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Turkmenistan: Isolated Leader Has Little To Offer CIS

  • Bruce Pannier

Over the past several years, the policies of Turkmenistan's government have left the country increasingly isolated. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov will attend the summit of Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS, in Moscow tomorrow (Wednesday), but RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports he is not likely to have much to offer other members of the organization.

Prague, 20 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov may feel like the loneliest man in the room at tomorrow's CIS summit.

His country has little interaction with the other CIS nations. Foreigners find it ever more difficult to enter the country. The government strictly controls access to the Internet. Human rights and press freedom organizations regularly denounce the Turkmen government for violations. Turkmenistan is recognized by the UN as a neutral nation, but it may be more accurate to call the country isolationist.

Turkmenistan is not a member of any of the groupings within the 12-nation CIS. It refused either to join the organization's customs union or to sign its Collective Security Treaty. And it is the only one of the five Central Asian nations that is not in the Central Asian Economic Union. Niyazov has said on several occasions that his country is interested only in bilateral, not multilateral, economic relations. In a way, trade constitutes Turkmenistan's foreign policy. Turkmenistan has a lot of natural gas and oil, and is eager to sell both -- to anyone. The Turkmen government deals more with foreign companies than with foreign governments.

After the republic became independent in 1991, Niyazov said he hoped to make Turkmenistan a second Kuwait. But Kuwait is on the Persian Gulf, and Turkmenistan has no coast except on the landlocked Caspian Sea. Exporting its resources remains the country's biggest problem. There is a pipeline to Iran, but to date the gas flowing through it serves only to repay the cost of Iranian labor that built the pipeline.

There is also a Russian pipeline in Turkmenistan. For some years, Russia shipped Turkmen gas through its pipeline. Most of it went to Ukraine, while Russian gas in the same network went to Europe. Ukraine could not pay its bills, and soon ran up a $1 billion debt to Turkmenistan. Then three years ago, after Turkmenistan had sought to raise the cost of its gas -- from $32 to $40 per 1,000 cubic meters -- Turkmenistan's negotiations with Russia's Gazprom and an intermediary company known as Itera broke down. Turkmen gas promptly stopped flowing outside the country for profit.

Turkmenistan seemed to be edging close to a compromise on the price of its gas early last year, when then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin visited the country. But no deal was concluded. When Russia's new President Vladimir Putin visited the capital Ashgabat last month, Gazprom chief Rem Vyakhirev accompanied him.

Vyakhirev had first traveled to Kazakhstan, where he signed a deal to create a joint venture with the state-owned gas company. The Gazprom chief then went on to Uzbekistan, where he signed a deal for 5 billion cubic meters of Uzbek gas annually. In Turkmenistan, Russia offered $32 per 1,000 cubic meters. No deal was signed.

Development of Caspian oil and gas fields has brought Niyazov into conflict with President Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan, directly across the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan. Both lay claim to the same Caspian fields, and their dispute has helped delay the construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline by a mostly Western consortium.

Two other CIS leaders who may not be happy to see Niyazov in Moscow tomorrow are Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov and Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev. Last week, Niyazov announced he wants more soldiers and posts along those two countries' borders with his country. But he did not mention Turkmenistan's long border with Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, with which Ashgabat has signed a trade agreement. Turkmenistan is the only CIS state to have any official relations with the Taliban.

Niyazov also announced last week that he would keep a closer watch on foreign citizens in Turkmenistan. He ordered his security and interior ministries to keep track of foreigners from the moment they enter the country.

A year ago, Turkmenistan was the first CIS country to leave the organization's visa-free regime. Russia retaliated by making visas necessary for visiting Turkmen citizens.

Last month, Turkmenistan revoked the licenses of all Internet providers in the country. That left only the state-owned Turkmentelekom to provide Internet services.

Turkmenistan today has no major foreign backer, nor close ties with any other government. Nearly all of its gas and oil sits in storage containers or under the ground waiting for a buyer. In nine years, Niyazov has presided over the almost total isolation of his country.