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Turkmenistan: President's First U.S. Trip To Mix Business And Politics

  • Bruce Pannier --> Berdymukhammedov is expected to discuss energy deals and democratic reforms (file photo) (AFP) September 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is making his first U.S. visit as Turkmen leader on September 22.

Berdymukhammedov's trip is at the invitation of the UN; on September 26 he will become the first Turkmen president to address the UN General Assembly.

Erika Dailey, the director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, told RFE/RL that Berdymukhammedov's speech at the UN has significant symbolic importance.

"It's the first time that he -- as president of independent Turkmenistan -- will have addressed the General Assembly, and it's certainly also symbolic of his attempts to break the isolation that has mired Turkmenistan for so many years and made it an international pariah," Dailey said.

As for the content of his speech, Daily said Berdymukhammedov is likely to "sound tones of cooperation, of high regard for the UN and of its efforts, and of Turkmenistan's willingness to be open and collaborative with the United Nations and international parties and -- at the same time -- that it is maintaining its stance of autonomy and neutrality." He is also expected to address drug trafficking and counterterrorism efforts, subjects that are high on the UN's agenda, she said.

Though Berdymukhammedov's official reason for visiting the United States is to speak to the UN General Assembly, he is also due to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sometime during his five-day stay in New York. A delegation of officials and businesspeople accompanying Berdymukhammedov will travel to Washington and Houston to discuss improving political and economic cooperation with U.S. business leaders.

Emerging From Isolation

The meetings with U.S. companies not only underscore the U.S. desire to participate in Turkmenistan's oil and natural-gas development and export projects, but is also another sign of Turkmenistan's emergence from years of isolation under Berdymukhammedov's predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December.

John MacLeod, a senior editor at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that Western companies have much to offer Turkmenistan. "I think that Berdymukhammedov and his officials will certainly consider proposals from Western companies quite seriously because [those companies] do have lots of experience," he said.

At the same time, agreements between U.S. businesses and Turkmen officials are another sign of resurgent competition between the United States, Russia, and China for access to Central Asia's energy resources.

Russia has controlled Turkmen natural-gas exports since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in late 1991 because the only pipelines leading out of Turkmenistan passed through Russian territory. A deal between Turkmenistan and Iran led to the construction of a modest new gas pipeline between those two countries. Only recently, with the conclusion of a deal with China, does Turkmenistan look set to start exporting the vast amount of natural gas and oil the Turkmen government has always claimed it could provide to world markets.

Washington has for years urged Turkmenistan to join projects to build pipelines along the bottom of the Caspian Sea that would bypass Russia entirely and bring Turkmen energy exports to Turkey, and on to Europe. Berdymukhammedov has expressed an interest in joining these projects; that will undoubtedly be a topic of discussion between U.S. and Turkmen government and business representatives.

Talking Up Democratic Change

Berdymukhammedov is also due to speak at New York's Columbia University on September 24. Erika Dailey said that those who follow events in Turkmenistan will be looking for Berdymukhammedov to comment on democratic reforms inside his country. Discussions of democracy and respect for human rights, she said, "have become increasingly realistic in the slightly thawed political atmosphere in Turkmenistan" since Niyazov's death in December.

The IWPR's MacLeod said the international community might give Berdymukhammedov only a little more time to demonstrate that he will actually carry out such reforms.

"In the first six to nine months of his rule, President Berdymukhammedov has given the impression that things are slowly getting better and -- if they are not getting better -- that he perhaps would like them to get better," MacLeod said. "Obviously this sort of good will, if you like, can't go on forever. At some point there will have to be really definite improvement; say, a year from now, I think the international community would have wanted to see some really concrete improvements."

Berdymukhammedov's trip represents a maturing of Turkmenistan's foreign policy. Though that foreign policy remains firmly based on economic relations -- more specifically selling its energy exports -- Berdymukhammedov is developing a balancing act that his Central Asian neighbors have been working on for years.

Previously, Turkmenistan was forced to deal exclusively with Russia, the only export route possible for Turkmen gas. Later the Turkmen-Iranian gas pipeline opened, but, more recently, deals with China bring the promise of huge exports via a new pipeline.

Dealing with the U.S. merely augments the options open to Turkmenistan in the future as it tries to option the maximum price for its energy resources.

(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

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