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Turkmen Report: September 30, 2000

30 September 2000
Niyazov Demotes Finance And Economy Minister, Reshuffles Officials
September 28, 2000

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has demoted Minister of Finance and Economy Matkarim Rajapov to the first deputy position, while Orazmut Begmuradov, who occupied that position prior to the reshuffling, was appointed to the minister post, Turkmen TV reported today.

According to the report, Niyazov accused Rajapov of being too "softhearted" and of failing to balance the budget and bring in revenues.

The president also docked two months' salary from a deputy chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers and from the education minister for "poor performance of their duties."

Niyazov specifically reproved the education minister for allowing publication of a junior history textbook which said that Turkmens are of Mongoloid origin and originally came from China.

The president insisted that Turkmens are of European stock and demanded that the textbook be withdrawn and rewritten

Furthermore, Niyazov fired Akhmet Akyniyazov, governor of Serkhetabat District of [southern] Mary Region, "for grave shortcomings in his work and for using his official position in his private interests." (BBC Central Asia Monitoring -- Turkmen TV Channel 1)

Turkmens Ask For UN Aid In Launching Internet Newspaper
September 27, 2000

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov met yesterday with the UN representative Jens Wandel, who is responsible for the UN development program in Turkmenistan.

During the meeting, Niyazov raised an issue of creating an Internet newspaper in Turkmenistan.

Following the talks, Wandel told the journalists that he and Niyazov "discussed the development potential of teaching Turkmen culture and language through the Internet."

"At present we are also implementing educational programs based on the international convention on maternal and child health, as well as on rational use of water and other resources," Wandel said. (BBC Central Asia Monitoring -- Turkmen TV Channel 1)

World Bank Ranks Corruption In CIS; Official Singles Out Turkmenistan
September 25, 2000

World Bank vice president Johannes Linn named Turkmenistan as the only former Soviet republic where loans have been halted because of corruption allegations.

Five private Western firms have been banned from work on any World Bank projects after alleged fraud and corruption -- including bribe payments to Turkmen authorities in an attempt to win contracts for Bank-funded projects.

One project was aimed at building a banking telecommunications network for the Central Bank of Turkmenistan. Another involved the supply of computers to government agencies in Turkmenistan.

The Bank says the government of President Saparmurat Niyazov has cooperated in a joint investigation into the corruption allegations. Linn added that there could be an agreement soon to unlock more loans for Turkmenistan.

The World Bank further said today that some former Soviet republics could double the average income for their people by cracking down on corruption and enforcing the rule of law.

In a report issued in Prague, World Bank experts said officials typically extort as much as one third of the annual profits of small private companies. The findings are raising concerns because new small businesses are considered the strongest engine for growth and job creation in most post-Communist economies.

The report also named Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Georgia as countries where economic reforms are most commonly hijacked by private vested interests. (RFE/RL)

Kalyuzhny Insists On Regional Leaders' Meeting To Discuss The Caspian, Opposes Russian Oil Exports To Iran
September 28, 2000

The problem of the Caspian status should be discussed at a meeting of the heads of states of the Caspian region, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister and special presidential envoy in the Caspian region Victor Kalyuzhny said today at a press briefing in Moscow.

Kalyuzhny stressed that "Russia is not seeking a dominant role in the region" and "does not have any imperial ways." Kalyuzhny added that Russia is interested not simply in developing extraction capacities in the region, but also in transporting resources through Russian territory.

Kalyuzhny mentioned that Iran still insists on settling the legal status of the Caspian sea by splitting it into five equal shares of 20 per cent each. This is practically impossible, he said, but noted that the Caspian problem cannot be decided without Iran.

Responding to a question of RFE/RL correspondent regarding the legal status of the Caspian sea, Kalyuzhny mentioned his talks with the President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov.

