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Central Asia Report: March 7, 2002

7 March 2002, Volume 2, Number 9

GAS PRODUCERS DISPLAY COMMON FRONT... Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposal for an alliance of four Eurasian gas-producing nations moved a step closer to realization on 1 March, when he and his counterparts from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan adopted a joint statement on cooperation in energy policy and guarding their common interests as gas producers, ITAR-TASS and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The presidents were meeting on the sidelines of an informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) heads of state at the Chimbulak ski resort near Almaty in Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 March 2002). Putin originally mooted the idea in January during a meeting with Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat. At the time, Putin had said that energy cooperation between the four countries should only be part of a larger push to coordinate positions on international issues and collaborate on humanitarian aid efforts (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 24 January 2002).

According to the joint communique issued on 1 March, the signatories agreed to work together in developing their gas reserves, elaborating import-export and investment policies, and protecting their resources, ITAR-TASS reported. "To this end, the governments of our countries...will conclude and implement appropriate bilateral and multilateral agreements," the document said. It added that the logic of cooperation was dictated both by the interconnectedness of the countries' fuel and energy industries -- an allusion to the integrated network inherited from the USSR -- and by the "globalization and internationalization of the world economy."

Putin said that it would be "extremely valuable" for the four countries to pool their efforts since Russia and Turkmenistan are major gas producers while Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan possess key transport systems, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 1 March. Together they form a gas-distribution system "second to none in the world," he told Khabar TV on the same day. Moreover, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev told the television that CIS nations have 40 percent of global gas reserves, giving them to clout "to influence not just the European economy but the world economy as well."

...BUT A HINT OF FRICTION TO COME... Of more pressing interest to most analysts is the clout that Russia would have over Central Asian gas if the fledgling alliance really takes wing. Moscow would increase its (already considerable) control over the region's exports since virtually all pipelines traverse Russian territory. Kazakhstan at least was offered a reminder of the hazards of being at Russia's mercy on 1 March, when Kazakh Commercial TV reported that Moscow had recently decided unilaterally to declare its section of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) pipeline a natural monopoly, allowing it to raise the tariffs for pumping crude from Western Kazakhstan's Tengiz oil field across Russia to the Black Sea. The television said "a major row" was in the offing. The CPC's tariff policy was established by its shareholders and accepted by the Russian government in 1997. Interfax commented on 27 February that including the Russian part of the CPC pipeline in the register of natural monopolies would destabilize the consortium.

...WHILE NIYAZOV WRIGGLES TO ESCAPE RUSSIAN VISE. Meanwhile at the CIS summit on 1 March, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov was looking to diversify export routes for his country's gas and had a meeting with Armenian President Robert Kocharian, Turkmen TV and Mediamax reported. They were pursuing an agreement, discussed over the telephone last month, about shipping Turkmen gas to Armenia via Iran. Apparently talks were inconclusive, although Niyazov did accept an invitation to visit the Armenia capital Yerevan.

Almost all of Turkmenistan's gas is exported via Russia, mainly to cash-poor Ukraine which regularly settles its debts in kind. Bowing to the inevitable, Niyazov recently agreed to expand cooperation with the gas-trading group ITERA that manages sales and distribution of Turkmen gas across Russia, PR Newswire reported on 28 February. The total amount of Turkmen gas handled by the group in 2002 will rise to 45 billion cubic meters, the newswire said. Last and least, a small amount of gas goes south to Iran through the Korpeje-Kord Koy pipeline, which has proven a disappointment since its ostentatious inauguration in the mid-1990's, when it was hoped that it would help break Russia's stranglehold.

Nevertheless on 28 February Ashgabat reported, improbably, an 11.3 percent increase in gas production for January 2002 over last year's January figure, with a correspondingly large increase in exports to Iran. Turkmen government statistics are widely thought to be exaggerated to the point of absurdity. Turkmen TV attributed the surge in production to the inspiration that gas workers of the state hydrocarbon company Turkmennebit felt from reading the president's book "Rukhnama," held to be a spiritual guide and exegesis of the good life for Turkmen citizens. Simultaneously, "Rukhnama"-reading oil workers in western Turkmenistan were reported to have raised their January production figures to 598,000 tons of crude, a 5 percent improvement over last year's number.

