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Russia Report: March 27, 2007

Moscow's Opposition Threatens UN's Kosovo Plan

By Luke Allnutt

Ahtisaari's proposal has made headlines in Kosovo

March 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- There has been talk of war in the Balkans once again.

The European Union has warned that the region could plunge into chaos unless a prompt decision is made on Kosovo's status. A German government study has warned of riots and a "revolution-like development."

The threat of such a dire scenario will be in the back of UN Security Council members' minds on March 26, when UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari will present a plan that would likely lead to conditional independence for Kosovo.

Council members United States, France, and Britain are in favor of the plan. But Russia has voiced its opposition, saying it ignores the wishes of the province's Serbian minority.

Spotlight On Russia

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a U.S. diplomat who negotiated the end to the Bosnian war, says Russia would have to shoulder the blame if violence returned to the region.

"Of course, Kosovo will become independent, it's inevitable," Holbrooke said. "But the Russians are encouraging the hard-liners in Belgrade by opposing the Ahtisaari plan and that is very unhelpful. And if the Ahtisaari plan is not approved by the UN Security Council when it comes up for decision next month -- there will be violence in Kosovo, and that will be the consequence of Russian actions, and they should be held fully accountable for that if it happens."

Russia is clearly aggrieved. On March 19, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin walked out of a Security Council session on Kosovo.

Afterward, he expressed his disappointment with UN chief administrator of Kosovo Joachim Ruecker's briefing.
Russian officials believe Ahtisaari's plan does not go far enough in protecting the province's minority Serbian population.

"His [Ruecker's] report, particularly his remarks, have been extremely one-sided and unhelpful," Churkin said. "I think that in a way it's another symptom of the problem we're encountering. International presences should not be as one-sided as that in addressing the situation in Kosovo."

Churkin and other Russian officials believe the plan does not go far enough in protecting the province's minority Serbian population. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the State Duma on March 21 that Moscow would oppose the plan if Serbian interests are ignored.

Ahtisaari's plan offers conditional independence for Kosovo. There would be trappings of statehood -- a constitution, a flag, an anthem. The province would still be watched over by the international community, largely to protect the Serbian population.

RFE/RL regional analyst Patrick Moore says that finding a solution that both parties agree on has proven to be almost impossible.

"Anybody who knows anything about the Kosovo question knows that there is probably no formula conceivable that is acceptable to both, otherwise somebody would have hit upon it by now," Moore said.

Western Double Standards?

Alexander Rahr from the German Council On Foreign Relations believes that Russia's policy on Kosovo can be attributed to the feeling that it is being squeezed out of Europe.

"The present NATO expansion, EU expansion, and now the installation of an antimissile system in Poland and the Czech Republic leads to a kind of distancing of Europe from Russia," Rahr said.

Adding to the rift are the outstanding "frozen conflicts" of the former Soviet Union.

Ethnic Albanians are pushing for independence (epa)

If the principle of self-determination is applied to Kosovo, say some, why can't it be applied to the Moscow-backed separatist movements of Transdniester, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia?

Sergei Markov, a Russian analyst close to the Kremlin, believes that the UN has demonstrated double standards.

"The United Nations should use similar principles for similar cases," Markov said. "It's impossible to talk about the independence of Kosovo until we are [talking about] independence for Abkhazia, Transdneister, and South Ossetia."

The principle of self-determination, however, is a double-edged sword. Some observers say that if the three regions were to break away further, it might create more problems for Russia than it solves.

With Russian leaders giving mixed signals, the question remains as to whether Russia is prepared to use its veto in the Security Council.

Veto Threat Looms

Russia has not used its veto very often in the last decade, and Rahr thinks it's likely to stay that way.

"Judging from the past 15 years, Russia first voiced opposition to such, as it regards them, one-sided Western actions," Rahr said. "And in the end it agreed, in order, or in favor of solutions. For example, Russia's entrance to the G-8, which was then offered to Russia, or, this year, maybe WTO [membership]."

On the ground in Kosovo, international peacekeepers are getting ready for trouble. NATO has sent more troops and has said it is "fully prepared" to respond to any violence. In Kosovo, more than anywhere, people are hoping that those doomsday scenarios of war returning to Europe will not become a reality.

(RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev contributed to this report)

Why Is The Kremlin Retreating From Bushehr?

By Victor Yasmann
This week has seen much speculation about why Russian specialists are abandoning work on the Iranian nuclear plant at Bushehr. Pro-Kremlin observers say the move is punishment for Iran's refusal to cooperate with international demands to abandon uranium-enrichment activity. Will an anticipated vote on March 24 at the UN Security Council on a sanctions regime see Russia upholding this stance?

March 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian media this week scrambled to deny Western reports that Moscow had threatened to withhold nuclear fuel for Bushehr unless Tehran complies with demands to suspend enrichment activities.

What they couldn't deny was the fact that Russian specialists working on the nearly completed plant had begun to leave Iran. The Russian Atomic Energy Ministry described the exodus as a "planned workforce rotation," but elsewhere in Moscow officials were confirming that talks with Iran on the final stages of Bushehr were "on pause."

Never To Be Completed?

Some experts doubt the talks will ever resume. Among them is Vyacheslav Nikonov, the pro-Kremlin head of the Politika think tank. Iran's intransigence on the nuclear issue, he said, gave reason to suspect the Islamic republic was working to construct a weapons arsenal.

"Under such circumstances," Nikonov said, "any supply of nuclear fuel to launch the Bushehr station is impossible."

Russian help in constructing the plant could be over (Fars)

It's a surprising turnaround after months of deadlock on the United Nations Security Council, during which Russia refused to endorse the strict sanction regime against Iran favored by the United States.

The Security Council is now expected to vote on March 24 on a draft resolution that would tighten sanctions on Iranian arms exports and impose an assets freeze on people and organizations involved in Iran's nuclear and missile programs.

Russia and China, who in the past could be expected to exercise their veto right during such a vote, this week rejected a proposal by a nonpermanent member, South Africa, to suspend sanctions for 90 days.

So what caused Russia to make the shift? Aleksei Pushkov, a political commentator with TV-Tsentr and a member of Russia's influential Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, laid out three likely arguments for the Kremlin's apparent abandonment of its nuclear cooperation with Iran on his March 17 "Postscriptum" program:

  • First, he said, the Kremlin has decided that there is a limit to how for it will go to support Iran, especially as the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush appears to grow ever more in favor of military action. If Iran fails to comply, and Bush insists on his position, Pushkov said, Moscow can say it did everything possible to alter events and then "wash its hands" of the affair.
  • Second, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to show that he has broken free of the Cold War mindset that "what is bad for Washington is good for Moscow." Instead, Pushkov said, his logic is that "the U.S. military instinct should be contained, but not at the price of a major conflict with the United States."
  • Finally, Pushkov said, Russia wants to send a message to fellow Security Council members that it, too, believes a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. At the same time he says, "unacceptable" to Moscow is not the same as "unacceptable" to Washington. The Kremlin line is that Iran may still manage to become a nuclear state, and the world should prepare to accept such an eventuality, rather than devise a military solution to prevent it.

Abrupt Reversal

So why did the Kremlin suddenly soften its stance on Iran? Perhaps, Pushkov argued, Putin felt he had enough areas of conflict with the United States. Between the U.S. missile-defense proposal for Central Europe, and growing support in Washington for Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine, there is plenty for the two countries to clash on without throwing Iran into the mix.

Still, Pushkov called for greater "finesse" in dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. It is unseemly, he said, for the Kremlin to simply roll over and accept the U.S. line.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, addressing the State Duma on March 21, appeared to share his concern. He stoutly denied any connection between the "pause" at Bushehr and the imminent Security Council vote. Moreover, he added, Russia would not support "excessive" sanctions against Iran.

The Bushehr project may not be as attractive as it once was to Russia (AFP)

What most observers agree on is that the original justification -- Iran's failure to pay its bills -- was implausible at best. Iran has plenty of funds with which to pay Russia, and Russia has more than enough money to proceed with Bushehr. Perhaps, for the Kremlin, the project has simply lost its economic attractiveness.

