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Turkmenistan - US Relations

Initial concern over human rights policy delayed United States recognition of Turkmenistan's independence until after February 1992, when alarms over Iran's ventures in Central Asia brought a reevaluation of United States policy. Relations declined in September 1993 when the United States cut trade credits to Turkmenistan to protest the arrest of four human rights activists. Generally, such human rights violations have not impeded relations between the two countries, however. Alexander Haig, former United States secretary of state, acting as consultant to President Niyazov, played a leading role in negotiating most-favored-nation trading status for Turkmenistan in 1993.

The Government of Turkmenistan engages with the United States in many areas, including cooperation in border and regional security programs, educational exchanges, English-language training, and a long-standing Peace Corps presence. Despite the country's authoritarian political system, the government has taken some steps forward in human rights reform, such as lifting the exit visa requirement and allowing the registration of some religious minority groups. Its overall human rights record, however, remains poor. Diplomatic missions from various countries and international organizations have joined together to persuade the Government of Turkmenistan to improve its human rights practices, but their efforts have not yet led to significant improvements overall.

For several years in the 1990s, Turkmenistan was a key player in the U.S. Caspian Basin Energy Initiative, which sought to facilitate negotiations between commercial partners and the Governments of Turkmenistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey to build a pipeline under the Caspian Sea and export Turkmen gas to the Turkish domestic energy market and beyond--the so-called Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP). However, the Government of Turkmenistan essentially removed itself from the negotiations in 2000 by refusing all offers by its commercial partners and requiring billion-dollar "pre-financing."

While Niyazov has never been afraid of using force to maintain his hold on power, the aftermath of the attack brought particularly egregious abuses, including arresting family members of the accused conspirators, an unauthorized search of the Uzbekistani embassy, and the expulsion of the Uzbekistani ambassador. The United States, instead of backing Niyazov as he expected, called for an investigation into human rights abuses and condemned Turkmenistan for violating international conventions protecting diplomats. The relationship between the United States and Turkmenistan cooled as Niyazov turned to Russia for support.

Following a tripartite summit with the presidents of Russia and Kazakhstan in May 2007 in which gas was a major topic, however, President Berdimuhamedov again resurrected the idea of a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline, explicitly refusing to rule out the possibility of constructing such a pipeline in the future.

Turkmenistan remained an important conduit for the U.S. military to Afghanistan. Although basing is not an option, maintaining blanket overflight permission and the military refueling operation at Ashgabat Airport remained key US goals. The Turkmenistan blanket clearance number 999C was first granted to U.S. military aircraft in 2003. It never provided unlimited permission to operate within Turkmen airspace and for this reason is sometimes described as a restricted blanket clearance. The blanket permission is authorized solely for delivery of humanitarian assistance and to help stabilize and rebuild the nation of Afghanistan. Aircraft must follow strict flight profiles and can utilize only select call signs. Aircraft are required to file a DoD international flight plan prior to entering Turkmenistan airspace and cannot deviate from that flight plan while in Turkmenistan. Blanket permission is limited to registered U.S. military aircraft. Civil reserve air fleet and DoD contract carriers are not eligible for the automatic clearance. In addition to overflight permission, the Turkmen government allowed the U.S. to operate a small gas and go operation at Ashgabat Airport to refuel U.S. aircraft.

In spite of these limitations, the Turkmenistan blanket number 999C was considered vital to maintaining an effective western air bridge to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Maintenance of this clearance was problematic at best during 2009. Turkmenistan presented a bill in January 2009 for the use of its airspace for 2007 and 2008, primarily for USAF aircraft other than C-17s or other heavy-lift aircraft. The non-payment of this bill, coupled with nearly reaching the limit of 1600 overflights, led to the suspension of overflight by USAF aircraft using the blanket number. In May 2009, the still unpaid bill led to numerous airspace denials by the Turkmen to include USAF VIP transport aircraft, civil reserve air fleets, and DoD contracted aircraft. Some relief was felt at the end of May 2009 when a Turkmen air traffic control official provided a firm number, 422, of overflights remaining until the clearance was renegotiated in November 2009. This official also agreed that USAF aircraft that land in Ashgabat do not/not count against the remaining overflights.

The position of the Turkmen government regarding transshipment of U.S. cargo to Afghanistan is that it would not agree to such an arrangement. Turkmenistan had several factors to consider if it were to change its position on the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). The first and primary was Turkmenistan's own stated neutrality, which prevented it from participating in military alliances or agreements. Also, a Turkmen desire to avoid possible negative Russian perceptions of military cooperation with the United States appeared to affect their decision making. It was also likely that Turkmenistan, like other Central Asian States, was hedging its bets in regards to the final outcome of events in Afghanistan.

A significant amount of the aviation fuel for U.S. forces in Afghanistan came from refineries in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, and transitted Turkmenistan on the way to Afghanistan. The Turkmen Government was almost assuredly aware of the fuel, but it was not discussed in deference to Turkmen desires to maintain some plausible deniability.



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