"I asked Turkmenbashi, 'What, you will cut [your part of the Caspian sea] to 20 per cent and give the rest to Iran?' 'I will, if necessary," Niyazov responded. But in that case, I said, Kazakhstan should give you [some of its part of the Caspian sea.] But why would it? It has 29 per cent, so it should give everyone a bit and say, 'Look how generous I am!' But that will just never happen," Kalyuzhny said.

He further stressed that Russia's position is shared by Kazakhstan. Both countries argue for demarcation of the sea bed for development, while keeping the surface water for general use.

According to Kalyuzhny, this proposal has recently received backing from Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, who previously favored splitting up both the sea bed and the surface.

With regard to Ashgabat, Kalyuzhny said that Niyazov's position is that "we must not offend Iran." However, he noted that Turkmenistan has agreed to consider Russia's position.

Kalyuzhny specifically addressed Iran's role in the dispute, saying that Moscow is against a project to export oil from Russia to Iran.

According to Interfax, this project, supervised by Transneft, has three possible ways for implementation. One involves the Omsk-Chardzhou (Turkmenistan) pipeline and then transporting oil the rest of the way to Teheran by train. Transneft has already discussed this project with the Turkmen side and plans to hold talks with Iran in the near future.

According to Kalyuzhny, this project is undesirable for Russia because the country would then lose the oil necessary to increase capacity utilization of its oil transportation systems.

Kalyuzhny pointed to the Russian crude oil balance, saying that at the moment, Russia has an export capacity of 130 million tons of oil per year. These numbers will increase to 210 million tons with the launch of the Caspian and Baltic pipelines. Given that refining in Russia should amount to 190-200 million tons per year and 300 million tons is produced, there is no need to implement a project to export oil to Iran, Kalyuzhny said.

So far, there has been no reaction to Kalyuzhny's statements from Ashgabat. (Interfax; RFE/RL)

For further information on Russian-Turkmen gas relations, see Michael Lelyveld's article at the end of this report.

Russia, Kazakhstan To Stress Cooperation In The Caspian
September 27, 2000

Russia and Kazakhstan are expected to sign a joint declaration of cooperation in the Caspian during Russian President Vladimir Putin's October 9-10 visit in Kazakhstan, Russian ambassador Yuri Merzlyakov told journalists in Astana.

According to the ambassador, the declaration will confirm the main points of the July 1998 Moscow agreement between the two countries on demarcation of the floor of the Caspian Sea.

At the same time, Merzlyakov said the main emphasis will be placed on the most pressing current problems in the Caspian region, which include not only oil production, but also environmental concerns. (Interfax)

ExxonMobil's Withdrawal Not To Dent Baku-Ceyhan Project -- SOCAR President
September 25, 2000

The withdrawal of ExxonMobil, a U.S. company, from the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline will not undermine the project, President of the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR) Natik Aliyev told the press yesterday.

"The decision made by the U.S. oil company will not harm Azerbaijan or companies that want to share in the project. A few years from now, ExxonMobil will look for ways to export the oil it produces in Azerbaijan because it will not enjoy the benefits granted to member companies of the future pipeline consortium," Aliyev said.

ExxonMobil opened its office in Baku in 1995. It has stakes in Azeri-Chirag-Gyuneshli, Nakhchyvan, Araz-Alov-Sharg, Zafar-Mashal and Oguz projects.

Experts expect the company to export 15 to 20 million tons of oil from Azerbaijan annually within several years. (Interfax)

For further information on ExxonMobil's alleged withdrawal, see Michael Lelyveld's article at the end of this report.

Oil Quality At Eastern Kazhagan Worse Than Expected -- Shell Chief
September 25, 2000

The quality of oil received from the first exploratory well at the Eastern Kazhagan deposit in the Kazakh sector of the Caspian Sea was not as high as the participants in the OKIOC consortium expected, Shell President Zakharuddin Megat said today during a meeting with Kazakh Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev in Astana.

