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Russia: Moscow Dismisses Turkmenistan's Accusations

Turkmenistan yesterday accused Russia of sheltering the suspected plotters behind the 25 November assassination attempt on President Saparmurat Niyazov. Relations between the two former Soviet countries have been strained in recent years, with Moscow especially frustrated about what it says is Ashgabat's foot-dragging on dividing control of the oil-rich Caspian Sea. RFE/RL reports that while the latest accusations about Moscow's alleged protection of Turkmen dissidents reflects the rocky ties, they do not seem likely to set off a deeper conflict.

Moscow, 27 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Politicians have dismissed as absurd claims that suspected plotters of an assassination attempt against Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov were given protection in Russia. But while the political exchange between Moscow and Ashgabat reflects uneasy relations between the two former Soviet countries, it does not look set to further deteriorate ties.

Kremlin-connected political analyst Sergei Markov is director of Moscow's Center for Political Studies. He said the accusation is the kind of exchange that has become standard between Moscow and Ashgabat. "This will not be forgotten, but it will not have any major consequences," he predicted.

Niyazov's spokesman said the assassination attempt on the president's motorcade by masked gunmen -- which left several people injured but Niyazov unscathed -- was the work of exiled political opponents with support from Russia.

A number of politicians in Moscow condemned the accusation yesterday. Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, said the accusations were "so absurd that they need no commentary," Interfax reported. Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov, an adviser to President Vladimir Putin, was quoted by Interfax as saying that "to accuse our country of taking part in a terrorist act against Niyazov is utterly crazy."

Some politicians said an assassination attempt on Niyazov was not unexpected inside a dictatorship.

Niyazov has ruled Turkmenistan for the past 17 years. The country largely consists of desert, but holds lucrative mineral wealth in the Caspian Sea on its borders.

The Caspian is estimated to contain the world's third-largest oil and gas reserves. But development has been hampered by a decade-long dispute over the sea's status. Russia -- together with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which have relatively long Caspian coastlines -- wants the sea divided into sections reflecting the size of those shorelines.

Turkmenistan, along with the remaining littoral state, Iran, says each country should have an equal 20 percent share of the sea.

Russia spearheaded a summit meeting involving all five states last April, but failed to reach a consensus, drawing criticism of Turkmenistan from Moscow.

Moscow is also wary of Niyazov's regime in general. The autocratic former Communist Party chief -- who has been dubbed "Turkmenbashi," or Father of all Turkmen -- rules his country with an iron fist, ruthlessly pursuing political opponents. He declared himself president for life in 1999 and has built a cult of personality around himself, recently renaming even the months of the year after himself and members of his family.

Niyazov has accused a number of former top officials of masterminding the assassination attempt. One of them, a former foreign minister and close presidential aide, Boris Shikhmuradov, fled in 2001 to Moscow, where he launched a stinging attack against his former boss. An outraged Niyazov demanded his extradition, which Russia still refuses, further fueling distrust between the two countries.

Moscow is also generally unhappy over alleged discrimination against ethnic Russians living in Turkmenistan and has accused Ashgabat of failing to control its border with Afghanistan.

Markov, of the Center for Political Studies, said Niyazov accused not the Russian government as a whole but individual politicians who maintain contacts with the increasingly restive Turkmen opposition. As such, Markov said, the charge leveled by Niyazov's spokesman is not entirely unfounded because a number of political and business organizations indeed have ties to the Central Asian state. "Of course, the Turkmen leader would be very unhappy about that and would try to exert some kind of pressure in connection with that."

But Markov concludes that neither official Moscow nor those organizations close to Turkmenistan will alter their activities as a result of Niyazov's accusations.