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Turkmenistan: Neutrality Policy Sensible But Not Credible

Turkmenistan has recently reaffirmed its policy of neutrality in a document issued to member states of the United Nations. It has pledged to not take sides in regional disputes and chart an independent course in energy policy. But regional analysts say that Turkmenistan lacks the credibility to make its neutrality work. Correspondent Beatrice Hogan reports.

United Nations, 31` March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In a seven-page letter addressed to the UN General Assembly earlier this year, Turkmenistan declared its foreign policy of "permanent neutrality" for the 21st century.

Though Turkmenistan has been officially neutral since 1995, the document represents its most comprehensive foreign policy statement to date.

The People's Council of Turkmenistan ratified the new foreign policy on December 27, 1999 -- one day before it extended Saparmurat Niyazov's rule for life. Turkmenistan's foreign policy, the document states, reflects the president's "ideas and practical activities."

The document explains how Turkmenistan plans to use its neutral status to promote peace in the region, to attract new foreign investors, and to advance social, political and economic reforms. So far, Turkmenistan has avoided military and political alliances and it plans to respond only to humanitarian calls in the future.

By remaining free of entangling alliances, Turkmenistan feels it can wield a positive influence in the region and gain the respect of other nations.

Officials at Turkmenistan's mission to the United Nations and at its embassy in Washington declined to speak to RFE/RL about its foreign policy. But experts on the region say the document's heavy emphasis on neutrality, cooperation and peace brokering is undermined by the country's own shaky status.

Martha Brill Olcott, a Central Asian expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, told RFE/RL that a country's foreign policy derives from a realistic assessment of its position and its problems.

"International position is earned rather than decreed by states. And Turkmenistan has not yet reached the point where it has made its neutrality work. It has not yet turned itself into a regional forum yet. It is unclear whether it will become a respected actor in the region or the broader international community."

The Turkmen government statement invokes "democracy, humanism and respect for human rights and freedoms," but the country holds one of the region's worst human rights records.

Its foreign policy says it aims to create conditions for "the irreversibility of political and economic reforms," but so far Turkmenistan remains one of the least reformed Soviet successor states. It is yet to be seen whether Turkmenistan will become a peacemaking center, as envisioned in the foreign policy document.

Olcott, of the Carnegie Endowment, says Turkmenistan would be more credible as a regional leader if it first took care of domestic reforms.

"Turkmenistan has to succeed with the policy of social, economic and political reform. You can't make yourself a model by decreeing that you are a model. And you have to become a model by your actions."

Neutrality is particularly difficult to achieve in the energy sector. The government's foreign policy document says its "main task in foreign economic activities is to bring its important resources to international markets." It stresses the country's adherence for a "multifaceted approach," vowing to not let political considerations influence how it delivers its energy resources to international pipelines.

Turkmenistan has the world's fourth largest natural gas reserves. But before it can exploit this resource, it must first break Russia's influence, because Turkmenistan relies on Russia for pipeline routes.

Wayne Merry, a regional expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based foreign policy institute, says neutrality makes sense for a country in Turkmenistan's geographic position. Turkmenistan lies between Russia and Iran, and between the Caspian and Central Asia.

"In the case of Turkmenistan, neutrality was supposed to provide the country with the ability to sell its natural gas in all directions -- to build a pipeline across Afghanistan, to sell it through Iran, sell it to Turkey, sell it to Ukraine, and ultimately to more Western markets."

But this has not yet happened. Merry says that Turkmenistan's geography -- as much as its policy -- accounts for its difficulties. The country is landlocked, making cooperation with its neighbors necessary. But Turkmenistan is surrounded by what Marry calls "essentially hostile" countries.

The region's large countries -- Russia and Iran -- try to dominate negotiations. And the region's small countries -- notably Azerbaijan and Georgia -- which have much to gain from joining forces, tend to compete with each other instead.

Moreover, the nature of the resource confines it to local markets. Unlike oil, which can be shipped by tankers on the high seas, natural gas requires long pipelines, limiting it to a regional commodity. Merry says that while

Turkmen gas will eventually play an important role in Eurasian markets, it is unlikely to be a viable source of energy for North America.