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Remarks to the Press in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Richard A. Boucher, Assistant Secretary For South And Central Asian Affairs
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
December 24, 2006

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: First of all let me say that I -- this is my first visit to Turkmenistan, although it’s a different occasion than I imagined. So I thought it was worthwhile sitting down with a few of you and explaining where we are and what our attitude is to the events.

I've seen in the regional press there are a lot of stories out there and many of them talk about the United States and what we want and what we're doing and I thought it was better for the United States to speak on our own about what we want and what we're doing. So you all will have the real story as opposed to what's being written about us.

I've just been out at the mosque where this ceremony is continuing and I had actually scheduled this because I thought I was going to be able to attend the ceremony and it would be over by the time we started here.

Unfortunately things are running a bit late out there and this happens to coincide with the ceremony at the mosque and I wasn’t able to stay for that, so I don't want to spend too much time here. I know that's the more important event that’s going on at this moment.

So with that as an introduction let me just say a few words about the United States' attitude towards the events here and what we hope to see in the future. I came from the United States, from Washington, in order to express our condolences to the people of Turkmenistan and to express our hope for a new beginning in our relationship.

I tried to convey that message in the brief exchanges I've had with members of the government here. And I've had a chance to talk with a number of foreign delegations who are here and I think everybody shares that hope.

The United States already has a range of cooperation here in fields like border security or health or education, and there are things we can do in all those areas to expand the cooperation if the new government here is interested in moving forward.

There are many opportunities in this region for cooperation: cooperation with Afghanistan, cooperation with the countries of the region, cooperation with those of us who are farther away. And we hope that the new government will take advantage of these opportunities for the benefit of the people of Turkmenistan. At this moment that's as far as I can go into the message. We'll have to see how the government gets itself organized and what they want to do.

We certainly are hoping for a peaceful and stable transition, but a transition to a government that will try to provide the justice, democracy and prosperity that the people of Turkmenistan deserve. So I'll stop at that and take a few questions.

QUESTION: So far the signs from the Acting President and the government are that they want to, as they say, stick to the same course as President Niyazov.

And there doesn't seem to be much of the tenor of the way the country is run at the moment to indicate any change, so how hopeful are you of this new relationship that you're talking about?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think…I think its early days. The government is still getting itself organized here. They are mourning a leader and going through the ceremonies of this burial. Here's the only way I can say this: the government will have a lot of decisions to make as they go forward -- decisions about how the government itself is organized, how they treat their people, how they proceed with education, healthcare, all these other important areas.

These are decisions the government is going to have to make. As they start to make these decisions we want them to know that there is this opportunity for a new beginning, so that they can factor that into their decision making. So I can come and lay out this possibility, but it'll be up to them whether to take advantage of it.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up -- in the talks you've had so far, which include meeting the Acting President, I think…

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Only briefly. They really haven't sat down so far. I've been able to, in a variety of ways, sort of express our basic message, but they're not sitting down for formal meetings with delegations.

QUESTION: So there is no sign about whether they are receptive or not?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: There is no indication one way or another.

QUESTION: If you had a meeting with the Interim President, did you provide this opportunity, your hopes?


QUESTION (in Russian): If the, let’s say, Interim Government of Turkmenistan asked for your support and some specific help, then are you planning to provide something specific?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Sure. We're obviously interested in certain areas. We've been active in areas like education and health and border security. We have cooperation in this region with a lot of countries on infrastructure and energy and economic reform, economic opportunity. So there are a variety of things that we could do, but again we'll see what we hear from them as things proceed. I don't know at this point how much and what they might be interested in.

QUESTION (in Russian): Regarding the United States policy and their position on the projects that President Niyazov was lobbying for; specifically the Trans-Caspian and Trans-Afghan pipelines and what does the United States think? Will they be actively involved or participate in these projects, especially the second one, through Afghanistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Those will be decisions that the government will have to make. And our view of energy in this region is that people should be able to take advantage of all their opportunities. There are existing pipelines from Russia that we and others would like to see expanded. There are some countries in this region that are planning on or are even already trading oil with China. There are the opportunities across the Caspian to Turkey. And there's (inaudible) with Afghanistan as well. Our view is that we need to help countries in this region take advantage of all these opportunities.

