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Central Asia Report: May 11, 2007

Germany Pushes To Ease EU Sanctions Against Uzbekistan

Uzbek President Islam Karimov (file photo)

BRUSSELS, May 11, 2007 -- EU sources have told RFE/RL that the bloc's ambassadors are deadlocked this week on the future of the sanctions on Uzbekistan, imposed in the wake of the 2005 Andijon mass killings.

Germany, the EU's current presidency, wants to cut the EU visa ban list of Uzbek officials from 12 to eight, and indicates the bloc wants to drop the sanctions eventually.

Germany also wants to bring forward the next review of the visa ban list, which is currently scheduled to take place in November.

Uzbekistan is also subject to an EU arms embargo, but the bloc's officials privately say Tashkent finds the visa ban particularly irksome.

The EU's June summit is slated to adopt a first-ever EU strategy for Central Asia -- conceived by Germany -- and Uzbekistan's acceptance is acknowledged to be crucial to its success.

German officials this week praised Uzbekistan's decision to launch a human-rights dialogue with the EU, but an overwhelming majority of EU member states remain unconvinced Tashkent is willing to reform.

EU sources say the skeptics, headed by Britain and Sweden, among others, have been particularly angered by recent comments made by Uzbek President Islam Karimov suggesting that many in the EU are finally coming around to accept that the charges against the Uzbek government over Andijon have been "fabricated."

EU foreign ministers must now decide on the issue when they meet in Brussels on May 14.

What Has Tashkent Gotten Away With In Andijon?

By Farangis Najibullah

Demonstrations to urge accountability for the Andijon killings are limited to places outside the country, like this event in Brussels in May 2006

May 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It has been two years since a massive demonstration in the Uzbek city of Andijon ended in violence and the deaths of scores of people. Many protesters were convicted of trying to overthrow the government and set up an Islamic state.

However, no Uzbek government or military officials have been held responsible for the deadly force used against protesters. Now, many Andijon residents don't want to discuss the event, which has destroyed so many lives in the city.

Two years after the popular uprising in Andijon on that May day in 2005, many residents in the eastern Uzbek city are reluctant to talk about those eventful days that ended in so much bloodshed.

There are still two entirely different versions of the May 13, 2005, events in downtown Andijon's Bobur Square. The Uzbek government blames Islamic extremists for instigating antigovernment demonstrations, using women and children as shields, and killing "soldiers and others."

Two years later, some Andijon residents are still discovering that their family members were imprisoned following secret trials.

Human rights activists accuse the Uzbek authorities of using excessive force against protesters -- the vast majority of whom were peaceful civilians -- killing several hundred of them and forcing hundreds more to leave the country for fear of reprisals.

'People Became Afraid'

Most Andijon residents prefer to keep quiet about the events.

Bakhtiyor Turghunov, a human rights activist in Andijon, says that after such a bloody experience hardly anyone in Andijon would dare to raise their voices any time soon.

"People became afraid. Afraid," Turghunov says. "You can talk about it -- a bit -- with your closest people and friends, but not everywhere."

Those who have dared to talk about the events in Andijon have paid a heavy price. Most recently it was Gulbahor Turaeva, an Andijon doctor who has reportedly been sentenced to six years in prison. Human rights activists say Turaeva was punished by the Uzbek government for giving out the number of Andijon victims to the media.

Toghboy Razzoqov is an Andijon refugee living in Kyrgyzstan. Razzoqov, who left the city in 2006, says that after the bloodshed Andijon was turned into a place of fear, suspicion, and mistrust.

"Even if you said something at some get-together, some people would leave the place because they were afraid," Razzoqov says. "They know everything themselves; they hide their pain inside because there are so many [government] agents. There are lots of spies around."

Beneath The Surface

On the surface, Andijon today looks like any other Uzbek city. Bazaars are full of fresh, homegrown fruits and vegetables. Small businesses are thriving with merchants importing goods from neighboring countries. Ordinary people's concerns and problems seem to be similar to those in other parts of the Uzbekistan -- they complain about unemployment or the shortage of gas and electricity.

