Caspian Pipeline Projects Resemble Gordian Knot
But as energy prices skyrocket, the Caspian Sea Basin -- home to some of the world's largest hydrocarbon resources -- is becoming a new focal point for fierce competition.
Amid the current insatiable demand for energy, "we are in the middle of a geopolitical competition for the control of Caspian natural gas," according to analyst Federico Bordonaro of the Milan-based equilibri.net, an organization that provides conflict and energy analysis.
Russian gas giant Gazprom is among the major parties competing for resources in the Caspian Sea region, which the Russian company dominated in the 1990s. But rivals to Gazprom have appeared recently, prompting Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller on June 2 to visit Azerbaijan -- a country that does not sell any natural gas to Gazprom -- and offer Baku "European prices" for its natural gas.
Miller added that Gazprom is willing to purchase all of Azerbaijan's gas, which would then be exported via Gazprom pipelines to Europe -- a situation that Brussels wants to avoid at any cost. That makes the European Union the main competitor to Gazprom in Azerbaijan.
Brussels has recently dramatically stepped up its activities in the Caspian region. EU Ambassador to Azerbaijan Alan Waddams tells RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that the Gazprom offer will be difficult for Baku to refuse.
"Clearly it's a very good offer from the point of view of Azerbaijan," Waddams says. "It solves a lot of problems in many ways. For [the EU] it's not such good news and I don't think the story is over yet for the European Union."
Azerbaijan has not yet agreed to the Gazprom proposal, and Azerbaijani officials are aware that Gazprom made a similar deal with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan earlier this year, offering to pay "European prices" starting in 2009. Some media outlets estimated that European prices would amount to more than $300 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2009, but several weeks after signing the contract, Gazprom told Uzbekistan the price would be some $210 in 2009.
Bidding Under Way
Rovnag Abdullayev, the head of the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), has indicated that he is talking with many different parties about exporting Azerbaijani gas.
"It's not only Russia. Iran, Turkey, Israel, and European countries have expressed their willingness to buy Azerbaijani gas," Abdullayev said. "We are looking for the most commercially profitable proposals and the best ways to launch the sale of gas from Phase 2 of the Shah Deniz [Caspian] field. Now we are analyzing [various offers] and talks with all parties continue. We will try to sell it for the best price possible."
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, for his part, has said multiple export routes would be beneficial for the international community. "The issue of energy security will remain on the world's agenda," Aliyev said. "We feel the concerns of other countries regarding energy security.... We are ready to contribute to ensuring the energy security of these countries within acceptable terms."
Aliyev also indicated the EU would be involved in future gas exports. "About two years ago we signed an energy cooperation agreement with the EU," he said. "The document outlines the framework of our partnership in this field. We continue to have talks on energy cooperation with EU countries and their neighbors. Azerbaijan exports its gas to two countries; in the future we will export to more countries."
The EU is working on its own export route for natural gas from the Caspian, the Nabucco pipeline project, which runs from Azerbaijan through the Caucasus to Turkey and on through Southeastern Europe to Austria.
Azerbaijani officials see Nabucco as helping to balance Gazprom's influence over Caspian natural gas. SOCAR Vice President Khoshbakht Yusifzade says the Nabucco pipeline will allow Azerbaijan to leverage higher prices from partners seeking to buy gas. "When Nabucco starts operating we will tell other partners, you were buying gas for this price, but now [the situation] is different," he says. "This all will be dictated by the economic situation."
Bordonaro of equilibri.net argues that the EU also benefits from the Nabucco pipeline. "The rationale for this is that the Europeans do not want Gazprom to control their future in terms of energy security and natural gas, not only because Gazprom would, of course, be in control of the price...but also because analysts have found out that Gazprom's capability to sustain this offer is probably not so secure," Bordonaro says. It could be risky, he continues, "to leave Gazprom in control because Gazprom has not been investing in technology, in innovation, and in the maintenance of the old gas pipelines."
The dispute that developed between Russia and Belarus in early 2007, leading to a reduction in oil supplies further west in Europe, remains fresh in the minds of many Europeans. A similar disruption also took place between Russia and Ukraine -- temporarily halting the flow of gas to the West.