When Russia signed the Bushehr contract with Iran in 1995, the Russian nuclear sector was in desperate need of money; a single $1 billion contract was enough to keep the decaying industry afloat. Since that time, Russia's financial outlook has changed dramatically. The country is flush with petrodollars, and the nuclear sector now has construction contracts with China, India, Bulgaria, Vietnam, and Cuba, and is negotiating with Morocco and South Africa. Russia's adoption of a $60 billion program to reconstruct its own nuclear power industry is testament to the fact that funding is no longer a pressing concern.

Bushehr remains, however, an issue of image and prestige. Russia cares about its commercial reputation, and is not eager to make a callous display of its withdrawal from Iran. Moscow is also interested in preserving its political reputation within the Islamic world.

In the end, those who predicted that relations with the United States remain more important for Russia than those with Iran may be right. Not everyone in Russia is pleased, however. The "Vek" daily, which has ties to the Atomic Energy Ministry, does not conceal its disappointment. "Russia gave up Iran," it writes. "For 10 years, Moscow bought the time that Tehran needed to weaken U.S. influence in the Gulf. And now Moscow itself is imposing sanctions before the United Nations even gets a chance."

    Kremlin Sees Its Foreign-Policy Star On Rise

    By Victor Yasmann
    March 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The influential Russian think-tank, the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (SVOP), recently released a report on its projections for global geopolitical developments over the next decade.

    SVOP, whose membership includes more than 170 members of Russia's political, intellectual, and business elite, is frequently viewed as a mouthpiece for Western views. But it is too powerful an organization for the Kremlin to ignore outright.

    So when SVOP Chairman Sergei Karaganov presented the report at a meeting on March 17-18, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov were on hand to challenge some of its assertions.

    MORE: RFE/RL recently spoke with former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski about U.S.-Russian relations.

    The report, in part, anticipates a weakening of the U.S. geopolitical role during the next decade. The remaining void, it goes on to predict, will be filled not by other world powers but by a rise in chaos, anarchy, and an overall decline in international institutions.

    Lavrov begged to differ. In a speech March 17 (the full text of which can be found at the Foreign Ministry website), he agreed that the power of the United States may be in decline -- due in large part to its "unipolar" philosophy.

    But, he added, dismissing the "alarmism and pessimism" of the SVOP report, chaos and anarchy are not the inevitable outcome. There are other countries, like Russia, who are prepared to assume a more muscular role in international events. The end of U.S. supremacy, he appeared to suggest, is not necessarily the end of the world.

    Shivers, But No Cold War

    Russian President Vladimir Putin's uncompromising rhetoric at the Munich security conference in February prompted waves of speculation that a new Cold War is on the horizon. Lavrov, taking up the issue of Russia-U.S. relations, said there are no "objective grounds" for such a conflict. At the same time, he suggested, the two countries must find a new way to work together -- one with "full equality in analyzing threats and making decisions."

    In general, the foreign minister said, Washington and Moscow will continue their existing dialogue on combatting international terrorism, resolving regional conflicts, and nonproliferation and strategic stability issues. Occasionally, he acknowledged, the two sides may disagree. "We don't deny the United States the right to decide matters for themselves," he said. "But that means they proceed at their own risk, and at their own expense."

    At the same time, Lavrov was harshly critical of Washington, for both its support of pro-Western governments in the CIS, and its resistance to Moscow's claims of control in the neighborhood. Accusing the United States of "playing games" in the CIS, Lavrov added: "One should inform our Western partners that attempts to contain Russia in her regional 'shell' are hopeless."

    Lavrov was even more harsh on the topic of Washington's planned missile defense installments in Central Europe, which the foreign minister characterized as a "provocation in global and European politics."

    "Russia is not going to drive a wedge into trans-Atlantic relations," he said. "But we don't want the trans-Atlantic link to be reinforced at our expense."

    No Compromise On Kosovo?

    Lavrov showed uncustomary anger in remarks on the Balkan territory of Kosovo and the United Nations envoy on Kosovo, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who is due to present his plan recommending nationhood, and eventual independence, to the UN Security Council as early as March 26.

