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Caspian: Region Shows Signs Of Arms Buildup

While Caspian countries seek a border agreement, a Russian arms deal with Turkmenistan may raise tensions with Azerbaijan. The "gas-for-guns" trade appears to be the latest setback in the long-running dispute over oil fields claimed by Ashgabat and Baku. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 19 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- After months of friction in the Caspian Sea region, there are signs that an arms buildup may be about to begin.

Last week in Ashgabat, an official of Russia's state-owned arms trader Rosoboronexport announced an agreement to sell Turkmenistan weapons in exchange for gas, the Interfax news agency reported.

President Saparmurat Niyazov is interested in upgrading his country's old Soviet arms, according to Sergei Chemezov, first deputy general director of Rosoboronexport. Turkmenistan is also seeking "advanced Russian military hardware," including coast guard border patrol craft, Chemezov said.

The deal comes two weeks after Azerbaijani reports that Turkmenistan was preparing to buy 20 speedboats from Ukraine, half of which were to carry machine guns. Azerbaijan's ANS television later corrected the account, quoting Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma as saying that the total number of boats was only two.

The lower figure corresponds to the two coast guard boats that were recently donated by the United States to Azerbaijan. The unarmed vessels are said to be only 16 meters in length.

But Turkmenistan appears to be reacting sternly to the gift in light of its long-standing Caspian border dispute with Azerbaijan. It appears that Russia is eager to oblige by marketing its arms to Ashgabat.

The meeting with Niyazov was also reported to include Igor Makarov, the president of Itera, the main trading partner of Russia's gas monopoly Gazprom. Itera handles the Russian gas trade with all CIS countries and indirectly supplies Azerbaijan with Turkmen gas.

Russia has previously balked at Turkmenistan's price hikes for gas. The gas-for-guns deal could give Moscow more fuel at favorable rates.

The move may mark a turning point for neutral Turkmenistan, which has so far resisted temptations to beef up its defenses against more dangerous neighbors like Afghanistan's Taliban. Turkmenistan has been alone among the Central Asian nations in arguing that the Taliban faction poses no threat.

Ashgabat now seems to be sending ambiguous signals toward Azerbaijan. Two weeks ago, it withdrew its ambassador from Baku but said the move was only the result of budget constraints. Azerbaijani officials have reportedly blamed the decision on Turkmenistan's competing claims to Caspian oil fields.

While Azerbaijan says it owns the Kyapaz field in the center of the Caspian, Turkmenistan says it has the right to the same field, which it calls Serdar. In addition, Ashgabat claims several deposits that are already under development by Azerbaijan's biggest Western consortium.

Last week, Turkmenistan also publicized a Niyazov meeting with his security council and a shakeup in the army and interior staff. Taken together, this series of actions is unusual for a nation that has insisted that its neutrality policy has defused all potential threats.

In his meeting with Chemezov and Makarov, Niyazov again cited Turkmenistan's neutral stance. But he added, "At the same time, certain steps to strengthen the defensive power of the country are permitted."

The question is what country Turkmenistan is suddenly defending against, if not Azerbaijan. In addition to its distinctive policy on the Taliban, Turkmenistan is now the only former Soviet republic of Central Asia that is not a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. One implication is that Niyazov does not see an Islamic insurgency as a threat.

The arms issue received little public notice last week during a meeting of deputy ministers in Baku on the perennial question of how to divide the Caspian Sea among the five shoreline states.

But Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani called for demilitarization of the Caspian, saying it should continue to be a source of "peace and friendship," the official IRNA news agency said. Iran has repeatedly raised concerns about Russia's naval power in negotiations over Caspian dividing lines.

The risk of increasing border patrols in the Caspian is that there is no agreement on where the border is. While the Azerbaijani and Turkmen forces in the Caspian are slight, it is hard to predict what either side would do if their patrol boats come into contact in a disputed area.

Niyazov may assume that Azerbaijan will have no taste for trouble on another front as long as its conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh remains unresolved.

Russia could be the beneficiary of a confrontation, given its potential to influence the arms and energy exports for all of the countries involved. But arms sales seem unlikely to lead to a Caspian settlement, which Russia says it wants.