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Turkmenistan: Change and the Future

Richard Boucher, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
May 29, 2008

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Good afternoon, everyone. It’s a pleasure for me to be here. It’s a pleasure to be back in Turkmenistan for my third visit. And, first of all, let me thank the President, the government, the people of Turkmenistan, for a very warm welcome and generous hospitality. 

I’ve had a chance to meet with a variety of people: with officials, the President, the Foreign Minister, Deputy Prime Minister for Education, and a variety of other officials. But I’m also glad this time I had a chance to talk to scholars and exchange students, business people, visited a cultural site – the mosque at Annau – and get a somewhat broader sense of life and change in Turkmenistan. And it was really the theme of change that was part of all my discussions. So what I talked about – it’s what I heard – talked about change and opening up. And what I’ve said in a variety of ways was that the United States is here to support Turkmenistan as it goes through these changes and try to help the people of Turkmenistan as they undertake some new opportunities. We talked quite a bit about the region, about the regional role that Turkmenistan can play, including the role it can play in support for stabilizing Afghanistan. And I welcome the fact that Foreign Minister Meredov will be attending the upcoming conference on Afghanistan that will be held in Paris in a few weeks. 

Domestically we talked a lot about education: reform of education, reform of the curriculum, additional things that could be done to modernize the education system and make it an education system that would prepare students and graduates for life in the modern economy and modern world. We talked about developing the economy, developing the investment environment, opening up new opportunities based on Turkmenistan’s natural resources, especially the hydrocarbon gas potential of this country. We talked a lot about democratization and human rights, from questions of constitutional provisions and the rewriting of the constitution that’s underway, down to issues like internet access for ordinary citizens. The goal of this all is to create opportunity: opportunity for the nation to play a larger role in international affairs, and opportunity for the people of Turkmenistan to participate fully in the political and economic life of their country. 

So, I think I had a very positive visit. There is some change underway; we’ve seen some positive steps already. And what we’re looking to do is to support that process of change broadly and substantively to make sure that it benefits the citizens of Turkmenistan. With that statement, I’d be glad to take your questions. 

QUESTION (in Russian): Marat Gurt, Reuters Agency. Did you raise the issue for the Nabucco project? Were there any specific agreements?
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No, we didn’t. I’m not here to negotiate any specific agreements or understandings on energy matters. We talked generally about the opportunities for Turkmenistan: opportunities to benefit from the natural resources, opportunities that we think can be maximized by having multiple export routes – and that means North, South, East and West – as well as opportunities, I think, to get the maximum value by having the participation of technically qualified business, qualified international firms. So in a general sense, “yes” we discussed these things, but “no” I wasn’t here…I am not a deal maker that deals between companies and investors. 

QUESTION (in Russian):  So Turkmenistan has been taking some steps to improve [the] investment climate, but so far no foreign companies have come here and registered to work here. Are there any reasons that you could explain why this is happening and what Turkmenistan should be doing in order to attract people so that they could come and work here?
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think there are some companies here.  I mean I was driving down the street today and I saw “John Deere” agricultural combines parked on the side of a road headed out to a job. There are, I think, more and more current companies involved here. Ultimately, how we decide to invest depends on a whole lot of factors. We are prepared to work with Turkmenistan, to help improve the investment climate and, in fact, we’ve proposed an investment road map that would help the government take a series of steps to improve the investment climate. But they need to get organized themselves in some ways. They need to decide how they’re going to operate in some of these areas, particularly when it comes to energy and agricultural progress. So, I think this is the process that is still evolving. 