However, in a blow to Turkmenistan's ambitions as an oil producer, the American oil major ExxonMobil announced that it was closing its offices in the capital and in the city of Balkanabad in the west of the country, Reuters and Interfax reported on 1 March. The Cheleken oil field -- part of the Garashzyzlyk-2 oil and gas bloc which a consortium operated by ExxonMobil has been developing since 1998 -- yielded disappointing results during a drilling of an exploration well last month, and the test was aborted before completion, a spokesman explained. Turkmennebit officials aver that Garashsyzlyk-2, a bloc that covers 4,500 square kilometers and at present is the source of 80 percent of the country's oil, contains over 300 million tons in total, AFX said on 3 March.

AFGHAN HEAD THANKS UZBEKISTAN, REPEATEDLY. The leader of Afghanistan's interim government, Hamed Karzai, arrived in the Uzbek capital Tashkent on 2 March for two days of meetings with a series of top Uzbek officials, culminating in talks with President Islam Karimov. The visit, which was described as productive and fruitful in a joint statement, and which was punctuated by effusive expressions of gratitude from Karzai for Uzbekistan's efforts on behalf of his country, served to underscore the key role that Tashkent has played in the anti-Taliban operations and seems set to play in Afghanistan's postwar reconstruction.

On 3 March Karzai met Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov and Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Yunusov to discuss regional security issues, AP and local news sources reported. Karzai also stopped into the Board of Muslims (the headquarters of official Islam in Uzbekistan) and the Tashkent town hall. According to Uzbek TV, Karzai emphasized to his interlocuters how much Afghans and Uzbeks have in common, ranging from similar traditional clothes and customs to shared experiences of "terrorism and extremism" -- presumably a reference to Karimov's struggle with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). It follows that Tashkent and Kabul are natural partners in the fight against "terrorism and radicalism in this region," Karzai said. Discussions also focused on material assistance Uzbekistan could provide towards rebuilding its war-torn neighbor, such as sending irrigation and agricultural specialists, helping to restore its transport network and industry, and making Uzbekistan's energy infrastructure and pipelines available to Afghanistan. Kazakh Khabar TV, noting that Afghan Water and Electricity Minister Shaker Kargar was a member of Karzai's delegation, suggested on 4 March that electricity might also be a developing area of cooperation.

(Meanwhile, the Afghan Islamic Press news agency reported on 3 March that Turkmenistan is prepared to supply northern Afghanistan's Fariab Province with electricity, and a team from the Turkmen Ministry of Power Engineering and Industry will be dispatched there soon to build power lines. This plan actually dates from December 1999, when Ashgabat signed an energy agreement with the Taliban.)

Following talks with the chairman of the Uzbek Supreme Assembly, Erkin Halilov, to discuss developing parliamentary contacts, Karzai inspected vehicles produced by the UzDaewoo Avto and SamKoch Avto car factories, and was presented with 18 vehicles -- buses, trucks, and tankers -- by way of humanitarian assistance, ITAR-TASS and Uzbek TV reported on 4 March.

For this gift, and for Uzbekistan's overall help in delivering aid to Afghanistan, Karzai thanked Karimov at their meeting the same day. (Since November, 100,000 metric tons of aid have been transported via the Uzbek border town of Termez, 70 percent of it by rail across the Friendship Bridge spanning the Amu Darya River, Interfax reported on 1 March. The aid has consisted primarily of food, clothes, building materials, and medicine, the news agency said.) Furthermore, Karzai thanked his host for his peace efforts on Afghanistan's behalf, mentioning in particular Uzbekistan's participation in the so-called "6+2" group (comprising Afghanistan's six neighbors, Russia, and the United States) and the July 1999 conference on Afghanistan held in Tashkent. In a joint statement, they strongly endorsed the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign, and pledged to cooperate in the fight against drug trafficking under the aegis of the UN Drug Control Program. They highlighted their interest in commercial contacts, especially border trade. Finally, they recognized the principle of non-interference in one another's internal affairs and the inviolability of borders. Although this last declaration amounts to a diplomatic platitude it may have practical relevance if Uzbekistan abides by it. The Uzbek military has a history of violating its neighbors' frontiers, mining them, or crossing them uninvited in pursuit of Islamist rebels. Tashkent also funneled aid to ethnic Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan during the Taliban regime.

