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Turkmenistan: Niyazov Talks Of Democratization And Pipelines

By Lowell Bezanis

Washington, 22 April 1998 (RFE/RL) --Turkmenistan's President Sapamurat Niyazov says his country has no need to rush toward democratization.

At a Washington conference Tuesday, Niyazov said Turkmenistan would set its own pace for economic and political reforms.

Looking healthy and vigorous despite heart bypass surgery last fall, Niyazov gave an optimistic assessment of Turkmenistan's current status and future prospects.

He said Turkmenistan will achieve what he termed "basic transformation" in less than ten years -- in line with a prediction Tuesday by one of the conference sponsors, former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Niyazov painted a glowing picture of Turkmenistan in a prepared statement to an audience of scholars, U.S. and foreign officials, and journalists. He spoke in Turkmen, lapsing into Russian in the question and answer period which focused heavily on human rights and the lack of democratic reform in Turkmenistan.

But Niyazov concentrated on economic prospects, listing stabilization of Turkmenistan's currency, the manat, and stable growth of the private sector, as well as prospective oil and gas transport projects as signs of a positive trend.

Well-coiffed and with hair darker than those in photos included in two books distributed to his audience, he also noted foreign policy successes achieved under his leadership. Niyazov pointed to international recognition of Turkmenistan's policy of neutrality and plaudits won from the Economic Cooperation Organization, which lists Turkmenistan among its members.

That regional body last year hailed Turkmenistan as the first former Soviet nation to build rail and gas links, with its non-Russian neighbors.

At the conference, Niyazov emphasized Turkmenistan would pursue its own model of political and economic reforms. He said Turkmenistan "would not build any Potemkin villages" but would instead require a "transitional period" toward complete independence.

Progress on the road to democracy, in the form of a Council of Elders and parliament were already in place. He said the power of the executive branch of government would be trimmed back, in favor of parliament, following new parliamentary elections to be held in 1999.

Washington observers, familiar with his authoritarian, Soviet-style rule, questioned Niyazov's sincerity and were skeptical about his denial of human rights abuses in Turkmenistan.

Niyazov said there were no political prisoners in Turkmenistan nor were there political parties which could be "freed" to participate in the country's political life, since, he said, no parties had ever been banned.

He described recently released political activists as drug traffickers and urged human rights monitoring groups, including the OSCE and Amnesty International to distinguish between common criminals and legitimate political activists which he said must operate within the law.

But Niyazov acknowledged that Turkmen police were too aggressive at times and had made mistakes. He promised this would be corrected in the future.

With regard to Turkmenistan's vast natural gas and oil reserves, Niyazov said his country favored multiple pipeline options.

In Washington's vocabulary, the term has come to mean export routes that avoid Russian and Iranian territory, But Niyazov used the formula differently.

He said Turkmenistan's "plans for the 21st century" include pipelines across Afghanistan to Pakistan, and through Iran to Pakistan as well as to Turkey.

Niyazov mentioned as a last possibility what Americans list first -- an under water gas pipeline crossing the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan.

One of the agreements, the U.S. hopes to sign with Turkmenistan today (Wednesday)) would be for U.S. funding of a 750,000 dollar study of the feasibility of such a project, But Niyazov made it clear that his government continues to view a pipeline route through Iran as a favored export route.