Rice meets Turkmen leader to discuss energy, reform

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UNITED NATIONS, Sep 25 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Turkmenistan's president today for talks about political reform and energy sector development in the authoritarian former Soviet republic.

The meeting is the highest-level US contact with Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who took office after the December death of the Central Asian country's eccentric, long-time leader Saparmurat Niyazov.

The United States and the European Union have aggressively wooed the country since Niyazov's death to ease its dependence on Russia, which buys most of Turkmenistan's natural gas exports at below-market prices.

''The secretary made clear we want to be a good friend of the Turkmenistan people and help Turkmenistan strengthen its development as an independent nation,'' US State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said in an e-mail to reporters after what he described as a ''brief'' meeting at the United Nations.

''They discussed the development of political freedoms and an independent judiciary as well as the opportunities to promote economic growth, including diversification of the economy,'' he added.

Gallegos said the two discussed the process of reform in Turkmenistan, how to develop a private economy as well as energy opportunities, including cooperation with firms from the United States and regional countries.

''They look forward to specific opportunities between our two nations to help Turkmenistan achieve its full potential in all of these areas,'' he added.

VAST GAS RESERVES Turkmenistan's vast untapped gas reserves, as well as its strategic proximity to Iran, are of major interest to the West.

Turkmenistan, however, still sees Moscow as a traditional strategic partner and may be reluctant to push for a sudden thaw in ties with Washington, analysts say.

The West views Turkmenistan's Caspian Sea gas deposits as a potential alternative energy source for Europe and tries to encourage Turkmenistan to engage in pipeline projects bypassing Russia so that Moscow does not control the supply route.

Berdymukhamedov has taken some steps to ease some of the restrictions affecting human rights introduced by Niyazov, who ruled Turkmenistan for 21 years, focused on building his cult of personality and showed little interest in energy diplomacy.

Western analysts are unsure how far the new Turkmen leader, who was elected in a poll criticized by Western observers as neither free nor fair, will take steps to open up his country politically and economically.

Turkmen state television quoted Berdymukhamedov as making his case for foreign investment in the country during a visit with US businessmen in New York.

''As the president of Turkmenistan, I am the supreme guarantor of safety of your future investment,'' it quoted him as saying. ''I believe ... political stability in the country, its stable economic growth and powerful resource potential, should be attractive for investors.'' Berdymukhamedov also sought to reassure the executives that Turkmenistan had enough natural gas to make use of potential export pipelines, including those planned to China, to Pakistan via Afghanistan, a Caspian pipeline through Russia and a Trans-Caspian pipeline cherished by western investors.

''I (have) heard a lot about such concerns. The biggest is whether we have enough resources to meet all our obligations. I reply: we have enough and, more than that, we guarantee meeting our obligations,'' he said.

But he signaled no change in his country's close ties to Russia, saying: ''We appreciate our relations with Russia and will make everything to develop them further across the range.'' Reuters KK VP0255

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