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Turkmenistan: Russia, Iran Seeking To Protect Caspian Energy Interests

Russia and Iran have both paid visits to Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov in recent days, suggesting new strategies in the decade-old struggle to divide the Caspian Sea. But it is unclear whether the sudden missions are signs of a breakthrough or just more maneuvers in a continuing stalemate.

Boston, 6 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow moved swiftly to protect its energy interests from damage last week as it sent a top official to meet with Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov following the country's alleged coup attempt.

On 3 January in Ashgabat, Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo emerged from a five-hour meeting with Niyazov to declare Russia's firm support for the autocratic ruler, after the purported attack on his motorcade on 25 November.

Speaking on Turkmen television, Rushailo said, "Russia has always stated its position, and we would like to stress once again, that we consider the incident as a manifestation of terrorism, and we are ready to cooperate in the context of the law-enforcement bodies and secret services."

The visit may be seen as an effort to mend ties after a Turkmen government spokesman accused unnamed "politicians in Russia who connived with the organizers of the attempt" on Niyazov. Russian officials dismissed the charge, but Niyazov's information department said that three of the plotters were on Russian territory.

Niyazov had long sought the extradition from Russia of former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who was captured last month in Ashgabat under mysterious circumstances. He has since confessed on television and received a life sentence. Critics suspect the confession was forced.

But the Rushailo visit and Niyazov's warm welcome are signs of larger interests. They may also raise more questions about whether the entire coup incident was staged.

The mission carefully blended security and business interests, as Rushailo took pains at a press conference to note that Russian Energy Ministry officials had also held talks with their Turkmen counterparts. Among other things, officials discussed the long-standing legal issue of how to divide the Caspian Sea, the official Russian news agency RIA-Novosti reported.

The only immediate result was a Russian offer to pay cash for Turkmen gas as part of a long-term supply deal reached last September. The 15-year accord has had little effect because the two sides have kept haggling over the price of the gas. In Moscow, Russian Deputy Energy Minister Gennadii Ustyuzhanin voiced hope that a contract would be signed next month. Although Russia would pay less than Ukraine does, Moscow's cash offer would be attractive because Kyiv pays for half of its gas with bartered goods, he said.

The two sides also considered the transit of Turkmen oil through Russia's Black Sea port of Novorossiisk and a plan to ship Russian oil to eastern Turkmenistan's Seidin oil refinery for possible fuel sales to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.

But the centerpiece of the energy talks seems to have been Russia's latest push for a Caspian border accord. A post-Soviet formula for splitting the resources has eluded the five shoreline states of Russia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Iran for years. Tehran has been the main holdout against a Russian blueprint that would give it only a 13 percent share, but it has enjoyed tacit support from Ashgabat.

In its latest bid to break the deadlock, Russia has urged its neighbors to weigh the value of resources in contested areas instead of simply their territorial size. Although Iran has been trying to end a border dispute with Azerbaijan for over a year, Moscow's Caspian envoy Viktor Kalyuzhnyi recently pointed out that Tehran also has claims on some Turkmen offshore fields, which Russia wants to develop.

Kalyuzhnyi's comments may have been aimed at driving a wedge between Iran and Turkmenistan in their alignment against Russia's plan. Detailed western maps show at least six of Turkmenistan's offshore blocks that could fall partly in Iran's Caspian sector.

Whatever the strategy, Rushailo's mission seems to have sparked a sudden trip to Ashgabat by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi on 3 January.

Kharrazi's one-day visit and meeting with Niyazov, immediately following Rushailo's departure, produced talks on "big joint projects" and Caspian cooperation, according to Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi. The official news agency IRNA quoted Asefi as saying that the meeting would bring the two countries' Caspian positions "close to each other." Kharrazi also called for joint exploitation as the answer for the Caspian problem.

To all appearances, Kharrazi needed either an immediate briefing from Niyazov on the Russian meetings or an assurance that Tehran could still count on Turkmenistan's support.

An alternate, if less likely, view is that a solution to the division issue is finally starting to emerge in the southern Caspian and that cooperation with Niyazov is crucial for both Russia and Iran.