But Bordonaro points out that leaving Gazprom in control of Caspian gas raises an even more unpleasant prospect. "If Russia controls the natural gas of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, what could also happen in the next decade is that Russia would decide to sell this gas to China instead of the European Union, which could be very dangerous for European energy security," he says.
One advantage Gazprom has over the EU project is that it is a single entity. EU Ambassador Waddams explains that when it is time for European countries to decide who will participate in the Nabucco pipeline, conflicts may emerge. "There are a lot of gas companies -- transporters, producers, and buyers," Waddams says. "I don't think you'll get from the European Union, as such, an alternative offer in such a sort of simple way.... You have to see how the oil and gas companies themselves respond to this particular situation."
According to Bordonaro, Great Britain and Germany in particular are pushing for greater European energy independence, and for the EU to accept Nabucco as a means of bolstering energy security.
"The United Kingdom has always backed projects like the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines," he says. "And we can say that British Petroleum has played an important role in this and that London has worked -- more or less -- with the United States in order to make Western Europe, especially, and then also Eastern Europe, after the [latest EU] enlargement, less dependent on Russia."
Bordonaro says Germany's support for new energy-import routes is more recent. Under previous German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, German-Russian ties improved and the two countries spoke often of the Nord Stream pipeline, which was not considered advantageous by Poland or the Baltic countries. More recently, however, "Germany has slightly modified its stance and actually when Germany was at the head of the EU rotating presidency, Germany tried hard to launch a real common energy policy. I think that Germany is also behind the decisions of the Slovenian EU rotating presidency, which has tried to back new projects and, most of all, the European Union has tried not to give up the Nabucco project," Bordonaro says.
France may be the next in line to push for alternative energy-import routes, Bordonaro predicts. "France is less dependent on natural gas because France has more than 70 percent of its energy coming from nuclear energy, and not natural gas," he says. "But I forecast that in the next six months, as France takes the EU rotating presidency, France will be more sensitive to the energy security preoccupations of countries like Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, etc., because France wants to regain influence in Eastern Europe. I think that France will try to cooperate more closely with Germany, the U.K., and Poland in order to back Nabucco."
The United States supports Nabucco as a means of avoiding Russian participation in the European gas-supply chain, and has backed the participation of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and especially Turkmenistan in the project. Bordonaro says that ultimately the competition for Caspian gas is a battle for the gas on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea, from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
Brussels and Washington are supporting the construction of a trans-Caspian, natural-gas pipeline to run from either Kazakhstan, or more likely from Turkmenistan, along the seabed to Azerbaijan, where the gas would be pumped into pipelines leading to Nabucco.
On June 3, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that while the United States backs a larger effort, including the possible export of Iraqi gas through Nabucco, it does not back the inclusion of Iran in the pipeline plans. "We support Nabucco as a route to diversify shipments of gas to Europe. Concerning Iran, our policy is clear," he said.
Peter Semneby, the EU special representative on the South Caucasus, confirmed on June 3 that the EU will work to boost relations between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, something the EU and United States have been working hard on -- successfully -- for a year.
Once again, the EU is competing with Gazprom. On June 3, Gazprom CEO Miller was in Turkmenistan attempting to convince Turkmen Deputy Cabinet Chairman Tachberdy Tagaev that, as Russia's Interfax news agency reported, "cooperation with Gazprom is more advantageous [for Turkmenistan]."
The Gazprom chief reminded his hosts that his company already purchases 50 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually and plans to increase that to 70-80 bcm soon. Additionally, Gazprom already has a gas pipeline leading to Turkmenistan and is building another one.
An arguably easier route from the east Caspian would be through Iran but, as Bryza said, that is not an option for the United States. Washington's foreign policy specifically precludes business deals with Iran, so the United States would prefer to keep both Russia and Iran out of the equation.
But the EU is the party seeking the gas and European relations with Iran are different than the antagonistic situation that exists between Tehran and Washington.
EU Ambassador Waddams denies the EU was talking directly to Iran about participating in Nabucco, but he does note the potential of Tehran joining the project.
