Berdymukhammedov, beginning a landmark two-day visit to Brussels today, received a cautiously upbeat welcome from top EU officials. Among others, he met with the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, and EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson.
Some EU officials have told RFE/RL that the EU is offering closer ties and aid in exchange for further moves by the Turkmen leader to lead his country away from its autocratic mold. Yet the EU appears determined to secure better access to Turkmen natural gas -- regardless of the state of Ashgabat's rights record.
Optimists suggest there are grounds for hope on human rights, however. Less than a year into his tenure, Berdymukhammedov has taken steps to reverse the late President Saparmurat Niyazov's policy of isolation. He has authorized limited social and educational reforms. He also appears willing at least to field EU and other international bodies' questions about the human rights situation in Turkmenistan.Small Signs Of Improvement
At this point, that appears to be enough to maintain the EU's interest. European Commission officials say the bloc's commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, told Berdymukhammedov today that the EU "welcomes" his course so far. Christina Hohmann, the commissioner's spokeswoman, said after the meeting that Ferrero-Waldner held out the promise of closer ties and more EU assistance in return for reforms.
"Commissioner [Ferrero-Waldner] made very clear [that] a lot needs to be done, and the more Turkmenistan does, the more the door to Europe and our further assistance [will] open up," Hohmann told RFE/RL.
Officials say the EU is particularly encouraged by the Turkmen president's recent decision to release 11 political prisoners, including the country’s former chief mufti. They also welcome the setting up of a governmental "institute" on human rights, and the Turkmen authorities' newfound willingness to talk to UN envoys about rights issues and democracy.
Still, one commission official who asked not to be named noted today that Berdymukhammedov "made no promises" at today's meeting. Nor are any news conferences scheduled to follow any of his talks in Brussels -- an apparent reminder that the possible opening up of Turkmenistan is likely to be a slow process, at best.
During his visit, the Turkmen leader is also scheduled to meet with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana. Berdymukhammedov's talks with both men are likely to touch on the drug trade emanating from Afghanistan, which borders southeastern Turkmenistan.Keen EU Interest In Trade
EU officials say the "conditionality" spelled out today to Berdymukhammedov will mostly affect whether Turkmenistan can upgrade the Soviet-era trade agreement it has with the EU. An enhancement to a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement would mean closer political contacts and more aid money. The EU has earmarked 30 million euros ($43 million) for the period through 2010.
But that sum is dwarfed by the potential windfall that Turkmenistan could reap from direct energy trade with the EU.
The EU estimates Turkmenistan's proven natural-gas reserves at 2.9 trillion cubic meters, making them the world's 10th-largest. Ashgabat claims it has more, but even its proven reserves guarantee keen EU interest.
Officials in Brussels concede that -- short of a catastrophic reversal in Turkmenistan's rights situation -- they will continue to pursue the energy trade regardless of progress in other areas.
The bloc made overtures to Berdymukhammedov's predecessor and has been impressed by both leaders' ability to stand up to Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom. Gazprom currently buys up most of Turkmenistan's gas at $100 per 1,000 cubic meters, but Ashgabat is said to be seeking a price of $150.
EU officials note that a deal signed in May by Russia, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan to build a new pipeline along the Caspian Sea coast appears to be delayed. This has given new impetus to efforts, backed cautiously by the EU, to launch a project to build a trans-Caspian pipeline from either Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan. From there, the gas would be transported via Georgia to Turkey and Europe.
Berdymukhammedov's visit is an important opportunity for EU officials to sound out his views. Officials note that EU energy companies appear willing to make the necessary investments. Brussels also wants guarantees that Turkmenistan can export enough gas for the pipeline. A meeting involving EU, Turkmen, Kazakh, Azerbaijani, and Georgian officials is scheduled for November 23. If things go well, a high-level meeting would follow next year to confirm the participants' intentions to proceed with the project.
Meanwhile, the EU remains keen to promote lower-level contacts.
EU spokeswoman Hohmann said that in a groundbreaking move, dozens of Turkmen scientists and researchers will soon be able to study and work in the EU for limited periods. "For 2008 and 2009, some 40 Turkmen scientists have gained access to the [EU's] 'Tempus' and 'Erasmus Mundus' programs to work and study in the European Union at universities [here]," Hohmann said.