QUESTION (in Turkmen): Turkish “Anadolu Ajansi” information agency. So today, in Turkmen newspapers they are saying that “they were talking about energy security.” Can you talk more in detail, what specifically you discussed?
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think the fundamental issue of energy security is that you’re not dependant on any one route, on any one customer, or on any one investor. The market is the best guarantee of security, and having multiple export routes is the best guarantee of having access to the market. So, I think, in the end, what we talked about were prospects for exports in all directions, what are the prospects for some gas to go south. There is renewed interest, I know, in Pakistan, in the Trans-Afghan Pipeline. There is interest, obviously, in Europe in importing gas from Turkmenistan. We all know there are plans and programs to export gas to China and there are existing relations with Russia. So, having all these possibilities, I think, helps Turkmenistan have a secure set of markets, helps Turkmenistan get a good price for its gas everywhere it goes, and frankly helps the customers, too. Customers have more security because they have multiple routes to acquire gas. So energy security for Europe, for example, is important to us; it’s important to the Europeans. And that, again, is based on having multiple sources. So I think what’s good for the producers is actually good for the customers as well. So we were looking at all these things. The ultimate feasibility of these projects needs to be decided by companies and commercial considerations. Governments can look at what’s possible to facilitate, but, in the end, they have to be done by government…by commercial institutions, sorry. 

QUESTION (in Russian): Associated Press. Questions are in this order: first of all, after yesterday’s meeting with the President, you said that Turkmenistan is opening up. How can you characterize it in more specific details? What do you see as opening up? And second is: what do you expect from Turkmenistan in terms of the reform of political improvements? And the third one is: also in newspapers today it was reported that the United States will be helping Turkmenistan to change and reform the constitution. So what does it mean? What type of support it would be?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think these are all really one question, but I will try to give three answers. I think, on the first question, in terms of how Turkmenistan is opening up, I see it’s easier for people to travel. There are, frankly, more newsmen, more reporters in this country than there were when I came a year ago, a year and half ago. There is more openness to the outside. There is some internet access. It’s not wide spread as what we might like, but people have more access to ideas, opportunities, exchanges with the outside world.

On the second question on political reform, we talked about the constitutional changes underway and the basic desire to shift power to the parliament, to reform elections, so that people could have more of a voice and it guarantees basic rights for all the citizens. And how the United States would help with that? I think we have expertise that we can provide. We do work with other organizations like the OSCE, with the United Nations, and we support their efforts, as well. 

So, I encouraged the government to work with international organizations, to base these reforms on international standards, and to base the rights of Turkmen citizens on the international rights that all citizens should enjoy.

QUESTION (in Russian): So also in your visit that you have, in official media here in Turkmenistan it was reported that you were talking about the role of Turkmenistan in the region, and particularly about the increasing or the developing of the assistance program to Afghanistan. What do you see Turkmenistan doing in assisting Afghanistan, whether it’s energy assistance or providing air space or air bases or some privileges in the commercial trades?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: What we’ve talked about, I think, first and foremost, has been electricity. Much of Afghanistan doesn’t have regular electricity supply and it’s important for people of Afghanistan to get reliable electricity for any number of reasons: so children could do their homework, families constructing businesses. The government of Turkmenistan, I think, signed agreements already with Afghanistan to supply electricity. We are – the United States – helping to build a power grid in the north of Afghanistan that that will feed into. And so, I think that’s actually progressing fairly well. We also talked about trade opportunities, transit of Turkmenistan’s goods through Afghanistan to ports in the south. We talked about opportunities to work together on irrigation and agriculture. Just as Turkmenistan has a lot of understandings and agreements with Uzbekistan when it comes to water use, we discussed the possibility they might want to do that with Afghanistan, as well.

I will just say I think there are probably many other ways that Turkmenistan and Afghanistan can help each other. I was glad that we’ve seen visits back and forth. And I look forward hearing what Foreign Minister Meredov has to say after the conference in Paris. 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Okay. Shall we do one more?

QUESTION (in Russian): Ukrainform agency. You told that you discussed the human rights. So what particularly was discussed and do you see any improvements in this area?
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think we’ve seen some improvements in terms of the ability to travel, ability to access the internet. They’ve let a lot of people out of jail. Some of them are people that were of concern. What we talked about is how to continue these kinds of changes, but also how to give the people of Turkmenistan more of a voice in their government – through elections, through powers of parliament – how to open up access to information, allow journalists to operate more freely: all these things that make for a modern information society, that allow people to participate in a modern economy. 

Okay. Thank you very much. 



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