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RUSSIA HAS A CHANCE TO STRENGTHEN ITS POSITION
IN TURKMENISTAN
12.02.07


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Pyotr Goncharov)

Turkmenistan has officially chosen the successor of late president
Saparmurat Niyazov, who died so suddenly – Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov,
acting president, former first deputy prime minister and healthcare
minister, a person close to Niyazov.

No one doubted the choice: there were no other real candidates anyway.
However, the question where Turkmenistan without Niyazov will turn –
eastward, westward or toward Russia – remains relevant. Although the new
president's statement on continuity and neutrality in foreign policies,
made long before the election, cooled the passions, there are still plenty
of possible scenarios and forecasts.

It will be difficult for Russia to preserve its present stand in
Turkmenistan, many experts say. It will be easier to strengthen it
significantly, which is encouraged by circumstances.

The new Turkmen leadership will have to make serious changes to the unique,
not to say exotic, political system of the country and to launch some
important social reforms. Some of them have already been announced, such as
return to 10-year instead of 9-year secondary school, to 5-year instead of
4-year higher education, return of retirement pensions and expansion of
village hospitals.

Obviously, social and political reforms conducted simultaneously will
require additional financing, not to mention international support. At
present, however, there is a shortage of both.

Turkmenistan's only revenues come from energy and cotton exports. For
objective reasons, late Niyazov had chosen Russia as his main partner in
gas exports, and the parties signed a 20-year supply agreement.

Almost all of the country's gas export routes go across Russia and via its
pipelines, which gives Moscow a certain advantage for promoting its own
interests.

On the other hand, it seems that the United States, the West and China
could compete with Russia in the Turkmen gas sector. Nazar Suyunov, former
oil and gas minister, says that the republic has huge potential reserves.
Turning them into industrial reserves requires exploration, which in turn
requires huge investment. But the country does not have the necessary
conditions for attracting it. It needs reforms and specialists, which it
has not had "for a long time." It seems other candidates could have a go in
this situation. But the position of Russian Gazprom, which has all but
monopolized the Turkmen gas sector, looks more favorable.

As to international support or, in other words, bilateral Russian-Turkmen
relations, Moscow's position is rather strong.

Ashgabat's neutral policy did not encroach on Russia's interests in the
region. Perhaps, this stand is more suitable for Russia than Turkmenistan's
membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization or the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization. At least, it will not have to shoulder potential
problems that may arise from Turkmenistan's difficult relations with its
neighbors.

As to Russia's regional interests, notably, on the status of the Caspian
Sea, which is directly related to the possibility of a third military
presence there, Turkmenistan’s stance is more favorable for Moscow than the
attitude adopted by Kazakhstan, which is a CSTO member.

Ashgabat has even supported Russia's interests in the issue of third
countries' military bases in Central Asia. After the U.S. base in Khankala,
Uzbekistan, was closed, America eyed the military airport Mary-2 in south
Turkmenistan, which is situated in direct proximity to Afghanistan and
Iran. Niyazov, however, made it clear that the issue could not be decided
without consulting Moscow, given its interests in Central Asia.

Yet all the preferences Russia has in Turkmenistan may not be enough. If
Russia does not act to promote its interests in the country, it may be
ousted by rivals – the U.S., West Europe and China, experts say.

So Moscow should not limit cooperation with Turkmenistan to gas supply, but
try to establish long-term relations with the country's new leadership.
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