However, people who know Central Asia first-hand say it is impossible to judge Uzbekistan by the surface. Alison Gill spent two years working in Uzbekistan for Human Rights Watch, an independent human rights watchdog, and was there in May 2005.

"It is important to be there and to talk to the people without the interference of the government," Gill says. "I've been there for two years, and I had the opportunity to talk to many, many, many people -- hundreds of victims of human rights abuses in Uzbekistan. I know that the situation there remains extremely complicated and extremely difficult."

Disputed Death Toll

According to human rights activists as many as 1,000 people -- including women and children -- were gunned down by government troops who started firing at demonstrators in the square without warning.

Uzbek authorities, however, put the number of Andijon victims at 187, and said many members of government forces were among the victims.

Andijon residents lay out the bodies of victims on May 14, 2005 (AFP)

Shortly after the Andijon events, foreign media quoted eyewitnesses who said the bodies of women and children were taken away by government forces and were never returned to their families.

Many months after the demonstrations, some families still did not know whether their missing relatives were dead of alive -- whether they were killed, thrown into jail or had left the country.

Two years later, some Andijon residents are still discovering that their family members were imprisoned following secret trials.

Under such circumstances it would be difficult to believe that everybody in Andijon has moved on. Yet hardly anyone in the city would be willing to talk about the past, let alone question the government's position about the Andijon issue.

Life Goes On

Even those who were directly affected by the events try to avoid criticism.

Zulfiya works in a bank in Andijon. Her husband went missing after the demonstrations. Zulfiya maintains that life is back to normal in the city.

"Everything is functioning," Zulfiya says. "The bazaars are getting better. The situation is exactly the same as before. Our markets are good. Well, life is going on."

Bakhtiyor Turghunov, the Andijon-based human rights activist, says all of the opposition voices that would criticize the Uzbek government have been silenced.

The international media attention has faded and, apart from a few human rights advocates, no one seems to care about what happened in the city two years ago.

However, some experts say it is unlikely that the Uzbek government would get away with the bloodshed at Andijon. James Nixey is an expert on Uzbek affairs from Chatham House, a think tank in London.

"Most analysts who I've spoken to suggest that this issue is not closed and there is a grand sort of dissent amongst certain sections -- among the Islamic community in particular -- which will produce more demonstrations," Nixey says. "And that is very, very hard to stop."

For the time being, however, many Andijon residents seem to have chosen to get on with their lives, leaving the past behind them.

International Community Grapples With Unrepentant Tashkent

By Breffni O'Rourke

President Islam Karimov has ignored international calls for a rights improvement

May 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- May 13 is the second anniversary of the mass killings of protesters by security forces in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon. Today, the human rights situation in Uzbekistan remains grave, and the government of President Islam Karimov has not responded to international calls for an improvement in the situation.

In May 2005, Uzbek security forces fired on a crowd of demonstrators in the main square of the eastern city of Andijon, killing by most estimates hundreds of people.

The echoes of those shots still reverberate around the Central Asian republic, giving it the reputation as one of the worst human rights offenders in the region.

One of the numerous casualties of the Uzbek crackdown on NGOs was Human Rights Watch, which in April received notice to close its office in Tashkent.

According to Lotte Leicht, of the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW), conditions in Uzbekistan in the last two years have only deteriorated.

"The situation in Uzbekistan in human rights terms has been going steadily downhill since the Andijon massacre," Leicht said. "The government has not cooperated with an international inquiry as sought by the European Union, and it has launched an unprecedented crackdown on civil society, journalists, and human rights activists."

Debate In The West Continues

As the second anniversary of the killings arrives, there is debate in the West about how to pressure the Central Asian republics to improve their rights records. The European Union is due on May 14 to decide whether or not to keep the sanctions it imposed on Uzbekistan following the events at Andijon.

Expert opinion is divided on whether sanctions are useful. Analyst Svante Cornell, of Uppsala University in Sweden, says that in this case they have not achieved anything and should be removed.