"There are no specific talks, but...when the Nabucco organization talks with Iran, they are talking about possible supplies [of natural gas], not only Iranian supplies but also [Turkmen] supplies being routed through Iran," Waddams says. "But the Iran option is not that easy either, because Iran doesn't actually have much gas in the northern part of the country, at this stage, available for Nabucco...although it has vast quantities of gas in the south of the country. I think as a potential medium-term supplier of gas, Iran is undoubtedly a country with enormous potential for the European market."
Mihai Bayer, Hungary's special representative for Nabucco, says, "the international consortium hopes that Iranian gas will become accessible sooner or later and Iran will become a key source of natural gas."
On June 4-5, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Alirza Sheyh told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service during a visit to Azerbaijan that his country has received signs from Europe indicating possible Iranian participation in Nabucco. "European countries showed their interest in involving Iranian gas in this project. We took it into consideration and this issue is in the discussion stage," Sheyh said.
With players like Russia, the United States, the EU, China, Turkey, and Iran competing to get Caspian Sea energy resources, the bidding will prove to be a very interesting and tangled affair.
Azerbaijan Service Director Kenan Aliyev, Azerbaijani Service correspondent Rovshan Gambarov, and Turkmen Service Director Oguljamal Yazliyeva contributed to this report
Tajikistan: Plot Thickens Around Banker's Disappearance
During a report covering Rahmon's trip to the eastern town of Roghun over the weekend, the television channel broadcast a video of a man it identified as Sadulloev, the 40-year-old head of Orienbank, apparently listening to Rahmon's speech.
Under normal circumstances, it would have been the usual footage of an important bank director accompanying the president on a domestic trip, as Sadulloev often did.
But Sadulloev's recent absence from the public eye has been surrounded by speculation that he was shot by President Rahmon's son, Sadulloev's nephew, in early May during an argument over control of Orienbank, one of the largest financial institutions in Tajikistan.
Regional websites reported that Sadulloev died from his wounds, while some local media suggested that he was flown to hospital in Germany and has been recovering there.
Orienbank officials have maintained from the beginning of his disappearance that their boss is "alive and well," despite the fact that the well-known business mogul has not been seen in public since the alleged shooting incident.
The TV footage was followed by a short report from the state-run Khovar news agency that Sadulloev has been outside of Tajikistan on business trips for the past three weeks. It did not give any details of the purported meetings and it was unclear where Sadulloev was traveling.
It seems that neither the video footage nor the news agency report has succeeded in convincing the public that nothing has happened to Sadulloev.
Shokirjon Hakimov, a politician and department head at the Tajik Institute of International Relations in Dushanbe, tells RFE/RL that "the indistinct footage and report have actually fueled more suspicion and mistrust among the public."
"The conduct that Hasan Sadulloev's press office has chosen is not compatible with modern society's demands," Hakimov says. "Besides, it's not benefiting them either, because now other news sources have taken the initiative, and, as a result, many secrets about the president's relatives have been made public. Of course, some of that information might be baseless."
Hakimov says that in the face of multiplying rumors, Sadulloev -- if he is indeed alive and well -- should have made at least one public appearance.
Many ordinary Tajiks agree that Sadulloev would be expected to appear in public to end the wild stories about him and the president's family, which are certainly hurting their reputations. Instead, state television recently invited a cleric on air who tried to convince viewers that Sadulloev is safe and sound.
Despite the burning interest among the public to know what really happened within the first family, journalists in Tajikistan have not dared to ask the president about it. Although there have been several public meetings with Rahmon since Sadulloev's disappearance, not one reporter present has used the opportunity to query the president about the issue.
The secrecy within the presidential family and the great difficulty in obtaining information has prompted another rumor about Sadulloev and his alleged television appearance. Some Tajik journalists and officials reportedly say that a person who bears a striking resemblance to Sadulloev has appeared at some government meetings lately, although "he sits far from the others surrounded by bodyguards and does not speak at all," according to one report.
And they strongly suspect that the man might be Hasan Sadulloev's identical twin brother, Hussein, who must be filling in for the banker while he is receiving treatment for his wounds.
In Tajik culture, Hasan is the name traditionally given to one of a pair of twin boys.
Allegations that Sadulloev's twin brother Hussein is appearing as Hasan could not be confirmed by official sources.