According to Megat, OKIOS participants are currently involved in talks on the possibility of "reducing risks" in the process of future extraction of hydrocarbon resources. The most anxiety is being caused by the high pressure of drilling and the "significant content" of sulfur at the Kashagan deposit.

OKIOC also said it will begin drilling a second exploratory well at the Western Kazhagan deposit in a week. According to Jan Norman, Director of the OKIOC drilling department, the Sunkar drilling platform has been transferred to the Western Kazhagan structure, which is located 48 km from Eastern Kazhagan where the company drilled its first exploratory well in the spring.

Norman also announced that OKIOC is to hold a tender for the second drilling platform and will begin selecting the most attractive proposals in October.

Kazakh experts have estimated that oil reserves in the Kazakh sector of the Caspian amount to 7 billion tons. OKIOC has yet to confirm these forecasts. (Interfax)

Kaztransoil To Open New Oil Transportation Route To Caspian Port
September 25, 2000

Kazakh state oil transportation company Kaztransoil has opened a new oil transportation route which joins Central and Western Kazakhstan, the company's press service told Interfax.

Transportation of the first 6,400 tons of oil from the Kumkol group of deposits -- which does not have pipeline links -- from the Atasu rail depot in Karagandinsky region to the port of Aktsau on the Caspian was carried out over the weekend. (Interfax)

Kazakhstan Confirms Its Interest In Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Project
September 25, 2000

Kazakhstan has confirmed its interest in implementing the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project, but said its participation depends on the results of a large-scale feasibility study that would consider all of the risks of the project.

Sabyr Yesimbekov, advisor to the president of Kazakh oil transportation company Kaztransoil, said on September 22 at the conference on the problems of national and regional security of Central Asian countries in the Caspian basin that Kazakhstan is concerned about political, economic, and ecological risks.

He said that the projected pipeline would cross conflict zones in the region, as well as a zone of seismic activity.

According to Yesimbekov, the total capacity of the pipeline will be 50-75 million tons of oil per annum, with Kazakhstan planing to export a minimum of 20 million tons of crude a year.

According to the most optimistic forecasts, the $4 billion pipeline may be launched in 2004. (Interfax)

U.S., Taleban Meet In Washington, Disagree On Most Issues
September 29, 2000

The Taleban and the United States discussed today in Washington a U.S. request that Afghanistan expel guerrilla leader Osama bin Laden, but the State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said they made no progress on this and other disputes.

At the meeting with Abdur Rahman Zahid, deputy foreign minister in the Taleban government in Afghanistan, the Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering brought up Washington's standard complaints that the Taleban shelter bin Laden, violate the rights of women and girls, tolerate the production and trading of opium and refuse to share power with their opponents.

Yet, Asked if they made any progress, Boucher said, "I can't characterize anything as being progress, no."

The Taleban delegation had been expected to lobby for U.S. recognition and support for the Taleban taking the Afghan seat at the United Nations, which is now held by representatives of ousted president Burhanuddin Rabbani.

But Boucher said they did not even bring the subject up. The United States opposes recognition anyway, saying the Taleban must first address U.S. concerns.

Pickering also had talks yesterday with a delegation from the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, formerly known as the Northern Alliance. The front is the main obstacle to Taleban control of all the country.

The delegation was led by Abdullah Abdullah, whom the front calls its foreign minister. (Reuters)

Moscow Denies Official Contacts With Taleban
September 29, 2000

Russia does not have official contacts with the Taleban movement, "only unofficial contacts," military diplomatic sources told Interfax today.

The Western media reported earlier that a high-ranking emissary of the Taleban has recently visited one of the Central Asian countries and met with Russian official representatives there.

The sources confirmed that the minister of foreign affairs in the Taleban government, Mutawakil, had recently visited Ashgabat, but said that "there were no meetings with representatives of Russia there."

Reports about Moscow's contacts with the Taleban appeared simultaneously with the latter's advances in northern Afghanistan and the visit of Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky to Islamabad.

