Accessibility links

Turkmenistan: Analysis From Washington -- When Interests Collide

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 20 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov's visit to the United States this week highlights the difficulties Western countries often face in combining the economic, political, and geopolitical interests they have in many of the post-Soviet states.

But at the same time, his visit calls attention to the dangers involved of pursuing one set of interests to the exclusion of others and consequently to the need for an approach which takes all of them into account.

As media coverage in advance of Niyazov's arrival has made clear, Turkmenistan now presents three very different faces to the world, some extremely attractive to the West and others precisely the opposite.

First, Turkmenistan has one of the largest reserves of natural gas in the world. Because of that, Ashgabat has already attracted enormous Western interest. Several former senior American officials have taken up the cause of developing the gas fields there. And many of them have suggested that U.S. interests in access to this energy source should define U.S. policy toward Turkmenistan.

Indeed, while some of these former officials have argued that the development of Turkmenistan's natural gas sector will lead to economic and later political change in that country, most of them have suggested that the stability provided by the current regime is so valuable that it should be exempt from the kind of withering criticism that its political system would seem to invite.

Second, the Turkmen government is one of the least democratic in the entire region. Not only does Turkmenistan have a dismal record on human and civil rights, as documented by the U.S. Department of State and human rights groups, but the Turkmen authorities continue to show their contempt for both Western public opinion and the rule of law.

With an eye to his upcoming visit, Niyazov said on March 26 that he would be willing to relinquish some of his enormous political powers to parliament and that he favored giving the citizens of his country an expanded role in the government. And he announced plans to amend the constitution to do so just that.

Not unexpectedly, Niyazov's promises were greeted by many in the West as an indication that the Turkmenbashi, as Niyazov styles himself, really plans to change. But any optimism on that score must be tempered both by his own statement and by the more recent actions of his officials.

When the Turkmen president said that he was prepared to devolve power to the parliament and the people, Niyazov indicated that he would introduce the necessary constitutional changes only after the December 1999 elections, more than 18 months from now.

And last Friday night, on the very eve of Niyazov's visit to the United States, Turkmen officials detained Avdy Kuliyev, the former Turkmenistan foreign minister and leader of the opposition in Turkmenistan, as he attempted to return to Ashgabat from Moscow.

And third, Turkmenistan -- by virtue of its geographic location -- will play a key role in the establishment of a new, post-Soviet balance of power in Central Asia and the Caspian basin. How Ashgabat relates to Russia, Iran, and the other countries of this region will define not only the direction Turkmenistan is likely to go but also the status of others as well.

If Turkmenistan remains dependent on Russia for pipeline routes to the West, then Moscow will be able to project power far more easily across all of Central Asia. If Turkmenistan reaches an accommodation with Iran, the geopolitical balance will tilt in a different direction. And if it moves its gas in another direction, that balance will again shift.

Because these consequences of Turkmenistan's decisions are so fateful, many foreign policy analysts have urged that they should be at the center of American and Western concerns and that these should determine how the U.S. and other Western countries deal with Ashgabat on economic and human rights issues.

Advocates on each of these three issues -- economic, political, and geopolitical -- often suggest that the West should pursue theirs to the point of ignoring the other two. Thus, for example, supporters of economic involvement urge that the West downplay its human rights concerns, and human rights advocates sometimes dismiss the West's obvious economic interests.

While often emotionally satisfying to their advocates and even superficially attractive to others, a Western approach to Turkmenistan or other countries in the region that reflects only one of these sets of interests will almost certainly prove self-defeating either now or in the future, just as has happened elsewhere when Western countries have focused on only one of the three.

Consequently, President Niyazov's visit represents an opportunity to demonstrate that the West's interests in Turkmenistan are far broader than natural gas: they include a commitment to the democratic transformation of that country and a new geopolitical arrangement which gives the Turkmen people a chance to have a better future politically and economically as well.