Some of these contracts -- some of these projects will prove commercially viable. Others may not. But I think for our part we're interested in seeing them have the choices because choices mean independence and that’s fundamentally -- is our interest, in seeing these countries be able to establish their independence and exercise their independence by making choices.

QUESTION (in Russian): Is there a possibility of revisiting now the Trans-Caspian pipeline proposal that once was once elaborated by the United States?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: This is a project of interest to us; it's of interest to people in the region; it's of interest, I think, to some of the firms. So as with any project, if it has a commercial foundation and can be done in the region we'd like to see it done. Certainly just on the face of it, it looks like a good opportunity for the countries of the region.

QUESTION (in Russian): And the United States including? Are they interested?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: We’re interested in their having the choice of doing this.

QUESTION (in Turkmen): Recently the United Nations Security Council had a meeting where they looked at the question and then decided on having an embargo for Iran. Do you think, first of all, that what will be the policies against the countries who will continue working with Iran? In this particular case, Turkmenistan -- we know that they are also selling some gas to Iran. What will happen? Should they cease their gas transmission or what will happen?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think you've got your facts wrong. I think that that's not -- there's no UN decision like that. There's work in the UN on the problems created by Iran's nuclear program, but nobody's proposing an embargo on selling gas.

QUESTION (in Russian): Will the United States insist on first of all relieving all those who are in political custody and also insist on returning the opposition groups back?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think the United States would like to see a more open political system here. We and many others would like to see respect for human rights and establishment of a political process where everyone can participate.

QUESTION (in Turkmen): We know that recently a member of the Democratic Party from Minnesota who is a Muslim citizen was elected as one of the Congress members. When other Democratic Party members were taking an oath - then for example if they were Jews or Christians they would use their book, say the Torah or the Bible. But when this new representative wanted to take his oath on the Koran, the Virginia representative of the Democratic Party said what's going on here its should not be done like that. So that if we don’t sit down and look closely at the immigration policies of the United States then soon the Muslim community in the United States will start doing everything according to their rules. There is a little possibility of a Muslim becoming president. Does it change anything, what could you say about that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Well, I think you have to carry the story through to the end. In the end the guy from Virginia backed down. The Muslim member of congress is going to use the Koran when he's sworn in. And you'll hear all kinds of voices in the United States and some of them say things which I think -- I would say are pretty unreasonable and not very open-minded.

But in the end our political system works out these things and the majority view in the Congress, certainly the strong view of the Administration, is that Muslim citizens of the United States are very important to us. Islam is actually the fastest growing religion in the United States. The President and other members of the Administration have expressed their respect for Islam and they’ve demonstrated it through visits to mosques, the Iftaar dinners at the White House and other steps. I think that represents very strongly the majority view in the United States.

In the interests of time and consideration of the ceremony going on, why don't we take one last question?

QUESTION: Could you say a few words on what you think Niyazov's legacy is?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think you know first of all we have to recognize that he established the independence of this country. He emphasized reconnecting this country with its history and traditions, but that the way he went about it created a lot of hardship for a lot of his citizens. But I think at this point it's all about seeing what possibilities there might be. And I was here to present condolences to the people of Turkmenistan on the loss of a leader. Whatever one thinks of President Niyazov, the people of Turkmenistan are going through a period of uncertainty.

But in addition to conveying our condolences to the people of Turkmenistan to the family of President Niyazov, I thought it was important to convey at this time that we are open to the possibility of a new beginning and (inaudible) cooperation.

And that's I think where we'll stop for the day, but thank you very much for coming. It was good to talk to you.

Thank you.

Released on December 26, 2006

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