Hakimov criticized authorities for what he called "withholding information from the public and manipulating it." "Even if something very bad happened inside the first family, it would be much better for the president's reputation if it was admitted openly and clearly," he said.
In the past, Tajikistan's independent media, such as the weekly "Charoghi ruz," have reported alleged disagreements within the presidential family over power and money. Some reports claim that Rahmon's family has been wary of Sadulloev's growing influence both in financial and political circles.
Sadulloev, whose sister is married to the president, rose in a relatively short period from his job as a village gas-station attendant to become one of the wealthiest people in the country.
According to reports, Sadulloev's business empire includes some 13 ventures in Tajikistan, including five cotton mills, several factories, and at least three food-processing companies. His business dealing also include real-estate developments, transport, media, insurance companies, and banking.
RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report
Locust Invasion Worsens Central Asia's Food Woes
Although the insects appear at the same time each year, the current invasion is particularly devastating, as the region is already threatened with food shortages and soaring food prices.
A shortage of crops caused by the harsh winter left less food for the locusts to devour, forcing the swarms farther north and west in search of new fields of grain and cotton, fruit orchards, and grazing areas for livestock.
In early April, the locusts appeared in large areas of Tajikistan, in what international aid agencies described as a significantly larger infestation than in previous years.
More than 220,000 hectares of Tajik farmland have already been infested; some 50,000 hectares in Kyrgyzstan; and some 200,000 hectares of land in southern Kazakhstan. (Uzbekistan has not reported its losses.) Locust problems are also reported in western Afghanistan's Herat Province and across the border in Iran.
Artykbay Argynbaev, an official from Kyrgyzstan's Agriculture and Water Resources Ministry, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the Moroccan locust present in Central Asia is particularly dangerous and difficult to eradicate. "They move in swarms and millions gather in one spot, [devouring everything] and then moving on," he says. "They reproduce very quickly and one locust can produce 500 more locusts. Their eggs can stay in the ground for five to 10 years waiting for ideal weather conditions [to hatch]."
In Tajikistan, authorities have mobilized the local population and sent the army to help fight the infestation. The use of pesticides is the preferred eradication method, but few can afford them in a country where more than half the population lives in poverty. "We have two planes for spraying pesticides on the crops, but it costs 15 somoni [$5] an hour, so the farmers cannot afford to use these planes," says Shavtkat Osimov from the Tajik Agriculture Ministry's branch in northern Soghd Province.
Argynbaev said all the southern regions of Kyrgyzstan are infested, as well as some places in the northeast. "Locusts have been appearing here for the last two years, but earlier they were in Naryn [Province], and now they have shown up in the Aksy and Nootken districts [of the southern Jalal-Abad Province], in the Arawan and Nookat districts of Osh Province, and also in Kadamzhai and Leylek districts of [the far southern] Batken Province," he says.
Kazakhstan -- the only grain-exporting state in Central Asia -- this year has placed a ban on grain exports to protect its own population against the growing international food crisis. Kazakhstan has more money to combat the locusts, but their numbers seem to have surprised officials.
"We are working on battling future problems with locusts but no matter how much pesticide you spray you can't kill all of them," Serik Alzahov, the deputy director of the regional Agriculture Department in South Kazakhstan Oblast, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "If there are five of them per square meter that's normal, but if there are 50 or more per square meter, it's the end of the crops. Locusts did not just show up here this year, they're here every year, but this year there is drought in addition."
The voracious insects are not only eating crops intended for people, but also feed for animals. In response, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov has ordered authorities in South Kazakhstan to purchase livestock in districts beset by the plague of locusts.
This arrangement has not stopped rumors that the swarms of locust are eating everything and that the livestock will therefore starve.
"There is a problem and the herds are being slaughtered and sold. The problem is not only the locusts," Alzahov says. "The drought has also left no grass for the herds -- there hasn't been the usual rain and the ground is very dry. People say the locusts ate the grass. Nevertheless, in the districts steps are being taken in coordination with the government. But if the weather stays bad [the government] will be forced to buy the animals. Some 250 million tenges [about $2 million] has been set aside for this purpose."