    Russia, which has steadfastly backed Serbia's resistance to the plan, says negotiations on the issue much continue. Ahtisaari, Lavrov said, "has exhausted his potential. It's always possible to find another man for the job."

    Igor Ivanov, picking up the topic on March 18, blamed NATO for any potential military clashes the issue might provoke in Kosovo. There are currently no conditions in Kosovo to provoke a resumption of fighting, he said. If a provocation arises, he said, "it will be NATO that is responsible."

    Iran's "Direct, Indirect" Threat

    Ivanov also touched on the contentious issue of Iran. Moscow has often used its nuclear partnership with Tehran as leverage in its dealings with the Security Council. Those days, Ivanov seemed to suggest, are over. For Tehran to possess a nuclear weapon would be a "direct and indirect threat to Russia," he said, adding: "Russia is doing everything to prevent this."

    Ivanov's remark is the first open statement by a senior Russian official that appears to side almost fully with the U.S. position on Iran's alleged designs on a nuclear arsenal. Explaining this apparent about-face in Russian policy, a member of SVOP, TV-Tsentr commentator Aleksei Pushkov, noted that it amounted to nothing less than a complete halt in Russia's years of work on the Iranian nuclear energy facility in Bushehr, which is itself in the final stages.

    A "top-level" decision like this, Pushkov said, meant Moscow is desperate to avoid a major confrontation with the United States -- especially if Washington decides to pursue a military option against Iran. "Putin decided to reduce the number of conflict issues with the United States," Pushkov said. Officials in Iran and Russia have since denied any direct link between the Bushehr postponement and Iran's intransigence on demands to give up uranium-enrichment activity.

    Energy Politics -- A Natural Right

    Lavrov also used the SVOP gathering to address the issue of what he called "our rising role in energy geopolitics." The Russian foreign minister dismissed allegations that Moscow had engaged in "energy blackmail" of its CIS neighbors and the European Union.

    "Russian foreign policy today is such that for the first time in its history, Russia is beginning to protect its national interest by using its competitive advantages," Lavrov said.

    Vision Of Global Gas Cartel Gains Clarity

    By Roman Kupchinsky
    March 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Speculation over the possible formation of a "gas OPEC" is on the rise as a meeting of top gas-exporting countries approaches.

    The Russian daily "Kommersant" reported on March 19 that an agreement on forming such a cartel was reached last week. The consortium reportedly will initially include Russia, Iran, Qatar, Venezuela, and Algeria -- which together account for nearly 70 percent of the world's reserves of natural gas.

    An announcement on the formation of the cartel is expected to be announced on April 9 in Doha, Qatar, during a meeting of the Gas-Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), "Kommersant" reported, without citing its source.

    Mixed Signals

    Russian officials have repeatedly denied that Russia intends to form an international gas cartel. However, the person who first floated the idea in 2002, President Vladimir Putin, as recently as February said the idea was "interesting."

    As for the meeting of gas-exporting countries next month, an Industry and Energy Ministry spokesman on March 19 confirmed only that "among those who will take part in the conference will be Russian Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko, who will express his views on creating a 'gas OPEC," Interfax reported.

    However, the spokesman said there were no plans to formalize the creation of a natural-gas cartel during the session.
    It is widely believed that Iran would have a major role in formulating the cartel's policies.

    The denial echoes comments made recently by Deputy Industry and Energy Minister Andrei Reus. "Emphasis should not be put on the word 'cartel,'" Reus said during an energy conference in Houston, Texas, on February 15. "We have not received any specific proposals on the form and structure of a possible organization."

    The idea gained traction in 2006 after a NATO report alerted members of the alliance of the dangers of the possible formation of a natural-gas cartel. Such a grouping could include major gas producers Russia, Iran, Qatar, and Algeria along with Libya and Central Asian states, according to NATO experts. The purported goal: "To use energy policy to achieve political objectives."

    Iran's thoughts on the issue were made crystal clear during a visit to Tehran by Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov on January 29. "Our countries can establish an organization similar to OPEC," " Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as telling Ivanov.

    Who Stands To Benefit?

