Ahead of the CIS summit in Dushanbe this weekend, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Russia -- who meet frequently -- met again in the Russian city of Novosibirsk to attend the Forum of Leaders of Border Regions.
Foremost among the issues discussed October 4 was energy cooperation, specifically new export routes for shipping Turkmen and Kazakh natural gas and oil via Russia, something the presidents of those three countries agreed to in May.
"[Russian President] Vladimir Putin and I discussed today a long-term project to establish a Caspian transport corridor," Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev told the forum. "Kazakhstan is already building a modern structure in the Caspian zone that will become the central element in the establishment of an international Caspian energy and transport corridor from north to south, which follows up the agreement reached by Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan to build a gas pipeline."
The new corridor allows the export of gas and oil not only to energy-hungry European countries but also brings the possibility of eventually shipping energy supplies south through Iran to the Persian Gulf -- where ships could take it to Asian nations such as India.
The Iranian part of the corridor has not received much attention from the Kazakh, Russian, and Turkmen leaders yet but Turkmenistan does have a natural-gas pipeline connecting it with Iran, which serves as a modest model of what could come.
Nazarbaev said work has already started in his country to prepare for this new energy-export corridor. Nazarbaev's comments envisage shipping energy supplies via numerous means: pipeline, ships, and even roads.
"In its first stage, the [Caspian transport] project includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, aiming to connect the Persian Gulf on one end and the Baltic Sea on the other," he said. "The Caspian project envisions the creation of a high-tech system that includes railroads, highways, power transmission lines, gas, and oil pipelines."
Russian companies are ready to invest in building Kazakhstan's largest port at Kuryk on the Caspian.
Nazarbaev also again raised the possibility of constructing new canals to link "the basin of the Caspian Sea and the basins of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov," which would "immeasurably enhance the geopolitical importance of that [energy-export] system."
Nazarbaev and Putin also discussed the legal status of the Caspian Sea ahead of a summit of Caspian Sea littoral states scheduled later this month in Tehran.
Both Russia and Kazakhstan (as well as Azerbaijan) have been active in developing their sectors of the Caspian Sea's energy resources despite the fact there is no agreement on the legal status of the Caspian and the distribution of its resources.
The agreements currently governing the Caspian date back to 1921 and 1940 when the Soviet Union and Iran signed documents on its status.
The issue -- especially for Iran -- is whether the Caspian should be defined as a lake or a sea. If the Caspian is officially defined as a sea then each of the five countries washed by its waters (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan) would have national sectors and would be free to develop resources individually in their own sectors. If it is a lake then the Caspian would fall under a "condominium" status and all five would equally share the resources and the profits. Defining the Caspian as a sea leaves Iran with about 13 percent of the Caspian and preliminary exploration of that sector show it contains less gas and oil than the other four countries' sectors.
Putin and Nazarbaev also discussed border issues. Both presidents lauded improvements in curbing illegal narcotic trafficking and illegal immigration along the two countries' 7,540-kilometer border.
Vladimir Pronichev, the deputy director of Russia's Federal Security Service, said security efforts along the Kazakh-Russian border have improved dramatically in recent years and predicted the addition of 35 new border posts in the next few years would practically curb illegal immigration.
Nazarbaev called for Russian help in making such improvements along Kazakhstan's borders with its Central Asian neighbors to further stem illegal narcotics and immigration.
Nazarbaev and Putin also raised the issue of using water from transborder rivers. Both presidents pointed to China's plans to divert water from the Irtysh River to construct massive irrigation systems for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. China is developing its own vast oil fields there and sending tens of thousands of new workers to the region, rich in oil but practically barren of water.
Both Putin and Nazarbaev expressed concern about the plan and said there was a need to consult with Chinese officials about use of Irtysh River water so that the part of the Irtysh that flows into Kazakhstan and Russia does not dry out. Nazarbaev has known about the Chinese plans for the Irtysh for a decade now but seemed emboldened to raise the issue knowing he had Putin's support.
Putin and Nazarbaev also discussed bilateral trade, which has significantly increased this year. Putin said trade between the two countries should come to some $16 billion this year, up from about $12.8 billion in 2006.
In a nod to the governors present at the forum, Putin noted that about $7 billion of that came from crossborder trading. To put that figure in perspective, when Boris Yeltsin was Russian president he wanted to increase Russia's bilateral trade with China to $20 billion annually.
Among the other issues Putin, Nazarbaev, and officials discussed were joint ventures to manufacture and repair armaments and other military hardware, cooperation in the banking sector and how to prevent bird flu from spreading from China into Kazakhstan and Russia this year.