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Slighted By Russia, Ashgabat Courts EU

Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov
Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov
BRUSSELS -- Officials at the European Commission have attempted to downplay the significance of meetings this week between Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov and EU officials.

But the hastily arranged high-level meetings were being seen in the EU capital as a sign of Ashgabat's growing frustration with Russia, following Moscow's reneging on an agreement to buy large volumes of natural gas from Turkmenistan at what was then a "European" price.

The move prompted the leadership of Turkemenistan, which is heavily dependent on exports of hydrocarbons, to approach other potential suitors.

Outwardly, it is business as usual in EU-Turkmen cooperation. Meredov was in Brussels together with his country's ministers for communications and trade for a regular meeting on June 4 under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

Ferran Tarradellas, spokesman to EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, told RFE/RL that "it makes perfect sense for the Turkmen foreign minister to visit the EU capital from time to time."

Warming Up

But EU officials say Ashgabat scrambled late last week to fit in extra talks with leading EU representatives. Apart from Piebalgs, Meredov also set up short-notice meetings with EU External-Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

Speaking ahead of Meredov's meeting with Piebalgs, Tarradellas pointed to the recently enlivened energy cooperation between the EU and Turkmenistan.

"In May last year, there was the signature of a memorandum of understanding between Turkmenistan and the European Union on cooperation on energy issues," Tarradellas said. "This cooperation is being developed at this point in time. There is certainly the importance of Turkmenistan as a possible gas supplier to the European -- [that] is well known. So this is certainly one of the issues which will be discussed."

Tarradellas said the two sides were also set to discuss the development of renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, cooperation on regulatory issues, and the development of the "Baku process," a framework of cooperation for countries around the Caspian and Black seas.

Behind the scenes, however, EU officials and diplomats appeared to see signs of desperation in the Turkmen foreign minister's visit.

Mad At Moscow

Sources in Brussels told RFE/RL that Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is understood to be "furious" with Russia after Moscow went back on an accord to buy up some 50 billion cubic meters (BCM) of Turkmen gas annually at a rumored price of 340 per BCM. That price is expected to drop slowly, as gas tracks the downward trend of oil prices over the past year, but will still leave Russia's Gazprom facing huge losses as it re-exports the gas to the EU at what are now much lower going rates.

Turkmenistan has been particularly angered by the bluntness of the message Moscow apparently chose to communicate to Ashgabat -- that it is no longer willing to honor the terms of the initial agreement.

Crushed by the weight of the global economic downturn, Gazprom is reported to have simply turned off the taps at the Turkmen border in early April, causing a major delivery pipeline to explode.

Last year, Turkmenistan told a visiting EU delegation it will set aside 10 BCM a year for the bloc's planned Nabucco pipeline, to run from Turkey to Austria, and scheduled to become operational sometime in the middle of the next decade. But EU-Turkmen ties took on a new hue in the aftermath of the April explosion, with Ashgabat almost immediately granting the German company RWE prospecting rights off its shores in the Caspian Sea.

European Commission spokesman Tarradellas told RFE/RL that the EU sees no particular problem in the fact that Turkmenistan, along with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, refused to sign a joint statement with the EU after an energy summit in Prague on May 8.

"They said that it was not in their culture to sign this kind of declaration, but the three of them [agreed] to put a point saying that the document was signed in the parentheses by the representatives of the three countries," Tarradellas said, "so we don't see that this is a problem at all."

Busy Schedule

However, officials in Brussels stress that direct energy trade between Turkmenistan and the EU must await the completion of the Nabucco pipeline. Without Nabucco, one official said, all talk of trans-Caspian links -- including a possible trans-Caspian gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan -- must remain theoretical prospects at best.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner received the Turkmen foreign minister for a quarter of an hour of talks, with officials describing the meeting as a "courtesy call" that was penciled into the commissioner's diary only on May 29.

Meredov was also expected to meet European Commission President Barroso and will hold talks with the bloc's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, during the remainder of his visit.

No advances in broader EU-Turkmen relations were expected from the scheduled June 4 meeting under the auspices of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

The Czech EU Presidency informed the bloc's member states that the Turkmen side had put off indefinitely the next round of the EU-Turkmen human rights dialogue, which the EU had hoped would take place ahead of that meeting.

Turkmenistan is the only ex-Soviet country with which the EU has so far been unable to sign a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, the standard framework accord for bilateral cooperation with ex-Soviet republics.

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