    Although there are few details available yet on how such a cartel would conduct business, it is expected to be a much more active organization than the GECF, which has been a passive group since its creation in Tehran in 2001.

    The GECF is currently anchored by major exporters Russia, Iran, Algeria, and Qatar, along with 11 other members and one observer (Norway).

    Three among them stand out for their potential prominence in a "gas OPEC" -- Iran, Russia, and Algeria.

    It is widely believed that Iran would have a major role in formulating the cartel's policies and this alone would create jitters in the EU, not to mention open opposition by the United States.

    Among those policies, "Kommersant" notes that the currency such a cartel might adopt for its transactions could become the euro at Iran's insistence.

    Would a cartel be able to bottle up global gas prices? (

    Algeria, which boasts the world's eighth-largest gas reserves and is seen by the European Union as an avenue for reducing its energy dependence on Russia, would stand to gain significant clout.

    According to "Kommersant," Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika recently gave his personal backing for the formation of such an organization.

    But the main player in the cartel will be without a doubt Russia, the world’s largest gas producer, with the largest gas reserves.

    Despite the denials from officials, Russia has been the main promoter of the creation of a gas cartel through a stealthy campaign.

    And while the West has largely downplayed the impact a gas consortium could have on fixing prices, given that the business largely works on the basis of long-term contracts, there are cracks in this argument.

    "Kommersant," for example, points out that Gazprom's contracts "stipulate that prices can be reviewed either quarterly or semiannually."

    And, if the gas cartel adopts current Moscow rules in its dealings with customers, its potential to become a very powerful instrument in the hands of Russian foreign policy is obvious.

    Ready To Enlist

    Other key gas producers from around the world also appear keen to join such a grouping -- much to the chagrin of dependents such as the United States and the European Union.

    Caspian and Central Asian gas producers -- notably Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan -- have in the past expressed an interest in seeing the creation of such a body.

    Some observers predict that Russia will use all the leverage it has to bring these countries into such a cartel, with the West in turn pulling out all the stops to prevent it.

    And smaller but influential players such as Trinidad & Tobago, a major supplier of liquefied natural gas to the U.S. market, has also expressed its interest in a "gas OPEC," according to "Kommersant."

    Others, notably Venezuela, see a cartel as an opportunity to counter the United States. Venezuela does not export gas, but it has been successful in creating a mini South American gas cartel consisting of gas producers Bolivia and Argentina.

    Venezuelan Energy and Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez was quoted by "Kommersant" as saying that Caracas "supports the idea of a gas OPEC that will supplement OPEC and that will be a excellent mechanism of regulating the two main commodities on the energy market."

    Back To The Drawing Board

    Such a scenario would likely cause the European Union to revise its current energy strategy.

    This is because the EU's envisioned Nabucco gas pipeline -- touted as a means of bypassing Russian routes in supplying Europe with Caspian and Middle East gas -- would be seriously threatened by a cartel.

    It could also convince EU-member Hungary to further participate in Russian-sponsored projects, drawing the country closer into the Russian orbit. The country has already faced criticism after agreeing this month to become a hub for Russian gas in Central Europe.

    But not all potential members of a gas cartel would have reason to wield their increased energy powers against the European Union or the United States.

    Qatar, widely regarded as a solidly pro-American state, would be loath to agree to any cartel policies seen as "anti-Western." Likewise for Trinidad & Tobago.

    And Algeria, which has longstanding contracts to export liquefied natural gas to France, would also be reluctant to scare off its most lucrative customer by signing on to any radical policies.

    Pipeline Deal Raises Energy Dependence Concerns

    By Chloe Arnold

    Greek Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Athens

    MOSCOW, March 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russia, Greece, and Bulgaria have signed a long-awaited deal to build a trans-Balkan pipeline that will boost oil supplies to Western markets.

    The pipeline will ship Russian oil from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, avoiding the overcrowded Bosphorus Strait.

    But there are fears the project will increase Europe’s reliance on Russian energy supplies.

    At a grand ceremony in Athens on March 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the construction of the pipeline as a step forward for the delivery of energy supplies to Western markets.

