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More Than Meets The Eye

Is Uzbek President Islam Karimov warming up to Turkmenistan's Berdymukhammedov?
Is Uzbek President Islam Karimov warming up to Turkmenistan's Berdymukhammedov?
When Uzbekistan's president travels to Turkmenistan, it signals there is more afoot than official reports will admit. President Islam Karimov went to Turkmenistan for a two-day visit on October 19, "officially" so that he could join Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov for a festival of Turkmen-Uzbek friendship that started in the northern Turkmen border city of Dashoghuz on October 18.

Clearly the festival is not the reason for the Uzbek president's trip, especially since Turkmen-Uzbek relations may be better now but they have been far from amiable for the majority of the two countries' independence. There was that assassination attempt on the previous Turkmen president in 2002 in which Uzbekistan seemed to play a role. It sort of soured ties between Tashkent and Ashgabat.

But Karimov has had much more success dealing with Berdymukhammedov than he did with Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov, and right now the Uzbek and Turkmen leaders have some important things to discuss, most of them related to the visitor who comes to Turkmenistan later this week -- Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.

Both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan sell natural gas to Russia but at different prices. Turkmenistan has insisted on the deal Russia signed with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan in March 2008 that specified paying "European prices" for Central Asian gas. The price of gas, along with the price of oil, in world markets dropped shortly after the 2008 deal was signed.

By the spring of 2009, it was clear Turkmenistan and Russia were arguing over the price of Turkmen gas and, subsequently, an explosion along the main pipeline connecting the two countries meant no Turkmen gas made its way to Russia for the remainder of 2009. When a new deal was finally brokered at the start of this year Russia agreed to buy Turkmen gas, but only about one-fourth of the amount of gas it had previously bought --about 11 billion cubic meters compared to the previous 45 bcm.

Oil prices are rising and presumably gas prices will follow, so Karimov, whose country did agree to lower its gas price to Russia, will be curious to know what Berdymukhammedov expects to receive for his country's gas.

Karimov will also be interested in preparations for the Caspian summit next month. Uzbekistan is not a Caspian littoral state and, therefore, will not be represented in Baku. But the future of energy export routes from Central Asia will be discussed at the summit, and European nations have shown an interest in including Uzbekistan in projects, like the European Union-supported Nabucco gas pipeline project.

But mostly Karimov will want to compare notes with Berdymukhammedov about how much Russian influence the two want in Central Asia. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are unique among the Central Asian states in that they both have sufficient revenue to avoid economic dependence on Moscow, and neither country shares a common border with Russia, providing both a modicum of political independence from Moscow. Should Berdymukhammedov decide to mend fences with Medvedev, the immediate loser could be Uzbekistan.

-- Bruce Pannier