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Central Asia news

Turkmenistan-USA: Ashkhabad promotes improved relations with NATO

17.06.2008 13:06 msk

Nezavisimaya Gazeta

Analytics Turkmenistan

The United States has confirmed its willingness to expand economic and military cooperation with Central Asia. Observers believe Washington chose to promote cooperation with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as countries with the largest deposits of oil and natural gas and a critically strategic geopolitical location.

Richard Boucher, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, visited Ashkhabad and Tashkent in late May and early June and voiced satisfaction over talks with the countries’ leaders. As a matter of fact, the US diplomat spoke in support for each Central Asian president. The Turkmen leader, for one, was reassured by Boucher’s placing increased importance in improving relations with Turkmenistan, now considered a key player in the Central Asian region. Speaking on behalf of Washington, Boucher offered Gurbankuly Berdymuhammedov aid in reforms launched to make the process of changes in the country irreversible.

Where Islam Karimov was concerned, Boucher thanked him for hospitality and stressed his country's interest in cooperation with Uzbekistan. Boucher said, as well, that he had a better understanding, due to his visit, of the direction Uzbekistan is moving in.

In contrast, official Washington's rhetoric was quite different just a short while ago. In 2006, Boucher was categorical in his assessments during a visit to Central Asia. "The Uzbek authorities have callously mistreated their own nationals," he said in connection with the May 2005 tragedy in Andijan. Those meetings and negotiations were frustrated by such issues and Boucher left Tashkent with nothing to show for it.

As for Turkmenistan, relations with it were also problematic when Saparmurat Niyazov ran the country. Human rights abuses in Turkmenistan were then Washington's predominant concern. However, these concerns changed following Niyazov’s death. Today, Berdymuhammedov has opened the door to improved relations with Washington.

By seeking to improve relations with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the United States is placing a special emphasis on regional security and is enlisting NATO's services to promote its plans. The Alliance has promised to provide security for Ashkhabad’s pipelines exporting Turkmen oil and gas to Europe. NATO officials often remind Ashkhabad of the "potential lack of stability" in Central Asia and of the dangers posed by Afghanistan, where the war continues unchecked and may quickly disrupt energy exports to Europe. Robert Simmons, NATO Secretary General's Envoy to the Caucasus and Central Asia, said the Alliance could draw on its "40-year long experience" and become guarantor of the region’s energy security.

The NATO summit in Bucharest, whose final declaration called Central Asia a "strategically significant region," became a catalyst that jolted the United States into action. Certain political and economic realities will only add to the strategic importance of the Central Asian region in the years to come.

Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan have also been offered membership in Line Communication, a project expected to connect NATO countries with Afghanistan via Central Asia. Berdymuhammedov and Karimov attending the NATO summit, supported the idea and now permit NATO to ferry non-military shipments through their countries.

Karimov even suggested renewal of talks within the framework of the 6+3 Contact Group. The 6+2 Contact Group, comprising Iran, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, plus Russia and the United States as guarantors, was established on Karimov's initiative in 1997. This international structure was expected to help with the Afghani settlement. These days, the Uzbek leader suggests adding NATO to the list of guarantors.

Washington and Brussels seemed taken with the idea and their interest in Uzbekistan became more noticeable. Boucher again brought the matter up in Tashkent during a subsequent visit. "The discourse on Afghanistan included both major issues like stabilization of all of Afghanistan and less important ones like availability of electric power there," he said. As for the reestablishment of the US military presence in Khanabad, Boucher said it was not discussed. "We will only be shipping non-military cargoes via Uzbekistan," he said.

Ashkhabad, in its turn, is prepared for more advanced relations with the Alliance. Berdymuhammedov permitted NATO to establish peacekeeper training camps in Turkmenistan and set up army depots and support services for the NATO contingents operating in Afghanistan. NATO no longer even attempts to conceal its interest in the so-called Turkmen route, convenient for transportation bypassing Russia - from Turkey via Georgia and Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, and, finally, to Afghanistan via Kushka. Berdymuhammedov told his confidants that he expected to get "whatever he chose to ask" from the Americans on his return from Bucharest. The Turkmen president issued the order to do whatever it took to receive NATO aircraft and personnel. Border guards and customs were ordered not to interfere with shipments to Afghanistan.

The Turkmen leader demanded financial aid from the West in return for this newfound cooperation. This aid will include construction of a liquefied gas factory and development of the Caspian shelf.

Ashkhabad is still waiting for Western investments in its energy sector. Washington, Brussels, and other foreign capitals accepted Berdymuhammedov's "gas game" to solidify their military presence in Turkmenistan and have a presence in the country if, and when, availability of oil and gas was finally confirmed. Aware of the possibility that oil from the Persian Gulf may become scarce for a variety of reasons, the United States seeks to have energy imports from Central Asia meeting 60% of its needs by 2050.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta - Dipkurier, No 11, June, 2008, p. 17. © Translated by Ferghana.Ru