In the meantime, individuals are approaching the herders and offering half the usual price for their animals. Following the harsh winter, the livestock are still underweight, and would normally be sold only after they fatten up during the summer months. But some nervous herders -- who cannot walk hundreds of kilometers to the bazaars of big cities or afford transportation for their animals -- are selling off their livestock or slaughtering them now for sale.
International aid agencies, including UN bodies, are trying to help Central Asia cope with the locust problem, but it is already too late for many areas. As bad as the situation is now, it will likely be worse next winter, when the almost certain meager harvest will be compounded by an unavoidable meat shortage.
Erzhan Karabek of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Amirbek Usmanov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, and Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report
Uzbekistan: Freed Rights Activist Calls Uzbek Prisons 'Islands Of Torture'
Tojiboeva was serving an eight-year sentence for criticizing officials for violently ending a protest in the southern town of Andijon in 2005.
"There is only one thing I can liken my life [in prison] to: Uzbekistan's prisons are like islands of torture," Tojiboeva told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service shortly after reuniting with her family. "They are isolated from society and from people."
Tojiboeva, who is from Ferghana in the country's east, was arrested in October 2005 and sentenced to eight years in prison on more than a dozen charges, including slander and extortion.
Independent observers and human rights activists said the charges were fabricated and aimed at silencing Tojiboeva, a fierce critic of the Uzbek government.
Tojiboeva, who is 46 years old, had sent letters from prison saying she was being ill-treated and tortured. She was temporarily held in a psychiatric detention center and forced to undergo medical treatment in 2006.
Domestic and international organizations had long urged the Uzbek authorities to release Tojiboeva, whose health was deteriorating.
Tojiboeva's release came as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher visited Tashkent for high-level meetings with Uzbek leaders. Boucher said on June 2 after meeting with President Islam Karimov that talks had focused on improving human rights and that some progress had been made.
The Uzbek government has a practice of freeing jailed human-rights defenders ahead of important meetings. Earlier this year, a number of opponents of the government were set free ahead of a key bilateral meeting between Uzbekistan and the European Union, which has suspended sanctions imposed against Uzbekistan following the Andijon violence. Independent observers and human rights organizations called the move by Tashkent mere window dressing on the country's poor human-rights practices.
Not Told Of Release
Tojiboeva says her release came as a surprise to her and her fellow inmates and that she was not told until the last minute.
"One of the inmates said, 'There will be visitors tomorrow and they want to hide you in another prison.' So I expected to be transferred to the Tashkent prison," she says. "The prison administration and representatives of the Interior Ministry were standing there, and I asked them where I was going. They didn't say anything."
Tojiboeva will remain on parole for the next three years.
"It means for the next three years they will watch every step I take," she says. "If I say anything unpleasant about those in power or for any other government officials, they will find a reason to put me behind bars again."
Despite that pressure, Tojiboeva says she will continue to fight for human rights and the freedom of those men and women living in the harsh Uzbek prison conditions.
"You know, as I said, Uzbekistan's prisons are islands of torture. I cannot ignore the plight of imprisoned men and women caught on those islands," Tojiboeva says. "I believe I have to continue my activity now in order to end torture in Uzbek prisons and defend the rights of male and female inmates. This is my duty now."
Top Human Rights Award
Earlier this month, Tojiboeva won an international human rights prize -- the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders -- which is awarded jointly by the world's 10 leading human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Hans Thoolen, the chairman of the jury for the award, described Tojiboeva as "an exceptionally brave woman in a country where standing up for human rights is a dangerous activity, which can lead to imprisonment and death."
Tojiboeva's release might make it possible for her to receive the award in person in Geneva later this year.
RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Shuhrat Babajanov contributed to this report
Central Asia: Economic Hardship Forces Graduates To Join Migrant Laborers
This year, he graduated from a public school in Uzbekistan’s eastern province of Andijon, but didn’t even have enough time to receive his diploma. The working season for migrant laborers in Russia and Kazakhstan starts in April and May -- and Mirodil decided to join his fellow villagers going after seasonal jobs abroad to provide for their families.
So instead of going to university, Mirodil now works in Kazakhstan’s Chimkent region. He sends money to his parents and also wants to save for himself to pay for his university education:
"Education costs money," Mirodil says. "I have a plan to make money for my education. Hopefully, I will be able to enter a university, even if it is a private university."
