijan, but it is unlikely to ease tensions over border issues.

Boston, 5 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's Caspian envoy Viktor Kalyuzhny has raised new doubts about negotiating a solution to the region's border disputes with a strong criticism of Turkmenistan.

Speaking on 31 August in Baku after talks with President Heidar Aliev, Russia's deputy foreign minister said Ashgabat's claims in the Caspian came close to ridiculing them.

Kalyuzhny called Turkmenistan's stance on the Caspian "unconstructive and negative," saying it had "dug its heels in and adopted a position which is not sufficiently flexible," Agence France Presse reported.

Russia's representative for the Caspian also said Turkmenistan's claim to two oil fields already under development by Azerbaijan was "not serious."

Kalyuzhny spoke in support of Azerbaijan, which has been at odds with Iran since 23 July, when an Iranian gunboat expelled two Azerbaijani survey ships from waters claimed by both sides.

But his remarks were aimed instead at Turkmenistan, which has been seen as taking Iran's side in opposing Russia's formula for splitting the Caspian seabed into sectors along a median line.

It was not immediately clear whether Kalyuzhny's criticism would hurt efforts to reach a Caspian settlement, but there seemed little chance that it would lead to a breakthrough.

Turkmenistan has been feuding with Azerbaijan since 1997 over another oil field in the center of the Caspian, helping to create a many-sided argument over the division of resources among the five shoreline states.

Kalyuzhny's comments also came one day after he arrived in Baku and declared that a Caspian summit meeting would take place in Turkmenistan as planned, even though President Saparmurat Niyazov had announced a postponement of the October meeting on national television earlier in the week.

Kalyuzhny said, "I think the summit will go ahead this autumn." He added, "The dates at the moment are being finalized."

The confusion over the summit was reminiscent of an incident last April, when Niyazov and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to call off the meeting while Kalyuzhny was shuttling between Baku and Tehran. Then as now, the Caspian envoy seemed to be in the dark about what was going on.

But despite his possible miscues, Kalyuzhny's criticism of Turkmenistan remained open to a series of interpretations. If he did speak for the Kremlin, Kalyuzhny may have voiced a frustration with Niyazov which has been largely concealed until now.

Putin and Niyazov were last reported to have discussed the Caspian situation and other bilateral matters on 13 August without any similar suggestion of tension.

Russia and Turkmenistan have been working on a 10-year intergovernmental agreement for cooperation in the gas sphere, which is due to be signed by the end of this month, according to the website

Last January during a visit to Baku, Putin also hinted that he would soon win Niyazov over to Russia's side on the division formula, which has been backed by Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Iran has opposed the median line principle, which would give it about 12 percent of the Caspian instead of the 20 percent share that it claims.

Turkmenistan has taken an ambiguous position on the formula, but it has been seen as standing by Iran to prevent its isolation.

Last month, Niyazov found common ground with Iranian President Mohammed Khatami as the two leaders called for suspending all work in disputed areas of the Caspian, a stand that served the interests of both countries against Azerbaijan.

But another possible interpretation of Kalyuzhny's outburst against Ashgabat is that it may have served as a proxy for criticism that Russia would otherwise aim at Tehran.

Iran has been no more flexible in opposing the Russian formula, but Kalyuzhny could hardly afford to show impatience with Moscow's "strategic partner." Kalyuzhny used the term to describe Iran during his visit to Tehran last week, just before flying on to Baku.

Yet another possible interpretation of Kalyuzhny's comments is that Russia did not wish to be outdone by Turkey in showing support for Azerbaijan following the demonstration by Turkish jets in Baku last month.

Russia tried to find its own common ground with Iran during Kalyuzhny's visit to Tehran last week. After meeting with Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, Kalyuzhny said the United States and Turkey "are looking for [a] pretext to interfere with the affairs of the Caspian Sea," the official Iranian news agency IRNA reported.

But Kalyuzhny did not repeat the criticism in Baku, which received political support from Ankara and Washington after the 23 July incident with Iran.

By changing his targets, Kalyuzhny made an obvious effort to please his hosts at each stop. But it is unlikely that he calmed tensions in the Caspian, and his mission may only have made the situation worse.