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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turkmen Leader Makes His Western Debut

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov heads to New York on Saturday to court Western political and economic interests in the latest sign that the country is breaking with its isolationist past and opening up for business.

On his first trip to the West since taking power in December, Berdymukhammedov will address the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday.

Yet the five-day visit to New York will see Berdymukhammedov meeting with a wide range of Western political and business leaders as the new president seeks to shed Turkmenistan's image as one of the world's last hermit states.

That image was carefully crafted by the country's late president, Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December after a 21-year reign. Economic development lagged as Niyazov focused his efforts on building a huge personality cult around himself.

"Berdymukhammedov is ending Turkmenistan's isolation," said Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Foreign delegations have flooded to the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, in a bid to win contracts to develop the country's gas reserves, estimated to be among the world's largest.

Berdymukhammedov has traveled more frequently than his predecessor, having visited Russia, China, Iran, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia in the last six months.

Turkmen officials are billing his U.S. visit as a chance to speak at the UN, but sources say Berdymukhammedov will hold a wide range of meetings during the trip.

A meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on the agenda, one source with knowledge of the situation said.

Berdymukhammedov, who will remain in New York during the visit, will be accompanied by a delegation of Turkmen energy officials, who will also travel to the U.S. oil capital, Houston, several sources said.

U.S., European, Asian and Russian firms have been competing for prominent positions in Turkmenistan's energy sector, reviving talk of a new Great Game. The country is estimated to hold 2.9 trillion cubic meters of gas, according to the 2007 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, though the country has yet to allow independent verification of this figure.

China's CNPC became the first foreign firm to gain rights to develop an onshore gas field when it signed on to the Bagtyyarlyk project in September. And construction on a pipeline due to carry 30 billion cubic meters of fuel per year to China starting in 2009 has already begun.

LUKoil won the right to develop three offshore fields in June, while the Turkmens have indicated that U.S. oil major Chevron will also likely be awarded some contracts.

Yet the greater game lies in the race for pipeline routes, which will decide for decades to come who will be the ultimate beneficiary of Turkmenistan's riches.

"Everyone is now expecting a change in Turkmen policy from what it used to be under the former president," said Gairat Salimov, the head of Central Asia research at Renaissance Capital. "There is a big decision to be made -- where Central Asian gas should go," he said.

Talks between Moscow and Ashgabat have stalled since Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan signed a preliminary deal in May to build a pipeline around the Caspian Sea.

The deal, signed during Putin's visit to Turkmenistan, was seen as a blow to Washington and Brussels, who have lobbied for a pipeline that would send Turkmen gas to Europe under the Caspian Sea.

Berdymukhammedov said then, however, that the option of a Caspian project bypassing Russia was still on the agenda.

"Nothing has happened with the May accord because the Turkmens are stalling," said Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of World Security Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

In meetings with European officials this week, Berdymukhammedov reiterated that he was open to the idea of exporting gas across the Caspian and on to Europe via Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Britain's energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, who met with Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat on Thursday, discussed "the prospects of opening up a southern corridor so that oil and gas can come from via the Caspian Sea and Azerbaijan, through to Turkey and the European Union," Wicks said in remarks released by the British Embassy.

Berdymukhammedov will likely wait until his trip to New York and a planned November trip to Brussels before making any concrete decisions, analysts said.

"The relationship with Russia is getting more complicated, but I wouldn't say that Russia has 'lost' Turkmenistan," Safranchuk said. "Russia understands that Berdymukhammedov wants to look at different options."

U.S. officials might also be eager to win closer military cooperation with Turkmenistan, since its presence in Central Asia was severely diminished when it was evicted from a key military base in Uzbekistan in 2005, Safranchuk said.

Yet any talks on military cooperation will be complicated by Turkmenistan's official doctrine of neutrality, introduced by Niyazov, under which the country avoids binding political alliances.

Analysts said the visit would serve more as a chance for Berdymukhammedov to get a sense of U.S. interests, rather than a chance to win detailed contracts.

"No one is expecting any concrete decisions," Carnegie's Olcott said. "They're just trying to get him to understand [the U.S. position] better."