    "The implementation of this project increases the stability not only of the Balkans but of the entire world energy market, without any doubt, for at least two reasons: first of all, it helps increase raw energy supplies to world markets, and secondly, it diversifies the ways of delivering energy resources to those markets," Putin said.

    High Oil Prices

    The deal has been a long time coming. For 15 years, the Russian side held off, considering the project not commercially viable.

    But high oil prices helped speed up the agreement -- as did the inauguration in July of a potential rival, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which links the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean while bypassing Russia.

    The agreement means construction should be completed within the next four years, when 35 million tons of Russian oil will be pumped from the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas to the Greek port of Alexandroupolis in the Aegean Sea.

    Analysts say the advantage of the pipeline is that it avoids the heavily congested Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits which link the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. It is estimated that tanker delays in the straits cost oil companies up to $1 billion a year.

    But the trans-Balkan deal has raised concerns that Europe is failing to break free of its dependence on Russian energy supplies, and that other non-Russian pipelines in the region could lose their share of the market.

    Dependency Fear

    The Russian president tried to allay those fears on March 15: "As far as the existing pipelines are concerned, [the new pipeline] does not make the situation worse for them. Because we're talking not about redirecting any of the flows from other systems, but about filling the pipeline we're going to build with new resources that are expected [to be produced] in Russia and other countries that transport their energy resources through our country."

    Earlier this month, a senior U.S. State Department official, Matthew Bryza, commended the three signatories on the pipeline accord. He said the more oil that reached global markets, the better.

    A Russian oil field in Taimur (TASS)

    But he sounded a note of caution, adding that the United States was anxious that Europe could become too reliant on the state-owned Russian energy giants -- Gazprom and Rosneft.

    That reliance was brought to the fore last year, when gas supplies to Western Europe were temporarily disrupted after a disagreement between Russia and Ukraine over energy prices. Western Europe receives up to 40 percent of its gas from Russia through transit pipelines that cross former Soviet states.

    Russia turned off supplies, saying it wanted the Ukrainian side to pay market prices for energy supplies, which as a former Soviet republic it had been receiving at reduced rates.

    But many saw the real reason for the argument as the Kremlin’s desire to punish Ukraine for introducing pro-Western policies and turning its back on Moscow.

    Political Elements

    Another spat with Belarus this year saw oil supplies to Europe briefly disrupted.

    The disputes were resolved, but the incidents sent jitters through Western markets.

    Manuchehr Takin, an energy analyst at the Center for Global Energy Studies, said there is an element of politics to the deal.

    "Russia would like to continue to influence its former allies, while these former allies want to become independent, some wanting to become members of NATO. And there is sensitivity among the Russians. There is an element of that. I don’t think it’s purely commercial," Takin said.

    Approximately one-third of Western Europe's oil supplies come from Russia via the Black Sea.

    It's a significant amount -- but not enough, in Takin's opinion, to justify fears that Western markets are overly dependent on Russian energy supplies.

    "I think the commercial aspects of all these deals are more important than the political aspects. And this deal about the pipeline coming through Bulgaria and Greece is a very natural one, it is a logical one," Takin said. "They have been discussing it for 10, 15 years. So I think we should commend the more commercial deals that are made as such and not look at it purely as a political point."

    The Russian companies Rosneft, Transneft, and Gazprom will share a 51-percent stake in the venture, leaving Greece and Bulgaria with 24.5 percent each. The pipeline project's estimated cost is $1.2 billion.

    Looking For Ways To Circumvent Russia

    By Brian Whitmore

    Mammadyarov and Rice signed an agreement on energy security on March 22

    March 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Three meetings. Three cities. One goal: making Europe less dependent on Russian energy.

    On March 22, Azerbaijan's foreign minister was in Washington, Georgia's prime minister was in Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat, and a major energy conference opened in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

    Topping the agenda in all three cities were plans to develop alternative oil and gas transport routes that circumvent Russia and loosen Moscow's stranglehold on Europe's energy supplies.

    This diplomatic flurry came just one week after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a deal with Greece and Bulgaria to build a pipeline to transport Russian oil from the Black Sea to the Aegean en route to European markets.

