Turkmenbashi Boosted by Moscow Deal

Energy and security agreement will benefit both countries - but has worrying implications for Turkmen opposition figures living in Russia.

Turkmenbashi Boosted by Moscow Deal

Energy and security agreement will benefit both countries - but has worrying implications for Turkmen opposition figures living in Russia.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Turkmenistan and Russia have signed a long-awaited agreement on gas exports and security issues after a trade-off that appears to give both sides exactly what they wanted.

President Saparmurat Niazov has been pushing for the latter for some time, but the talks appeared to stall until the Turkmen leader's visit to Moscow on April 11 and 12.

As well as tying up a lucrative gas deal that will benefit both nations, Niazov - who likes to be called Turkmenbashi, or "Father of all Turkmen" - left with assurances that Moscow will give him a free hand in dealing with his opponents currently living in exile in Russia.

The presidents signed two agreements - one on gas deliveries and the other on bilateral security, which declares the nations' intention to cooperate in fighting "international terrorism".

The energy deal covers current deliveries and makes provision for a 25-year agreement on gas cooperation. Turkmenistan's current export obligations - notably with Ukraine and Iran - expire in 2006. Until that time, Moscow will purchase all the fuel left over from these sales. Ashgabat is expected to deliver around 70 billion cubic metres of gas when Russia becomes its main energy purchaser.

This agreement has huge advantages for Russia, as it can sell Turkmen gas on to western markets at a tidy profit. This in turn will provide the necessary funds to boost Moscow's own energy industry.

It will also give Russia a stronger position in Central Asia, at a time when the United States is increasing its influence in the region in the wake of the September 11 attacks on America, and the war in Afghanistan which followed them.

The agreement is also beneficial to Turkmenistan. The Turkmen economy is dependent on gas revenues from gas exports, but at the moment big volumes of gas can only go to market via Russian pipelines. Turkmenistan is almost entirely reliant on Russia to buy its gas, or to allow it to transit its pipelines to Ukraine.

Under this new deal, Turkmenistan is assured of significant, regular gas sales for the first time in years. The short-term price deal looks great for Turkmenistan, at 44 US dollars per cubic metre - the rate Turkmenbashi has been holding out for in several years of negotiations. But since 50 percent of the price is payable in kind, actual export revenues will be half the notional amount. After 2006 things get better, as the cost will be determined by world market prices.

Whatever the earnings, though, Turkmenbashi can now rely on a steady increase in cash inflows to bail out the economy and strengthen his regime.

But it is the political implications that are causing the most comment among analysts and observers.

It marks a distinct thaw in relations between the two countries, who came close to outright animosity late last year when Ashgabat accused Moscow of supporting a group of Turkmen opposition activists suspected of involvement in an attempt on Niazov's life.

The breakthrough came after Moscow satisfied several demands that many analysts described as impossible to fulfil. Chief among these were Turkmenbashi's insistence that President Vladimir Putin annul the dual citizenship treaty signed by both nations in 1993. The Russian premier refused to do so during talks in January, but consented last week.

This is a major boost for Niazov, who has been looking to crack down on the Russian-based Turkmen opposition since the alleged assassination attempt in November 2002.

As the new security deal includes provision for the extradition of "terrorist" suspects, there are worrying implications for these opposition figures, intellectuals and former government ministers who took refuge in Russia after falling foul of Turkmenbashi's regime.

The majority chose the protection of dual Russian-Turkmen citizenship, which allowed them to stay freely in Russia and benefit from the support of that country's non-governmental organisation network.

But with the scrapping of the dual nationality treaty, that safety net is no longer there. There are already reports that Russia-based opposition figures are already leaving for western countries.

Niazov and Putin's decision to scrap dual citizenship legislation will also have worrying implications for ethnic Russians who live in Turkmenistan, many of whom will face serious difficulties when they try to visit relatives abroad, receive hospital treatment or even register at universities.

Already, many people are flocking to Russia's embassy in Ashgabat for advice on which country they should choose to belong to.

If they take Russian citizenship, they will have to sell their apartments and any other property in Turkmenistan, and leave the country as soon as possible.

This will damage Ashgabat's property market even further - housing prices have already plummeted, and a good three-roomed apartment in the capital can now be bought for as little as 1,000 US dollars.

Arkady Dubnov is a journalist with Vremya Novostey newspaper

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