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05-05-06, 23:07
International Herald Tribune

Cheney urges Kazakhs to bypass Russia

By Ilan Greenberg and Andrew E. Kramer

The New York Times

SATURDAY, MAY 6, 2006

ASTANA, Kazakhstan Vice President Dick Cheney visited Kazakhstan on Friday to advocate oil and natural gas export routes that will bypass Russia and directly access the West, with the possibility to bring more supply into a tight world energy market.

A day earlier, Cheney chastised Moscow for monopolizing the energy trade in the former Soviet Union, a major producing region on a par with the Middle East.

In a speech in Vilnius, Lithuania, Cheney cautioned Russia against turning oil and natural gas exports into "tools of intimidation or blackmail, either by supply manipulation or attempts to monopolize transportation."

The United States is backing efforts to weaken that monopoly by creating alternative supply routes for the vast energy reserves of Central Asia, much of which now pass over Russian territory to reach ports in the Black Sea.

The visit to Kazakhstan, on Russia's southern rim, highlighted the balancing act of U.S. interests in Kazakhstan, a secular Muslim oil-producing state with a worsening human rights record and limited democracy.

"The United States is trying to strike a difficult balance," said Tanya Kostello, an analyst at Eurasia Group, a New York risk consultancy. "It is trying to encourage the regime in Kazakhstan to move toward democracy while maintaining the economic ties."

She added: "Criticism on the democratic front will be more limited, while energy will take center stage."

President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan was elected in December 2005 for a third six-year term with 91 percent of the vote in an election that international observers said was flawed. Two opposition politicians have been murdered in the last six months.

Kazakhstan produced 1.2 million barrels of oil a day last year but is expected to increase output to 3 million barrels a day by 2015.

Cheney convened privately with officials in the Kazakhstan government Friday, ending the day with a dinner with Nazarbayev, U.S. officials said.

In an echo of the 19th-century "Great Game" involving colonial possessions in Central Asia, the United States is seeking to weaken Russia's control over oil and natural gas exports by supporting routes that bypass Russia while avoiding Iran.

Meanwhile, Gazprom, the Russian natural gas monopoly, relies on Central Asian natural gas as its fields in the Arctic are declining, heightening Moscow's interest in the region's energy.

Because Kazakhstan borders both China and Russia and shares the Caspian Sea with Iran to the south, Nazarbayev has many options.

Planned pipelines route Kazakhstan oil and gas through Russia, Turkey, Iran, China, Pakistan and even Afghanistan.

On Thursday, the same day Kazakhstan's energy minister said he was interested in building a gas pipeline westward through the Caucasus, cheering the United States and Europe because it would loosen Gazprom's lock on this trade, the national pipeline operator issued a guarantee to Russia to ship Russian oil to China through the new Atasu-Alashankou oil pipeline.

Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, who is traveling with Cheney, and other U.S. officials have publicly called on Kazakhstan to commit to transporting more of its oil westward. Still, some modern players of the Great Game argue that energy sales to China also serve the United States' interest. Oil that China pumps from Kazakhstan is oil it will not buy on the spot market in ports in the Gulf.

Outside of energy, United States is seeking to maintain its military presence in Central Asia after Uzbekistan expelled a U.S. air base supporting operations in Afghanistan.

The United States' other Central Asian base seems on wobbly foundations as the government of Kyrgyzstan is demanding higher rent payments and has discussed expelling the Americans.

Cheney's visit marked the latest in a series of high-level U.S. delegations to Kazakhstan where support for Nazarbayev's energy policies are balanced with criticism of his autocratic rule.

Opposition leaders said they were emboldened by Cheney's pointed comments Thursday in the speech in Lithuania when he praised democratic advances in former Soviet states in spite of counterpressure from Russia.

Cheney said that President George W. Bush, at a meeting in July with President Vladimir Putin, would "make the case, clearly and confidently, that Russia has nothing to fear and everything to gain from having strong, stable democracies on its borders."

Opposition leaders were scheduled to meet privately with Cheney for one hour after lunch on Saturday, just before his departure to Croatia, the final leg of his three-country tour.

"We're going to try to explain the deplorable situation in this country," Oraz Jandosov, co-chairman of the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, said in an interview. "After Cheney's speech yesterday it will be difficult for him to be unsympathetic to us."

Jandosov said he would be joined by several colleagues, but that the Kazakhstan authorities had prevented some opposition politicians from traveling to the capital for the meeting.

Ilan Greenberg reported from Almaty and Andrew E. Kramer from Moscow.

Russian media critical

Media in Moscow described Cheney's harsh criticism of Russia as the start of a new Cold War and a reprise of Winston Churchill's famous "Iron Curtain" speech, reflecting deepening distrust as Washington's warnings about Russia's course clash with a newly assertive Kremlin, The Associated Press reported from Moscow.

"The speech effectively eliminates the vestiges of strategic partnership between Russia and the United States," Interfax quoted a pro-Kremlin political analyst, Gleb Pavlovsky, as saying. "And if U.S. President George W. Bush confirms the stance, the idea can be buried."

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