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Page last updated at 08:06 GMT, Thursday, 22 May 2008 09:06 UK

Medvedev looks East on first trip

By Steven Eke
BBC News, Russia analyst


The new Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, arrives in Kazakhstan on Thursday, the first leg of his maiden official visit abroad.

A mountain range near Almaty, Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan has been reaching out to the West and China

Russia and Kazakhstan remain closely knitted together.

But in recent years, Kazakhstan has developed its relations with both the West and China, slackening the traditional links with Russia.

Kazakhstan has large reserves of oil and gas - a valuable prize.

Along with two other Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, it represents an area where Russian and Western companies inevitably compete.

Russia remains the dominant export route for Central Asian hydrocarbons, giving it a unique advantage.

However, Kazakhstan is slowly moving to break the Russian stranglehold, by making greater use of existing, alternative export routes, and by looking at the possibility of building its own energy export hubs.

Navy plans

To try to stop this drift, Russia wants Kazakhstan to sign up to a long-term deal to export oil through the pipeline leading from Baku, Azerbaijan, to the Russian port of Novorossiysk.

Russia remains the leading supplier of weaponry to Kazakhstan, and will be the main partner in Kazakhstan's plans to develop a navy.

Dmitry Medvedev
Mr Medvedev will be looking to improve trading links with China

Kazakhstan has also forged much closer ties with China, which has become a top investor and financier for large infrastructure and energy projects in Kazakhstan.

From Kazakhstan, Mr Medvedev will fly to China.

There is close co-operation between Russia and China in many spheres, despite widespread suspicion in Russia about possible Chinese territorial aspirations on the Russian Far East.

The Sino-Russian trading relationship, in particular, is booming - having grown eight-fold in a decade.

Absolute trade turnover is still quite modest in international terms - both sides say it is still well below potential - but is set to grow quickly.

Power triangulation

China's economic boom, resulting in soaring demand for gas and oil, holds out the promise of bumper profits for Russian energy companies in the future.

Map

Russia and China share a similar view of the international situation - one based on rejection of American dominance. To this end, they established the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation in 2001.

Bringing together Russia, China, and four Central Asian nations, it was initially dismissed as a talking-shop, but has grown into a weighty regional body.

Both Russia and China have sought to triangulate their relationship to include the other, major regional power - India.

Russia and China have also held large-scale, joint military exercises.

Mr Medvedev's predecessor, Vladimir Putin, stressed Russia's European direction when he came to power.

Yet by the time he left office, Russia's relations with the European Union and, more widely, the West, were beset by difficulties and crises.

A new strategic partnership agreement between the EU and Russia remained blocked for more than two years.

Diplomatic test

Western overtures to Ukraine and Georgia continue to cause tensions.

And there were fundamental disagreements over issues like Kosovo and Russia's commitment to democracy.

Dmitry Medvedev has occasionally indicated that he wants to start a new chapter in Russia's relations with the West.

But by setting off to Kazakhstan and China on his first foreign trip as head of state, he seems to be sending the message that Russia remains committed to what it calls "the multi-polar world".

Hidden beneath that is the signal that the West should not expect any sort of rapid softening of Russia's stance.

The first test of Mr Medvedev's diplomatic skills in the West will come when he meets Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany in early June.


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