"The EU of course slammed sanctions on Uzbekistan after the Andijon events, which might be morally justified but politically speaking it turned out to be a dead end," Cornell said. "First of all, the main result of the estrangement of Uzbekistan from the West, was a further deterioration of the situation for human rights organizations, actually for all types of civil society organizations. So in fact what was perhaps a morally justifiable decision, turned out to be immensely counter-productive."

Cornell's view is that one ought not to isolate Uzbekistan, but to keep in contact with it, to interact with it, so as to gain the influence necessary to gradually improve the situation.

The Energy Question

Noting Europe's interest in the region's energy resources, he says it is not a question of choosing a moral path of refusing to deal with oppressive regimes, or ignoring ethics in order to gain access to oil and gas -- the two should go hand in hand.

"It will be practically impossible to pursue an energy-centered view of the region with complete disregard for the human rights situation," Cornell said. "Therefore I would argue that likewise it would be impossible for us to have any real influence on the democratization and rights situation in these countries, without also engaging with them in such issues as energy and security. In that sense I would argue that it is only possible to pursue in the longer term these various objectives if they are undertaken in a coordinated fashion."

One of the numerous casualties of the Uzbek crackdown on nongovernmental organizations was Human Rights Watch itself, which in April received notice to close its office in Tashkent for exceeding its authority.

HRW spokeswoman Leicht took a strongly contrary view to Cornell on sanctions.

"It would be profoundly absurd -- and arrogant and ignorant considering the facts in Uzbekistan and developments in Uzbekistan since Andijon -- to even consider easing or lifting EU sanctions at this time," Leicht said.

Her view is that the EU should "set the bar high," as she put it, meaning in this case that it should link its economic cooperation with Uzbekistan to improvements in Uzbek human rights behavior.

Russia And China

Analyst Cornell said Russia and China have been able to benefit from the indecision of the West on dealing with Central Asia.

"Russia and China, particularly Russia, have made a point of exploiting the mixture of politics and ideology on the side of the West," Cornell said. "There has been an injection of ideological elements into Western foreign policy formulation in the region, which has enabled China and Russia to appear as guarantors of regime security for countries of the region, thereby reducing their interest in interaction with Western countries."

The Western powers are interested in access to Central Asia's energy and mineral wealth, and therefore have the difficult task of pressing for better human rights observance while at the same time pursuing their economic interests.

Refugee Looks Back As Asylum Quest Proceeds

By Farangis Najibullah

Toghboy Razzoqov

May 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The tragedy of the bloodshed in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May 2005 did not end when the last bullets were fired. Hundreds of residents fled their homes after the deadly crackdown on a public demonstration, which is thought to have resulted in hundreds of deaths. Many of those who escaped went to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, with some eventually resettled in Europe and North America. Some have returned; but others wait in hopes of help from international aid agencies.

Once again, Toghboy Razzoqov is packing his bags.

Along with a small group of fellow Andijon refugees living in Kyrgyzstan, Razzoqov has been granted asylum in Canada.

Razzoqov is no stranger to moving. He has lived many places since leaving his native eastern Uzbekistan a year ago, including a refugee camp near the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border.

"I haven't lived in just one place," Razzoqov says. "I've lived in a camp; I've lived in [Kyrgyzstan's] Tokmok and Sokuluk areas. One by one, I've tried every place there is."

But the 60-year-old former schoolteacher and published poet spent most of his life in Andijon.

Before the demonstrations and the ensuing violence of May 2005, he had been planning for his retirement.

Living Off Charity

He says it "never crossed [his] mind, even in [his] wildest dreams," that he would be what he calls "a homeless and jobless refugee living off the mercy of others." Razzoqov says a Kyrgyz-based nonprofit group, Adilet, provides him with the roughly $50 a month (at the official exchange rate) that he needs in order to live.

"I receive 2,000 [Kyrgyz soms] through Adilet, and I pay this money to a friend of mine, who in return allows me to live in his home," Razzoqov says. "I also help him with housework. That's how I live now."

