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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turkmen Leader Exploring Gas Options

UNITED NATIONS -- Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said in the United States that his country's talks with Russia on energy were tense and hinted that he was ready to discuss new gas export options, Turkmen state media reported Wednesday.

The United States is wooing Turkmenistan in hopes of easing its dependence on Russia, which buys most of Turkmenistan's natural gas at below market prices, and opening new export routes to give Western markets direct access to Turkmen energy resources.

Berdymukhammedov is in the United States on his first visit since coming to power at the end of last year.

Turkmen state media quoted him as telling U.S. business executives that export pricing talks with gas monopoly Gazprom, as well as negotiations over a new, Russia-backed Caspian gas pipeline, were not going as planned.

"We highly regard our relations with Russia and will do everything to develop them in all spheres. Energy is a separate issue," he said. "I would not want to hide that negotiations on gas prices in the new project as well as in our existing contracts are tense."

Competition between the West and Russia for control over Turkmen gas has intensified since the December death of eccentric leader Saparmurat Niyazov, who showed little interest in energy diplomacy during his 21-year rule.

Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan threatened to cut off supplies to Russia altogether if it did not pay more for its gas.

Under the current deal -- valid until the end of 2009, although theoretically subject to revision this year -- Gazprom pays $100 per 1,000 cubic meters.

On Wednesday, a senior Ukrainian government official said the country had an understanding with Turkmenistan, its primary gas supplier, to keep prices unchanged at that level in 2008.

Gazprom charges Western Europe more than $250 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas.

European Union countries, keen to diversify sources of gas, are ready to pay a market price for Turkmen gas if a southern corridor bypassing Russia is opened via the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Berdymukhammedov said he would pursue a pragmatic approach by diversifying exports in all directions: via the U.S.-supported trans-Caspian project, Russia, as well China and Pakistan.

After meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday, Berdymukhammedov was due to make a speech at the United Nations General Assembly later Wednesday.

The meeting with Rice was the highest-level U.S. contact with the Turkmen president.

Some analysts have questioned Turkmenistan's ability to go ahead with so many projects at the same time. The desert nation has announced the discovery of several big gas fields but has not disclosed an independent audit of its gas reserves.

Berdymukhammedov, however, was confident that his nation had enough gas for everyone.

"The main thing is whether we have enough resources to fulfill all obligations. My response is: We do have enough and, on top of that, we guarantee their fulfillment, " he told U.S. executives in the remarks published in Turkmen media.