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Central Asia Report: April 3, 2003


3 April 2003, Volume 3, Number 14

NOTE TO READERS:
The next issue of "RFE/RL Central Asia Report" will appear on 17 April 2003.

TURKMEN PRESIDENT STRIKES DEAL WITH RUSSIAN GAS GIANT. In the Turkmen capital Ashgabat on 2 April, President Saparmurat Niyazov conducted negotiations with Aleksei Miller, CEO of the Russian natural-gas monopoly Gazprom, on a long-term contract for purchases of Turkmen natural gas. Following three hours of talks, Miller told a press conference that the two sides had decided to sign two documents in the near future: a contract for the export of Turkmen gas to Russia running from 2004 until 2025 and an "interstate agreement on cooperation in the gas sector between Russia and Turkmenistan," according to a Gazprom press release and turkmenistan.ru on 2 April. It was not clear whether the cooperation agreement would also extend until 2025. The signing ceremony will probably take place later in April when Niyazov is tentatively scheduled to visit Moscow, Interfax said.

Sources differed as to the volume of annual gas purchases envisaged by the supply contract. The press release from Gazprom implied that the volume of exports had not been fully elaborated yet. Interfax said Russia would import 10 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas starting in 2005. But platts.com, reproducing information from "Platts Global Alert," reported on 2 April that the contract would allow for purchases up to 50 billion cubic meters a year. The maximum volume that the Turkmen pipeline system can currently accommodate under optimum conditions via the so-called northern route, which traverses neighboring Uzbekistan, is 45 billion-50 billion cubic meters a year. (This is the Central Asia-to-Center trunk line that carries gas from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan northward into the Gazprom network.) Consequently, it appears, as the Russian newspaper "Kommersant" commented on 2 April, that "Gazprom is preparing to buy up all the gas produced in Turkmenistan."

A recent agreement between the Kazakh pipeline company KazTransGaz and a Gazprom subsidiary, reported on 30 March by centrasia.ru, is significant in this context. KazTransGaz has been contracted to ship 4 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas in 2003 through Kazakhstan to the Urals using the Bukhara-Ural pipeline, which originates in Uzbekistan. The report added that KazTransGaz has agreed to transport 50 billion cubic meters of gas altogether from Kazakhstan's southern neighbors over the course of some years, also using in part the Bukhara-Ural pipeline (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2003).

Meanwhile, Gazprom's presumed strategy to dominate the supply of Turkmen gas northward will require squeezing out competitors. Ashgabat has three foreign customers for its gas at the moment. Via the so-called southern route, it is selling 11 billion cubic meters of gas to Iran in 2003. It is supplying 36 billion cubic meters to Ukraine via Eural TG, a middleman for the Ukrainian state hydrocarbon company Naftohaz Ukrayiny. Finally there is Gazprom's rival Itera. The international energy corporation Itera's agreement with the Turkmen hydrocarbon company Turkmennetfegaz is for 10 billion cubic meters of gas in 2003. Transported via Uzbekistan, much of it is destined for Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Latvia. But if the northern route is filled to capacity by gas purchased by Gazprom, clearly Itera would be shut out.

Itera chief Igor Makarov apparently tried to steal a march on Miller by arriving in Ashgabat on 26 March, a few days before the Gazprom CEO. Makarov came seeking an increase in Itera's purchases of Turkmen gas, Turkmen television reported. It did not report any concrete results of his negotiations. It is a question whether Makarov really came to discuss the possibility of boosting Itera's gas purchases or whether he sought some assurance that the company would not be cut out altogether. On 1 April, Itera Vice President Vyacheslav Nazarov merely announced blandly that he was not aware of any plans to revise deals with Ashgabat. "Our contracts are functioning; so are Ukraine's. I don't see any reasons for canceling them without the consent of the buyers," said Nazarov, as quoted in the newspaper "Kommersant" on the following day. The paper also pointed out that Itera has been seen to be shoring up its regional strategy by increasing its activity in Uzbekistan and establishing good relations with Tashkent. Turkmenistan's gas exports along the northern route are hostage to Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, bilateral relations have markedly soured since Ashgabat accused Tashkent of complicity in the assassination attempt on Niyazov in November 2002.

