But given Ukraine's current problems with Moscow over natural-gas supplies, Yushchenko's presence in Kazakhstan -- the energy baron of Central Asia -- could not come at a better time.
Just this week, Russian gas giant Gazprom announced a sharp reduction in gas supplies to Ukraine, citing Kyiv's alleged $600 million debt for supplies already received. The move caused political as well as energy problems in Ukraine, and threatened to fracture the already fragile coalition between Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
So Yushchenko's appearance in Kazakhstan, a country rich in natural gas and oil, is an opportunity he should take full advantage of, according to Volodymyr Omelchenko of the Razymkova Center, a Ukrainian think tank.
"Kazakhstan has some of the largest oil and gas resources in Central Asia. Oil output is growing in Kazakhstan now. And when the Kashagan oil field begins functioning in 2011 or 2012, Ukraine should use that opportunity" to secure its supplies, Omelchenko tells RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.
Matthew Clements, the Eurasia editor at the London-based Jane's Information Group, tells RFE/RL that Yushchenko is almost sure to ask Kazakh officials about energy exports from Kazakhstan when he meets with them in Astana.
"The long-term issue that Ukraine is really pushing at the moment is an attempt to diversify its [energy] sources away from Russia because of the current problems it has" with Russia, Clements says. "And one of those [sources] is obviously Central Asia."
Clements cites proposals to create a new pipeline running through Turkey, Ukraine, and other parts of Europe, bypassing Russia. "Key to that would be accessing Central Asian gas and oil and transporting that across the Caspian Sea," he adds.
Kazakhstan's Feuding Allies
Borikhan Nurmukhammedov, an Almaty-based independent political observer, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that Yushchenko is not only seeking energy supplies, but also support in Ukraine's feud with Russia.
"The most important issue in relations between Ukraine and Kazakhstan is the issue of energy," Nurmukhammedov says. "Ukraine today is trying to get Kazakhstan's support to solve some of the problematic issues between Ukraine and Russia." At the same time, he adds, "every time problems arise between Ukraine and Russia, Ukraine turns to one of the biggest consumers of its industrial output -- Kazakhstan. I think those are the issues Yushchenko is going to take care of while he is here" in Kazakhstan.
Yushchenko should specifically be asking about Kazakh oil, since the only available route for Kazakh natural gas runs through Russia. But there are some considerable problems in seeking Kazakh oil: as Clements notes, Kazakhstan and Russia are close allies and have been for some time.
"Kazakhstan has a closer relationship with Russia than other CIS states or regional states and I think this has been cemented in recent months by the pipeline agreement between Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia," Clements says. "And I think it shows a favorable point of view from Kazakhstan toward Russia and indeed from Russia toward Kazakhstan."
However, Clements says that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev "has shown a great willingness to be quite open-minded in terms of getting as many gas deals as possible into other countries. For instance, pipeline and export agreements have been signed with China and he's also been very open to the idea of supplying some amount of [gas] across the Caspian toward Europe."
Transit For Energy
Almaty-based independent political analyst Sharipbek Amirbek tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that there are several good reasons for Kazakh leaders to be sympathetic to Ukraine's requests for more energy supplies. Amirbek cites Ukraine's developed industrial infrastructure as an important advantage. Furthermore, he says, "Ukraine is known today as a transit country on the way to the West, meaning that even Russia transports its gas to Europe via Ukraine, so...for Kazakhstan it is very important to use Ukrainian territory as a transit territory. That will be on the agenda."
Agreeing on oil shipments is easier than actually delivering oil to Ukraine. The only land route between Kazakhstan and Ukraine crosses Russia. But Kazakhstan has been building up an oil-tanker fleet and that could at least help in the initial stage of exporting oil.
"Oil or gas from any Central Asian countries to Europe or Ukraine is actually very difficult if you're trying to bypass Russia," Clements says. But "there are tanker routes across the Caspian into Baku in Azerbaijan, which links them to the BTC [Baku-Tbilisi Ceyhan] pipeline to Turkey and then on to Europe."
Yushchenko spent his first day in Kazakhstan at festivities to mark the "Year of Ukraine in Kazakhstan." On March 6 he will hold meetings with Kazakh officials.
RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan and Mariana Drach of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report
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