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Kazakhstan: Putin Visit To Focus On Baikonur, CIS, Oil Resources

Russian President Vladimir Putin begins a two-day visit to Kazakhstan today. Several bilateral agreements are to be signed during his visit, including two extending and specifying the terms for Russia's continued use of the Baikonur cosmodrome.

Prague, 9 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin begins an official two-day visit to Kazakhstan today at the invitation of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Among the highlights of Putin's visit will be the official declaration of the reciprocal Year of Russia in Kazakhstan -- 2003 was the Year of Kazakhstan in Russia. The future of the Baikonur spaceport is also scheduled to be discussed.

Talks between the two presidents will get under way today in the Kazakh capital Astana. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the two parties are expected to discuss a range of issues related to expanding bilateral relations within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Eurasian Economic Community, the Collective Security Treaty, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the emerging Single Economic Space.

Much attention is likely to be paid to trade and economic ties. Kazakhstan is presently an important trade partner for Russia. The trade turnover between the two countries exceeded $5 billion last year and has the potential to double.

The two countries are also interested in increasing cooperation in the fuel and energy sphere. This includes the shipment of oil and gas, joint production of hydrocarbons in the northern Caspian and electric power generation. Both countries cooperate on large bilateral and international projects, among them the Caspian pipeline consortium.

In addition, Kazakhstan's KazMunaiGaz and Russia's LUKoil will sign a contract on development of the Tyub-Karagan and Atashskaya blocs in Kazakhstan's sector of the sea. If commercial oil reserves are found, the two companies will co-fund their industrial development.

Some of the agreements to be signed during Putin's visit will be documents focusing on better cooperation in space exploration and efficient use of the Baikonur spaceport. Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev says one of the agreements will extend Russia's rent of the spaceport for another half-century.

Russia has been renting Baikonur from Kazakhstan since 1994, on a 20-year agreement. Since 1999, Russia has been paying rent fees of some $115 million a year.

That figure is not slated to change under the terms of the new agreement. Earlier media reports had indicated that Kazakhstan would raise the rent to $200 million a year. But the deputy director of the Kazakh Aviation and Space Agency, Asqar Abdizhapparov, told RFE/RL that it is too early to speak about any financial dispute between the two countries over the lease. He said the presidential talks will clarify the matter.

Abdizhapparov added that Kazakhstan wants Russia to revise earlier bilateral agreements on Baikonur, in a way that takes "Kazakhstan's interests into account."

"In the agreements [to be signed], the norms and principles of our further cooperation with Russia, taking Kazakhstan's interests into account, will be outlined."

Another document to be signed is a memorandum defining concrete measures for maintaining Baikonur that the two governments will implement next year.

Abdizhapparov added that the two leaders will discuss the presence of Kazakh police, tax authorities and customs officers in Baikonur City, where most of the residents are Russian citizens.

"Kazakhstan raised the issue [of] the full presence of Kazakh official organs and boards in [Baikonur City]. [The Russians] say this issue should be reflected in an additional document -- in a memorandum. That is why the two presidents will sign two major documents -- an agreement and a memorandum," Abdizhapparov said.

Mike Taverna, the European editor for the "Aviation Week and Space Technology" weekly magazine, says that although other international space launch sites may be more suitable, the Russians have no choice but to rely on the Kazakh site for their space launches for now. But unlike a decade ago, he says, Russian launch firms have strong alliances with Western partners that they may eventually parlay into agreements with other launch sites.

"I would say right now that the Russians don't really have any choice but to continue using Kazakhstan," Taverna said. "Their intent would be, I would think, to prolong the existing agreement by another 10 years, which would give them time to complete their plans to seek other launch sites beyond Kazakhstan, assuming that it's not possible to repatriate their launch business to Russia itself. Kazakhstan obviously will be pushing for a longer-term agreement and [will] try to lock the Russians in. I guess the final question will be a question of money."

(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)