Like Mirodil, hundreds of thousands of graduates from mostly rural areas in Uzbekistan and other countries across Central Asia are postponing or giving up their dreams of becoming doctors, teachers, or engineers. Instead, they are taking seasonal jobs in construction, vegetable markets, or agricultural plants in comparatively wealthy Russia or Kazakhstan. The reason is simple: unemployment and poverty plague the rural communities of Central Asia.
In recent years, new universities and colleges have been set up in almost every town in the region, offering a variety of subjects. Many of the subjects were available in only select schools during the Soviet era, such as international relations or law.
Yet according to official figures, the number of high-school graduates who go on to university has been dropping every year. Saidmuhammad Ahmedov, an official with the regional department for public education in Uzbekistan’s Samarqand province, tells RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that only 12 percent of graduates in the province applied for university education last year.
Unlike in the Soviet era, university education is not free now. Even in some universities where education is officially free and state-funded, students have to pay for each test and exam due to widespread bribery and corruption in the education system.
Another reason why students are forgoing university is unemployment. After studying for four or five years and receiving their degrees, many young college graduates in Central Asia simply cannot find a job with a decent salary.
Indeed, there are many qualified specialists among Central Asian migrant laborers who have failed to find professional employment in their fields.
An Uzbek teacher, Shokirjon Muminov, says schoolchildren in villages see their older siblings or relatives spending years studying and then going to Russia because it’s simply impossible to find a job at home
"In happens in our schools that some pupils as young as eighth- and ninth-grade students leave for Russia and Kazakhstan, without completing their education in the 10th and 11th grades," Muminov says.
Muminov adds that many people believe university "is a waste of time and money, because many university graduates have to build houses or push carts in markets in Russia, with useless university degrees in their pockets."
However, the picture is not gloomy for everyone. Unlike in Soviet times, the younger generation of Central Asians has an opportunity to study abroad.
There are many education projects funded by Central Asian states or foreign governments. A number of well-to-do families, particularly in energy-rich Kazakhstan, send their kids to study abroad.
The Kazakh government has also launched a special program called “Bolshak” (Future) to finance thousands of Kazakh students’ studies in European, U.S., and Chinese universities.
Similar state-funded programs -- albeit on a much smaller scale -- exist in other Central Asian countries. But most of them remain a dream for all but the children of elite families and government employees.
Others, for now, have simply stopped dreaming of a better future -- and headed to work abroad.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service correspondent Barnohon Isakova contributed to this report
Turkmenistan: NATO Finds New Partner In Central Asia
Just two years ago, the country was a reclusive place that few foreigners were allowed to visit, with UN-recognized status as a "neutral" nation.
The country's strongman leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, used that status as a reason to keep Turkmenistan from participating in any international groupings except those with a purely economic agenda.
Niyazov died in late 2006 and was replaced by Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, whose foreign policy is much more dynamic. But reports of NATO cooperation with Turkmenistan is a huge step away from neutrality, especially given how quickly the new relationship has evolved.
Turkmenistan is a former Soviet republic, a current member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a desert country rich in natural gas, and still mainly dependent on Russian-owned pipelines to export that gas. But Turkmenistan also shares a lengthy border with Afghanistan, which is where NATO comes in.
Turkmenistan was the first of the five Central Asian states to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program (in 1994), but under Niyazov it was a partnership in name only. Which is why it was a surprise when President Berdymukhammedov announced he would attend the NATO summit in Romania in early April.
Several high-ranking NATO, U.S., and EU officials have been making trips to Turkmenistan for more than half a year now, but most reports pointed to talks focusing on potential Turkmen natural-gas exports to Europe.
It is apparent now that energy exports were not the only topic of discussions.
The German magazine "Der Spiegel" this month printed a report about NATO planes landing at military air bases in Turkmenistan. Michael Laubsch, an expert on Central Asia and the head of the Bonn-based Eurasian Transition Group (ETG), concurs with the report.