Yastrzhembsky denied upon his return to Moscow that his visit to Pakistan was aimed at establishing contacts with the Taleban. (Interfax)

Karimov Says UN Should Act On Afghanistan; Russia Calls For Talks
September 27, 2000

Uzbek President Islam Karimov said today in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek that the UN Security Council should act to prevent the war in Afghanistan from spreading beyond Afghanistan's borders.

Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan signed an accord today on military cooperation in response to what they say is an extremist and terrorist threat.

Speaking after the signing, Karimov said that the Security Council fails to take what he called "serious" measures and relies instead on announcements and sanctions. The Uzbek president said also that Russia should consult Central Asian countries before making decisions on Afghanistan.

In Moscow today, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov called on the UN to press for talks between warring factions in Afghanistan. He said the situation cannot be resolved militarily. (RFE/RL)

Thousands Of Refugees Gather On Tajik-Afghan Border September 29, 2000 More than 100,000 refugees from Afghanistan have gathered on the country's border with Tajikistan.

The secretary of the Tajik Security Council, Amirkul Azimov, said in Moscow today that a humanitarian catastrophe in the area is inevitable.

The head of the Russian Security Council, Sergei Ivanov, responded with a plea to the United Nations to assess the situation around Afghanistan immediately and provide financial aid to accommodate the refugees in Tajikistan. Ivanov said UN efforts in Afghanistan have not been sufficient.

The UN says the refugees have gathered at the border but have not started crossing into Tajikistan. The UN also called today on the Taleban and its rivals to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians displaced by fighting in northeast Afghanistan as clashes continue in the area. (RFE/RL)

Aliyev in London, Scheduled to Return Home Tomorrow
September 28, 2000

A spokesman at the Azerbaijani embassy in Washington says President Heydar Aliyev has left the United States and is on a one-day stop in London before returning home.

Press Spokesman Elin Suleymanov told RFE/RL that Aliyev left a clinic in Cleveland in the Midwestern state of Ohio last night and is now in London.

Aliyev, who is 77 years old, entered the Cleveland Clinic two weeks ago for what was described as a routine checkup. He underwent heart-bypass surgery at the clinic last year, and has returned to that hospital several times.

Suleymanov said Aliyev's departure was delayed for two weeks because he suffered a cold and a flu, but said he now feels fine. (RFE/RL)

For further information on the controversy surrounding Aliyev's health, see Michael Lelyveld's article at the end of this report.

Kazakh Police Kill Suspected Uighur Separatists
September 28, 2000

Kazakh special forces have killed four Chinese nationals belonging to a Uighur separatist organization.

Kazakh Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev said today the men -- wanted for murder of two policemen -- were heavily armed and refused to surrender.

Tokayev said the men belonged to a banned organization called East Turkestan, which advocates independence from China.

Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking people who live in China's northwestern province of Xinjiang. Activists have struggled there for decades for independence from Beijing. (RFE/RL)

Azerbaijan Rejects OSCE Criticism Of Election Registration
September 26, 2000

Azerbaijan's Central Electoral Commission on September 23 dismissed a statement by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights expressing "extreme concern" that seven political parties have been barred from contesting the November 5 parliamentary poll under the proportional system.

In each case, the commission claimed that the party had submitted fewer than the required minimum 50,000 valid signatures in its support. Commission member Gusein Pashaev said that the OSCE statement was based on "non-objective, unconfirmed information distributed by opposition parties." (RFE/RL)

U.S. Investigating Businessman In Kazakh Bribes
September 25, 2000

The Justice Department believes that U.S. businessman James Giffen allegedly orchestrated the transfer of more than $30 million in oil commissions to Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and other Kazakh leaders, the Washington Post reported today.

The newspaper said the documents it obtained from the Justice Department charge that Giffen handled the money transfers through an intricate network of shell companies registered in the British Virgin Islands and through Liechtenstein-based foundations.

