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Central Asia Report: January 24, 2002

24 January 2002, Volume 2, Number 4

LOSING OUTLETS FOR INFLUENCE AND ENERGY, SIDELINED POWERS TALK COOPERATION. On 21 January Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted his Turkmen counterpart, Saparmurat Niyazov, at the Kremlin for a curiously unproductive meeting. No substantive agreements were signed beyond the opening of a Russian-language school in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, and a joint statement was issued on dividing the Caspian Sea that even Niyazov indicated was patently unrealistic. The summit left some observers wondering why Niyazov, who rarely travels abroad, made the trip to Moscow at all. Yet although little formal business was transacted, the talks came at a time when Russia is anxious to shore up its influence in Central Asia, while Turkmenistan has been losing the few friends it has with its increasingly erratic behavior.

The war in Afghanistan and the disputed status of the Caspian Sea were on the agenda in Moscow, AFP and ITAR-TASS reported on 21 January. Apparently the presidents' discussion of the American-led campaign against terrorism focused less on cooperation against terrorism than cooperation against America, with Putin proposing that Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan forge a regional alliance of gas-producing nations as a bulwark against Washington's growing influence in Central Asia: "We have to expand cooperation outside the energy sector: coordinate our positions on international issues and cooperate in humanitarian affairs," said Putin, according to AFP. Meanwhile, Niyazov told ITAR-TASS, "We are taking into account Russia's interests in the region," and he said that Moscow should remain closely engaged with Central Asia. In a joint communique, the two sides declared that "the United Nations and its Security Council" are key to achieving peace in Afghanistan. The seemingly unexceptional formula has become standard code for rejecting America's right to impose its will in Afghanistan unilaterally.

Putin did not suggest why his idea of a gas alliance would be attractive to either Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. The four nations would coordinate gas exports and distribute them via a unified system, primarily though pipelines of the Russian state-owned monopoly Gazprom, which would give Moscow more political clout in the region at Washington's expense. Kazakhstan in particular has good prospects of a hydrocarbon export route westward that does not transit Russian territory with construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline beginning this summer. The finished pipeline is scheduled to start operating in 2005 with a capacity of 1 million barrels of oil per day. (There are also plans for a parallel gas pipeline.) As UPI noted on 16 January, Moscow apparently has dropped its objections to the U.S.-backed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, considering the recent announcements by Russia's first- and second-largest oil companies, LUKoil and Yukos, that they want stakes of 7.5 percent and 12.5 percent, respectively, in the $2.8 billion project. Gas-rich Turkmenistan, however, as the "Jamestown Monitor" pointed out last week, scuppered its chances for a westbound Trans-Caspian Pipeline skirting Russia after Niyazov demanded as much as $400 million in advance payments from the U.S.-British consortium interested in building it. The project was also undermined by ongoing bilateral disputes with Azerbaijan over the Caspian division. Consequently, for the foreseeable future Ashgabat will be locked into using the infrastructure of Russian gas companies Gazprom and Itera (because the former Soviet network of the Central Asia-Center pipeline runs northward through Russia) and paying them transit fees to export gas to its main customer, Ukraine, which due to impoverishment pays for only half its purchases in cash and half in kind.

The only thing that might radically alter the situation is the possible revival of an aborted plan to run a gas link southward from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via a stable Afghanistan, occasionally referred to as "the pipeline from hell, to hell, through hell," according to the 4 February issue of "Forbes." Proposed and abandoned in the 1990s by competitors Unocal and Bridas Petroleum of Argentina, the pipeline is now being touted in policy circles as central to efforts to reconstruct Afghanistan. And "the State Department thinks it's a great idea," the magazine said.

Turkmenistan, which possesses the world's fifth-largest proven gas reserves, produced 51.3 billion cubic meters of gas last year, up from 47 billion in the previous year, according to figures released on 17 January by the Turkmen State Statistics Agency. But official numbers are subject to doubt, AFP said the same day, noting that the ex-communist republic claimed 17 percent economic expansion for the year 2000, "a figure dubbed as 'nonsense' by many western observers." A truer figure is thought to be 6-8 percent growth. In any case, the 2001 gas production figure of 51.3 billion cubic meters fell 27 percent below the Turkmen government's own plan, and 40 percent below what the republic was producing in 1991 when it was still part of the Soviet Union (see "Turkmenistan's Oil Output: Numbers Fall Short Of Targets," "RFE/RL Weekday Magazine," 16 January 2002).

