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Turkmenistan: President Receives Low-Key Welcome At White House

Washington, 23 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The first official visit of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov to Washington this week may be big news in Ashgabat but in the U.S. hardly anyone has noticed.

On the American side, official events are being conducted deliberately low-key with minimum opportunity for publicity. There have been no headlines, no front-page news on Niyazov's activities and negligible coverage so far in major American newspapers of his talks in Washington.

Niyazov's visit culminates today (Thursday) with a working luncheon at the White House with President Bill Clinton.

The two men will shake hands in front of television cameras and pose for a photograph before going into their meeting.

But there will be no statements before, no speeches afterwards, and no joint press conference at the White House although one had been listed on Niyazov's itinerary released by the Turkmen delegation. However, U.S. officials say it was never on the schedule.

A White House official, who spoke with RFE/RL on condition that he not be named, said a written joint statement only on the Clinton-Niyazov talks will be made available to the press.

He said Niyazov's reception in Washington conveys a twofold political message.

According to the official, Niyazov was invited to meet with top U.S. dignitaries because the U.S. regards Turkmenistan as an important country in the region with a significant role to play in the development of Caspian energy and wants to engage in a constructive dialogue with the Turkmen government.

"But we also want to make clear," he said "that there is a lot Turkmenistan has to do in political and economic reform," adding that "where it is right now is not satisfactory -- this visit is intended to encourage movement on human rights and democratization."

The official said there are several indications that the message is getting through to Niyazov, who is accompanied by a large entourage of what seems like most of his government. The delegation includes 11 ministers, heads of key industrial, commercial and financial state agencies, and numerous deputy chairmen and deputy ministers.

The White House official said in two days of talks there have been a number of what he called "very frank exchanges" about the importance of holding national elections. He said the U.S. expects the Turkmens to announce, in his words "specific commitments to electoral schedules for the parliament and the presidency" before they leave Washington for Chicago Thursday night.

The official said Niyazov also is likely to make a commitment to improve human rights. "We are hoping that Turkmenistan will invite the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to establish a monitoring office in Ashgabad," he said.

The official said human rights issues were a major part of Wednesday's discussion between Niyazov and Secretary of State Albright and will also figure prominently in the White House meeting today.

He said Clinton will say to Niyazov that human rights, democracy and market reform will in the longterm form the foundation that will sustain Turkmenistan's sovereignty and independence.

The official said: "We will say that energy is an important factor in why the international community is interested in Turkmenistan. But to ensure prosperity for the people and safeguard independence, the government must move aggressively on political and economic reform."

He said the choice for Turkmenistan is whether it wants to look in ten years time like Nigeria, or be a country with mineral wealth moving towards Europe and keeping step with other countries in the Caspian region. The only place where Niyazov was treated with pomp and ceremony Wednesday was at the Pentagon where a military band played and an honor guard lined up in salute before Niyazov began talks with Defense Secretary William Cohen.

The White House official said the U.S. wants to establish a regular security dialogue with Turkmenistan for cooperation on regional security, international terrorism, illegal drug smuggling, international crime, and a host of other issues.

The U.S. has similar security arrangements with many states of the former Soviet Union.

On commercial issues, the U.S. feels it made some progress Wednesday, when Niyazov agreed to let the U.S fund a study on the feasibility of building a gas pipeline under the Caspian Sea into Azerbaijan.

The White House official said the U.S. has been working hard for this and regards it as an important achievement.

He said the study will get under way quickly and the U.S. expects it to be completed before the end of this year.

Niyazov also Wednesday signed separate agreements with the Mobil and Exxon oil companies to conduct energy studies in the Caspian region.

Mobil and other American energy companies interested in doing business with Turkmenistan this week placed expensive advertisements in half a dozen major American newspapers and magazines, giving the Turkmen government at least some publicity and praise that it could not get on its own merit.