Turkmen president Saparmurad Niazov and Russian leaders attempted to resolve extant differences during Niazov’s "working visit" to Moscow on October 14 and 15. A Turkmen official told The Monitor that Niazov’s meeting with Russian president Boris Yeltsin in the Barvikha sanatorium was a mere courtesy call to a sick man and that no real discussions took place there. The hard issues were thrashed out in Niazov’s talks with Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov. According to Russian official statements, the Turkmen position on the legal status of the Caspian Sea "coincided" with Russia’s in opposing sectoral partition and favoring common use of mineral resources. The sides agreed to encourage the participation of Russian companies in developing oil and gas deposits "near Turkmenistan’s shore," in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s phrasing, which carefully avoided the term "sector."
The delegations openly disagreed on the repayment of Russia’s $ 500 million debt for Turkmen gas deliveries — Moscow claimed that the debt is owed to the Turkmen-Russian company Turkmenrosgaz, not to Turkmenistan itself. They also disagreed on the price of further deliveries of Turkmen gas to Russia through the joint company. Russia’s Gazprom has a 45 percent stake in Turkmenrosgaz; Turkmenistan’s is 55 percent.
Russian official statements on these talks also suggest that Moscow made its agreement to the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan gas pipeline conditional on a prior political settlement of the Afghan conflict.
At his news conference in Moscow, Niazov did not confirm the alleged change of his position on the Caspian Sea’s status. He also indicated that he had maintained his special position on Afghanistan, based on Turkmenistan’s neutral status and the CIS member countries’ right to take "different points of view on any issue." Niazov said that Turkmenistan "does not fully share" the conclusions of the recent Russian-Central Asian summit in Almaty, which it declined to attend; that it "enjoys good relations with all Afghan groupings including the Taliban," and that it considers the inter-Afghan conflict as a purely internal affair of that country. Niazov favored UN-sponsored inter-Afghan talks, but not the international conference of "interested countries" proposed by Moscow. (Interfax, Itar-Tass, October 14 and 15)
Niazov is unlikely to have endorsed Moscow’s position on the status of the Caspian Sea. Although not openly supporting Azerbaijan’s and Kazakhstan’s stand for sectoral partition, Turkmenistan has embraced it in practice by making agreements with international companies based upon national control of mineral deposits on its continental shelf, without asking for Moscow’s consent.
The planned trans-Afghan pipeline would give Turkmenistan and, potentially, Kazakhstan the major outlet they seek to international markets, bypassing Russia. The pipeline’s Afghan stretch would cross territory controlled by Taliban, which supports the project. Pakistan — the Taliban’s main regional backer and the pipeline’s destination country — also favors it. Last week, Niazov discussed the project with a senior Pakistani delegation in Ashgabat and also endorsed Pakistan’s objections to any external attempts at reversing the Taliban’s recent successes. The leaders of the $4 billion pipeline project, UNOCAL of the U.S. and Delta of Saudi Arabia, are discussing possible participation by Gazprom as a way of getting Russia on board. However, Gazprom and the Russian government behind it may well view such discussions as an opportunity to stall the project.
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