The Post said Giffen offered Akezhan Kazhegeldin, a former Kazakh prime minister who was under investigation for disappearing oil payments, a deal last August, urging him to end his outspoken opposition to Nazarbayev and put a lid on the corruption allegations in exchange for protection from prosecution and a high-ranking job.

Giffen, a 60-year-old oil consultant based in New York, has done a wide variety of services for Nazarbayev, arranging presidential trips to the United States, sealing multibillion dollar oil deals and becoming an intermediary for U.S. companies seeking to do business with the Kazakh government.

The Justice Department has been reviewing cartons of documents supplied by oil companies linked to the suspicious transactions: BP Amoco , Exxon Mobil Corp., and Phillips Petroleum Co. Spokesmen for all three oil companies denied wrongdoing, as did Giffen's Washington law firm, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, the Post said. (Reuters)

Press Group Calls For Response To Death Of RFE/RL Correspondent
September 25, 2000

The Vienna-based International Press Institute called today on Russian President Vladimir Putin to ensure that those responsible for the killing of a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent last week in Moscow are brought to justice.

The IPI said that the slain man, Iskander Khatloni, a 46-year-old Tajik, had been investigating human rights abuses in Chechnya. In an open letter to Putin, IPI Director Johann Fritz said the journalist's death was particularly disturbing in the context of two other recent murders of Russian journalists.

Fritz wrote that Putin should protect journalists, and ensure a thorough investigation of the killings.

In New York on September 22 (Friday), the Committee to Protect Journalists said it was investigating Khatloni's death to determine if it was related to his journalistic work. (RFE/RL)

Hard Winter Seen For Turkey, Ukraine, Azerbaijan
by Michael Lelyveld, RFE/RL

September 30, 2000

Troubling reports of energy problems in Turkey, Ukraine and Azerbaijan suggest that this could be a hard winter for consumers and their governments, which have been struggling to meet basic needs.

In Turkey, press reports say the government has considered shutting down some major factories so that their energy allowances can be shifted to other users. Many other measures have been discussed, including a change in office hours, cuts in night lighting at state buildings and the use of mobile generators to make up for delays in building new power plants.

Gas consumers are already said to be experiencing low pressure in their lines, reportedly forcing some cities to halt new connections to the fuel network. Electricity shortages are predicted by November. According to the Turkish Daily News, "it is feared that this winter will be a nightmare."

Drought has added to the trouble by lowering water levels and hydroelectric output. As concern spreads, the Turkish government has turned to Russia and Georgia for more power supplies. But Georgia is seen as unable to increase exports, while transmission lines from Bulgaria may already be carrying as much as they can.

The government seems to be trying nearly as hard to prepare for political problems if the country suffers power shortages like those of last winter. In the past week, officials have sounded frantic.

When asked about energy-saving plans at a conference in Istanbul, Energy Minister Cumhur Ersumer said, "I didn't only present savings measures to the Cabinet last week. I also provided information about the energy shortage in Turkey. I tried to explain how we had come to this point and give information about future projects. It is obvious that there were some misunderstandings, and certain issues were presented differently. Turkey is still discussing the wrong issues. We never asked that state-owned companies be closed."

But Turkey is far from the only country in the region that may face a tough winter. In Ukraine, there has been little progress toward averting an energy shortage since July, when Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko declared prematurely, "Today, I want to convince the country and people in power that the government and the country do not have any problems with preparations for the autumn and winter period."

Since then, Ukraine's government has tried in vain to settle the issue of its gas debts to Russia in order to ensure sufficient supplies for the winter. It has also tried unsuccessfully to sidestep the issue by seeking alternative sources from countries including Turkmenistan. Ukraine has been trying to outmaneuver a Russian threat to build a gas pipeline that would bypass the country by seeking pledges from Poland and Slovakia that they will not cooperate with Moscow's plan.

Proposals to privatize Ukraine's transit lines and give Russia effective control in exchange for debt have sparked opposition. The latest plan calls for selling shares in Ukraine's pipelines to Russia's Gazprom and its biggest foreign customer, Ruhrgas of Germany. President Leonid Kuchma is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in October to settle the matter of gas debts and transit, which has roiled relations for years.

