(RFE/RL) -- Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov began an official visit to France today with a meeting with his French counterpart at the Elysee Palace.
The talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy touched upon bilateral cooperation, relations between Turkmenistan and the European Union, Afghanistan, and the fight against drug trafficking.
In a joint statement issued after the meeting, the two leaders said the deepening of bilateral relations contributed to the reinforcement of regional and international peace, stability, and security.
They welcomed the enlargement of cooperation in the energy, infrastructure, tourism, construction, and communications sectors. And they expressed confidence that the creation of a working group on energy between the two countries will deepen cooperation in that field.
Business talks were expected to be a dominant part of the agenda of the two-day visit – the first to France by the head of the isolated regime.
Turkmenistan's vast natural gas resources are coveted by China, Russia, and the European Union.
Ashgabat has promised to open up Turkmenistan to foreign investment and signaled its willingness to engage with the EU over possible energy routes to Europe that bypass Russian territory.
Human Rights 'Dialogue'
Berdymukhammedov has also signaled some improvements on the human rights front following the authoritarian rule of his predecessor, the late Saparmurat Niyazov.
In their statement, Berdymukhammedov and Sarkozy expressed satisfaction about the continuing dialogue on human rights issues between the EU and Turkmenistan.
This is unlikely to cheer critics of the Turkmen regime, who say such dialogue is bearing little fruit.
Ahead of the visit, the International Federation for Human Rights, the French League for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders said the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, movement, and religion in Turkmenistan are being subject to "draconian restrictions.”
The groups called on Sarkozy to use the visit to speak out about Turkmenistan's "abysmal” human rights record and to press his Turkmen counterpart for "concrete improvements.”
Sacha Koulaeva of the International Federation for Human Rights in Paris tells RFE/RL that Paris has the leverage to do so.
"I do think that France now has quite a number of [levers] that we didn't have before," Koulaeva says. "One of them, of course, is the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. Another is the gigantic contracts which could be signed during the visit and afterward, [which are] always of great interest for Turkmenistan. So I really think there is a key window of opportunity for France to make things happen."
That Partnership and Cooperation Agreement is a European Union accord that would significantly upgrade relations between the EU and Turkmenistan. The accord has been frozen for years over human rights concerns, but Berdymukhammedov's visit comes at a time when the French parliament is considering its ratification.
The agreement contains a clause committing both parties to respect human rights and providing for possible suspension if either party violates this principle. It requires ratification by the national parliaments of EU member states, and the rights groups say France and the United Kingdom are the only remaining holdouts.
During their meeting, Berdymukhammedov invited Sarkozy to pay an official visit to Turkmenistan; the French president accepted the invitation.
Berdymukhammedov’s predecessor, Niyazov, paid a visit to France in 1993, followed by a return visit by French President Francois Mitterand in 1994.