    Federico Bordonaro, a Rome-based energy analyst, says today's scramble for control of energy transit routes is beginning to resemble the Cold War struggle between Russia and the West.

    "What we were used to during the Cold War years was a kind of security dilemma," Bordonaro said. "Powers needed to choose between alliances and between different security strategies. Something very similar is apparently going on in the field of energy security."

    Leading The Charge

    In the middle of the scramble are Azerbaijan and Georgia, both of whom are trying to break free from Russia's sphere of influence and move closer to Washington and Brussels.

    "The small countries, like Georgia for example, that are very, very important because of their function as energy corridors -- they are especially sensitive to the influence of big powers," Bordonaro said.

    In Washington, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed an agreement to cooperate closely on energy issues.

    Most former communist countries in the EU are pushing Brussels to circumvent Russia. But Germany and France still lean toward making bilateral agreements with Moscow.

    Azerbaijan is emerging as a major natural gas producer. Mammadyarov was seeking Washington's political support to build a new generation of gas pipelines to export Azerbaijani natural gas -- via Georgia and Turkey -- to Europe.

    U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza said the agreement would support Europe's stated aim of diversifying its energy imports -- and help Azerbaijan emerge as a viable alternative to Russia's natural gas giant, Gazprom.

    "This high-level dialogue will aim to deepen and broaden already strong cooperation among governments and companies to expand oil and gas production in Azerbaijan for export to global markets," Bryza said.

    Particular focus, he said, will be put on the realization of the Turkey-Greece-Italy gas pipeline, and potentially the Nabucco and other pipelines that can delivery Azerbaijani gas to Europe and help diversify its natural gas supplies.

    Thinking Ahead

    Meanwhile, in Tbilisi, Georgia was hosting an energy conference aiming to achieve the exact same goal. Officials and industry leaders from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and the United States attended.

    Alexandre Khetaguri, the head of the Georgian International Oil and Gas Corporation, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that presentations focused on projects that could prove "potentially interesting in the future."

    These projects, he said, included Nabucco as well as the construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline, which will ensure transportation of gas from Central Asian countries to Europe.

    Another project discussed in Tbilisi was the proposed Georgia-Ukraine-European Union Gas Pipeline -- or GUEU -- which would transport Azerbaijani gas to the EU via Georgia and Ukraine.

    "This is a very strategic project for the whole area, starting from Azerbaijan and Georgia," said Roberto Pirani, the chairman and technical director of GUEU. "And from the European point of view, it's a diversification of supply into Eastern Europe. We're talking about Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, which are totally dependent on supplies from Gazprom. So this project will provide an alternative, more than an alternative -- a complimentary route of gas, a supply of gas -- to Gazprom."

    Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, meanwhile, traveled to Turkmenistan on March 22 to discuss gas imports.

    According to media reports, Noghaideli was seeking to persuade Turkmen officials to export natural gas to Europe via the South Caucasus. Turkmenistan currently exports most of its natural gas via Russia.

    Bordonaro, the Rome-based energy analyst, says the struggle for control of Turkmenistan's gas will likely heat up in the coming months.

    "One of the major stakes in the next month will be Turkmenistan," he said. "Because if a group of powers will be able to diversify the direction of Turkmen gas reserves and to avoid Russia's control of virtually all of these reserves, this will be an important point for these other powers, and for Georgia and Azerbaijan as well."

    Divided On Diversification

    Bordonaro said not all EU countries fully back efforts to diversify Europe's energy supplies away from Russia.

    Most former communist countries like Poland and Lithuania are pushing Brussels to circumvent Russia. But Germany and France still lean toward making bilateral agreements with Moscow.

    "Europe is proving unable to forge a really unitary energy security strategy and this will also cause trans-Atlantic relations to suffer," Bordonaro said.

    Earlier this month, Hungary decided to back expansion of Russia's Blue Stream pipeline. Gazprom plans to extend the pipeline under the Black Sea to Hungary. According to the plan, Hungary would then serve as a hub to transport Russian gas to Europe.

    Some analysts say Hungary's move could undermine the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline proposal and other projects that were the subject of so much talk in Washington, Tbilisi and Ashgabat this week.