In Azerbaijan, the latest plan to deal with the country's winter electricity shortage is to buy gas from an international group of suppliers rather than from Russia alone. But the contract reportedly calls for imports of 2,600 million cubic meters of gas between now and December 2001, which is far less than Azerbaijan's demand. Baku will also be dealing with Itera, the marketing partner of Russia's Gazprom, raising concerns about dependence on Moscow.

Azerbaijan's energy shortage is unusual because, unlike Ukraine and Turkey, the country is a growing exporter of oil. But Baku is now under pressure to pump more oil through a Russian pipeline to meet the terms of a 1996 contract. By buying Russian gas, it hopes to free up enough oil for export to avoid Russian fines. Last winter, Azerbaijan was unexpectedly forced to ration electricity when it found that its oil exports had left it without enough fuel at home.

Although the circumstances differ in Turkey, Ukraine and Azerbaijan, the three countries appear to have at least three things in common. They all face winter energy problems, they all suffer from bad planning and they are all turning to Russia for help with their power shortages. The question is whether Moscow will supply energy to them without seeking some measure of political power in return.

Russia Seen As Pressuring Azerbaijan For Oil
by Michael Lelyveld, RFE/RL

September 29, 2000

Azerbaijan President Heydar Aliyev's visit to the United States resulted this week in two troubling stories for his country, both of which appear to have been promoted by the Russian press.

On September 25 (Monday), the Internet-based Russian magazine carried a false report that Aliyev had died, capping two weeks of speculation about his stay at the Cleveland Clinic hospital in the midwestern United States. Aliyev flew to Cleveland on September 12 after meetings in Washington, where participants described him as having a cold.

Aliyev has previously received medical treatment during his travels to the United States. In April 1999, he ended a similar visit to Washington with a trip to the Cleveland hospital for heart bypass surgery. Last February, the president followed yet another Washington meeting with a stay in Cleveland for a cataract operation.

In each case, nervous Azerbaijani officials tried to draw a curtain of secrecy around the elderly president's condition, giving rise to rumors and making matters worse. The latest episode prompted Aliyev to call Azerbaijan's ANS television for an interview in which he hinted that he had contracted pneumonia. On September 26 (Tuesday), carried a Reuters news agency report citing the inaccuracy of Russian media rumors, without mentioning that the website itself was to blame.

The Itar-Tass news agency finally put the bogus story to rest, quoting the secretary of Russia's Security Council, Sergei Ivanov, saying, "I officially declare that reports by some Russian media about the health of the Azerbaijani president do not correspond to reality."

But the Russian report on Aliyev's alleged death was not the only one that raised suspicions. On September 25 (Monday), the Russian news agency Interfax reported that the U.S. oil company ExxonMobil had refused to participate with other firms in building the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. Interfax quoted the president of the Azerbaijani state oil company SOCAR as saying that the "withdrawal" would not harm the project to pipe Caspian oil to Turkey, which competes with Russia's preferred route to the port of Novorossiisk.

It was not clear, however, that the story reflected any actual decision that had been made by ExxonMobil. On September 27 (Wednesday), a spokesman for the company in the United States told RFE/RL, "There isn't a decision. It's pending, and we're talking with the (Azerbaijani) government and other parties about it." In any event, a "withdrawal" from the Baku-Ceyhan project would have been difficult because ExxonMobil had never made a decision to join the pipeline consortium in the first place.

The story of ExxonMobil's reluctance to help build the pipeline appears to have grown since September 11, when the U.S.-based Dow Jones news service reported that the company was keeping its "options open" on Caspian export routes. The report quoted Terry Koonce, president of ExxonMobil Production Company, as saying that the firm was not yet "entirely convinced" that the route would be economically viable.