He says the article "was based on our recent reports" and "we fully confirm this information. Starting with May 15, our correspondents and informants in Turkmenistan reported that the transport flights between Western Europe and Afghanistan via Turkmenistan increased by 20 percent. So [NATO] already started to focus more on the air bases in Turkmenistan to make transport flights from the West to Afghanistan via Turkmenistan. I think this is the first practical solution regarding the negotiations which took place between the Turkmen government and NATO."
Reaching Out To The West
In hindsight, there was a clue something new was happening when Berdymukhammedov went to Bucharest for the NATO summit, the first such visit by a Turkmen president. Farhat Ilyasov, an independent expert in Moscow, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that a one-on-one meeting that Berdymukhammedov had with U.S. President George W. Bush indicated Turkmenistan's relationship with the West was shifting.
"The active contact of Berdymukhammedov with the West, in particular with American officials, and the fact that at the last NATO summit, which Berdymukhammedov attended, and at which only Berdymukhammedov had a personal meeting with President Bush, such things do not happen accidentally in big politics," Ilyasov says.
"Who is Berdymukhammedov and who is Bush, that [Bush] would give him a personal meeting," he adds. "This indicates that by that time many questions were already worked out and it's highly probable that serious progress on the part of the U.S. and NATO had already been made."
The Bucharest summit paved the way for NATO to use land routes from Europe to Afghanistan through the CIS, and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan are all part of NATO's Euro-Afghan delivery corridor for nonlethal cargo. Still, the landing of military planes in Turkmenistan was again more than Turkmen or NATO officials had revealed publicly.
The ETG's Laubsch tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that this might just be the start of military cooperation between Brussels and Ashgabat. "I think the negotiations between the Turkmen government and NATO were finalized already and I think that we can expect in the nearest future that more NATO forces will be located in Turkmenistan, definitely," he says.
Allowing NATO the use of military air bases is already a bold move for Turkmenistan, which risks the wrath of Russia and southern neighbor Iran in forging closer ties with the Western alliance.
There is also the question of Turkmenistan's official status as a neutral country. Turkmenistan has always refused to participate in military alliances because of this special status.
Ilyasov says the Turkmen government and NATO might simply use special phrasing to preserve Turkmenistan's neutrality.
"Turkmenistan's status as a neutral nation is a big question but it does not obligate [Turkmenistan] to anyone or anything, it is not legally binding," he says. "For example, if a [military] base is established there, one can find a justification for it -- it's for peacekeeping, it helps stability in the region or the development of peace in the world, it helps the long-suffering Afghan people. There is no problem, everything can be explained."
But Laubsch says it is also possible that the new Turkmen president "will shift away from this neutral status of Turkmenistan because he wants to expect something from the West and therefore I think he will give any signs and signals to the Western countries -- especially to the EU, to the United States, but also to NATO -- that his government is a reliable partner also for the West and I think this also includes any plans for a military presence in Turkmenistan."
Pressure To Improve Rights Record
One major obstacle to this new Turkmen-NATO relationship is Turkmenistan's extremely poor human rights record.
Berdymukhammedov has been much slower to implement domestic reforms than he has been at changing foreign policy. He has restored some of the rights Niyazov took away, but the new Turkmen president has stopped short of introducing any real democratic reforms.
Western rights organizations have been pressing the Turkmen government to make democratic changes and, with Western troops using Turkmen military facilities, rights groups can be expected to call on NATO to pressure Turkmenistan on the issue.
But Laubsch says that the EU is already prepared to subordinate rights issues in favor of important geostrategic interests.
"I don't know how intense the pressure from NATO regarding changes and reforms in the sphere of human rights and democracy in Turkmenistan will [continue]," he says. "From the political aspect, I know that the European Union is now not focusing mainly on democratic reforms and transitions regarding human rights issues in Turkmenistan. So this will be one main factor for future relations between the EU and Turkmenistan. They focus on economic issues. I just had a meeting with [EU special representative for Central Asia] Pierre Morel and he definitely said this."
Rights activists are hoping that in moving away from its reclusive ways the Turkmen government will also pay greater attention to improving human rights -- and that perhaps Western organizations can use the new engagement with Ashgabat to bring about such changes.
RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Oguljamal Yazliyeva and Turkmen Service correspondent Guvanch Geraev contributed to this report