The United States is hopeful for change in Turkmenistan, a senior official said on Friday, defending a policy of engaging with the Central Asian state’s new leadership before it demonstrates progress on human rights.
The gas-rich nation bordering Afghanistan and Iran has a large number of political prisoners and is ranked among the world’s most repressive states for freedom of speech.
"I leave here hopeful," Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher told a news conference in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, a day after talks with new President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
"But we’re ... looking for steps that indicate the new government has a desire for real change and has a desire to better the life of its people."
Human Rights Watch and think tank Crisis Group have called on foreign states to demand progress on human rights before offering trade and aid to the nation, ruled for two decades with an iron fist by Saparmurat Niyazov until his death in December.
Berdymukhamedov, a minister and close aide of Niyazov for 10 years, took over immediately after his death -- circumventing the constitution to do so -- and on Sunday won a vote seen as neither free nor fair by the few foreigners who observed it. "I don’t think you achieve much with people by standing 10,000 miles away and making demands," said Boucher, who attended the inauguration on Wednesday, with regional leaders.
"When there’s a possibility of change, when there’s something happening we ought to be here."
In Brussels, the European Union said it was willing to support the new government and help it reform, but called on the new president "to free political prisoners and to guarantee adherence to internationally accepted human rights standards".
Turkmenistan does not allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its secretive prison system, and Boucher said he had raised the issue.
Niyazov built up a personality cult around himself, closed the country off from the outside world, crushed any hint of dissent and radically cut back healthcare and education.
Berdymukhamedov, who oversaw both health and education as a deputy prime minister, has won praise among ordinary Turkmens and Western diplomats for pledging to partially reverse those cuts. He has said the Internet should be available to all and two small state-run Internet cafes opened on Friday.
Boucher said gas was "not a major topic" in his talks but Washington backed any commercially viable alternative pipelines.
Turkmenistan transports almost all of its gas down a Soviet-era pipeline to Russia at below-market prices. There are discussions about possible new pipelines under the Caspian Sea towards Europe, to China or across Afghanistan.
Boucher rejected speculation that Washington might seek a military base in Turkmenistan.
By Michael Steen February 16, 2007