Speaking in Washington, President Aliyev called on the company to change its position. On September 20, SOCAR's Natik Aliyev said ExxonMobil was "hesitating," adding that the company would suffer if it did not join the project. Days later, the hesitation appears to have been transformed into a withdrawal through little more than a repetition of Natik Aliyev's statement. The ExxonMobil spokesman in the United States said on September 27 (Wednesday) that there has been no change in the company's position since Koonce made his original statement in Washington over two weeks ago.

But Russian news agencies have been aggravating the uncertainties about Azerbaijan at a time of concern about Kremlin strategies for the press. Reports of a secret budget for press operations have been accompanied by moves to force Russia's oligarchs to turn over their media holdings, presumably to allow greater state control. The Russian reports on Azerbaijan also come at a sensitive time during President Aliyev's absence in the days before parliamentary elections.

Niyazov: No Long-Term Gas Deal With Russia
by Michael Lelyveld, RFE/RL

September 26, 2000

Turkmenistan's unpredictable President Saparmurat Niyazov has ruled out a long-term gas deal with Russia, which he actively promoted only four months ago.

Speaking on September 22 (Friday), Niyazov said he would not conclude a 30-year contract to supply gas to Russia, although he announced just such a preliminary pact when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Ashgabat in May. Since then, Turkmenistan has reached a deal to boost fuel deliveries to Moscow this year, but it has yet to sign an agreement for 2001.

Niyazov cited frequent changes in market conditions, saying, "We will sell gas to Russia but long-term agreements can lead to arguments ... so we will sell gas for a maximum term of two, three years."

The decision, if Niyazov sticks to it, would be a major change for Turkmenistan, which seemed headed toward a monopoly relationship with Russia for the last several months. The talk of a long-term contract for up to 50,000 million cubic meters of gas per year raised concerns among developers of the trans-Caspian pipeline that Turkmenistan would be left without enough resources for the U.S.-backed export route.

Now, Niyazov's refusal to make a commitment to Russia may raise hopes for the trans-Caspian line to Turkey again. The Turkmen leader has delayed approval for the project for so long that the consortium of U.S. firms that was ready to build the pipeline has instead decided to close its offices in Ashgabat.

But Niyazov's signals on the pipeline were mixed at best. He insisted that it should not be written off despite his indefinite delay, saying, "We have not refused any project. Whatever project is beneficial for us we will continue. All the projects are still alive." He also renewed his demands for concessions from the developers, saying, "Let them provide political guarantees, let them provide ecological guarantees and let them make a pre-payment," according to Agence France-Presse.

Niyazov's repetition of the demands, including one for an advance payment of some 500 million dollars, is likely to disappoint the remaining backer for the project, the Anglo-Dutch oil firm Royal Dutch/Shell. In August, an optimistic Shell executive told The Wall Street Journal that it was "a question of days or at most weeks" before Niyazov named the company to build the pipeline. But as the weeks have dragged on, Shell officials have switched to warning that the project is running out of time.

In a further blow, Niyazov reportedly said that Iran offered the shortest and most secure route for piping gas to Turkey, casting doubt on the entire plan for the trans-Caspian line. In August, Turkmen officials quoted Niyazov as saying that the country should pipe its gas directly to Turkey rather than through Russia or Iran.

Such wildly varying statements help to explain the frustrations of Western oil companies and officials in dealing with Niyazov. It is hard to base business decisions on whims that seem to change from week to week.

In this case, Niyazov's new and tougher positions appear to be related to his partially-successful efforts to win higher prices for Turkmen gas. He recently convinced Russia to pay $38 per thousand cubic meters, considerably more than Moscow offered earlier this year. Ashgabat has also taken a harder bargaining stance with former customers Ukraine and Georgia by insisting on better terms to settle their gas debts before providing new supplies.

But Niyazov has also engaged in behavior than can only be viewed as erratic, making it impossible to separate strategy from autocratic impulse. This month, the Turkmen leader announced plans to create a "giant artificial sea" in the Karakum desert, covering over 3,400 square kilometers at a cost of $4,000 million. Officials have reacted angrily to skepticism over the grandiose project.

