Source AP ©

Putin calls for closer ties with Turkmenistan

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose aim is to strengthen control over the region’s energy export, has started his tour over Central Asia. He called Friday for closer relationship with Turkmenistan.

Putin hailed the recent improvement of ties with the ex-Soviet republic, noting growing trade, but said "we still have very much to do in energy and other areas."

Speaking after talks with new Turkmen President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, Putin also noted increased humanitarian and cultural contacts between the two countries, saying they were creating "a sustainable and reliable foundation for developing relations in all areas."

Russia has intensified contacts with Ashgabat since the death last year of President Saparmurat Niyazov that has sparked an increased competition for Turkmenistan's vast gas reserves.

Berdymukhamedov, who just over two weeks ago visited Moscow, signaled Friday that Russian energy companies may be invited to work in the Turkmen sector of the Caspian Sea shelf. "There is a possibility that Russian companies will be invited to work with us in the Caspian," he said.

Niyazov had tightly limited foreign access to the country's energy resources and had signed deals to build export pipelines to power-hungry China.

On Saturday, the leaders of Russia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are expected to announce a deal to build a new pipeline along the Caspian Sea coast that would carry natural gas from Turkmenistan into Europe via Kazakhstan and Russia.

That would deal a blow to the United States and the European Union, which have lobbied strongly for a route under the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and Turkey bypassing Russia as they sought to secure sources of oil and gas outside the Middle East and to draw Caspian states away from Russia and closer to the West.

The prospective deal would further boost Russia's role as a major supplier of oil and gas to Europe and strengthen Western fears that Moscow could use its energy clout for political purposes.

Washington and Brussels have intensified diplomacy around the trans-Caspian project since Russia briefly halted gas supplies to its ex-Soviet neighbors at the start of 2006 and 2007 amid politically charged price fights that led to shortfalls in supplies to the European Union.

Russia controls the only export routes for Turkmenistan's gas and the main pipeline for Kazakh oil exports.

At talks Thursday in Kazakhstan with President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Putin agreed to the expansion of a pipeline that carries oil from Kazakhstan's Tengiz field to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. Putin also agreed to Kazakhstan's participation in a Russian-controlled pipeline that runs from Bulgaria's Black Sea port of Burgas to Alexandroupolis, in northern Greece.

The two deals could reduce Kazakhstan's interest in routes connecting with the U.S.-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that carries Caspian oil to Turkey on a route that bypasses Russia.

From Turkmenistan, Putin will go to Kazakhstan's Caspian city of Aktau.

Kazakhstan is planning to produce 2.6 million barrels of oil a day and 45 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually by 2015.

Turkmenistan is the largest natural gas producer among the ex-Soviet countries after Russia.

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