Niyazov may have gone to Moscow on 21 January hoping for promises of closer energy cooperation, eventually to be enshrined in a new treaty governing bilateral political and economic relations that the Turkmen leader has proposed, but Putin would merely confirm that the two sides were working on it. Similarly, Putin refused to commit to a draft agreement, presented to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov by Niyazov earlier this month in Ashgabat, whereby Moscow would be obliged to purchase Turkmen gas over the course of five to 10 years. The Russians have expressed interest in buying more Turkmen gas in the immediate future, but balked at being locked into a long-term commitment (Ibid).

Turning to the intractable and increasingly acrimonious disagreements over apportioning the Caspian Sea's hydrocarbon reserves among the five littoral states, Putin and Niyazov released a joint communique calling for a "rapid definition" of the Caspian's legal status "taking the interests of all the Caspian states into consideration," Interfax and AFP reported. But Putin's comment that, "Our specialists have significantly narrowed our approaches," reported by AP, must be taken merely as a diplomatic attempt to paper over Russian-Turkmen differences. By the end of last year, Moscow and Ashgabat had staked out two seemingly irreconcilable positions -- respectively, that the seabed should be divided unequally in proportion to the length of national coastlines, and that it should be divided into five equal sectors. Before the Moscow summit, Niyazov himself predicted, "It will merely be an exchange of views. We cannot resolve the problem of the Caspian status," ITAR-TASS reported. Nevertheless, both sides were clearly making efforts to clear away political brushwood and be polite to pave the way for closer ties. Claiming that their countries had never suffered any antagonism during the last decade, Niyazov called Russia a "great nation" and added, "We have lived together and developed for hundreds of years. Much in Turkmenistan has been achieved thanks to Russia," AFP reported.

A week and a half earlier, ironically, Turkmenistan solemnly observed the 121st anniversary of the massacre at Gok-depe near Ashgabat on 12 January 1881, when the Russian army slaughtered thousands of Turkmen men, women, and children, RFE/RL's Turkmen bureau reported. The holiday was instigated a few years ago by Niyazov, and has turned into one of Turkmenistan's major national observances.

A TALE OF TWO FORMER FOREIGN MINISTERS. Since last fall, Moscow has been the home of two rival potential successors to Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. Moreover, those two figures are both former foreign ministers of Turkmenistan. Avdy Kuliev, 65, held that post from the summer of 1990 until July 1992, when he resigned over substantive policy disagreements with Niyazov. Since 1997 he has lived near Moscow, maintaining a low profile (as does former Azerbaijani President Ayaz Mutalibov). In April 1998, when Kuliev attempted to return to Turkmenistan, he was detained on his arrival at Ashgabat airport and kept under house arrest for five days before being sent back to Moscow. Later that year, he formed the Committee for National Salvation with the aim of campaigning for Niyazov's resignation and for free and democratic parliamentary and presidential elections in late 1999 and 2002, respectively (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 November 1998).

The second hopeful is Boris Shikhmuradov, 52, who was well regarded by the Western diplomatic community in Ashgabat. Shikhmuradov served as foreign minister from January 1995 until July 2000, when he was first demoted to the post of presidential envoy for the Caspian, and then, in March 2001, made ambassador to China (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2001). After Niyazov fired him from that post last fall, Shikhmuradov headed from Beijing to Moscow, where, just as Kuliev had done, he proceeded to denounce Saparmurat Niyazov as a dictator whose corrupt, venal, and misguided policies are driving his country to isolation and international ridicule and its population to ruinous poverty. What is more, Shikhmuradov announced the creation of the Provisional Executive Committee of the People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan, whose website ( carries regular interviews with Shikhmuradov and his commentaries on ongoing developments in Turkmenistan.

