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Turkmenistan: President's U.S. Visit Builds Foundation For Future

  • Sonia Winter



Washington, 27 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The United States and Turkmenistan both appeared to get much of what they had hoped for from President Saparmurat Niyazov's first official visit to Washington. But only future developments will tell whether his trip was truly successful.

Certainly, "Turkmenbashi" returns home with enhanced prestige from a White House meeting with President Bill Clinton, something he had sought for many years.

He also carries with him modest agreements signed with four major American energy companies, the pledge of $750,000 from the United States for a Caspian pipeline feasibility study, and a finance agreement from the U.S.-Import-Export Bank , among other things -- all setting the stage for bigger commercial and investment undertakings in the future.

Niyazov was the last of the Central Asian heads of state to be invited to Washington, nearly seven years after independence, and was received with perceptibly less warmth than other leaders from the Caspian region.

Even President Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan, another authoritarian ruler and dubious practitioner of human rights, got more official honors, including a joint press conference with Clinton, when he came to Washington last August.

U.S. officials said Niyazov's poor record on human rights and democratic reforms was the main reason for the lowkey official reception. But a White House official told RFE/RL the U.S. hoped during the talks with Niyazov to persuade him of the need to change course and proceed with reforms.

The joint U.S.-Turkmen statement issued Thursday before Niyazov left Washington for Chicago, indicates some success for the U.S. on this issue.

It said both sides agreed that "democratization, economic reform and observance of human rights are essential to Turkmenistan's future."

The joint statement said Turkmenistan is committed to political pluralism, and will hold free and fair parliamentary elections, in accordance with international standards next year.

So far, Niyazov has not devoted much thought to the idea of political pluralism. During his week-long tour of New York, Washington and Chicago, reporters asked him frequently about the one-party system in Turkmenistan. Niyazov dismissed the questions, saying there is no need for other parties because there is no opposition to his policies.

He also denied human rights abuses and the existence of political prisoners, saying they are criminals and drug dealers and Americans are misinformed about the situation in Turkmenistan.

Several human rights groups wrote to the White House before Niyazov's arrival asking Clinton not to meet with him because of the Turkmen president's harsh treatment of critics and political opponents.

Washington officials said the U.S. must deal with Turkmenistan as an important country in the region and a significant player in the theater of Caspian energy development. But they stressed that human rights would be a major issue in top-level discussions.

Vice President Gore confirmed that at the signing of the bilateral agreement Thursday, saying Clinton and he "raised our concerns about democracy., human rights and the rule of law."

There was at least one immediate result. Reports from Ashgabat Friday said the last of the so-called "Ashgabat Eight" -- political prisoners, held for participating in a 1995 anti-government protest -- have been released from jail. One of the men died in prison in January 1998, reportedly from a beating, and two were released earlier this week.

Human rights monitoring groups, including Amnesty International, welcomed the news of the release, although some monitors wondered whether the men would remain free or be quietly rearrested after U.S, attention shifts away from Turkmenistan.

However, according to the joint statement, one of the results of Niyazov's trip is a U.S. pledge to help open an office of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Ashgabat which will keep a watchful eye on incidents of political persecution.

Washington will not always be focused as sharply on Turkmenistan as it was during Niyazov's visit. But it too is likely to be watching the country more closely than before to monitor the commitments Niyazov made, particularly concerning oil and gas development.

For the Americans, one of the most important results of his trip is the agreement to conduct a U.S.-funded feasibility study on building an oil and gas pipeline under the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan.

U.S. officials say this is a preferred transport route, avoiding both Russia and Iran and thereby strengthening the national independence of the Central Asian countries. But Niyazov previously had stated that going through Iran was a better option for Turkmenistan.

The change in his position is regarded in Washington as a success for U.S. policy, although U.S. officials say it is only a start and that it remains to be seen whether this will be a lasting accomplishment.

The joint statement establishes a U.S-Turkmen dialogue also on regional security and other issues and expresses U.S. support for Turkmenistan's integration into international structures.

Niyazov's visit has thus laid the foundation for closer ties with the United States which already has similar broad ranging bilateral relationships with most of the republics of the former Soviet Union.

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