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Russia/Turkmenistan: Are Tensions Growing Between Moscow And Ashgabat?

Less than two months after declaring friendship and signing a 25-year deal on the Russian purchase of Turkmen gas, Moscow and Ashgabat may be at odds. The Russian media is speculating on new tension in relations between the two countries. Regional experts say Moscow, having secured the gas deal, has achieved what it wanted from Ashgabat and now does not want to look particularly supportive of the Turkmen government, which has come under widespread criticism for human-rights violations.

Prague, 30 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ashgabat is rejecting allegations by Russia that Turkmenistan is involved in drug trafficking and support of terrorist groups.

The claim was made last week by Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian Duma's (lower house) international affairs committee. Rogozin accused Turkmen officials of supporting the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

What's behind the squabble? Boris Volkhonski, a Russian journalist and expert on Central Asian affairs, says, "It is not a secret for anyone in Russia that Mr. Rogozin never makes statements on his own initiative, and he always speaks with instructions from the Kremlin. Relations between Russia and Turkmenistan have always been complicated. Turkmenbashi's [Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov] behavior has always irritated the Kremlin, but it had tolerated that behavior because Turkmenistan is a source of cheap gas. But Turkmenistan is also never going to compromise on the issue of the division of the Caspian Sea. So I think Russia decided that enough is enough and it's time to deal with the issue."

Rogozin also announced that the Duma is soon to discuss alleged human rights violations in Turkmenistan, particularly in regard to ethnic Russians living there.

Last month, Ashgabat and Moscow signed a long-term agreement on the sale of Turkmen gas to Russia. But just a few days later, Turkmenistan unilaterally terminated a bilateral agreement providing dual citizenship to Russian-speakers living in the Central Asian country.

The decision caused panic among Turkmenistan's 100,000 Russian-speakers, and prompted the Russian media to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin for allowing the gas deal to take precedence over the interests of ethnic Russians.

Experts say they doubt the Duma's rights-violation investigation is rooted in genuine concern about the issue, and that human rights has never been a top priority in Russia's relations with the former Soviet republics.

Filip Noubel, an expert on Central Asian affairs at the International Crisis Group, says the Russian government has two goals in criticizing the Turkmen leadership: first it does not want to appear too friendly with Turkmenistan, which has been criticized by the international community for its poor rights record. Second, the Russian government is looking to bolster public support ahead of presidential elections next year.

"Public opinion is actually looking at the situation in Turkmenistan that is affecting ethnic Russians. Putin needs some support in the upcoming elections, and definitely he does not want to alienate a part of the Russian vote. So he must act as a sort of defender of ethnic Russians all over the former Soviet Union," Noubel says.

So far, Niyazov has largely ignored criticism and pressure from the international community, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Will pressure from Russia be any different?

Both Russian and Western experts agree that Russia is capable of influencing Turkmenistan if it decides to do so. The Turkmen economy depends heavily on gas exports, and its main pipeline route goes through Russian territory. Noubel says Moscow could use the pipeline as a way of applying pressure on the Turkmen leader.

"[Turkmenistan] depends on one pipeline and the pipeline goes through Kazakhstan for a short segment, then enters the Russian territory. Without this pipeline there is no way that Niyazov can export energy resources, because the pipeline through Afghanistan was not built and one through Iran gets little volume. I think it is very easy for Russia to close the pipeline or reduce its volume and give bigger volume to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, who also use the same pipeline. It would be very easy for Russia to put pressure on Turkmenistan. Russia is the only country that can influence Turkmenistan for the time being," Noubel says.

While Russian media is focusing on Rogozin's remarks, Roy Allison, a regional expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, says a discussion in the Duma does not necessarily affect Moscow's policies on Turkmenistan.

"There are serious human rights issues in Turkmenistan and if the Duma feels that they should be brought more to the attention of the Russian government, I think that is a good thing. But the Duma is often very much of a talking shop. It isn't a body that influences the policy significantly, and often it does not reflect public opinion now in Russia at large. So I wouldn't pay too much attention or consider that too significant," Allison says.

According to Rogozin, the Duma will call for establishing an international panel to examine human rights violations in Turkmenistan.

(Gouvanthsh Gueraev from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service and Iskandar Aliyev from the Tajik Service contributed to this report).

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.