At the time of Shikhmuradov's arrival in Moscow last fall and his initial denunciations of Niyazov, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" posed the question of whether the Russian leadership considers the Turkmen president an annoyance to be gotten rid of, assuming a way could be found to do so. (It should not be forgotten that Niyazov publicly humiliated Russian President Vladimir Putin during the latter's visit to Ashgabat in May, and that Putin was clearly infuriated by that treatment.) And if so, do some in Moscow consider Shikhmuradov a more appropriate replacement than Kuliev? Certainly Moscow has ignored Ashgabat's demand for Shikhmuradov's extradition to face charges of embezzlement and the illegal sale of military aircraft to Russia -- charges that Shikhmuradov has denied.

Shikhmuradov himself, however, has declined to answer questions about the support he can expect from official circles in Moscow, although he told "Izvestiya" that he has sympathizers among certain unnamed Russian political parties. But the sole fact that he has gone on record saying that he sees no alternative route for expanding exports of Turkmen natural gas than via Russia ("taking into account the interests of our traditional partners, China, India, Iran, and Pakistan") makes him a more acceptable candidate than the inconsistent and unpredictable Niyazov, who since the ouster of the Taliban has suggested resurrecting the plans first conceived in 1995 for the construction of an export pipeline across Afghanistan to Pakistan and the Persian Gulf.

Shikhmuradov has affirmed his readiness to cooperate with all "democratic anti-Niyazov forces" who share his aim of transforming Turkmenistan into a democratic parliamentary republic. (In February 2001, the Turkmen legislature endorsed a proposal by Niyazov prescribing that only persons who have been resident in the country for the previous 10 years will be eligible to contest the next presidential ballot, a restriction that excludes both Shikhmuradov and Kuliev.)

But while Shikhmuradov may not exclude joining forces with Kuliev to pressure Niyazov to step down, Kuliev seemingly has ruled out any such cooperation by describing Shikhmuradov in a recent interview with "Literaturnaya gazeta" as being as corrupt and incompetent as the rest of the Turkmen leadership. To join forces with such a man, Kuliev argued, would "discredit the entire opposition and undermine its potential." By contrast, in the course of a two-hour interview with this writer in 1995, Kuliev described Shikhmuradov as "intelligent, educated, contemporary in his outlook,...with a good grounding in economics" and as one of only two members of the government competent to run the country. (Liz Fuller)


KYRGYZSTAN. Apparently frustrated by legislative delays in approving French applications to station troops on Kyrgyz territory, French Army Chief of Staff General Jean-Pierre Kelche flew to the capital, Bishkek, on 19 January for talks with President Askar Akaev and Defense Minister Esen Topoev, Reuters reported. Permission was granted to the United States to deploy its troops at the Manas air base near Bishkek in December. But at the beginning of last week, formal ratification by Kyrgyz parliamentarians of a preliminary agreement struck with Paris last year about its deployment request was "postponed indefinitely," ITAR-TASS reported on 14 January, after some deputies abstained from the scheduled session to protest the arrest of their colleague, Azimbek Beknazarov. Beknazarov was taken into custody on 5 January for criticizing Akaev, according to his supporters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 and 22 January 2002).

On 19 January, Kelche effectively went over legislators' heads by discussing the possibility of stationing six Mirage-2000 fighter jets, two refueling planes, and 500 French servicemen at Manas airfield with the president and defense minister, AFP said. Akaev agreed that the deployment should take effect immediately without waiting for the parliament to ratify the agreement, and on 21 January AKI Press Agency reported the imminent arrival of the first French aircraft and soldiers. Ironically, it was precisely for his habit of ignoring the niceties of legal procedure and parliamentary prerogatives that Beknazarov criticized Akaev in the first place.

On 17 January, two days before Kelche's visit, a six-member U.S. Senate delegation led by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) visited Manas airport, AP reported. The senators inspected the site and talked to troops from the 86th Rapid Deployment Unit who were erecting temporary barracks to house an anticipated 3,000 U.S. soldiers on the base. The delegation also met Akaev and, after thanking him for permitting use of the base, expressed concern about the arrest of Beknazarov, AFP said on 17 January.

