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Kazakhstan/Russia: Presidents Hold Meeting In Omsk To Discuss Trade, Caspian

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev were in Omsk today to attend a meeting of regional governors from the oblasts along their common border. On the agenda, besides border trade, were the planned unified economic space that Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine hope to create and the Caspian Sea and its resources, a particularly important matter as the second summit of Caspian Sea states is just over one month away.

Prague, 15 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Governors from the Russian and Kazakh provinces along the two countries' nearly 7,000-kilometer-long common border met today in the Siberian city of Omsk with some unusual guests in attendance -- the two countries' presidents.

It was the first time in 10 years that the presidents of the two countries had attended the governors' meeting. While the governors have much to discuss, the two presidents have more pressing matters to talk over, which do not involve lucrative cross-border trade.

Russian officials were taking opportunities in front of the media to praise Moscow's relations with Kazakhstan.

Sergei Prikhodko, the deputy head of Russia's presidential administration, said yesterday his country's relations with Kazakhstan are better than with any other former Soviet republic.

Vitalii Shipov, Russia's co-chairman on the Kazakh-Russian Commission for Border Cooperation, was quoted by the newspaper "Kazakhstan Today" today as saying trade between Russia and Kazakhstan's border provinces annually amounts to about $2.5 billion, which, according to Shipov, accounts for more than 60 percent of the two countries' bilateral trade.

However, Shipov noted that last year this border-province trade figure decreased by 11 percent due to "cumbersome customs procedures," a trend the governors said they would try to reverse at today's meeting.

Both presidents arrived in the afternoon, several hours after the governors had convened to discuss relations along the border. The presidents quickly agreed to joint protection of their common border, though neither Putin or Nazarbaev said what form that would take. "The heads of our border services have promised that until the end of May they will to do everything they can to help us make decisions that would facilitate communication between people who live in border regions [of Russia and Kazakhstan]," Putin said.

Putin said steps would be taken to help improve life for residents of regions along the Kazakh-Russian border. Putin recognized the problem of "cumbersome customs procedures" and said it was essential to regulate border trade and crossings so that there would be no more reductions in trade.

The two presidents also vowed that their countries would work together to combat the illegal narcotics trade, terrorism and other problems. "Today, we can significantly improve the effectiveness of our joint struggle against drug trafficking, terrorism, transnational crime, illegal migration, epidemiological and other threats," Putin said.

Nazarbaev said he hoped Russian companies would consider allowing Kazakhstan to invest in Russian enterprises. Nazarbaev said Kazakhstan's banks have amassed the means to "superheat" Kazakhstan's economy and said investment from Kazakhstan could help Russia's economy also.

Nazarbaev, whose country has a large ethnic Russian population, also acknowledged that Russia has been Kazakhstan's most reliable partner and, historically, a close friend. "The development of a close economic, political alliance and partnership with Russia has been and remains the number-one priority for Kazakhstan. Russia for us is a country with which we share a common history, culture, language, traditions, and we, Kazakhs, would never want to lose that," Nazarbaev said.

Russian newspapers and agencies speculated about topics of conversation between Putin and Nazarbaev that would not be made public.

"Nezavisimaya Gazeta" reported Putin and Nazarbaev would talk about the unified economic space, including a single currency, that the two countries hope to create with Belarus and Ukraine. The announcement of this new grouping came when Nazarbaev visited Moscow in February. "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" today quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Khristenko as saying that this "quartet" represented one of the "last chances to realize the advancement of integration within the territory of the CIS."

The same article noted that the economies of Russia and Kazakhstan are connected not only by joint ventures but by the Soviet-era energy grid that in some places brings power from Russia into Kazakhstan and in other places brings power from Kazakhstan into Russia.

Omsk is an example of a Russian city that receives a good amount of its energy needs from power plants in northern Kazakhstan, part of what an article in today's edition of "Izvestiya" called the "historical economic ties" of the two countries.

Most of the Russian and Kazakh media sources said that the Caspian Sea and the use of its rich resources would be the priority issues in face-to-face talks between the presidents.

The topic is especially important as the second summit of Caspian Sea states is tentatively scheduled for the second half of May in Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty. The summit's original purpose was to find some consensus among the five littoral states -- Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran -- as to the Caspian's legal status and to decide on development and use of the vast hydrocarbon resources under its waters.

Russia and Kazakhstan started the trend of ignoring any decision on the legal status when they agreed last year to divide the northern part of the Caspian into a Russian and Kazakh sector. Russia later made a similar deal with Azerbaijan, and very recently Turkmenistan and Iran reached a similar accord.

A joint statement signed by both presidents today stressed close cooperation between the two countries in developing the Caspian.