The promise of reform by Turkmenistan's new president has provided the United States with a chance to revive moribund ties with the energy rich Central Asian nation, analysts believe.
When Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov died in December, ties with the US were tenuous at best. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. For example, in the last fiscal year, the United States gave Turkmenistan just over $17 million in aid -- a reflection of "the highly centralized and authoritarian rule of President Niyazov," according to the State Department. The Turkmen total was a fraction of what other Central Asian states received over the same period.
But the new interim president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, created a minor sensation in early January when he promise to pursue educational reforms and to reopen the country to outside sources of information. For example, he indicated that Turkmenistani students would once again receive the state's support to pursue higher educational opportunities abroad.
Many analysts view Berdymukhammedov's promises with caution. At the same time, they believe the United States should do everything it can to encourage the new Turkmen leader to follow through on his liberalizing impulse. The US Agency for International Development could act as the leading agent for improved US-Turkmenistan relations, some observers believe.
"The acting president's reformist rhetoric has captured the imagination of the international community and sown seeds of hope that genuine reform will follow," said Erika Dailey, who heads the Turkmenistan Project at the New York-based Open Society Institute. "Assessments of the new regime should be based on deeds, not words -- objective monitoring, not wishful thinking. Bear in mind that Niyazov was also a rhetorical reformer, constantly railing against corruption and government incompetence. Only time will tell whether the promised reforms will materialize." [EurasiaNet also operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute].
In the event Berdymukhammedov is serious about reforms, Washington's first priority "should be one they've already articulated, and that's education and health -- that's a big opening for us, and I think that should probably lead the train, because our relations have been so poor this would be a good way to rebuild trust on both sides," said S. Frederick Starr, Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
However, the United States needs to send officials to Turkmenistan to assess Berdymukhammedov's true intentions, and the officials need to be of sufficiently high rank to suit Turkmenistan, which places a high value on protocol, noted Sean Roberts, Central Asian Affairs Fellow at Georgetown University. "What would be very astute of the US government to do would be to send somebody out who can spend some quality time with Berdymukhammedov and really find out what his plans are," Roberts said.
"The question for the United States now is, do we go back and say,
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.