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Caucasus/Central Asia: Turkic Summit Calls For Cooperation

The leaders of Turkic-language countries are calling for cooperation on natural resources. However, our correspondent reports that the call is not likely to produce major results in the immediate future. RFE/RL's Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 13 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- This week's Turkic Summit in Baku ended with a call for cooperation on energy exports but few real signs that such a goal will be met.

Speaking at the end of the annual meeting, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel forecast a brighter future for joint economic efforts in the Turkic-language region.

Demirel predicted that: "The 21st century will be a century of strengthening ties between Turkic nations."

But instead, there were indications that the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia are finding few reasons to work together on energy projects that may shape the region's future.

While the presidents of four nations attended, two stayed away. Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, was said to be angered by suspicions that Turkey is harboring opponents of his regime, according to a widely repeated report by the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS.

The absence of Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov was particularly problematic. Some officials had held out hopes that Niyazov would attend to sign an agreement with Azerbaijan on a trans-Caspian gas pipeline. But despite earlier claims that the two countries had found a formula for sharing the pipeline to Turkey, the standoff over the issue appears to be frozen in time.

Perhaps of equal concern was the position of Kazakhstan with regard to the Baku-Ceyhan oil line. Kazakh officials seemed to send contradictory signals about whether the country would commit significant amounts of oil to the route.

Speaking on Friday, before the summit, President Nursultan Nazarbaev said that Kazakhstan was not ready to guarantee any volumes of oil to the pipeline, which needs 20 million tons per year to be viable. There have been doubts about Kazakhstan's role since last November, when the country signed agreements on the pipeline at the OSCE security summit in Istanbul.

On Friday, Nazarbaev said: "We don't have any concrete volumes committed to the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline." He added that "We are now waiting for results from offshore drilling, and if we find oil then we will join this project."

The comments were echoed by Nurlan Balgimbaev, head of the state oil company Kazakhoil, who cast doubt on the ability of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline to attract enough oil. Balgimbaev told reporters: "I'm not a pessimist, I'm just a realist," adding that the line might not be built until 2008 instead of by 2004, as planned.

Those comments were apparently judged to be too pessimistic, however. Almost immediately afterward, Nazarbaev was quoted as saying, "We support the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan layout, and we will immediately join this project as soon as we discover more oil reserves."

The ambiguous comments can only come as a disappointment to Azerbaijan, which welcomed Nazarbaev in pre-summit ceremonies with the signing of nine bilateral documents on cooperation.

Despite expressions of friendship, Kazakhstan made clear that its first commitments are to Russian export routes, including its northern pipeline connection and a new line that is being built from its Tengiz field to the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. Kazakhstan used the occasion to lobby Azerbaijan for lower transit tariffs on its oil that already crosses the country to Georgia by rail. Kazakh officials said they would increase the transit, but for now, it is cheaper to ship oil through the port of Makhachkala on another Russian line to Novorossiysk that bypasses Chechnya.

The responses may be a rebuff not only to Azerbaijan but also to Turkey. Both would be beneficiaries of Baku-Ceyhan. Over the weekend, Demirel's scheduled trip to Kazakhstan to seek support for the pipeline was canceled, although he was invited to return as a private citizen after his term as president expires in May.

Although the U.S.-backed pipelines must survive the test of economics, it is notable that they also rely on regional cooperation. Firm agreements among Caspian countries have been particularly hard to secure.

Rifts such as those between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan over Caspian borders have become hurdles to progress. As the conflicts drag on, it is hard to escape the conclusion that these countries find it easier to deal with outside powers than with their immediate neighbors.

One sign of the trouble in cooperative relations is that none of the major Caspian projects has included neighboring countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia in a partnership. The closest tie so far has been between Georgia and Azerbaijan, which recently agreed on transit fees for the Baku-Ceyhan line.

The greater need for cooperation with major powers like Russia may account for the lack of bilateral projects among Caspian neighbors. But the result may be unending reliance on Russia unless the problems can be overcome.