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Turkmenistan: NATO Finds New Partner In Central Asia

  • Bruce Pannier

Is President Berdymukhammedov changing his country's "neutral" status? (ITAR-TASS) NATO has a new and, some might say, unexpected partner in Central Asia -- Turkmenistan.

Just two years ago, the country was a reclusive place that few foreigners were allowed to visit, with UN-recognized status as a "neutral" nation.

The country's strongman leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, used that status as a reason to keep Turkmenistan from participating in any international groupings except those with a purely economic agenda.

Niyazov died in late 2006 and was replaced by Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, whose foreign policy is much more dynamic. But reports of NATO cooperation with Turkmenistan is a huge step away from neutrality, especially given how quickly the new relationship has evolved.

Turkmenistan is a former Soviet republic, a current member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a desert country rich in natural gas, and still mainly dependent on Russian-owned pipelines to export that gas. But Turkmenistan also shares a lengthy border with Afghanistan, which is where NATO comes in.

Turkmenistan was the first of the five Central Asian states to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program (in 1994), but under Niyazov it was a partnership in name only. Which is why it was a surprise when President Berdymukhammedov announced he would attend the NATO summit in Romania in early April.

Several high-ranking NATO, U.S., and EU officials have been making trips to Turkmenistan for more than half a year now, but most reports pointed to talks focusing on potential Turkmen natural-gas exports to Europe.

It is apparent now that energy exports were not the only topic of discussions.

The German magazine "Der Spiegel" this month printed a report about NATO planes landing at military air bases in Turkmenistan. Michael Laubsch, an expert on Central Asia and the head of the Bonn-based Eurasian Transition Group (ETG), concurs with the report.

He says the article "was based on our recent reports" and "we fully confirm this information. Starting with May 15, our correspondents and informants in Turkmenistan reported that the transport flights between Western Europe and Afghanistan via Turkmenistan increased by 20 percent. So [NATO] already started to focus more on the air bases in Turkmenistan to make transport flights from the West to Afghanistan via Turkmenistan. I think this is the first practical solution regarding the negotiations which took place between the Turkmen government and NATO."

Reaching Out To The West

In hindsight, there was a clue something new was happening when Berdymukhammedov went to Bucharest for the NATO summit, the first such visit by a Turkmen president. Farhat Ilyasov, an independent expert in Moscow, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that a one-on-one meeting that Berdymukhammedov had with U.S. President George W. Bush indicated Turkmenistan's relationship with the West was shifting.

"The active contact of Berdymukhammedov with the West, in particular with American officials, and the fact that at the last NATO summit, which Berdymukhammedov attended, and at which only Berdymukhammedov had a personal meeting with President Bush, such things do not happen accidentally in big politics," Ilyasov says.

"Who is Berdymukhammedov and who is Bush, that [Bush] would give him a personal meeting," he adds. "This indicates that by that time many questions were already worked out and it's highly probable that serious progress on the part of the U.S. and NATO had already been made."

The Bucharest summit paved the way for NATO to use land routes from Europe to Afghanistan through the CIS, and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan are all part of NATO's Euro-Afghan delivery corridor for nonlethal cargo. Still, the landing of military planes in Turkmenistan was again more than Turkmen or NATO officials had revealed publicly.

The ETG's Laubsch tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that this might just be the start of military cooperation between Brussels and Ashgabat. "I think the negotiations between the Turkmen government and NATO were finalized already and I think that we can expect in the nearest future that more NATO forces will be located in Turkmenistan, definitely," he says.

Allowing NATO the use of military air bases is already a bold move for Turkmenistan, which risks the wrath of Russia and southern neighbor Iran in forging closer ties with the Western alliance.

There is also the question of Turkmenistan's official status as a neutral country. Turkmenistan has always refused to participate in military alliances because of this special status.

Ilyasov says the Turkmen government and NATO might simply use special phrasing to preserve Turkmenistan's neutrality.

"Turkmenistan's status as a neutral nation is a big question but it does not obligate [Turkmenistan] to anyone or anything, it is not legally binding," he says. "For example, if a [military] base is established there, one can find a justification for it -- it's for peacekeeping, it helps stability in the region or the development of peace in the world, it helps the long-suffering Afghan people. There is no problem, everything can be explained."

But Laubsch says it is also possible that the new Turkmen president "will shift away from this neutral status of Turkmenistan because he wants to expect something from the West and therefore I think he will give any signs and signals to the Western countries -- especially to the EU, to the United States, but also to NATO -- that his government is a reliable partner also for the West and I think this also includes any plans for a military presence in Turkmenistan."

Pressure To Improve Rights Record

One major obstacle to this new Turkmen-NATO relationship is Turkmenistan's extremely poor human rights record.

Berdymukhammedov has been much slower to implement domestic reforms than he has been at changing foreign policy. He has restored some of the rights Niyazov took away, but the new Turkmen president has stopped short of introducing any real democratic reforms.

Western rights organizations have been pressing the Turkmen government to make democratic changes and, with Western troops using Turkmen military facilities, rights groups can be expected to call on NATO to pressure Turkmenistan on the issue.

But Laubsch says that the EU is already prepared to subordinate rights issues in favor of important geostrategic interests.

"I don't know how intense the pressure from NATO regarding changes and reforms in the sphere of human rights and democracy in Turkmenistan will [continue]," he says. "From the political aspect, I know that the European Union is now not focusing mainly on democratic reforms and transitions regarding human rights issues in Turkmenistan. So this will be one main factor for future relations between the EU and Turkmenistan. They focus on economic issues. I just had a meeting with [EU special representative for Central Asia] Pierre Morel and he definitely said this."

Rights activists are hoping that in moving away from its reclusive ways the Turkmen government will also pay greater attention to improving human rights -- and that perhaps Western organizations can use the new engagement with Ashgabat to bring about such changes.

RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Oguljamal Yazliyeva and Turkmen Service correspondent Guvanch Geraev contributed to this report
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