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Turkmenistan: Ties To West May Be Worsening

Turkmenistan is preparing for visits from the presidents of Russia, China and perhaps Iran. There are concerns that Turkmen's ties to the West are deteriorating. RFE/RL's correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 2 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As Turkmenistan promotes its ties with Russia, China and Iran, there are increasing signs of strains in relations with the West.

President Saparmurat Niyazov has been trying to strike new gas export deals with the major powers to the north, south and east. The result could be a significant boost to Turkmenistan's economy.

On the northern front, Niyazov is preparing for a visit from Russia's president-elect, Vladimir Putin, in late May. The two leaders are expected to sign an agreement to increase Turkmenistan's gas sales to Russia from 20,000 million billion cubic meters to as much as 50,000 million cubic meters per year, if a settlement on the price can be reached.

To the east, Turkmenistan is also planning for a visit from Chinese President Jiang Zemin. The two countries are planning to discuss a proposed gas pipeline to China that could reach Japan. The 8,000-kilometer line, which could cost $12 billion, has already been the subject of speculation for several years, but Jiang's visit could renew interest in the idea again.

Turkmen officials have also been negotiating with Iran to increase its gas purchases to 13,000 million cubic meters per year from the previous negotiated level of 5,000 million cubic meters. The governments have said that an agreement could soon be signed between Niyazov and Iranian President Mohammed Khatami.

While these three efforts could bear fruit in the next month, there seems to be no progress on Turkmen exports to Turkey or the U.S.-backed plan for a trans-Caspian gas pipeline. Diplomatic activity seems to have ground to a halt.

Turkmenistan's foreign ministry recently criticized comments of John Wolf, the Caspian coordinator in the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Turkmen officials reportedly complained after a U.S. Senate hearing on the Caspian that no attention was paid to the trans-Caspian plan and that Wolf failed to mention an agreement with Azerbaijan on sharing the pipeline. In fact, the pipeline's progress has been stalled by unresolved disputes between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.

The Turkmen statement seemed to be an echo of Niyazov's highly negative remarks about the trans-Caspian project in February during Wolf's last trip to Ashgabat. No U.S. officials are believed to have traveled to Turkmenistan since then.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did not visit Turkmenistan during her tour of Central Asia in April. A U.S. official, speaking to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said only that Albright's tight schedule had made a stop in Turkmenistan difficult. But it may be worth noting that the secretary spent three days in neighboring Uzbekistan after stops in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. official indicated that a trip to Tajikistan was considered too dangerous.

Previous visits to Central Asia by the directors of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency to discuss aid against terrorism and drug smuggling have also skipped Turkmenistan.

A sense of alienation was underscored by the April decision of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to halt all public-sector loans to Turkmenistan. The action followed Niyazov's refusal to meet with an EBRD delegation which came to Ashgabat to talk about democratic and economic reforms.

In announcing the lending ban, the London-based bank's Acting President Charles Frank said: "The president's refusal even to discuss the question of political reform suggests that the government of Turkmenistan is not committed to one of the basic principles upon which the EBRD was founded."

Although other Central Asian leaders have recently objected to U.S. statements about democratic reforms, they have at least engaged in dialogue and diplomatic contacts.

But Niyazov's isolation appears to go beyond his relations to Washington and the West. The Turkmen leader has been notably absent at regional meetings hosted by neighboring states, and he is not believed to have traveled outside his country since the OSCE security summit in Istanbul last November.

Niyazov's absence was felt at the April summit of Turkic nations in Baku, where some officials had hoped that an agreement on the trans-Caspian pipeline might be signed. Turkmenistan also appears to have played no role in the World Economic Forum's meeting last week in neighboring Kazakhstan.

Turkmenistan does not appear to have joined in recent regional talks on anti-terrorism efforts or joint security. It is unclear whether Niyazov has intended to shun such contacts or whether his policy of neutrality has entered a new phase.

Niyazov's stance was meant to ensure that Turkmenistan would keep its channels open in all directions. But in the past year, his contacts with both the West and his neighbors of Central Asia and the Caucasus have diminished. The success of the country's policy may become clear in the next month.