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Central Asia: Turkmenistan Keen On Hosting Afghan Talks

Prague, 10 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan's U.N.-recognized status as a neutral country may pay its first dividend later this week when Afghan peace negotiations are expected to begin in the capital, Ashgabat.

For the visiting Afghan delegations, the goal is peace. For the host nation, however, the goal is money. And intriguingly, the Turkmen star this time is not President Saparmurat Niyazov but his foreign minister, Boris Shikhmuradov.

Backed by the U.N.'s recognition of its self-proclaimed neutrality, Turkmenistan has pursued a policy of what it calls "positive neutrality." So far, this has only provided reasons for Ashgabat to pass on alliances or unions perceived not to be in the country's economic interests.

The announcement of Afghan negotiations in its capital city is the first event to suggest that its neutral status may have greater consequences -- even more so since preliminary consultations among the conflicting parties in Afghanistan identified Ashgabat as the only mutually acceptable location for peace talks.

The talks had been due to begin today but bad weather reportedly delayed the arrival of a five-man Afghan opposition delegation. It's not clear when the talks will now begin. Little progress is expected, however. The U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, said as much when he announced the negotiations at a press conference in Islamabad on March 4.

Brahimi said the Ashgabat conference offers the "last chance" for avoiding a "disastrous" spring military campaign. But Brahimi also noted that the prevailing "mood" among the two sides is "rigid." Of course, he said, it is always a hopeful sign when the two factions agree to meet and talk.

For the nation hosting the talks, the need for stability in Afghanistan is urgent.

Turkmenistan is one of the richest countries in the world, on paper. With large amounts of oil and natural gas, it needs only reliable means for exporting its wealth.

Though there are grand plans to bring Turkmen natural gas to Turkey and Europe via Iran, or by a pipeline along the bottom of the Caspian Sea, both of these projects are continually held up due to politics and international disputes.

Pakistan is anxious to buy Turkmen gas and for several years has discussed the construction of a pipeline from Turkmenistan to Multana, Pakistan, via Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan, however, is a major obstacle to construction of the $1.8 billion pipeline, which promises to carry 20,000 million cubic meters of natural gas from Turkmenistan annually. The price of exporting gas to Pakistan is advantageous for Turkmenistan also, as shipments to Ukraine via Russian pipelines are sold at $36 per 1,000 cubic meters, while those planned via Afghanistan will net $45 per 1,000 cubic meters.

For this reason alone, many in Ashgabat would like to see peace return to Afghanistan.

The man most responsible for bringing the two sides to the negotiating table in Ashgabat is Turkmen Foreign Minister Shikhmuradov. In the Turkmen political world, Shikhmuradov is the one notable survivor. Officials are regularly sacked or re-assigned to prevent corruption -- officially -- or to keep them from rising to a position where they could present a challenge to President Niyazov -- unofficially. But Shikhmuradov has successfully navigated these difficult waters. In late January, he traveled to Pakistan not only to meet with government officials in Islamabad but with Taliban representatives, too. Shikhmuradov has also met with representatives from ousted Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani's government-in-exile. Such shuttle diplomacy produced a meeting between delegations from the two sides in Ashgabat on February 11.

Though the two sides promised to continue talks in Ashgabat, it was only after Shikhmuradov returned to Islamabad at the start of March that an announcement came of new talks. Shikhmuradov will likely play a key role in these discussions since Niyazov just had minor surgery to remove the staples in his chest placed there after open-heart surgery in 1997. He is expected to be in hospital for a few days.