In a country where citizens struggle to meet basic needs, Niyazov also disclosed plans this month for a new presidential residence in Turkey. His dealings with subordinates have appeared even more bizarre.

After establishing a practice of appointing officials to posts for probationary periods, Niyazov this month added the provision that the officials will not be given new jobs if they fail their first test.

In a region where many nations have suffered the devastating effects of drought, Niyazov also became furious this month with the governor of Turkmenistan's Dashoghuz Region for failing to meet crop targets and offering the water shortage as an excuse. Niyazov publicly denounced the hapless official, saying, "Look, there are other governors here in the hall. And none of them had enough water this year. However, they all managed to cope with their tasks."

Niyazov also criticized the governor for failing to report burglaries of officials' homes in his district, saying that the robbers "do this knowing in advance which of the top officials in the region are committing dishonest acts."

Such statements leave little hope for foreign companies to finding a dependable business partner in Turkmenistan.

UN Continues Stress On Region's Role In Afghan Solution
by Robert McMahon, RFE/RL

September 26, 2000

Afghanistan's civil war has defied nearly all efforts for a UN-brokered solution but the latest envoy trusted with this mission says there may be some signs of hope.

The head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, briefed the UN Security Council yesterday (Monday) about his peace efforts of the past three months. Vendrell noted the recent Taleban military advances in the north, continuing human rights abuses, especially against women, and the humanitarian crisis caused by war and drought. But Vendrell told reporters afterward there were fresh signs that parties inside and outside of Afghanistan were working for a solution.

"There are lots of elements moving under the surface both in terms of Afghanistan itself as well as in terms of the position of various countries which are playing a role inside of Afghanistan," Vendrell said.

The recent high-level meetings at UN headquarters of the "Six-plus-Two" countries resulted in the adoption of a plan to fight the Afghan opium trade and approval of a statement that called on parties to accept a political settlement. Vendrell says these developments are encouraging because they involve some of the countries who are aiding the warring sides in Afghanistan. It is known that Pakistan provides support to the Taleban and Iran gives assistance to the United Front forces.

The Six-plus-Two group also includes Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, China, Russia and the United States.

In another development, Russian President Vladimir Putin is today (Tuesday) sending aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky to Pakistan with a message for its leader, General Pervez Musharraf.

The Six-plus-Two countries have pledged before to support a political settlement but later contributed to renewed military campaigns. The problem, Vendrell says, has been deep suspicion by the opposing sides that any letdown in military aid will be exploited by the other side.

"We need to find a mechanism when the interference by all sides would stop, more or less simultaneously. It's going to take time because the national interests of the Six-plus-Two countries are involved and we need to have patience," Vendrell said.

Vendrell told reporters yesterday that he will resume his peace mission next week by meeting with Taleban leaders either in Kabul or Kandahar. He will then meet with the commander of the opposition forces, Ahmad Shah Masood, probably in Tajikistan.

The UN envoy says the Security Council and Six-plus-Two countries have asked him to report by the beginning of November on the willingness of the parties to achieve a cease-fire and enter into negotiations.

The Security Council made clear in a statement following the meeting with Vendrell that it holds the Taleban responsible for the failure of peace initiatives so far. It also reflected the alarm expressed by Russia and Central Asian states this summer over the possibility of the Afghan conflict spilling over their borders.

News reports said yesterday that clashes between the Taleban militia and opposition forces have spread to within three kilometers of the border with Tajikistan, within view of Russian border guards patrolling there.

The council said it was ready to impose further measures to force Taleban compliance with its resolutions concerning terrorism, drug trafficking and abuse of women's rights.

Vendrell said he believed such threats were beginning to have an impact on Taleban policy. He also said the Taleban leadership is very interested in obtaining international recognition, which would only come following compliance with council resolutions.