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Turkmenistan: Niyazov Makes First Official Visit To U.S.

Washington, 20 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. courtship of oil-rich former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus resumes this week when Washington hosts Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov on his first official visit to the United States.

Niyazov is in New York for meetings with private American business and financial leaders. He is due to begin the Washington leg of his journey tomorrow (Tuesday) before leaving Friday for a two-day visit to the midwestern city of Chicago.

In Washington, Niyazov is scheduled to have separate meetings on Wednesday with no less than five cabinet secretaries -- Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, Commerce Secretary William Daley, and Energy Secretary Federico Pena.

Niyazov is due to have two rounds of talks with President Bill Clinton on Thursday and sign several bilateral cooperation agreements.

Turkmenistan reportedly has the world's fourth largest reserve of natural gas and is sometimes referred to as the "Kuwait of Central Asia." However, the country also has had trouble developing its energy resources and has had particular problems finding pipeline routes that will enable it to sell its energy supplies on the international market.

In December, Turkmenistan opened a natural gas pipeline to Iran. The pipeline escaped U.S. sanctions that have been imposed on Iran because of its alleged support for international terrorism because the project was started two years before American sanctions on Iran went into effect.

Part of Turkmenistan's pipeline problem reportedly was resolved last Thursday when Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev approved construction of a pipeline along the bed of the Caspian Sea that will connect his country with Turkmenistan and enable Turkmenistan to move oil and gas supplies to market. The announcement ended a dispute between the countries over the division of the sea bed.

Aliyev made his announcement during talks with the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, Stanley Escudero. Washington had been mediating the dispute and had wanted it resolved before Niyazov left for the United States.

U.S. involvement in the region has increased dramatically in the past year as the international competition to help the former Soviet republics in the region develop their vast energy resources has intensified. The Caspian Sea region is said to hold an estimated 200 billion barrels of proven oil reserves.

In a speech in Washington last July, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said the Transcaucasus and Central Asia make up "a strategically vital region." What happens there "matters profoundly" to the U.S., said Talbott. He said the U.S. wants to ensure that each nation in the region is treated fairly.

Talbott said that since the Central Asian states gained independence, it has been fashionable to predict a renewal of the 19th century competition among the great powers for influence and access to the wealth of the region to the disadvantage of its people.

"Our goal is to avoid and actively discourage that atavistic outcome," Talbott said, adding that "in practicing the geopolitics of oil, let's make sure that we are thinking in terms appropriate to the 21st century and not the 19th" and that the U.S. wants to see "all responsible players in the Caucasus and Central Asia be winners."

President Clinton's appointment register provides evidence of the new importance that Washington attaches to the region. In the past nine months, Clinton has hosted the presidents of Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.

Despite U.S. economic interests in Turkmenistan, the U.S. has been sharply critical of Turkmenistan's record of respect for internationally recognized human rights.

In its annual report on human rights practices around the world, the U.S. State Department said in January that Turkmenistan remains a one-party state dominated by Niyazov and his closest advisers. The State Department said the country made little progress last year in moving from a Soviet-era authoritarian style of government to a democratic system.