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Turkmenistan: Niyazov Poised For First Visit To White House

Boston, 24 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- After months of postponements, President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan has finally received an invitation to visit the White House.

The mission, scheduled for 22 April, will be Niyazov's first official trip to Washington, but it is likely to be similar to those of other Central Asian leaders during the past year. The government in Ashgabat has already signaled that there will be announcements of several oil and gas deals with U.S. companies. Ceremonies at the State Department and a meeting with President Bill Clinton will be on the agenda as well.

Niyazov will be following a well-worn path. Former U.S. officials, now working as consultants, will give glowing speeches and testimonials to his leadership. Every word will be videotaped for rebroadcast back home.

While official Washington has come to view such visits as a predictable routine, their importance should not be underestimated. Presidents of former Soviet republics see the handshakes at the White House as a way of demonstrating the legitimacy of their governments, helping to show Moscow that they have powerful friends in the West.

The trips are also opportunities for Central Asian leaders to portray themselves as players on the world stage, improving their images with domestic audiences in the name of national pride.

But the presidents are also made to swallow a few bitter pills before the banquets begin. U.S. officials usually insist on raising issues of human rights and democracy as part of the price for the red-carpet treatment at the White House.

These expressions of concern may seem like little more than formalities, and few in the oil industry are fooled. The United States is not about to stop doing business with countries simply because they are governed by authoritarian regimes.

But President Niyazov should be prepared for some tough questions about his government. The Turkmen Democratic Assembly, a group of Turkmens living in exile, has protested to President Clinton over the official visit, saying that Niyazov should not be welcomed in the U.S. because of his autocratic policies.

It is clear that Turkmenistan's political system has already come under pressure to live up to U.S. expectations, even before the trip takes place. Last week, Niyazov announced that he will undertake some reforms to limit his own powers by amending the republic's constitution.

The president has promised to convene a governmental meeting in May to discuss the changes, which would give more power to the country's parliament. The timing can hardly be a coincidence. It is unlikely that Niyazov would volunteer to promote democracy unless Washington had set some conditions on his invitation to the United States.

Political opposition and press freedoms remain restricted in Turkmenistan to a degree that U.S. officials find difficult to ignore.

The State Department's human rights report last month gave Turkmenistan extremely low marks. According to the report, the country has made little progress in moving from a Soviet-style system toward democracy under Niyazov.

Turkmenistan's one-party government has repressed all political opposition, and there is no real independence in either the parliament or judiciary, the State Department said. Leading dissidents have been imprisoned and confined to psychiatric hospitals. Government officials have not responded to U.S. inquiries about the cases. When he comes to Washington, Niyazov should be prepared to pledge that such abuses will stop.

Few leaders in the region have shown much devotion to democratic values in the post-Soviet period. But some who have made the trip to Washington recently have at least realized that they must demonstrate some movement toward reform.

In neighboring Azerbaijan, for example, President Hei.dar Aliyev has now been pressured to tolerate opposition parties and the return of former President Abulfaz Elchibey, who will participate in elections this year. Clearly, much more needs to be done to promote genuine democracy in Azerbaijan. But Aliyev has at least issued public statements saying that it is time to cut back on the personality cult he has built for himself. Niyazov should do the same.

U.S. oil companies are certain to continue seeking contracts in Turkmenistan, regardless of its form of government. But Niyazov could run into problems with U.S. official financing if human rights issues are raised.

Preference for limited financing may go to those republics that show greater willingness at least to respond to US concerns. There is also a high correlation between governments that ignore human rights and those which arbitrarily cancel contracts, creating a hostile business environment without respect for the rule of law.

If Niyazov cannot be convinced to allow personal freedom in Turkmenistan for its own sake, he is likely to find out in Washington that it is simply a matter of good business to show that he is ready to accept democracy.