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Russia/Turkmenistan: Once Again, Putin's Talks With Niyazov Yield No Substantial Results

Turkmenistan's president, Saparmurat Niyazov, had talks at the Kremlin in Moscow today with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders discussed the situation in Afghanistan as well as terms for the export of Turkmen gas to Russia over the next several years. But no breakthrough agreements were signed.

Prague, 21 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan in recent weeks has defied a Central Asian trend in choosing not to upgrade its ties with the United States and other Western countries involved in the war against terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has instead used the occasion to emphasize his country's official neutrality, prompting some commentators to speculate Niyazov may be aiming for a rapprochement with Russia, which has also expressed some concern about the U.S. presence in the region.

But those expecting a breakthrough at today's meeting between Niyazov and Putin in Moscow were in for a disappointment. Despite the exchange of public pleasantries between the two leaders and promises of deepening relations, little came out of the talks.

In the words of RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Arkady Dubnov, who covers Turkmen issues: "The main agreement they signed was about opening a Russian-language school in Ashgabat."

Putin said today the two countries are working on a new treaty -- proposed by Turkmenistan -- to govern bilateral political and economic relations, but work on a final document still appears to be some time away: "On your [Niyazov's] initiative, we are now working on a new treaty on cooperation between Turkmenistan and Russia. And needless to say, there are many plans in the sphere of energy, although the volume has gone down recently, but I think we can fix that."

Russia has expressed interest in increasing its purchases of Turkmen natural gas, but Niyazov wants to make this conditional on Moscow signing a long-term framework agreement committing it to gas purchases over many years. The Turkmen leader presented a draft version of the text to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov during the latter's visit to Ashgabat in early January. And apparently, Moscow has not had enough time to fully study the document.

"He [Niyazov] wanted to sign an overall agreement on relations but he only presented the text to Moscow for examination 12 days ago and as the saying goes, only cats are born in such a time-frame, not agreements," Dubnov said.

For geopolitical reasons, Moscow may be keen to cultivate an ally in Turkmenistan. But Russia has had a difficult time dealing with Niyazov, and it has often seen previous negotiations fizzle out before any deal was struck. One notable example was in March 2000, when the two countries started negotiating a deal for Turkmen delivery of 13 billion cubic meters of gas. But talks soon struck an impasse over price. Under new rules instituted at the start of this year, potential buyers of Turkmen gas will have to put down an advance deposit to demonstrate their good faith. If the deal falls through, the Ashgabat government keeps the money -- hardly an encouragement to investors.

Negotiations on dividing the oil and gas resources of the Caspian Sea also continue to divide the two countries. Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan want to carve up the seabed into national sectors corresponding to their respective territories. But Turkmenistan has been leaning toward the Iranian position, which calls for dividing the seabed equally among all the littoral states. Niyazov twice canceled summits planned for last year on the issue, angering Russia.

If Niyazov knew no important deal would be struck in Moscow today, why would the famously reluctant traveler bother to come to the Kremlin at all? According to Dubnov, Niyazov was most interested in a photo opportunity -- a chance to obtain smiling shots of himself with Putin -- to broadcast on state-controlled television back home. Niyazov's strategy of neutrality has been built on an unwillingness to commit to any single partner. This has seen Niyazov turning alternately toward the United States, Turkey, Iran, and Russia when the need suited him. But there are indications that politicians in all those countries have become frustrated with Niyazov's erratic style of running foreign affairs, and it may soon stop paying dividends.

"You can't build any strategic relations with him [Niyazov] because he never guarantees the fulfillment of agreements. He can agree to one thing and then do something else entirely behind your back," Dubnov said.

Analysts say the case of former Turkmen Foreign Minister and Ambassador to China Boris Shikhmuradov bears watching. Shikhmuradov surfaced in Moscow in November after being dismissed by Niyazov. He issued a searing indictment of the Turkmen leader, saying the Niyazov regime had become a "black hole in which the well-being and hopes of the people and the national property are disappearing."

Shikhmuradov's statement said a democratic, popular movement ready to oppose Niyazov was coalescing in Turkmenistan. The fact that Moscow allowed Shikhmuradov to make such a statement and that it has continued to provide him shelter, ignoring Ashgabat's extradition demands, leads some observers to conclude that Russia may be helping to prepare the ground for a post-Niyazov Turkmenistan.

Dubnov says that remains speculation, but he adds that many Russian government officials do not hide their sympathies toward Shikhmuradov: "The fact that many people sympathize with him [Shikhmuradov] here is absolutely clear, and many members of the leadership -- although one can't say this about the president [Putin], as he doesn't know him personally, because they didn't have a chance to get acquainted when he was [foreign] minister -- have good relations with him."

And so, the game of diplomatic poker between Russia and Turkmenistan continues. For now, it's a game no side appears to be winning.

(Naz Nazar of RFE/RL's Turkmen service contributed to this report.)