Medvedev Aims to Sweet-Talk Uzbeks

President Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Samarkand on Thursday seeking to persuade Uzbekistan that it should ignore the overtures of European suitors hunting for alternatives to Russian energy supplies.

Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan pump all their exported gas via Russia but are showing signs that they are open to new alliances -- a change that could threaten Russia's control over the region's energy.

"Uzbekistan, like its neighbors, is trying to diversify its relations," said Azhdar Kurtov of the Strategic Research Institute.

Medvedev will meet Uzbek President Islam Karimov on Thursday at the start of a two-day visit, his first since he was elected president last year.

Europe depends on Russia for a quarter of its gas, and anxiety over the reliability of those supplies was increased by the Russia-Ukraine dispute, which disrupted flows to about 20 states in the European Union.

"It is unwise for one member state to rely on one country for its energy supplies. This was not secure," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said this week.

Europe's hopes for diversifying its energy supplies rest in large part on the Nabucco project, a plan to pump up to 31 billion cubic meters a year of gas from the Caspian Sea region to Europe, bypassing Russia.

The problem is that for now, there is not enough gas to put into the planned pipeline. Iran is a possible source, but the standoff over Tehran's nuclear program makes that awkward for the Nabucco project's European backers.

The other potential source is Central Asia, which exports about 70 bcm a year -- roughly Italy's annual consumption.

Turkmenistan is the region's biggest exporter, but Uzbekistan plays a crucial role in Central Asia's energy system because Turkmen gas is pumped across its territory.

Just as with Iran, building closer energy ties with Central Asia has been politically sensitive for Europe.

Uzbekistan was the subject of EU sanctions after violence in the town of Andizhan in 2005. Uzbek officials said 187 people were killed in a police action against armed Islamist militants. Witnesses said hundreds of unarmed civilians were killed.

Brussels last year dropped most of its sanctions. Soon after, Uzbekistan pulled out of the EurAsEc customs union, a Moscow-led body used by the Kremlin to underline its clout in former Soviet satellites.

Moscow has another reason to want to keep Uzbekistan in its orbit: the interest being shown by the United States in military bases and supply routes in Central Asia.

The U.S. military's regional chief, General David Petraeus, visited the region recently to explore new transport routes to supply U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

That has fueled speculation that Washington could re-establish a military presence there instead.