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Russia: Support For Gas Pipeline Through Afghanistan Uncertain

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov called this week for cooperation in plans for a natural-gas pipeline through Afghanistan, but cautioned that Moscow's interests must be observed. The statement left it unclear whether Russia would give its support or whether it would seek a large share of the project, as with an export pipeline from Kazakhstan.

Boston, 11 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow has taken an equivocal stand on a planned pipeline through Afghanistan, saying this week that it will not try to block the project, as long as its interests are taken into account.

In an interview published on 10 July in "Izvestiya," Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov called for cooperation, noting that Russia had joined with U.S. companies in building the Caspian Pipeline Consortium project for oil exports from Kazakhstan. But he stopped short of saying that Moscow wants to play a similar role in the proposed gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan.

The plan, which is seen as a boost for recovery in Afghanistan, has been encouraged by the United States. But the pipeline would also give Turkmenistan a new export outlet for its gas, reducing its reliance on Russian routes.

Interfax quoted Ivanov as saying, "We cannot prohibit any country from pursuing a multilateral policy," adding that: "These countries should develop their [economies]. They cannot just wait for things to happen. We are searching for markets and investment. So are they. And everything depends on how active we are."

Ivanov also said, "The other thing is that we will not allow anybody to hurt our interests."

His statement suggests that Turkmenistan and other supporters may have to tread carefully in pursuing the pipeline project to determine what Russia's essential interests are.

This week, the $2.5 billion plan to pipe gas south from Turkmenistan's giant Dovletebad field to Pakistan took a step forward at a meeting of supporters in Ashgabat.

Rajiv Kumar, chief economist of the Asian Development Bank, said it would fund a feasibility study for the 1,460-kilometer line, which follows the same route as a project formerly sponsored by Unocal Corporation. The U.S.-based oil company dropped its plan in 1998 because of sanctions against Afghanistan's Taliban.

But Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov has been trying to revive the gas-export scheme with Kabul's new government. In May, Niyazov signed a memorandum of understanding with Afghanistan's then-interim leader, Hamid Karzai, and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to carry out the feasibility study and promote the route.

At the meeting in Ashgabat, U.S. Ambassador Laura Kennedy praised the project, the official "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" paper reported. "The U.S. government also is ready to back the commercially viable trans-Afghan gas pipeline. The implementation of this program can produce a decisive impact on Afghanistan's stability and prosperity and, apart from this, would allow an increase in the volumes of Turkmen fuel exports and diversification of routes. We decisively support this point, too," Kennedy said.

But so far, Niyazov appears to have had more trouble in persuading Moscow to take part, despite Ivanov's call for cooperation. The Turkmen leader has invited Russia's Gazprom to join in building the pipeline. Last month, Niyazov also tried to interest the Russian oil company Rosneft and gas trader Itera in the project, but none of the firms has responded, so far.

It is unclear whether Moscow will support a project that channels Turkmen gas away from its territory, particularly considering that Russia has failed to secure a long-term agreement for Turkmen gas supplies for the past two years. Relations over the impasse and the Afghan project appear to be strained.

On 6 July, Niyazov was conspicuously absent from an informal summit of presidents from Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan at the Kazakh port of Aqtau. The meeting was called to discuss reconstruction in Afghanistan and energy cooperation. Niyazov gave no reason for staying away.

Ivanov's reference to the Caspian Pipeline Consortium project could also be a signal that cooperation may not come quickly or easily. The project, known as CPC, is very different from the Afghan pipeline in that it carries Kazakh oil entirely through Russian territory to the Black Sea.

Even so, the CPC project was subject to years of negotiation and false starts. The Russian government emerged as the biggest shareholder in the CPC venture with a 24 percent stake. It is unclear whether Ivanov's statement about Russia's interests is a sign that it would want a similar share of the Afghan project.

At a minimum, it seems likely that Niyazov would have to reach a long-term deal to supply gas to Russia before it would agree to support a pipeline that runs in the opposite direction, potentially depriving Russia of a source of fuel. In order to reach such an agreement, Niyazov would also have to ease his price demands on Moscow, which is something that he has been unwilling to do.