CONGRESSMEN STUDY BASING ARRANGEMENT AT HANABAD... A U.S. Congressional delegation led by David Hobson (R-Ohio) met Uzbek Defense Minister Qodir Ghulomov in Tashkent on 2 March to examine prospects for bilateral military cooperation, Interfax and Uzbek media reported. The group included members of House committees on Defense Appropriations, Military Construction, and International Relations. While discussions turned specifically on military exchanges, training programs, and supplying Uzbek forces with military equipment -- but no "heavy armaments," Hobson said -- he noted the Congressional mission's broader goals when he told a press conference, "We are looking at certain types of basing and basing situations, whether they are long-term or short-term within the region," according to the U.S. Embassy's transcript. The delegation visited the Hanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan, where some 1,500 American servicemen are stationed. Asked whether the Pentagon intends to make use of Hanabad if a new front in the war against terrorism opens up "in other countries," John Olver (D-Massachusetts) responded that "it would be fair to say that only time could tell."

In recent months editorials have been multiplying, not only in the Arabic press but in Russian and Central Asian outlets, that cynically dismiss Washington's antiterrorist objectives in Central Asia as a pretext to establish control over the region's strategic resources. Intentionally or not, Hobson, as cited by Uzbek TV on 2 March, reinforced this view when he said that America only started showing interest in Uzbekistan after 11 September, but that since then Central Asia's raw material resources and energy riches have drawn the attention of all the global powers, including America.

...AND IN KYRGYZSTAN. On 3 March the Congressional delegation hopped over to Kyrgyzstan for a mere four-hour visit, but managed in that short time to visit Bishkek's Manas airport, where some 1,100 Western troops are presently, including 650 U.S. commandos, and to meet Kyrgyz Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev and Defense Minister Esen Topoev, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. In addition to general talks about regional security, Topoev reportedly raised the question of what measures the Pentagon might take to help strengthen Kyrgyzstan's borders and fight drug smuggling. Meanwhile Bakiev said that the ultimate guarantor of the republic's security was economic growth, Interfax said. To this end, the prime minister asked for the congressmen's help in restructuring Kyrgyzstan's foreign debt. In reply, Representative David Hobson promised that the U.S. would continue to provide financial aid to Kyrgyzstan, and even increase the level of assistance, but only if Bishkek asks for it, Kyrgyz TV said. Washington has already granted almost $50 million to Kyrgyzstan, the television reported on 4 March.

Speaking to Kyrgyz journalists, delegation members talked up the direct benefits that Kyrgyzstan derived from the presence of U.S. forces at Manas airport. They noted the large payments for each time aircraft take off and land, and underscored how the local economy is being stimulated by American purchases of food and building materials and the hiring of local construction workers. In large part these assurances were part of a continuing public relations exercise prompted by strong criticism in local media of the U.S. military presence in the country (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report, 28 February 2002). The Russian newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" confirmed on 2 March that at least the job market around Bishkek had improved, citing locals who compared the arrival of Americans with dollars to "manna from heaven" since work was so hard to come by in the country. Meanwhile Brigadier General Christopher Kelly, in charge of U.S. troops in Kyrgyzstan, told Kabar news agency on 4 March that $8.4 million had been spent since 16 December in connection with the deployment of coalition forces at Manas. On the same day he denied to Kyrgyz radio that his office had received any complaints about the conduct of American soldiers patrolling the base. Kyrgyz media had previously reported grave dissatisfaction among local residents with patrols that continually checked their documents and restricted their movements in the area.