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Central Asia news

Turkmen gas to be on sale in New York

20.09.2007 12:51 msk

Kommersant (Moscow)

Business Turkmenistan

President of Turkmenistan Berdymuhammedov will visit the United States in late September and meet with US State Secretary Rice. Negotiations with the Americans will be centered around gas problems. Ashkhabad contemplates inviting American investors to its national gas sector where Russia, China, and Iran are already competing.

Visiting the United States later this month, President of Turkmenistan Gurbankuly Berdymuhammedov will discuss gas matters with US State Secretary Condolleezza Rice. Turkmenistan's demonstrated reserves (almost 3 billion cubic meters) make it owner of the third largest gas fields among post-Soviet countries and the twelfth in the world. Evan A. Feigenbaum, Assistant to the US State Secretary for South and Central Asia, visited Turkmenistan twice this year. He said Monday that the talks between Rice and Berdymuhammedov were to be centered around entry into the Turkmen market for US businesses (oil and gas companies on the one hand and investors on the other).

"The United States does not question the existing Russian contracts," Feigenbaum said. "It's just that we want Turkmenistan to have gas production and transportation technologies." A source close the US Department of State admitted, however, that "only one party will be left to handle Turkmen gas. The other will have to go." As a matter of fact, there is a definite political dimension to the forthcoming gas wars. "Russia's aggressiveness in the region is number one on the list of nine issues that make Central Asia so important for the United States," Feigenbaum said. (China and Iran make for number two and number three, of course.) On the other hand, the talks in New York are going to be difficult and the Americans themselves are the first to recognize it. "Competing with Moscow and Beijing in Ashkhabad will be difficult for the United States," one of the US experts ruefully said. "You see, we always insist on observance of human rights while Russia and China make do without it." As things stand, the United States lacks any leverage to be used against Turkmenistan. "Still, we will have the leverage when Berdymuhammedov decides that he wants international recognition," the expert said.

In other words, the forthcoming Turkmen-US gas bargaining is going to be mutually beneficial. US investments in gas production in Turkmenistan may give Washington some clout with the region. As for Berdymuhammedov, he may use the negotiations with US Administration as the first step to international recognition of his regime which did not really change after December 2006. Also importantly, Turkmenistan may set out to try and promote its own political objectives in the course of Berdymuhammedov's visit to the United States. According to what information this newspaper has compiled, the US is prepared to offer Ashkhabad assistance with the problems of division of the territorial waters and the Caspian shelf. On the other hand, the US Administration does not intend to offer Turkmenistan help in coping with these problems in the relations with Iran and Russia.

No information is available at this point on hypothetical reanimation of the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline idea, one that will allow Turkmenistan to export gas to Europe across the Caspian Sea via Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey and bypassing the territories of Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Turkmenistan's two major trade partners, Russia and Kazakhstan tried to convince Berdymuhammedov to join them. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev met with him in Turkmenistan and in Kazakhstan in May 2007 and suggested construction of the Caspian Gas Pipeline, an alternative to the trans-Caspian project that would enable Turkmenistan to enlarge the volume of gas export to Europe using Gazprom's structures and facilities. Ashkhabad listened to them politely and opted for a time-out - probably in order to listen to what the Americans have to offer it now.

Exact date of Berdymuhammedov's forthcoming visit to New York will become known in the nearest future.

P.S. An interview with Bairam Shihmuradov, one of the leaders of the Republican Party of Turkmenistan

Question: Do you expect Gurbankuly Berdymuhammedov to open Turkmenistan to the world?

Bairam Shihmuradov: I hear speculations on the necessity of a multiple-vector foreign policy for Turkmenistan more and more often, these days. In fact, this multiple-vector policy is regarded as a means of discarding Saparmurat Niyazov's false standards of "personality of the state". Should, however, one recall Niyazov's first years at the helm, it becomes absolutely clear that the new president did not invent anything new. This "open doors policy" was already proclaimed well before Berdymuhammedov's time - no need to elaborate on what it all ended in.

As for the Caspian Gas Pipeline accord, it is not even ready for signing yet, and that inhibits the Turkmen-Russian relations. And yes, forget about the humanitarian aspect of these relations. Everything hangs on the gas issue and on how it is resolved.

Question: What about human rights in Turkmenistan? Does the West care?

Bairam Shihmuradov: This subject is always on the agenda of the Turkmen-American relations. On the other hand, not a single Russian politician has accused Turkmenistan of human rights abuses ever since the previous Duma (!). As for the criticism from the West, Niyazov could not care less about it and showed it plainly. Berdymuhammedov on the other hand knows that he cannot afford it as yet. He knows he has to respond or at least to go through the motions. Particularly now that his visit to the United States is planned, one where he will address the UN General Assembly and meet with US State Secretary Condolleezza Rice and even perhaps with George W. Bush himself.

Question: Does Russia care about the state of affairs in Turkmenistan?

Bairam Shihmuradov: Dismayed by Niyazov's anti-Russian thrusts once, Russia lost interest in Turkmenistan. Here is a typical example of its indifference. Addressing the OSCE Human Dimension conference last year, the US spokesman was quite critical of Turkmenistan where the Russian Radio Mayak had just gone off the air. The head of the Russian delegation on the other hand wouldn't participate in the discussion at all. The impression was he was not even listening. Neither did this Russian official deign to meet with Turkmen human rights activists who were ready to update him on numerous episodes of encroachments on Russian-speakers' rights. In fact, these latter are worse off in Turkmenistan than they are in the Baltic states. Russian-speakers in Turkmenistan cannot even protest...

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Dmitry Sidorov, Dmitry Butrin. Kommersant, September 20, 2007, p. 9. © Translated by Ferghana.Ru