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Turkey, Russia carve out power with oil routes

The two old rivals are squabbling over oil, but the prize is much higher: a net of influence that could stretch to China's border.

THOUGH Turkey and Russia have lost their vast empires, rivalry between the ancient enemies still burns.

The two nations are heading to collide as each strives anew to extend its sway in Central Asia and the Caucasus, according to Turkish analysts here. Amid mutual accusations of imperialist designs, ``a race for influence ... has started whether we like it or not,'' says Cengiz Candar of the liberal daily Sabah. ``We and the Russians look at the world from different windows.''

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This ``race'' has lasted for centuries, with each empire battling to expand its domain at the expense of the other. Before World War I, the Ottomans had stretched their reach from the Balkans to Yemen, with Slavic Christendom bearing down from the north.

Today, Turkey and Russia are continuing their conflict with trade agreements rather than swords. They are grappling over crucial oil export routes from the Caspian Sea to Western Europe. At stake is the future of Russia's Muslim-populated underbelly, former satellites of the Soviet Union. Both Ankara and Moscow regard the outcome of their struggle as critical to their national security.

With Russian troops in Georgia and in Tajikistan, ``Russia is following an imperial and expansionist policy,'' Kamran Inan, a prominent Turkish former diplomat and now a member of the parliament, warned senior NATO and European Union officials at a recent meeting of the Turkish-Atlantic Council, a nongovernmental committee.

``We see the Russian moves as a threat to Turkey's interests and to Turkey's security,'' he complains.

For its part, Moscow resented Turkey's decision in October to host a summit of leaders from the five Turkic republics in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.

``From time to time, Turkic countries embark on a path of isolation by ethnic principle,'' which puts them in opposition to neighboring countries,'' scolds Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Demurin.

``Apparently this attracts ... aggressive, nationalistic circles and extremists ... that bear a certain amount of responsibility for provoking conflicts, including in the CIS,'' Mr. Demurin adds.

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The Turks deny any ``pan-Turkic'' designs on the region, and Turkey's President Suleyman Demirel, who hosted the Istanbul summit, insisted that ``we are all independent states, and we do not need to get anybody else's permission'' to meet.

``The Russians have no reason to suspect our aims nor to qualify our getting together as an act of hostility,'' he says.

But Ankara clearly sees the emergence of the five newly independent Turkic countries as an opportunity to expand its influence in Asia - on the basis of common history, culture, language, and religion.

Turkey is involved in 178 development projects in the five Turkic countries, with investments totaling $3.5 billion. Some 8,000 students from the five nations are studying in Turkey, thanks to Turkish government grants, and Ankara has given Azerbaijan - caught in a six-year war with neighboring Armenia - $800 million in humanitarian assistance.

Also potent in the long run is the influence of television. It is as easy to watch Turkish TV as Russian programs in the Azeri capital of Baku.

Also, the national carrier, Turkish Airlines, flies regularly to all five capitals.

These cultural links do have limits: At the Istanbul summit, for example, Azeri President Gaidar Aliyev and Turkish President Demirel were the only participants to speak in their native languages - the other four presidents preferred to speak Russian.

But Turkey's expanding ties nonetheless alarm Moscow, where officials are anxious to pull the former Soviet republics more closely into their own orbit, rather than see them respond so warmly to overtures from other powers.

This sentiment increases when the rivalry turns into direct competition over such economically critical issues such as oil routes, as is happening now.

Azerbaijan signed in September what has become known in Baku as the ``deal of the century'' - a $7 billion agreement with Western oil companies and a Turkish partner to develop Caspian Sea oil fields.

Currently, the only way Baku can export its oil is through pipelines that lead to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, giving Moscow a stranglehold over Azeri oil sales.

Kazakhstan is in a similar bind, able to export its oil only through Russian pipelines to Europe. Russian fuel minister Yuri Shafranik told his Turkish counterpart earlier in November that Moscow will not countenance a new pipe to carry Kazakh or Russian oil through Turkey, saying his government ``will insist'' on a route through Novorossiysk, Bulgaria, and Greece.

But with the new Azeri deal, the idea of building a new pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Turkish Mediterranean terminal at Ceyhan has emerged.

``I would be very happy to see the pipeline [go] through Georgia'' to Turkey, said Demirel Nov. 15 after visiting Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze.

The Istanbul summit ``welcomed'' work to make that idea a reality, which would strengthen Turkey's strategic position at Russia's expense. And this obviously worries Moscow. Even though the Russian oil company Lukoil has a 10 percent stake in the Azeri deal, the Russian Foreign Ministry insists that Moscow will not recognize the agreement.

The Turks are keen on the pipeline not only because of the strategic and economic benefits it would bring, but also because it would relieve dangerous traffic at the Bosporous Straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

After a Greek tanker loaded with Russian oil collided with a freighter in the Bosporous this summer, Turkey introduced new safety regulations, requiring advance warning of oil tankers' passage.

But Russia said it would ignore some of them because the rules violated the international treaty that governs free use of the Bosporous.

With this and other sticking points souring Moscow's relations with Ankara, Turkish diplomats are disappointed that their Western allies seem unconcerned about Russian intentions in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

``United States indifference to Russia's moves to spread its influence in our part of the world suggests that there is a hidden understanding'' between Mos-cow and Washington, worries Vahit Halefoglu, a former Turkish foreign minister. ``We hope not.''

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