Razzoqov says he participated along with thousands of others in the demonstration on Andijon's Bobur Square on May 13, 2005, although he says he "had no political agenda."

He says he left as tension mounted, but before security forces opened fire with automatic weapons to disperse the crowd of demonstrators, killing many.

Root Of The Trouble

Two years later, there are still many questions about what happened. There are also questions about who was behind a jailbreak the night of May 12-13, as well as who organized the protests and what the protesters wanted.

The Uzbek government blames Islamic extremists for staging the demonstrations, and says that fewer than 200 people died -- all of them insurgents or troops.

Razzoqov says that, to his knowledge, many Andijon residents had joined the protest to voice dissatisfaction with social hardships.

"Those standing behind the podium and the others were talking about their difficult living conditions, their pain," he says. "They were saying: 'We have no jobs, we don't even have enough money for bread. What should we do? Our pension is miserable.'"

Hundreds of residents fled Andijon in the immediate aftermath of the bloody clampdown against protesters. Most appear to have headed for Kyrgyzstan.

Some 500 Andijon refugees have officially been registered by Kyrgyz authorities.

Razzoqov stayed in Andijon. He says that since he didn't regard himself as either " a religious extremist" or guilty of any wrongdoing, he had no reason to fear or flee.

But in the end, he says he felt compelled to leave.

Seeking Asylum

Razzoqov, who describes himself as an opposition sympathizer, says that at informal gatherings he criticized government troops for shooting defenseless demonstrators. He soon found himself under police scrutiny. He was repeatedly questioned by police, and police officers paid several visits to his home.

One year after the Andijon bloodshed, fearing that he might be thrown in jail, Razzoqov left Andijon to seek asylum in Kyrgyzstan.

He eventually obtained refugee status and legal permission to remain in Kyrgyzstan. But rebuilding his life has proven difficult.

Razzoqov was approaching retirement age, making it difficult to find a job.

He survives on about $50 a month -- along with cooking oil, vegetables, and pasta -- that he receives from Adilet, a nonprofit group that was created specifically to assist Andijon refugees living in Kyrgyzstan.

But Razzoqov does not complain about his financial situation.

"Fifty dollars per month is enough for us. With that money, I buy tea and other things, and [Adilet] also give me pasta -- so I would never starve to death," Razzoqov says. "I don't have to beg. There are many good people around here -- acquaintances and other people. Sometimes a neighbor sends a bowl of food. Sometimes the landlord gives me some food out of sympathy."

Starting Anew

Razzoqov says that having to start all over again -- at his advanced age, far from home, and with no family or friends nearby -- hurts him most.

But he'll be farther from home after his planned move to Canada later this month.

Razzoqov says he dreams about his hometown, and still has nightmares about what happened on May 13 two years ago.

Razzoqov also says he hopes one day to return to Andijon, which he and hundreds of his fellow Andijonis had to leave behind to face an uncertain and lonely future.

Putin Visit Highlights Momentum Of Moscow's Energy Efforts

President Berdymukhammedov (right) welcomes Putin to Ashgabat on May 11

May 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Turkmenistan today for talks with his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. Putin, Berdymukhammedov, and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev are also due to meet on May 12 to discuss ways to boost gas exports from Turkmenistan to Russia via Kazakhstan.

Putin's visit to Turkmenistan and the upcoming tripartite summit are seen by some observers as a victory for Russian energy policies toward Central Asia.

Moscow lost some of its dominance in Central Asia with the fall of the Soviet Union. Since then, Russia has been fighting for influence alongside other powers such as the United States, China, and the European Union.

Analysts quoted by Reuters suggested that Putin could be trying to lock Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan into a gas alliance to improve the gas- and oil-transport infrastructure along the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea to Russia.

Getting Down To Business

It is expected that during the May 12 summit in the port city of Turkmenbashi, the three leaders will discuss the proposed construction of a pipeline that would carry natural gas from Turkmenistan through Kazakhstan and Russia to Europe.

