Vladimir Putin visited Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan May 18-19. He had some success wooing independent-minded Uzbekistan back toward a closer relationship with Russia, but he made no apparent progress among the Turkmens.

In Tashkent, Putin told President Islam Karimov that Russia is eager to help defend Uzbekistan against Islamic extremism. Uzbekistan, the Russian leader said, could be a privileged partner, a recipient of Russian weaponry and training and a base for Russian units to protect porous borders with Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Russian and Uzbek units could work together in “preventive antiterrorist actions.”

Karimov, a former Soviet leader who has autocratic control over his country of 24 million people, is like the storied paranoid who has real enemies. In February 1999, he survived an assassination attempt, a bomb attack in the center of Tashkent that killed fourteen bystanders. Last summer, Islamic guerrilla forces, probably based in Afghanistan, were turned back trying to penetrate Uzbekistan through Kyrgyzstan. Karimov resisted pressure from Boris Yeltsin to cooperate with Russian aspirations in Central Asia, but the challenge of Islamic fundamentalism, and Putin’s projection of confidence and success, seem to have turned him around. Here are his own words:

“Any president in my position would seek what? Protection. A country like Uzbekistan is not in a position to protect itself. This protection we seek from Russia…. Uzbekistan recognizes the interests Russia has had, and will have, in Central Asia…. After the USSR disintegrated and we became independent, our views, assessments, and positions were often at variance…. A turnabout is occurring today before your eyes, as those differences are virtually being removed.”

Saparmurat Niazov, president of Turkmenistan, is no less (indeed is rather more) an autocrat than Uzbekistan’s Karimov. But he is also the only leader in Central Asia who has good relations with the wildly diverse and mutually antagonistic nearby nations of Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Russia, India and Pakistan. Turkmenistan needs good neighbors. It is a poor nation of under five million, many still nomadic. The country’s only resource is natural gas, salable now only by pipeline to Russia.

Niazov dreams of a new pipeline across Afghanistan or Iran to Pakistan, or more realistically of a trans-Caspian line to Azerbaijan, and thence to Turkey and the West. But Russia is the reality. Putin, with the chairman of gas monopoly Gazprom in tow, proposed an increase in Russian purchases of Turkmen gas from twenty to fifty billion cubic meters per year, but a cut in price from US$36 to US$32 per thousand cubic meters. Niazov, who knows Gazprom gets up to $80 per thousand cubic meters when it resells the gas abroad, said $32 would not his cover production costs. He made a counteroffer at $40–all cash please, no barter.

There the bargaining stands. As for scaring Niazov with the “threat from the south,” the Turkmen leader will have none of it: “Turkmenistan is not afraid of extremism in Afghanistan…. We see no danger.”