ASHGABAT -- Natural gas will begin flowing along a 7,000 kilometer natural-gas pipeline from eastern Turkmenistan to China next week, highlighting the countries' increased economic ties, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reports.
The pipeline is expected to export 40 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas to China per year, making China the second-largest importer of Turkmen gas after Russia.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov told Chinese journalists during a nationwide broadcast on December 9 that the pipeline -- begun in 2007 and due to be inaugurated on December 14 -- is strategically important for the long-term partnership between Turkmenistan and China.
Berdymukhammedov also noted that bilateral trade has grown fortyfold since 2000, reaching almost $1.5 billion last year.
There are currently 35 Chinese companies operating in Turkmenistan on 53 investment projects related to energy, telecommunications, agriculture, textiles, food production, health care, and construction worth more than $1 billion in total.
Berdymukhammedov said his government is trying to create opportunities for small and mid-size businesses and to diversify the economy.
He added that his political program consists of a "step-by-step democratization" process that will develop civil society.
But international human rights groups have severely criticized Berdymukhammedov for not following through on pledges made early in his presidency nearly three years ago to bring serious political, economic, and civil reforms to Turkmenistan.
Critics say little has changed in the country since the reign of totalitarian President Saparmurat Niyazov, who was notorious for widespread civil restrictions, repression of the media, and isolationist policies.