UZBEKISTAN. The American delegation returned to the Uzbek capital the following day, where Daschle told a news conference that "our presence and relationship with the people of Uzbekistan and the countries in the region is [sic] not simply in the immediate term," Reuters reported on 18 January. But Daschle warned that Washington would be looking out for "economic and political reforms and concern for human rights, basic rights for all people who live in Uzbekistan," the agency added. Both pronouncements -- America's long-term geopolitical interests in Central Asia and its watchful concern about human rights abuses -- have become cliches, as no less than three U.S. Congressional delegations have toured the region in the last fortnight. But as a EurasiaNet report noted on 22 January, "no concrete framework for future U.S.-Uzbek relations can be discerned from American leaders' public comments." Beyond vague talk of what Daschle called "an environment of cooperation" built on Uzbek President Islam Karimov's decision in October to allow some 1,500 American soldiers to use the Hanabad air base in the south of Uzbekistan, the only established fact of the Pentagon's strategy seemed to be that it called for some kind of long-term deployment.

Yet that was thrown into doubt on 21 January, when Uzbek special envoy to Afghanistan Sodyq Sofoev denied that Washington and Tashkent have any formal plans for a long-term deployment in Uzbekistan. Speaking in Tokyo at the International Conference on Reconstruction Assistance to Afghanistan, Sofoev told ITAR-TASS that reports of such an agreement are "rumors" and "speculations." The existing accord has no legal time limit, but is presumed to expire when terrorist networks in Afghanistan have been destroyed, he said.

On the same day, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Army's Central Command (CENTCOM) General Tommy Franks arrived in Uzbekistan for a five-day visit to the region, Reuters and local news services reported on 21 January. For the most part, officials were tight-lipped about what Franks discussed with the president and his foreign and defense ministers beyond offering generalities about counterterrorism and security cooperation. With Karimov, however, Franks reportedly discussed the outlook for postwar Central Asia and a program of bilateral military relations, while the general and Uzbek Chief of Staff Tulkun Kasymov agreed on a plan of military visits and exchanges for the current year, Reuters said on 21 January. A press release from the American Embassy in Tashkent on the same day mentioned, significantly, that "the U.S. Central Command is actively engaged in sponsoring educational exchange programs."

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov revealed in remarks to journalists on 22 January that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs A. Elizabeth Jones, who is expected in Tashkent soon, was working with him on "an extremely important long-term document, an agreement on a strategic partnership," Uzbek radio reported. A State Department release of 18 January had merely referred to the purpose of her visit as a review of the bilateral relationship that would "set the direction for future U.S.-Uzbekistan relations."

Yet Franks, visiting Bishkek on 23 January for talks with Akaev, announced that Washington "does not intend to have permanent bases in the region" despite possible perceptions to the contrary due to the rapid massing of American troops at Manas, RFE/RL reported. Nevertheless, Franks said Washington will continue its engagement in Central Asia in the future even after its soldiers have been pulled out. On 17 January, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Muratbek ImanAliyev had denied the existence of a rumored secret agreement about a permanent U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan, ITAR-TASS reported.

TAJIKISTAN. Following his stop in Kyrgyzstan, French Army Chief of Staff General Jean-Pierre Kelche was in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, on 20-21 January to consult with President Imomali Rakhmonov and Defense Minister Sherali Hairulloev, Interfax reported. Paris has not established a base of its own on Tajik soil yet, although for some weeks already French military experts have been assessing the (generally poor) technical capabilities of Aini air base near Dushanbe. At present, French International Security Assistance Force members have been transiting to Kabul and the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif via Dushanbe civilian airport, AFP said on 20 January. Rakhmonov pledged to Kelche that he would provide as much help as he could to the French peacekeeping mission, according to Asia Plus-Blitz, but stopped short of actually promising a base.

KAZAKHSTAN. Although Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev declared soon after 11 September that his country was prepared to receive foreign troops, and repeated that offer to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in December, this week the Foreign Ministry in the Kazakh capital, Astana, was anxious to quash reports that American troop deployments on its soil are imminent. Calling such reports "groundless," it issued an official statement of denial on 18 January, Russian agencies reported. The misinformation emanated from the Kazakh Commercial Television in Almaty and the Russian Radio station, according to a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, who added that Astana has never been approached with a formal request for basing rights from Washington (see "RFE/RL Kazakh News," 18 January 2002).