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Turkmenistan: Leader Asks For UN Support In Moving Ahead With Pipeline Deal

As long as the Taliban controlled Kabul, the construction of a proposed gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan had little chance of drawing international investors. But since the fall of the Taliban, Turkmenistan has been trying to revive interest in the plan. Ashgabat, which declared a policy of official neutrality a decade ago, has played no role in the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. But Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's willingness to support aid efforts to Afghanistan may be a move to win international support for the pipeline deal.

Prague, 2 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov last week (24 April) called for the United Nations to support a plan to build a gas pipeline linking Turkmenistan to Pakistan. Niyazov said the project would help bring stability to Afghanistan, through which the proposed 1,500-kilometer pipeline would run.

"I have proposed that the United Nations approve the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan gas pipeline [plan]. This is one of the measures that will permit the stabilization of Afghanistan. It is a large project that will create jobs and income for the population. But this project should not have a political character."

Niyazov says he will meet Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai this month to discuss the project.

Turkmenistan has immense gas reserves but currently only one major export route, which runs through Russia. The proposed $2 billion pipeline will have an annual throughput capacity of up to 30 billion cubic meters of gas.

Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs. He tells RFE/RL that Turkmenistan sought support for the pipeline project even during the Taliban regime: "Turkmenistan in fact sought security guarantees from the United Nations for this pipeline even before the Taliban demise. It was about two years ago. Turkmenistan was heavily involved in this attempt to built the pipeline during the Taliban rule -- this Unocal story."

The U.S. oil and gas exploration and production company Unocal in the late 1990s began feasibility studies on the pipeline. But in 1998 it withdrew, citing the deteriorating political situation in Afghanistan.

Now, Blagov says, support from the UN could boost the status of the project, clearing the way for guarantees from international institutions like the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Blagov warns, however, that drumming up the large investments needed to jump-start the project may prove difficult: "The United Nations Development Program could have an advisory role, which would be important just to provide more weight -- more international status -- to this project. But [where] the substantial [financial] support to the project [could come from] right now is far from certain."

This, Blagov says, is why Niyazov's position toward his country's official neutrality could soon be changing, particularly with regard to the United States: "Turkmenistan initially was reluctant to commit itself to U.S.-led [operations] in Afghanistan. But sooner or later, given the importance for Turkmenistan to build this alternative pipeline on Afghan territory, it is not impossible that Turkmenistan will change its position."

Ten years ago, Turkmenistan declared itself a neutral country, a decision recognized by the UN. At a meeting of his cabinet ministers following the 11 September attacks on the U.S., Niyazov reaffirmed his country's status, and said international efforts to root out terrorism should be coordinated by the UN, not the U.S.

Blagov says Niyazov's stance may reflect the Turkmen leader's desire to win UN support for the pipeline project. Turkmenistan was the first Central Asian nation to open its borders for humanitarian operations into Afghanistan, even before the events of September precipitated the U.S.-led campaign in the country.

Ted Pearn is senior humanitarian affairs officer for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat. He tells RFE/RL that the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) had a food pipeline operating through the Turkmenistan nine months prior to September.

Pearn stresses that the country has since increased the volume of aid passing into Afghanistan, including to its northern regions, which have been particularly hard hit. Last September, 20 percent of all WFP food aid to Afghanistan passed through Turkmenistan. By December, the amount had risen to 40 percent.

Pearn says Ashgabat has been a "substantial and proven" channel of support, "It is an untold story and the government should sort of raise their efforts in making sure that the humanitarian aid does flow to Afghanistan."

With many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) facing difficulty operating in Turkmenistan, much of the responsibility for coordinating aid has fallen to the UN in Ashgabat. Pearn says the government helped facilitate efforts by allowing NGOs to register with the UN: "Because the government and the UN worked together they were able to ease those controls and those NGOs who had a proven track record as operating partners with the UN were given the authority to operate through Turkmenistan's territory."

Pearn says that despite the Turkmen government's cooperation in the aid efforts, many of its achievements went unnoticed by the world community because of the country's media restrictions and its policy of watching over its neutral status "very closely."

"That could be to the detriment of what's been achieved in Turkmenistan because the government restricted the number of reporters. Then the achievements over the last seven or eight months have been untold. But recently the government has been more open and agreed that their achievements should be recognized. And this is being done."

Relief efforts in Turkmenistan are scaling back as conditions improve in Afghanistan. Agencies are shifting their focus to Uzbekistan, which has better accessibility to northern Afghanistan.

During his stop in Turkmenistan last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld thanked the country for its role in supporting humanitarian aid shipments to Afghanistan. Rumsfeld said, "[Turkmenistan's] humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan have undoubtedly saved the lives of Afghan people."

Niyazov has not yet sought any particular reward for his country's cooperation. But his recent remarks concerning the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline may be an indication the mercurial leader is now seeking to reap the fruits of his cooperation with the UN.