"This trip is a demonstration of how serious [Putin] is and how concrete he is," the director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Merkhat Sharipzhanov, says, describing Putin's trip to Turkmenistan and the upcoming summit as an important development. "It's not just words -- he's physically there in the places where the new pipeline to be is suppose to go -- Turkmenbashi city, Aktao city -- and he is there not alone, he is joined by the Kazakh president."

Oguljamal Yazliyeva, the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, also thinks the tripartite summit could be decisive in the struggle for access to Turkmenistan's rich energy resources.

"This is a very important summit, because now we expect the response of Turkmenistan," Yazliyeva says. "Which way will Turkmenistan go? Will Turkmenistan open the way to the West using other alternative projects, or will it stay with Russia and expand the export of Turkmen gas to Russia?"

Seeing 'Eye To Eye'

Putin's visit to Turkmenistan is his first since the election of President Berdymukhammedov. It began today in the capital, Ashgabat, where Russian media claimed the two leaders had "eye-to-eye" talks.

Following the talks, Putin called Turkmenistan a strategic energy partner for his country. But he also encouraged increased bilateral cooperation in other spheres.

"We still have a lot to do in the energy sector and other areas," Putin said today in Ashgabat. "And initial steps have already been made by our large companies, such as [truck manufacturer] KamAZ, the Mobile Telephone Systems (MTS), [holding company] Itera, LUKoil, Rusal [aluminum company] and, naturally, Gazprom, which is your old-time, reliable partner."

"Of course, we'll be talking primarily about energy," Putin said ahead of talks. "We are, literally, strategic partners in this area and we have great plans for working together. But I think it will be right to reactivate the [Turkmen-Russian] intergovernmental commission that could show us the most promising areas of cooperation besides energy."

"I want to stress that this visit shows the friendly and open desire to strengthen our relationship that has developed historically between our nations," Berdymukhammedov said.

Putin and Berdymukhammedov also met during the Turkmen leader's official visit to Moscow in April, when they expressed a desire to "strengthen mutual trade and economic ties."

Prior to his trip to Turkmenistan, Putin met with Kazakh President Nazarbaev in the Kazakh capital, Astana. Both sides agreed on the creation of a joint uranium-enrichment center in Siberia.

On May 12, Putin, Nazarbaev, and Berdymukhammedov will meet in Turkmenbashi city for their official tripartite summit.

Then the three leaders will continue their energy talks in Kazakhstan.

Putin's visit has cast a shadow over an energy summit that began today in Poland. At that meeting, the presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine were expected to discuss a new oil-export route that would avoid Russia.

Putin Visits Energy-Rich Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan

By Breffni O'Rourke

Putin and Nazarbaev -- shown here at a 2006 summit -- are meeting again May 10-12

May 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin is starting a nearly weeklong Central Asian visit that indicates the importance the Kremlin places on its relations to the region.

Putin arrives in Kazakhstan May 9, and is scheduled to attend a summit with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Turkmenistan from May 10-12 before returning to Kazakhstan.

Putin has not selected those two countries by chance. They are the richest in natural resources among the Central Asian republics, and they are both exposed to increasing influence from the West and China.

Senior regional analyst Yuri Fedorov, of the London-based think tank Chatham House, notes that Turkmenistan has a new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who took over following the December death of President Saparmurat Niyazov.

"The change of leadership in Turkmenistan poses a very serious question about its future foreign policy orientation."

"One of the reasons [Putin] is going to Turkmenistan is because the change of leadership in that country poses a very serious question about the future foreign policy orientation of Turkmenistan -- and what is most important, about future exports of [Turkmen] gas," Fedorov said.

Russia has long had a near monopoly on the consumption of Turkmen natural gas, and Fedorov says a more open style of leadership by Berdymukhammedov could threaten this secure position. According to Fedorov, the main question for the Kremlin is "whether the bulk of this gas will go to Russia, as it does now, or whether Turkmenistan will find some other export routes, such as the proposed [U.S.-supported] trans-Caspian gas pipeline."