Gazprom has been trying to strike a gas agreement with Niyazov since last autumn. Negotiations stalled when Gazprom offered to pay only $38 per thousand cubic meters of gas. Reports of this week's talks did not say whether Miller is now offering a better price. But the sweetener that clinched the deal may well be contained in the second document: the interstate agreement on cooperation in the gas sector that is scheduled to be signed at the same time. A form of this agreement was drafted as long ago as late 2001. According to platts.com on 2 April, its provisions included Russian investment in developing Turkmenistan's gas infrastructure. Furthermore, a Russian-Turkmen joint venture would be created to handle all of Turkmenistan's gas exports. Miller hinted that Moscow's planned investments in rehabilitating Turkmenistan's hydrocarbon industry and pipeline system will be impressive. "An increasing volume of purchases of Turkmen gas will be made possible by joint efforts aimed at modernizing and reconstructing existing transport capacities and building new pipelines," Miller said, as quoted by turkmenistan.ru on 2 April.

NIYAZOV'S SMALL MERCIES. On 31 March, Turkmenistan repatriated six Turkish citizens accused of participating in the November 2002 assassination attempt on President Saparmurat Niyazov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 April 2003). The Prosecutor-General's Office in Ashgabat described them as "mercenaries," adding that the accusations made against them would be grounds for their trial in their homeland, ITAR-TASS reported. At the same time, the government announced that it had made similar extradition offers to the United States and Russia, AP and Reuters reported. The Interior Ministry said it would extradite foreign suspects "with all necessary criminal evidence to the security organs of their countries, so that these terrorists be held responsible for the crimes committed in Turkmenistan."

Turkmen authorities say a total of 16 foreigners were arrested in connection with the attack, including five Russians and one U.S. citizen, Leonid Komarovsky. The Turks' extradition had been expected since 12 January, when Niyazov announced that documents allowing their repatriation had been prepared. That decision followed an official visit to Turkmenistan by the current Turkish prime minister (then prime minister-in-waiting), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who apparently successfully pleaded in person for his countrymen's release (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 16 January 2003). But some observers saw political symbolism in the fact that the Turks were the first of the foreign detainees to be released. On 1 April, vremya.ru, asking why the Turks were being released now, suggested Ashgabat was thanking Ankara for its stance at the 13 March meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that reviewed Turkmenistan's appalling human rights record. The Turkish representative to the OSCE was the only envoy to display any solidarity with Ashgabat, the website commented.

In an unexpected gesture of mercy, Niyazov issued a decree on 2 April pardoning Farid Tukhbatullin, an environmentalist in the town of Dashoguz who had been sentenced to three years in prison on 4 March on charges that he failed to inform the Ministry of National Security about a discussion of plans to assassinate the president that he had allegedly heard at a conference he attended in Moscow. Tukhbatullin denied at trial having heard such as discussion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 April 2003). He was released after supposedly signing a confession, which was read out by anchormen on Turkmen television and radio, admitting that he had been aware of the plot but repenting his negligence in not reporting it. Tukhbatullin had spent precisely 100 days in detention, Turkmen media claimed. His merciful release on the first day of April was prompted in part (according to analysts on local television) by Niyazov's tender feelings toward his mother, Gurbansoltan, after whom the month of April was recently renamed and who would have turned 90 this year.

Non-Turkmen analysts were inclined to seek other reasons for Niyazov's liberal mood between 31 March and 2 April. It is probably not a coincidence that the United States State Department released its annual human rights report on 31 March. It described Turkmenistan, considered the region's most flagrant rights violator, as "a one-party state dominated by its president, who continues to exercise power in a Soviet-era authoritarian style." The other Central Asian countries did not fare much better (see "Central Asia: State Department Sees Little Improvement In Rights Situation," rferl.org, 1 April 2003). Moreover, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights was looking at Turkmenistan's human rights record in the first week of April, with some delegates reportedly considering a motion to censure Turkmenistan.

With the U.S. slamming him, the UN threatening to slam him, and the OSCE snarling against him, Niyazov may finally have recognized that he must throw them a bone. Pardoning Tukhbatullin is a start, especially given that his sentence was regarded as a slap in the face to the OSCE because it was handed down right after the OSCE Chairman in Office and Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was assured by Niyazov that the ecologist would be freed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 April 2003). Furthermore, the extraditions of a few foreigners may be meant as de facto pardons -- even if the official line is that they are being sent home to be tried. It is unlikely that their home countries will find enough evidence in the briefs prepared by the Turkmen Interior Ministry to bring the accused to court. The autocrat of Ashgabat may hold himself out as a merciful man who cherishes his mother, but Niyazov is badly mistaken if he believes that, with international rights defenders now rabid against him, freeing an environmentalist and a few repatriations will stave off the dogs for long.

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