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Russia: Putin Seeks To Boost Ties With Central Asia

Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin, has moved quickly to extend his influence over Central Asia, where he promoted a series of gas and security deals last week. While some problems remain with the gas agreements, Putin's campaign for greater regional power looks increasingly clear. RFE/RL Correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 22 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin boosted relations with Central Asian nations during a visit to the region last week, but there are lingering questions about the substance of the trip.

In Uzbekistan on 19 May, Putin delivered an expected pledge to help President Islam Karimov fight terrorism. Putin declared: "Any threat to Uzbekistan is also a threat to the Russian Federation."

Karimov responded, saying, "In this world a country like Uzbekistan cannot defend itself. So naturally, we seek help from Russia."

The statements appear to complete the reversal of Karimov's efforts to establish Uzbekistan as an independent and Western-oriented center of power in Central Asia. Most reports have linked his change of heart to a series of bomb attacks in Tashkent in February 1999.

A package of 28 military cooperation pacts which was under preparation was supplemented by at least one economic measure, calling for Russia's Gazprom to buy 5 billion cubic meters of Uzbek gas.

In Turkmenistan, gas was also the major focus as President Saparmurat Niyazov pursued his goal of increasing sales to Gazprom. After weeks of publicizing plans to raise annual deliveries from 20 billion cubic meters to 50 billion cubic meters over the next 30 years, the two sides agreed on a smaller increase of 10 billion cubic meters for the time being.

What followed was a series of seemingly contradictory statements about the deal, which has been billed as a major step forward for the Turkmen economy. Putin told reporters that gas volumes would increase until Russian purchases reach at least 50 billion cubic meters. But he added that the pact could not be considered final because the countries have still not agreed on a price for the gas.

The reservation raised the question of whether the deal actually was a deal or only an announcement for political show. Turkmenistan has been seeking $40 per thousand cubic meters, while Russia has offered only about $32.

Other countries have been watching the developments because Niyazov has put off a decision on a U.S.-backed pipeline across the Caspian to Turkey. Iran has also announced that it has cut its gas imports from Turkmenistan by half because of a pricing dispute, making the country more reliant on Russia for its future revenue.

Julia Nanay, director of the Petroleum Finance Company in Washington, said, "Putin's statement clearly indicates to me that they will reach agreement, but they're not there yet."

Nanay believes Putin's visit shows his resolve to renew Russia's influence over energy resources in countries that were previously under Soviet control.

Nanay said, "This is the president going to do a gas deal. That means he is focused on taking the energy back." She said that in the end, Niyazov is likely to agree to Russia's offer with only about 40 percent in cash and the rest in bartered goods.

Another apparent contradiction came in statements by Gazprom chief Rem Vyakhirev, who said that he would be ready to take 50 billion cubic meters of gas immediately if a deal could be reached. He added, however, that the old Soviet pipelines from the country are currently able to handle only about 30 billion cubic meters, once again raising questions as to whether the deal is fact or fantasy.

Nanay said that in fact, the aging pipelines may have trouble handling much more than the 20 billion cubic meters that are already under agreement without upgrade or repair. While the work has been discussed, it is not clear that any has been done. In any case, it may be hard to increase deliveries immediately even if a final agreement is reached.

The pipeline network that connects Turkmenistan to Russia also runs through Uzbekistan. As a result, it is likely that Russia's promise to buy 5 billion cubic meters of Uzbek gas will subtract from the volume of Turkmen gas that can be carried in the line.

But even though the details look difficult, Russia's intentions still seem clear. Under Putin, Russia is moving into the Central Asian market with far more determination than before.

Completing the picture, Gazprom sealed an agreement with Kazakhstan last week to help supply gas within the country, as well as exporting to Europe and China. The joint venture with KazTransGas came after Tractebel of Belgium withdrew from the Kazakh market, where it operated gas and electricity systems.

Gazprom's moves in the three Central Asian nations seem to signal that Russia will pursue a strategy to increase its power in the region, whether or not it seals its deals right away.