A possible indication of change in the Turkmen energy sector is that Berdymukhammedov met executives of the U.S.-based Chevron oil corporation last week and invited them to participate in oil extraction efforts beneath the Caspian Sea. This would make Chevron the sole U.S. company operating in Turkmenistan's undersea Caspian fields, and only the third foreign company overall.

A regional leader

Regarding Kazakhstan, analyst Fedorov sees that country as gaining in regional status. "The Kazakhstanis' role in Central Asia is growing, and Kazakhstan is turning into the most important country of the region," he said.

Kazakhstan's veteran president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, is running what by Central Asian standards can be described as an outward-looking foreign policy, courting investment from overseas. The United States is the biggest source of foreign direct investment, followed by Britain and Japan.

And Washington has made it clear that it wants closer ties with Astana. Already last year, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Evan Feigenbaum said the United States and Kazakhstan "enjoy" a "vigorous strategic partnership."

Another sign of Kazakhstan's willingness to play a bigger role on the international scene is its bid to hold the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009. In order to secure that position, the Kazakh government claims it is introducing a range of democratic reforms.

Putin is obviously reluctant to see Kazakhstan move into an orbit where Moscow has greatly reduced influence, and is taking this occasion to strengthen bilateral ties.

Paradoxically, although Russia has vast resources of both natural gas and oil, it may be facing domestic shortages -- at least of gas -- in the next decade because so much of its own resources are in remote areas and need heavy investment to be productive. Central Asia is, therefore, a vital source of energy for Russia.

New President Modifying Niyazov's Neutrality Policy

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Moscow in April

May 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- While reasserting the policy of neutrality of his predecessor, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has signaled a desire to end Turkmenistan's self-isolation and to repair ties with its Central Asian neighbors. He has also indicated that he is willing to engage more actively with Russia and reach out to the West.

Since Berdymukhammedov officially took over from late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in mid-February, Ashgabat has become a center of intense diplomatic activity as high-ranking visitors from around the world have flocked to the Turkmen capital to meet its new master.

Energy-Filled Agenda

Berdymukhammedov has invited his Russian and Kazakh counterparts, Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbaev, respectively, to take part in three-way talks on May 12 that are to focus on energy cooperation.

"We feel we have the chance to open up an absolutely new chapter in our engagement with Turkmenistan." -- Matthew Bryza

Berdymukhammedov told his cabinet on March 7 that the upcoming summit -- which will take place in the Caspian Sea city port of Turkmenbashi -- is designed "to open a new chapter in the relations of friendship and cooperation that have been existing for centuries among neighbors that are ready to take advantage of new historical conditions and make those relations even more efficient and multivectorial."

All grandiloquence apart, Berdymukhammedov's statement may signal a shift from his predecessor's foreign policy-making, which depended largely on the ties that existed between the Turkmen autocrat and foreign industrial groups such as the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom.

Under Niyazov, Gazprom became Turkmenistan's main economic partner, buying nearly 70 percent of its annual natural gas output and reexporting it to Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Europe at great profit.

Meanwhile, former President Niyazov's insistence on boycotting all Russian-led regional groupings (CIS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Eurasian Economic Community, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization) and his discriminatory policy toward Turkmenistan's 160,000 ethnic Russians led to a cooling of political relations between Ashgabat and Moscow.

Friendly To All

The Moscow-based daily "Vremya Novostei" recently quoted unnamed Kremlin officials as saying they are satisfied with what they believe is "a pro-Russian trend in Turkmenistan's post-Niyazov foreign policy."

Under Niyazov, Ashgabat had progressively isolated itself from all other regional capitals.

Relations with Azerbaijan reached a record low because of an ownership dispute over the Serdar-Kapaz Caspian Sea oil field and ties with Uzbekistan had become frosty amid border tensions and Niyazov's claims that Tashkent was involved in an alleged assassination attempt against him in 2002.

By contrast, Berdymukhammedov has clearly indicated that he is willing to engage neighboring countries.

