Crossroads Asia

Turkmen President Boosts Ties with Austria

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Crossroads Asia

Turkmen President Boosts Ties with Austria

When it comes to energy, as with neutrality, Turkmenistan likes to keep its options open.

Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is in Europe again this week. Berdimuhamedov met with the President of Austria, Heinz Fischer and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano, in Vienna yesterday, before moving on to Slovenia to meet with President Borut Pahor.

Last week, Berdimuhamedov was in Italy for bilateral talks in Rome and to open the Turkmenistan pavilion at Expo 2015 in Milan, which reportedly featured a “four-storey high rug of twinkling LEDs.” He met with Italian President Sergio Mattarella as well as the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

In Rome, Vienna, and Ljubljana Berdimuhamedov is focusing attention on Turkmenistan’s energy potential. In recent weeks, the possibility of Turkmen gas supplying Europe either through Turkey or Iran, has made headlines. Energy leads from Azerbaijan, Turkey, and the European Union gathered in Ashgabat at the end of last month to reaffirm their commitment to bringing Turkmen gas to Europe–through the Caspian and Turkey or through Iran, a possibility that has gained greater advocates as nuclear negotiations move forward between Iran and the P5+1. Meanwhile, as Casey Michel noted, Iran hopes surged just as Turkmenistan’s other diversification schemes–namely the TAPI pipeline–hit another roadblock.

But, as I wrote last week, Turkmen gas flowing into Europe is far from a certainty.

Nevertheless, Turkmenistan is pursuing the hopeful line. According to the Turkmen State News Agency, the meeting between Berdimuhamedov and Fischer in Vienna focused on energy cooperation “as a crucial issue.” Austria “welcomed the policy of the Turkmen state in the energy sector aimed at diversifying export routes.”

The two leaders also signed a joint statement to deepen bilateral ties, and discussed expansion of relations regarding textiles, tourism, and agriculture.

At his meeting with Amano, Berdimuhamedov expressed thanks to the IAEA Board of Governors for recommending that the body approve Turkmenistan’s bid to join at the organization’s annual conference later this year.

According to the Turkmen State News Agency, Amano “underlined that all these years, the neutrality of Turkmenistan had been serving as an efficient mechanism for strengthening peace and maintaining the atmosphere of confidence and stability in the region.”

While the energy piece remains the core of Turkmenistan’s external engagements, it is augmented and bolstered by its state policy of neutrality. Turkmenistan, which is very proud of its neutrality, declared 2015–celebrated as the country’s 20th year neutral–the year of neutrality and peace.

Not everyone was pleased with Berdimuhamedov’s European tour. The Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a publication sponsored by a Turkmen human rights organization that operates in exile from Vienna, ran a story saying that the Turkmen president refused to allow reporters to ask questions at the scheduled press conference held by the two presidents after their meeting. The Chronicles commented that the Turkmen president’s visit “did not generate great interest among print media.”

According to the Chronicles,Fischer did say that he brought up the topic of human rights in the course of his discussions with the Turkmen president, but Berdimuhamedov “kept silent about this” during the press conference, instead highlighting the celebration of Turkmenistan’s neutrality.

Human Rights Watch urged Fischer this week to bring up Turkmenistan’s “serious human rights problems,” specifically the issue of forced disappearances. In a statement  Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director, said that “Fischer should not miss this chance to urge Turkmenistan’s president to clarify the fate and whereabouts of dozens of people arrested in the early 2000’s who have been forcibly disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prison system.”

It is unclear what was substantively discussed, beside energy, between the two presidents.