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Turkmenistan: Interview With U.S. Ambassador

By Bruce Pannier and Naz Nazar

Prague, 7 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov travels to Washington April 22-23 for meetings with U.S. President Bill Clinton and other top U.S. officials.

In the following, recent interview (24 March) with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, U.S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan, Michael W. Cotter, discusses some of the major issues in U.S.-Turkmen relations, including energy development and economic and democratic reforms.

Question: The White House invited president Niyazov to make an official visit to the U.S. Does this invitation mean the U.S. is greatly interested in Turkmenistan?

Answer: Yes, I think it's quite clear that, even before this invitation, the U.S. was greatly interested in Turkmenistan and that interest has been expressed in the wide variety of cooperation programs that we have developed with Turkmenistan; programs such as the Peace Corps and ... a number of areas of economic reform. Our interest is also more general.

I think everyone is aware that the U.S. has a very strong interest in encouraging the political independence and economic prosperity in all of the countries of the former Soviet Union. And, so, our interest in Turkmenistan has two aspects -- one is the purely bilateral, but the other is the broader, regional interest we have in common.

Q: Will the U.S. President negotiate on the development of agriculture, oil and gas, education and culture in Turkmenistan?

A: Yes, all of those subjects I think will be on the agenda for the meeting between the Presidents. President Niyazov has told us that the most important subject on his agenda in Washington will be the development of agriculture in Turkmenistan, and his interest in establishing an agricultural dialogue for a framework for agricultural cooperation between our countries. And, we are now working on this and hoping to prepare very good proposals for the meeting.

In the area of oil and gas, obviously we understand how important the development of that industry is for Turkmenistan. And it's also true that American companies in this area have the best technology in the world and the capital resources to develop new deposits. And, so, we hope that during President Niyazov's visit to the United States there will be significant advances in discussions both with the American government and with American companies about developing Turkmenistan's oil and gas resources.

The United States also believes that for development of export routes for gas and oil from Central Asia and the Caucasus an East-West route is very important for the energy independence of all of the countries of the region which produce energy. And, we believe that the best alternative for moving that energy to the West is under the Caspian and across the Caucasus, and we will hope to make some progress in that area, as well, when the President is in Washington.

Q: Do you expect there to be a discussion on the status of democracy and human rights.

A: Yes, I believe that both of those subjects will be on the agenda in Washington. My government has made very clear that we believe that development of democratic institutions and observance of international principles of human rights are very important in all of the countries with which we have good relations. And, so, I think we can expect a very lively discussion on this issue.

Q: Since independence, the Central Asian countries have begun to encounter a new problem: drug traffickers. What kind of assistance can the U.S. provide to combat this problem?

A: Well, this problem, of course, involves many other countries besides the United States. Indeed the drugs that come out of south Asia very often go to Europe, go to Russia and go to other places as well. So, this is an area that truly requires international cooperation ... On a bilateral basis we have worked on several programs of cooperation with the customs service of Turkmenistan as well as the border guards to help those organizations do a better job of controlling the flow of drugs through the country.

Q: Mr. Ambassador can you comment on the political and economic reforms being carried out in Turkmenistan? Will implementation of such reforms lead to a greater prosperity for the country?

A: We feel very strongly that political and economic reform in Turkmenistan is absolutely indispensable for prosperity, that without reform the country will not achieve what it is capable of achieving. At the same time we recognize very clearly as President Niyazov has said that changing old ways of thinking and old ways of doing things is very difficult.

I am confident both from his public statements and from our conversations that the President is committed to carrying out those reforms. I think as he has also noted, however, other elements in society are not necessarily so eager to have changes occur that will effect them in negative way. Our goal is to work as closely as we can with the government to help make sure that reforms are the correct ones and that they proceed as quickly as possible.

Q: Mr. Ambassador you have been working in Turkmenistan for three years. A lot of changes have taken place during this time. Do you think U.S. Turkmen bilateral relations have been strengthened during this time?

A: There have been very many changes in the country in the time I have been here. It sometimes is difficult, when you live in a place all of the time and change occurs little by little, to see the impact of it. But, I think, when we look at the goods that are available and the businesses that are growing and the opportunities that are available now for the Turkmen people to improve their lives, I think we can see much change has occurred. And, I think our bilateral relations have also improved considerably during this time.