The presidents of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the prime ministers of Russia and Azerbaijan, and the speaker of the Uzbek parliament were among the many foreign guests who attended his inauguration on February 14.

A number of senior Russian and Kazakh government officials recently visited the Turkmen capital and Berdymukhammedov has extended his Uzbek and Azerbaijani counterparts invitations to visit Ashgabat.

Going Around Russia?

The Turkmen president made a two-day visit to Moscow in April, which he praised as marking "the beginning of a new era in bilateral relations."

If the Turkmen leader is interested in mending ties with his neighbors, the reverse is also true.
The United States supports a project to pump Central Asian natural gas to Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea and on to Georgia, Turkey, and Western markets through the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline.

Following Niyazov's death, Washington renewed calls for Turkmenistan to join the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP) project.

Addressing a recent energy conference in Tbilisi, U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft said that Washington wished "to see Turkmenistan develop its energy reserves and for those reserves to have a market value so that Turkmenistan has several options to export its gas," the Civil Georgia website reported on March 22.

In comments made to the British daily "The Independent" on April 18, Matthew Bryza, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, called on Western countries to "reach out" to the new Turkmen government to circumvent Gazprom's monopoly over Central Asian energy exports.

New Caspian Pipeline?

The Kremlin, which needs to ensure steady flows of Central Asian gas for its export needs, in turn seeks to revive plans to build another pipeline that would run along the Caspian Sea shore and link Turkmenistan to Russia, via Kazakhstan.

Following his talks with Putin last month, Berdymukhammedov said he will instruct Turkmen experts to conduct a new assessment of the project, which had been shelved by Niyazov.

Observers note that Kazakhstan would also benefit from teaming up with Turkmenistan, not least of all because Central Asia's two largest hydrocarbon producers complement each other -- Kazakhstan produces mainly oil, while the bulk of Turkmenistan's output is made of gas -- and could work together to make their export pipeline projects more profitable.

Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov, who was in Ashgabat earlier this month, said after talks with Tachberdy Tagyyev, the Turkmen deputy prime minister in charge of the energy sector, that both countries will now "coordinate" their energy transportation policies and consult each other on all related issues.

Workers on the Atyrau-Samara pipeline in Kazakhstan (file photo)

Also this month, Kazakhstan officially renewed a proposal to host a section of Turkmenistan's planned gas export pipeline to China that Niyazov had pledged would be operational by 2009. Astana also suggested that the future Turkmenistan-China pipeline should run through Uzbekistan.
Just like his Kazakh counterpart, Berdymukhammedov seems unwilling to put all his eggs in one basket.

Last week he invited major U.S. oil company Chevron to take part in the development of Turkmenistan's Caspian Sea shelf and other energy projects.

Oil market analysts believe the proposal could be a signal for other western majors that have thus far been left out of the country's energy projects during Niyazov's tenure.

Additionally, at least three high-ranking U.S. State Department officials have visited Ashgabat since Berdymukhammedov's inauguration, including Ambassador Steven Mann, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs.

Although state media in Ashgabat reported that Mann had come to extend an offer to help Turkmenistan rebuild its depleted health and education systems, the Russian daily "Kommersant" on March 6 cited Mann's background as a senior energy adviser to argue that he likely tried to convince Berdymukhammedov to join the TCGP project.

U.S. officials clearly believe Turkmenistan is at a crossroad.

U.S. Optimism

"We feel we have the chance to open up an absolutely new chapter in our engagement with Turkmenistan," Bryza told "The Independent" in April. "My colleagues who have visited [Ashgabat] since President Niyazov's death have been pleasantly surprised by the degree to which the new president seems to want to open to the West," he added.

Meanwhile, Berdymukhammedov has said he will meet the energy commitments that his predecessor made toward China and Iran.

He has also left open the possibility of Turkmenistan joining the Eurasian Economic Community or reintegrating the CIS as a full-fledged member.

Interestingly enough, he has also left unanswered Putin's recent proposals to renew defense and intelligence ties between the two countries.

In all likelihood, the new Turkmen president has decided to keep all his options open.