- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

The forthcoming elections in Turkmenistan Sunday may have offered the United States an opportunity to recoup some of its recent geopolitical losses in Central Asia. It looks, however, like this will be an opportunity lost.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov — the former minister of health and vice premier, a dentist and a rumored close relative of deceased dictator Saparmurat Niyazov (a k a Turkmenbashi) — seems assured of winning Turkmenistan’s special presidential election.

Mr. Berdymukhammedov has vowed to continue Niyazov’s general political line, which nominally emphasized the country’s isolation and neutrality, but in fact featured a close economic relationship with Russia, centering on a comprehensive natural gas export agreement. Domestically, Niyazov’s regime was among the most repressive on Earth.

Despite the vow of continuity, Mr. Berdymukhammedov has indicated he might open the country’s sociopolitical system somewhat. Earlier post-totalitarian transitions support this notion. In early January, the new ruler pledged to expand citizens’ access to the Internet, and to improve the quality of the country’s educational system. At the same time, he is no democrat. He has prevented exiled opposition’s political leaders from returning to the country, and has discouraged a genuinely competitive presidential election.

Russia seems to be comfortable with Mr. Berdymukhammedov. Officials in Moscow have declared in unison that the terms of Turkmenistan’s pricing agreement with the Russian energy giant Gazprom will remain intact, at least until 2009, when it expires.

Besides Russia, two regional powers are closely watching developments in Ashgabat: China, which would like to gain access to Turkmen gas, and neighboring Iran, which would like to prevent Ashgabat from becoming pro-American.

Unlike Russia, however, Beijing’s and Tehran’s policy options are limited. Other neighbors — such as Uzbekistan, which does not enjoy the best relations with Turkmenistan, and soon may stumble into its own presidential transition — also follow the events with great interest.

The political transition in Turkmenistan has not escaped the United States’ attention, but as the administration is focused on Iraq and Iran, little has been accomplished.

Over the last 18 months, Washington’s position in Central Asia has weakened, due mainly to the rupture of U.S.-Uzbek relations. Transition in Ashgabat has offered U.S. diplomacy a fresh opening. The United States needs to reverse the anti-American geopolitical momentum in Central Asia.

For starters, the United States should try to convince Turkmenistan’s new leaders its interests would be best served by diversifying energy-export routes. Turkmenistan now sells its gas relatively cheaply to Gazprom, which, in turn, either resells the Turkmen gas to Russian customers, allowing Russian gas to be shipped to Western Europe at higher prices, or resells it to Ukraine under a murky financial scheme.

It would be more rational for Turkmenistan to expand its export options, thus terminating Gazprom’s effective pipeline monopoly. There are several possibilities, including building an export route across the Caspian Sea, connecting Central Asia to Turkey and, potentially, beyond to Western Europe. Another route would carry Turkmen gas to China, via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The third pipeline route would link Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India via still-volatile Afghanistan.

Clearly, Mr. Berdymukhammedov’s stated desire to carry out some reforms offers hope his administration might respond favorably to U.S. efforts to secure a larger role in ongoing development of the Turkmen energy sector. No country is more able than the United States to assist Turkmenistan in achieving energy diversification.

American interests in Central Asia can be summarized in three words: security, energy and democracy. Energy cooperation is not sufficient to rebuild U.S.-Turkmenistan ties.

Washington can’t pursue one aspect without keeping the other two in mind. Thus, any effort to strengthen bilateral ties through stronger economic ties should require a concurrent commitment by Ashgabat to forge a prosperous and modern state, based on popular participation in governance.

U.S. officials should urge that Turkmen opposition leaders be allowed to return and participate in political life, and that political prisoners be freed. In addition, Washington should encourage Turkmenistan’s new leaders to guarantee press freedom and other basic civil rights. Little of that was accomplished.

The strengthening of economic ties, especially in the energy sector, would have to be accompanied by Ashgabat’s commitment to more robust anti-corruption and transparency policies. Niyazov, the dead dictator, reportedly diverted millions of dollars in energy revenue generated by the state into his own personal slush funds.

To provide a solid footing for an enhanced U.S.-Turkmen bilateral relationship, the new leadership in Ashgabat could build trust by cooperating in efforts to unearth Niyazov’s ill-gotten gains and redirect them into programs designed to benefit Turkmenistan’s public sector.

The United States needs a comprehensive approach to Turkmenistan and its future, and to Central Asia as a whole.

Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy security at the Heritage Foundation and author and editor of “Eurasia in Balance” (2005).

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