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Financial Times: Turkmen leader’s visit points to more openness with west

By Isabel Gorst in Moscow
Published: August 27 2007 03:00 | Last updated: August 27 2007 03:00

The president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, is to visit the west for the first time since taking power when he attends the United Nations’ General Assembly in New York next month.

The move indicates that the central Asian republic is opening up to the outside world after 16 years of rule by Saparmurat Niyazov, an isolationist dictator who died in December.

Mr Berdymukhammedov’s trip to the UN will coincide with a visit by a Turkmen oil delegation to Washington and Houston, raising hopes for broader US engagement in a republic that holds some of the world’s biggest natural gas reserves.

“Turkmenistan has entered a new sphere of development involving a profound restructuring of life and broadening of international co-operation,” the president told a meeting of the state security council at the weekend.

A UN spokesman said Mr Berdymukhammedov was due to address the General Assembly on September 26, the first time a Turkmen leader had attended since 1995. A General Assembly resolution in December 2005 expressed “grave concern” about human rights problems in Turkmenistan.

Mr Berdymukhammedov is unlikely to leave New York while in the US. However, Martha Olcott, a central Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank, said the visit would “provide senior state department officials, policymakers and western businessmen with a chance to see the new Turkmen leader up close”.

Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, is expected to hold talks with Mr Berdymukhammedov on the sidelines of the UN.

Niyazov’s last official visit to Washington was in 1998 at the height of a US campaign to persuade Turkmenistan to build a pipeline across the Caspian Sea to carry gas to the west and loosen Russia’s stranglehold on export routes out of central Asia.

The project was later abandoned by foreign companies, including Shell, amid complaints about Niyazov’s negotiating tactics.

Mr Berdymukhammedov said in May that Turkmenistan had not excluded the trans-Caspian pipeline option. But he has made pledges on pipelines north to Russia and a new gas export route to China.

Turkmenistan is also considering building a pipeline across northern Iran to Turkey and another to Pakistan via Afghanistan.

International oil companies have flocked to Ashkabad in search of opportunities since Mr Berdymukhammedov became president. US oil majors are jostling for meetings with the Turkmen oil delegation, led by Bairammyrat Myradov, the acting director of the state agency for hydrocarbons management.

Turkmenistan recently invited Chevron to draft a proposal for the development of a Caspian Sea oilfield.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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