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Turkmenistan Returns To The Stage In Hosting CIS Summit

President Berdymukhammedov (AFP) November 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The CIS is coming to Turkmenistan, but is Turkmenistan coming back to the CIS? That is one of the big questions as the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, hosts a meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States for the first time in nearly 15 years.

The event is seen as yet another sign that under new President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Turkmenistan is emerging from its long isolation under former President Saparmurat Niyazov.

On the eve of the meeting, state television emphasized Turkmenistan's role in hosting the CIS meeting, saying that the country now plays "an important and businesslike role in the CIS."

Hopes Of Rapprochment

Berdymukhammedov is pursuing different policies than his predecessor but one thing that hasn't changed is that Turkmenistan still has no prime-ministerial post. Thus, Berdymukhammedov will be attending both as head of state of the host nation and, effectively, as Turkmen prime minister.

The big topic on the agenda is harmonizing customs' procedures to allow the sharing of electricity and the transportation of goods within the CIS. But the summit is probably attracting more attention for what Berdymukhammedov says and does.

Eyes will also be on his interaction with the Azerbaijani delegation led by Prime Minister Artur Rasizade.

Under Niyazov and former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, relations between the two countries were strained, mainly due to a dispute of ownership over an oil field in the Caspian Sea.

But with new leaders in each country, gestures have been made by both sides to open a new and more positive era in Turkmen-Azerbaijani ties.

Meetings have already been announced between representatives of the two countries on the sidelines of the CIS prime-ministerial meeting. Cooperation between the two states greatly raises the possibility of new trans-Caspian oil and natural-gas pipelines finally being constructed, something Europe is hoping for and Russia -- which currently holds a virtual monopoly over Turkmenistan's gas exports -- is anxious to prevent.

What's At Stake?

The more important question for the CIS is whether Berdymukhammedov would offer any indication that Turkmenistan will ever become again a permanent member of the CIS.

Late President Niyazov, who rarely attended CIS summits, sent a former bodyguard he had just appointed deputy prime minister to deliver the news at a CIS summit in August 2005 that Turkmenistan was reducing its membership status to associate.

Some CIS media questioned whether that was a sign the CIS was becoming insignificant. If Berdymukhammedov hints Turkmenistan may rejoin the group, the media would likely read that as a sign the CIS is getting stronger and becoming more relevant.

The chairman of the CIS Executive Committee, Sergei Lebedev, said on the eve of the Ashgabat meeting that Turkmenistan "is playing an increasingly active role in the commonwealth, demonstrating a business-like and constructive approach to cooperation."

However, Berdymukhammedov said recently that Turkmenistan has no plans to stray from its UN-recognized status as a neutral country, which could be interpreted as saying that Turkmenistan will have better cooperation with the CIS and some of its institutions but is not quite ready for full membership.

Georgia has sent Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze since the Georgian parliament voted to approve newly nominated Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze's candidacy only today.

(RFE/RL's Turkmen and Azerbaijani services, Georgian Service Director David Kakabadze, and correspondent Salome Asatiani contributed to this report.)

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