EU, Ukraine start co-operation talks

( RIA Novosti ) - Russia's Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov will start Tuesday an official visit to Uzbekistan to boost energy and trade ties with the energy-rich Central Asian state, a government source said Tuesday.

Although political dialogue between the two countries has been actively developing with the Russian and Uzbek presidents meeting nine times last year, this is the first official visit by a head of the Russian government to Uzbekistan since 1999, an indication of Moscow's growing interest in expanding bilateral economic cooperation.

Uzbekistan is one of Russia's key partners among the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose alliance of the former Soviet republics. In 2006, bilateral trade increased by 30% to total $2.4 billion.

Mikhail Fradkov will meet Wednesday with his Uzbek counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoyev and President Islam Karimov to focus on strengthening energy cooperation. Russian investment in the Uzbek energy sector totals about $2.5 billion and could help expand production and exports of Uzbek energy resources in the future, Russia's government source said.

"We believe that supplies of natural gas from Uzbekistan to Russia and joint deliveries to third-party markets could grow significantly in the future and we are expecting this visit to promote new potential projects [in the energy sphere]," the source said.

Uzbekistan's estimated natural gas reserves make up 5.9 trillion cubic meters. The country currently produces 60 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually.

Fradkov is also expected to discuss bilateral cooperation in space exploration to boost the development of a joint project to construct an observatory equipped with a unique RT-70 radio telescope.

" Uzbekistan has inherited significant scientific potential from the Soviet Union, including research laboratories and equipment, and we are planning to share this capability," the Russian official said.

In addition, the head of the Russian Cabinet will discuss prospects for Russian-Uzbek cooperation in the framework of various regional organizations, including the CSTO, Eurasec, and SCO.

One of the founders of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in 1992, Uzbekistan suspended its membership in 1998 over what it viewed an excessively dominant role from Moscow, and opted for military cooperation with the United States.

But Tashkent signaled a reversal of its policy at a summit of post-Soviet leaders in August 2006.

After an initial endorsement from the Uzbek parliament, President Karimov signed a bill in December 2006 to restore the Central Asian country's membership in a security alliance of former Soviet republics.

CSTO members - Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan - use the organization as a platform for fighting drug trafficking, terrorism, and organized crime, and have pledged to provide immediate military assistance to each other in the event of an attack. The bloc has a Collective Rapid Reaction Force deployed in Central Asia, and is continuing to build up its military forces.

The CSTO is widely viewed as a post-Soviet instrument for preventing NATO's further eastward expansion keeping CIS countries under Russia's military protection.

Explaining the reasons for the country's decision to rejoin the CSTO, Karimov said in August last year that it was only logical for a member of the Eurasec economic cooperation organization to be part of the CSTO, as the two organizations are "closely related bodies."

Eurasec, comprising Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, seeks to create a customs union and common economic space, and to harmonize tariffs.

Uzbekistan is also a member of another regional security group, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, whose members are the post-Soviet Central Asian states plus China and Russia. India, Pakistan, and Iran are observers.

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