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Moscow Seeking Alliances in Energy-Rich Central Asia

  • Farangis Najibullah

Uzbek President Islam Karimov (left) and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meet in Tashkent.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Tashkent was seen by many as part of Moscow’s renewed drive to secure regional alliances and establish control over Central Asian energy export to the West.

During Putin’s trip on September 1-2, Russia and Uzbekistan agreed to build a new pipeline to pump Uzbek and Turkmen gas to Russia for re-export to Europe.

Russian news agencies quoted Uzbek President Islam Karimov as saying the proposed pipeline would have the capacity to pump 26 to 30 billion cubic meters of gas annually.

Without revealing details of the deal, Putin told reporters in Tashkent that the pipeline would “serve the growing export potential” of Uzbekistan and Central Asia’s biggest gas producer, Turkmenistan. Putin -- accompanied by Alexei Miller, the head of Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom -- said the final agreement would be signed “in near future.”

In addition, Russia’s second-biggest energy company, Lukoil, announced plans to produce 12 billion cubic meters of gas annually in Uzbekistan’s Kandym and Gissar fields.

Clear Threat

Analysts say the proposed pipeline would strengthen Russia’s dominance over Central Asian gas and undermine Western efforts to build a rival trans-Caspian energy route bypassing Russia.

The project is seen as a clear threat to European Union’s efforts to ease its energy dependence on Russia, which currently supplies the EU with one-third of its oil and 40 percent of its natural gas.

Karimov, speaking to reporters alongside Putin in Tashkent, said that, contrary to “speculation,” Uzbekistan is not against building the Russian-Central Asian pipeline project.

"We are ready to provide our territory for the pipeline to pass through Uzbek areas, and we are interested in it,” he said.

Uzbekistan’s willingness for such cooperation is significant for Moscow, which is reaching out for support after Western condemnation over its military actions in Georgia and recognition of two Georgian breakaway regions.

Arthur Ulunyan, an expert with the Center for Balkan, Caucasus, and Central Asian Studies in Moscow, tells RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that Moscow needs political backing now and is ready to pay a price to obtain such support.

“There will be efforts to convince Islam Karimov to support Russia’s points of view -- in return for certain guarantees to Karimov personally, as well as to the regime [in Uzbekistan],” Ulunyan said.

Building Hydroelectric Plants

Russia has been trying to bolster its alliances with former Soviet countries in Central Asia, as well as with Armenia and Belarus.

In Dushanbe last week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia would help build three hydroelectric power plants in Tajikistan. In addition, Russia said Gazprom would start developing Tajik gas fields and that another Russian firm, Rosatom, would examine uranium mining projects in the mountainous country, which desperately needs foreign investment.

However, Russia is unlikely to easily win clear-cut backing from Central Asian countries.

During Putin’s trip to Tashkent, news was leaked that Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov would visit Washington this fall. If confirmed, it would be the first visit of a high-level Uzbek official to the United States since relations cooled between the two countries after Tashkent’s bloody crackdown against a popular uprising in Andijon in May 2005.

In recent months, relations between Uzbekistan and the West have shown signs of warming, with Tashkent reportedly considering allowing NATO the use of a military base to support its operations in Afghanistan.

Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have also been trying to balance their interests between Russia and the West, as has China, which also needs Central Asian energy for its growing economy.

No Support

During the Shanghai Cooperation Group’s (SCO) summit in Dushanbe last week, Russia failed to gain support for its military intervention in Georgia, as well as for its recognition of the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Leading Russian newspapers, such as “Izvestia” and “Kommersant,” acknowledged that Medvedev didn’t obtain clear backing from the SCO or Belarus for its policy in the Caucasus.

Russia is expected to again seek backing for its Caucasus actions during a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Moscow on September 5. The bloc brings together Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Apart from Russia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia have only been formally recognized so far by one another and by far-away Nicaragua. Belarus and Venezuela have expressed “understanding” of Russia’s recognition of the separatist regions but stopped short of following Moscow’s lead themselves.

As “Kommersant” wrote recently, Moscow seems to have been left “alone in its confrontation with the West” over Georgia, as “even Russia’s traditional allies have refused to side with it.”

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service contributed to this report
RFE/RL Central Asia Report


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