Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov delivered a keynote speech at the UN General Assembly on September 25, indicating that Ashgabat wants to “open up” to the outside world and build a more durable environment to further its economic interests. Praising the role of the UN in world affairs, he outlined aspects of Turkmenistan’s international engagement efforts, underscored by bilateral meetings with officials from the United States, Georgia, Lithuania, and Croatia. Berdimukhamedov met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the presidents of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili; Lithuania, Valdas Adamkus; and Croatia, Stjepan Mesic. Business came high on his agenda, with a visit to the New York Stock Exchange and an address to U.S. businessmen (Turkmen TV Altyn Asyr Channel, September 25).
Berdimukhamedov told the UN that he considered its decision to open a regional center in Central Asia to be highly significant. “We highly appreciate the fact that Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital, has been chosen as a venue for the preventive diplomacy center and view this as deep trust by the UN in our country,” the Turkmen leader said. He touched upon UN reform efforts and ways to improve the Security Council and its interaction with the General Assembly. More specifically, he offered support for measures aimed at curbing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, while emphasizing Turkmenistan’s peaceful role in Central Asia and its commitment to expand trade within the region (Turkmen TV Altyn Asyr Channel, September 26).
A vital element of Berdimukhamedov’s agenda in New York was to present Turkmenistan as a safe and lucrative opportunity for foreign investment. He wants to utilize foreign investment to modernize the country, although he gave few details of precisely what this could involve. Equally, Berdimukhamedov reassured the U.S. business community that he personally guarantees the safety of such investments. “I think, long-term political stability in the country, its stable economic growth, and national currency rate as well as powerful basis of resources should attract investors,” he said. Moreover, the legislative basis, in his view, has been developed to promote such investment, with technical legal issues being resolved through the EU’s international aid programs.
Berdimukhamedov used his visit to New York as an opportunity to expand and deepen Turkmenistan’s partnership with the United States. On September 25 Berdimukhamedov met Secretary of State Rice, discussing ways in which bilateral ties may be strengthened. Broad agreement was reached on energy cooperation, sustainable development, and security (Gundogar.org, September 26). Rice observed that Turkmenistan has huge energy resources and has formulated “very attractive proposals” on their use, which Washington welcomes. Turkmenistan is also strategically important, in Rice’s view, in terms of establishing inter-regional transit and transport routes (Turkmen TV Altyn Asyr Channel, September 26).
Addressing economic issues, Berdimukhamedov said Turkmenistan produces 70-80 billion cubic meters of gas and 10 metric tons of oil annually. On the country’s international pipelines, Berdimukhamedov noted that cooperation existed with the governments, banks, and companies of a number of countries involving the Turkmenistan-China, Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan, Caspian, and trans-Caspian pipelines. “I have heard plenty of concerns about these projects. The main [issue] is whether or not we have enough resources to meet all declared obligations. My answer is yes, we have enough, and, moreover, we guarantee the implementation of these projects,” he affirmed (Interfax, September 26).
Washington’s growing security interests in Turkmenistan are emerging, and the U.S. is keen to foster a stronger relationship with the new regime despite Ashgabat’s avowed neutrality. On September 27 Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, the commander of the U.S. Central Command Naval Forces, headed a delegation on a working visit to Ashgabat. The delegation met with officials in the Turkmen Ministry of Defense and the State Border Guard Service, as well as the Ministry of Oil and Gas and Mineral Resources. Such bilateral security contacts are aimed at exploring mechanisms through which existing security cooperation may be widened (Turkmen TV Altyn Asyr Channel, September 27).
Although U.S. and Western countries are primarily interested in Turkmenistan’s energy resources, there are prospects for building stronger security ties with the government in Ashgabat that were not as accessible in the Niyazov era. However, actively pursuing these ties on a bilateral basis calls to mind the recent history of U.S. diplomacy in Central Asia. An approach based upon “strategic partnership” can prove open to vulnerabilities or sudden shifts, as proved to be the case in the collapse of the U.S.-Uzbek strategic partnership.
Pressure on U.S. security engagement with Central Asia, of course, emanates mainly from Moscow. In this sense Washington must take careful stock of how it engages with the countries in the region, particularly since recently Russia’s Colonel-General Yuri Baluyevsky, Chief of the General Staff, openly cited U.S. efforts to promote its own version of democracy within Central Asia as a security threat in itself. Energy resources are a fundamental factor in engaging with Turkmenistan, however, with Washington’s emphasis on human rights and democratization, there are evident limits and sensibilities within the authoritarian regimes on the extent to which they can cooperate with the United States.
Berdimukhamedov is attempting to open Turkmenistan to Western influence, in so far as it suits Ashgabat’s economic needs. Washington, on the other hand, needs to calibrate a joined up policy that brings about a closer cooperative security relationship without alienating the regime politically. There are grounds for optimism, based on the level of interest expressed by the Turkmen leader and his talks with Rice. In turn, Ashgabat will scrutinize Washington’s relations with Turkmenistan’s neighbors in Central Asia.