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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Courted From All Sides

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Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is having a kind of coming out party in New York this week, ending the self-imposed semi-isolation into which late former President Saparmurat Niyazov plunged Turkmenistan and its top leadership.

The youthful Turkmen president has a busy schedule ahead of him. In addition to having met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday, he will address the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday; he is sure to be sought after by senior European diplomats attending the annual meeting. In addition, he will give a speech before an audience at Columbia University and at a smaller meeting organized by the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk advisory and consulting firm.

The United States and the Europeans are eager to convince the Turkmen president that they are ideal partners for cooperation in the energy sphere, that they can bring the most modern technology available into upstream production and can teach the Turkmen how to best protect their national interests through maximizing the sanctity of contracts. In addition, the U.S. hosts and their European partners hope to provide Berdymukhammedov with a reliable transportation alternative to Russia's and China's in the form of a new gas pipeline that goes under the Caspian Sea and connects with the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline.

What will come out of all these meetings is difficult to predict, but one thing is certain: "Positive neutrality," while not formally renounced by the new Turkmen president, is clearly a thing of the past. It will be good to see the end of this longtime cornerstone of Turkmen foreign policy. Positive neutrality was established at Turkmen insistence and was formally recognized by the UN, but it actually had little discernable content.

Turkmenistan didn't join many things, opting to pass up membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, made up of Russia and eight other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Ashgabat also minimized its military cooperation with NATO countries, although in the spirit of positive neutrality, Niyazov did work in a limited fashion with NATO, and Turkmenistan remained a member of the CIS.

Since taking over nine months ago, Berdymukhammedov has been courted from all sides. He has also worked hard to keep his options open, balancing tripartite summit meetings with President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in which the new Caspian coastal pipeline was broached. In addition, more than a dozen high-level receptions were held in Ashgabat and in Washington, many of which focused on prospects for technical cooperation in all sectors of the economy.

Berdymukhammedov has also had an active spring and summer of travel before his New York trip. His first trip was to Saudi Arabia to show loyalty to his country's Islamic faith, which had been sullied somewhat by Niyazov's assertion that the "Rukhnama," or "Book of the Soul" that he supposedly authored, was a more central source of Turkmen spirituality than the Quran. Trips to China, Iran and Moscow were devoted to more temporal themes, giving the Turkmen president a better framework to judge what he hears in New York this week, what his ministers will bring back from Washington and Houston and what he himself will learn in his upcoming trip to Brussels.

Soon, though, the Turkmen leader will either need to make some difficult choices or undertake a difficult juggling act to keep all sides satisfied because two deadlines are fast approaching. Ashgabat and Moscow must reach a pricing agreement for the purchase of Turkmen gas for 2009 and beyond, and Beijing must figure out if there is, in fact, enough gas available to warrant the construction of a new gas pipeline to China.

No one really knows whether Turkmenistan will be able to satisfy both Russian and Chinese energy needs, not to mention U.S. and European. Ashgabat may choose to serve the European market directly, bypassing Russia via the Caspian Sea or, perhaps in the future, via Iran. It also unknown whether there is enough Turkmen gas available to make these pipelines commercially attractive.

These choices require a kind of professionalism in Turkmenistan's oil and gas sector that has been lacking in recent years.Turkmenistan needs an independent audit of its reserves -- if only to improve the quality of the government's own strategic thinking. It also needs to introduce a transparent legal environment that is attractive to foreign investment, while, at the same time, protects the interests of the state. Foreign investors need to be protected against the possible whims of a future Turkmen government, and the Turkmen people need to be protected against disruptions to their income stream by a future leader who might decide that the country was cheated by the greed or the ignorance of his predecessor.

The United States and Europe are probably correct: Without receiving technical assistance from the West -- whether from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Asian Development Bank or the U.S. Agency for International Development -- the Turkmens are unlikely to maximize their current favorable negotiating environment. Expertise and knowledge transfer help developing countries make economically rational decisions.

This does not mean, however, that Turkmenistan will cancel its plans of transporting its gas through Russia, even if Western firms invest in upstream production. Rosneft and Gazprom have, to varying degrees, both included Western know-how into their corporate decision-making structures, as have numerous prominent privately held Russian firms in the resource-extraction sector.

Knowledgeable and self-confident governments make for more reliable partners. Therefore, it is in best interests of Russia and China -- and the United States and Europe as well -- that Berdymukhammedov come away from his first trans-Atlantic trip with a lot of new ideas.

Martha Brill Olcott is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.