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Analysis From Washington - Moscow's New Pipeline Politics

Washington, May 14 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's efforts to use oil pipelines to promote Russian geopolitical interests took on a new urgency Monday and simultaneously suffered a major defeat.

The new urgency was reflected in Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's speech to oil and gas officials of the Commonwealth of Independent States. In his remarks, Chernomyrdin accused Western countries and multinational oil companies of trying to "subordinate" the CIS countries "to their rules of the game and to their economic interests."

To counter this trend, Chernomyrdin called for the creation of an OPEC-like CIS energy security body, one that would regulate and hence restrict production and export of gas and oil.

Chernomyrdin's remarks reflect three growing concerns in Moscow.

First, Russia's longstanding interest in using oil and gas as political weapons to promote the reintegration of the former Soviet space under Russian leadership.

Second, the increasing economic nationalism of the Russian population in this electoral system.

And third, a desire to counter the efforts of several CIS states to find alternative routes to the West to sell their own oil.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian government has deployed the oil weapon to promote its own geopolitical interests.

It has given concessionary prices to those CIS and Baltic countries that have been willing to cooperate and insisted on world prices from those who oppose Moscow's wishes.

And it has sought to block any pipeline project in the region that would not give Moscow control of the flow and hence of the country selling the oil.

Russian leaders have given particular prominence to this idea during the current presidential campaign. Attacks on Western involvement in and supposed control of Russia's own resources now play well to a Russian audience angered by Western involvement in key Russian industries.

Some energy industry analysts have already dismissed Chernomyrdin's latest proposal as mere election-year rhetoric. But that is almost certainly a mistake.

Russian officials at all levels have said repeatedly for the past several years that Moscow will never allow foreign states or firms to take over key industries that Russians believe must remain in Russian hands.

And Russian officials--including Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin--have been very clear that foreign investment is fine but that Russian control is a necessity. That is because they see the CIS energy infrastructure as being the basis for the reintegration of the former Soviet space.

That basis was challenged in three former Soviet republics just as Chernomyrdin was giving his presentation in Moscow.

First, Turkmenistan, a country with the third largest proved natural gas reserves in the world, opened a bridge to Iran that will eventually carry out much of its natural gas to the West.

Second, Kazakhstan agreed to a swap deal with Iran that will allow that Central Asian republic to sell its oil to the West far more quickly than any of the proposed pipelines would have.

And third, Azerbaijan agreed to give half of its stake in the Shakh-Deniz project in the Caspian to Iran, a deal that should simultaneously quiet Iranian insistence on the redefinition of the Caspian Sea as a lake--something Russia very much wants--and allow Baku to export more of its oil via Iran.

As a result of these moves, which together constitute a defeat for Moscow's policies of isolating these countries, Chernomyrdin's speech looks very much like crying over spilled oil than the enunciation of a successful policy.

But precisely because oil is so important, Russian economic nationalism is now so strong, and the U.S. at least is so committed to continuing the isolation of Iran internationally, neither Chernomyrdin's speech nor the actions of the three countries in the former Soviet south are likely to be the last word.