Russia's relations with the three states that make up the southern flank of the Commonwealth Of Independent States -- Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan -- have suffered severe setbacks of late.
Uzbekistan has annoyed the Kremlin by scaling back its participation in Russian-led security organizations, and by passing a customs law that promises to heavily tax Russian companies involved in production-sharing agreements that deal with the export of Uzbek natural gas.
Tajikistan wants Russia to pay rent on military bases Kremlin forces have used since the closing days of World War II and recent incidents involving some of those Russian troops have angered Tajik communities.
Turkmenistan is unhappy with the state of its natural-gas dealings with Moscow and is awaiting the reopening of a key gas pipeline that exploded in early April and for which it blames Russia's Gazprom.
It came as only a mild surprise, then, to learn that the presidents of the three countries would not be attending an October 9 CIS summit in Chisinau, Moldova. They will be joining fellow Central Asian state Kazakhstan in sending lower-level delegations.
The absence of the Uzbek, Tajik, and Turkmen presidents has led to speculation that they may be sending a defiant message to Russia, which dominates the regional grouping, and has added to the pall already cast on the summit.
The decision not to attend by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev -- who is perhaps the biggest booster of the CIS, after Russia -- came as a complete surprise in Astana and his office offered no explanation for the move.
Georgia, which formally withdrew from the post-Soviet grouping this past summer, will not be represented at the summit.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reportedly has no plans on meeting on the sidelines of the summit with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, putting the spotlight on tensions between Moscow and Kyiv. Troubles With Uzbekistan
Of the three states that make up the CIS's southern flank, Russia's biggest problem this year has been with Uzbekistan.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who has frequently missed CIS summits over the years, has long been known for resisting the encroachment of Russian influence and for his efforts to bolster his own country's regional influence.
The most glaring recent example of discord in the Uzbek-Russian relationship is Uzbekistan's abrupt reduction of participation in the Russian-led CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). During recent CSTO training exercises, Tashkent declined to send any troops.
Russia wants to maintain its presence and strengthen it. And we should say, 'Brother, if you want to use [our soil], please pay for it.'
Matthew Clements, Eurasia analyst at the London-based IHS Jane's Information Group, explains that Tashkent has not welcomed Moscow's plans to create a special CSTO counterterrorism force.
"We've seen it [Uzbekistan] very much take a back foot on the CSTO front, whereby Russian desires to create a regional rapid reaction force in Central Asia has been met with a very frosty reception by Uzbekistan, who have toned down the agreement that was signed earlier in the year," Clements says.
Clements refers to a CSTO rapid-reaction force agreement that Tashkent did sign in February. But Uzbekistan has since voiced objections to putting its troops under CSTO command, as fellow members (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan) have agreed to do. Tashkent’s most publicized worry is that its troops could be misused in resolving "frozen conflicts."
Clements noted in a recent interview that, aside from the CSTO, Uzbekistan is also scaling back participation in another multilateral organization heavily influenced by the Kremlin -- the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
"Indeed, just a couple of days ago, [Tashkent] announced it was going to sit out the upcoming SCO military exercises, both of which are pushed quite strongly by Russia as a way of maintaining its military influence in Central Asia," Clements says.Curious Timing
Uzbekistan has also sent a stern trade message to Moscow. In late August, Uzbekistan’s parliament passed legislation imposing an excise tax of 25 percent on the customs costs of natural gas for "nonresident" participants in production-sharing agreements (PSA).
There are three PSAs dealing with Uzbekistan's energy sector -- all of them multimillion-dollar projects. In two, Uzbekistan's sole partner is Russia's LUKoil, while in the other LUKoil joins four Asian energy companies.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon's official reason for not attending the CIS summit is that he will be in Turkmenistan, where he will meet with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
Acting Moldovan President Mihai Ghimpu with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the summit
But the curious timing of the meeting -- during which the two presidents are expected to discuss Turkmen electricity supplies to Tajikistan, which has experienced power outages the last two winters -- highlights signs of a increasingly frosty mood in Dushanbe's dealings with Moscow.
Much has been made about the Tajikistan's approval this week of a law that dropped Russian as an official language in the country, while designating Tajik as the sole "language for interethnic communication."
The new law, which states that all official papers and education in the country should be conducted only in the Tajik language, prompted a Russian diplomat to warn this week that the law could negatively affect minorities in living in Tajikistan.
But a Russian military base in Tajikistan is a main source of tension.
Representing the best-trained and best-equipped fighting force in Central Asia, the Russian 201st Division has had a presence in Tajikistan for decades. It was of great comfort to the Tajik government during the 1992-97 Tajik civil war and when the Taliban started operating just across the Tajik border.
But seeing NATO and U.S. forces paying high rent prices for bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan needed for the Afghan war effort, and Russia paying rent for its military base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, Dushanbe is setting terms for the 201st Division's continued use of its base, including the payment of rent.'Please Pay For It'
Zafar Mirzoev, an independent Tajik political analyst, explained in an interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service the mindset behind Dushanbe's demands.
"I think Russia has no choice but to accept the conditions put forward by our government," Mirzoev says. "When you see the forces of NATO increasing -- doubling, tripling -- on the opposite side of theAmu-Darya...Russia wants to maintain its presence and strengthen it. And we should say, 'Brother, if you want to use [our soil], please pay for it.' "
The rent demand comes at an especially sensitive time for the 201st. In September, two of the division's soldiers killed a taxi driver and dumped his body in a Tajik river. The soldiers had reportedly argued earlier with a different taxi driver and allegedly decided to get revenge on any taxi driver.
Just days later, a truck from the 201st collided with a minibus. Five people were killed in the crash, including three civilians, but soldiers of the 201st are not subject to Tajik law and thus cannot be prosecuted. Any punishment handed down to the soldiers involved will be determined by the division's Russian command.
Turkmenistan is not a full member of the CIS, having "associate member" status, but its president's absence at the summit is notable.
As he hosts his Tajik counterpart, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov will also be awaiting the resolution of a number of issues with Moscow.
Ashgabat and Russia are experiencing severe problems related to their natural-gas agreements. Turkmenistan usually supplies between 40 to 50 billion cubic meters of gas to Russia annually.
Last year, when world gas prices hit record highs, Russia's Gazprom moved to corner the Central Asian gas market, promising to pay the Central Asians "European prices." European prices for gas when contracts were signed exceeded $300 per 1,000 cubic meters. Now the price is somewhere around $200 and falling, prompting Gazprom to advise the Central Asians to lower their selling prices.
Turkmenistan strongly disagreed. During subsequent and touchy price negotiations, an explosion along the gas pipeline carrying Turkmen gas to Russia halted Turkmen exports.
Russia blamed Turkmenistan's aged pipeline system for the early April explosion. But the Turkmen government blamed Gazprom, saying the Russian energy giant had reduced the flow of gas in Russia without informing Turkmenistan. Gas continued to fill the pipeline until it exploded due to the pressure, according to the Turkmen argument.
Gazprom officials now say the pipeline might start working again at the end of October or early November. But Berdymukhammedov might be waiting to see those promises realized before keeping close company with the Russian president.
Berdymukhammedov recently extended an invitation to Medvedev to visit Turkmenistan in December, officially for the opening of a Russian school there. Perhaps by then the contentious energy issues will be resolved.