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Tashkent Protests at Embassy Raid

Turkmen raid on Uzbek embassy in Ashgabat signals worsening relations between the two countries.
By Akhmed Nazarov

Tashkent protested to Ashgabat this week after security services allegedly investigating the attempted assassination of President Saparmurat Niazov raided its embassy in the Turkmen capital.


The incident appears to have worsened already uneasy relations between the two countries, which have recently fallen out over a number of trade issues.


An Uzbek foreign ministry statement issued on December 17 said the embassy action was a "gross violation of the norms and principles of international law, plus international conventions on diplomatic relations and bilateral agreements".


The previous day a group of Turkmen security officers searched the Uzbek ambassador's residence in Ashgabat, claiming that Turkmen nationals involved in the Niazov assassination bid were hiding there.


Since the incident, there have been reports that Tashkent has tightened security along its frontier with Turkmenistan effectively calling a halt to cross-border trade.


According to the Uzbek analyst Faizullo Iskhakov, the embassy raid might have arisen from Niazov's suspicion that Uzbekistan is supporting the Turkmen opposition in retaliation for Ashgabat's policies towards Tashkent. Turkmenistan recently turned down a request from land-locked Uzbekistan to use Turkmen ports along the Caspian Sea for access to world markets.


According to a Turkmen analyst who wished to remain anonymous, another possible explanation for the incident is that Turkmenbashi, as Niazov likes to be known, considers Uzbekistan a regional rival for gas exports - the main source of foreign currency for his country, which has the fourth largest reserves in the world.


The embassy raid comes one month after Uzbekistan and the Russian energy giant GazProm held negotiations about gas exports and joint development of Uzbek gas fields.


In August of this year, Ashgabat indicated that it was ready to renew its cooperation with GazProm, which has a monopoly over the delivery of regional gas supplies to western Europe. But so far nothing concrete has come of this.


Relations were frozen in 1997, when Turkmenistan rebuffed GazProm's proposal to guarantee an annual purchase of gas at a fixed price. Ashgabat then turned to another Russian company, ITERA, which offered a higher price, but from next year ITERA will no longer be permitted to use the GazProm network for transporting Turkmen gas.


A deterioration in relations between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan will hit both countries, many analysts believe.


Niazov is relying on Uzbek goodwill for his transafghan gas project, nicknamed "Turkmenbashi's blue dream". A pipeline of almost 1,500 km is being planned to transport Turkmen gas to Pakistan, via Afghan territory. Turkmenbashi is scheduled to meet the Afghan and Pakistani presidents on December 26-27 to sign an agreement on the project.


If relations with Ashgabat worsen, Tashkent could hamper construction of the pipeline, by exerting its influence on the ethnic Uzbek community in northern Afghanistan.


But Uzbekistan is also vulnerable, with two areas of the country particularly susceptible to a Turkmen backlash. Many Uzbeks in the frontier regions have relatives in Turkmenistan and depend on cross-border trade for a living, also farmers in the western regions depend on water from the Amudarya river, which runs throught Turkmen territory.


Akhmed Nazarov is the pseudonym of a Turkmen journalist and Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR project manager in Tashkent.


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