Turkmens to Join NATO Pact

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- The Central Asian state of Turkmenistan intends to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program next month, taking the alliance's plan into Asia with Russia for the moment still on the sidelines. "Turkmenistan will sign the Partnership for Peace plan because it means real cooperation between West and East," the Turkmen Foreign Ministry's top NATO expert, Enver Rakhmanov, said at the weekend. "The plan will stress Turkmenistan's neutrality." He said Turkmenistan's vice president, Boris Shikhmuradov, would sign the plan at NATO headquarters in Brussels in mid-May. "Everybody is very surprised about the connection between NATO and Central Asia," Rakhamanov said. "But there are no contradictions because it will make our state more open and constitutes a step toward democracy." Turkmenistan, a gas-rich desert land of 4.2 million people, is one of the most conservative former Soviet republics and is led by former Communist boss Saparmurat Niyazov. The former Soviet republic, which pledges to build a "small Kuwait" in the undeveloped region, forged a foreign policy without Russia on the strength of export revenues from vast gas reserves. It does not participate in the Russian-led defense pact within the Commonwealth of Independent States, although some 15,000 Russian troops remain deployed in the country. Fourteen countries have signed up for the NATO initiative, announced by the alliance in January to extend cooperation to former Communist states without expanding membership. Russia has not yet joined. Nor has Belarus, Moscow's closest ally among former Soviet republics.