    (Kakha Mchedlidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report.)

    Chechnya's Kadyrov Chooses A Cabinet Of Close Friends

    Kadyrov (left) discussing human rights with Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg in Grozny last month

    March 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- They come from different backgrounds. Some are former separatist rebels; others have always supported the Kremlin.

    But today, they are united by two things. All hold influential posts in the new Chechen government, and all are deeply loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov, the recently appointed president of Chechnya.

    On March 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin nominated Kadyrov, a 30-year-old former separatist fighter and son of assassinated Chechen President Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, to serve as president of the North Caucasus republic. His nomination was confirmed by the Chechen parliament the next day.

    A Rapid Rise

    Kadyrov had previously served as Chechnya's prime minister, rising to acting president following the resignation of his predecessor, Alu Alkhanov.

    His ascent to the top of the Chechen leadership had long been anticipated -- often with concern. Kadyrov commands a large personal army, the notorious Kadyrovtsy, which has been tied to rampant torture, kidnappings, and summary executions in the war-torn republic.

    Although he won't be inaugurated until April 5, Kadyrov has lost no time in nominating members of his inner circle to key cabinet posts.

    So what are Moscow's interests in allowing the iron-fisted Kadyrov to consolidate his own power?

    "The reasons are clear," Ruslan Martagov, a Chechen political analyst who was a spokesman for the Moscow-installed government of Doku Zavgayev in the mid-1990s, told RFE/RL. "With [Chechnya] in the hands of one single man, they'll be able to do anything with it in the future, should the need arise. Had the people been given the right to choose their leader, it would be united like one family. But when they place one man at the head of the republic without asking the people's opinion, this republic is easier to destroy and frighten. This is precisely why this situation has been created and is being sustained."

    Friends And Family

    Under the reshuffle, Chechnya's new prime minister is Odes Baisultanov, a former first deputy prime minister responsible for the reconstruction of war-ravaged Chechnya. The 41-year-old Baisultanov is also Kadyrov's cousin on his mother's side.

    Kadyrov then appointed Muslim Khuchiyev mayor of the Chechen capital, Grozny. Khuchiyev is the vice president of the Akhmed-haji Kadyrov charity foundation and heads the Chechen branch of A Just Russia, a pro-Putin political party.

    Former Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Khalid Vaikhanov now serves as secretary of the Chechen Security Council. He is also a close ally of Kadyrov's.

    Alambek Yasayev, Kadyrov's close friend, has been named deputy interior minister. Yasayev previously worked for a department combating organized crime and once commanded one of Kadyrov's security units.

    Sergei Grigorianz, a Caucasus expert based in Moscow, told RFE/RL that permitting Kadyrov to put together this loyal new team, however, is not without danger for the Kremlin.

    "[Moscow] is absolutely not certain that Kadyrov, who is still a very young man, will not one day use his power to sever all ties with Moscow," Grigorianz said.

    Constitutional Changes

    Just over two weeks into his presidency, Kadyrov has also announced several important plans.

    Interfax reported that Kadyrov called for amendments to the Chechen constitution that would consolidate the republic's place within Russia.

    The current constitution, adopted in 2003, affirms Chechnya's status as a subject of the Russian Federation. But he says he would like to see the language strengthened further.

    Grozny Mayor and Kadyrov ally Muslim Khuchiyev (TASS)

    Kadyrov this week also announced that Chechen inmates serving terms in Russian prisons will be moved to Chechnya by early 2008 for the remainder of their sentences.

    Federal prison authorities reportedly gave the green light.

    The decision would affect some 900 prisoners. Only Chechens serving life sentences in Russian facilities will not be repatriated.

    The idea, however, is not new. Kadyrov has long voiced concern about what he says is ill-treatment of Chechens inmates in Russia.

    A number of human rights campaigners have welcomed the initiative, which they say will enable the inmates to be closer to their families and avoid racial discrimination from prison staff and inmates.

    But as Thomas Hammerberg, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, cautioned during a visit to Chechnya this month, conditions in Chechen prisons are far from rosy. Inmates, he said, continue to face rampant torture in Chechen jails.