Richard A. Boucher
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
April 16, 2009

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Good afternoon. It's good to see you all today and I'm very glad to be back in Turkmenistan. I had a chance to meet with a number of leaders of the government here, to see ordinary people, academics, a few business people. And I want to thank everybody for the very warm welcome and kind hospitality.

I came to work on seeing how we can expand and develop our bilateral relationship. The new administration in Washington is putting a lot of emphasis on Central Asia, and looking how we can develop our involvement here. So we talked about expanding our relationship in a number of areas. First is Afghanistan, where as a neighbor, Turkmenistan has not only interest and concerns about the situation there, which we wanted to talk through, but also opportunities to help stabilize Afghanistan. We talked about how to develop new opportunities in agriculture, how to expand our cooperation on education, and how to work together on energy. We very much welcome the initiative of the Government of Turkmenistan in hosting next week’s conference on transportation of energy. And we'll be sending a delegation of government officials, as well as company representatives, who'll be here to participate fully in that conference. We also discussed how to continue the process of reform and change that has been undertaken in the last two years. Including continued reforms that can be undertaken with regard to human rights.

A very broad set of discussions that covered a lot of bases – very much looking forward, and based on the fundamental idea that the United States wants to be involved in this part of the world. We want to help Turkmenistan as a nation and the people of Turkmenistan as individuals. And as they seek to develop their place in the world, to help them develop new opportunities. We very much respect and will support the sovereignty and independence of Turkmenistan. And we’ll continue to be involved here and elsewhere in the region. So with that I'd be glad to take your questions.

Question: So during discussion with the President, did you touch the issue of transporting shipments though the territory of Turkmenistan to Afghanistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: We mentioned it in passing. Clearly, the overall issue of over-flights, and the transit of goods is something that we've been dealing with, with lots of countries in this region. And one way or the other countries from Russia to Tajikistan have all participated in the effort in Afghanistan by allowing transit or over-flights. So, we look forward to doing that with Turkmenistan as well.

Question: Have you heard "Yes" from Turkmen government?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I wasn't here to propose any specific agreement. I was here to keep working on issues that we have some arrangements on already and we want to continue.

Question: So, if you could specify whether you're talking about shipments only for humanitarian or also military?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: The arrangements that we have with people in the region by and large are for non-lethal shipments of goods that support the effort in Afghanistan. They may go to military but they are not munitions and things like that. It's basically a humanitarian effort. A lot of what you're going to see from the new administration is a more integrated approach that uses both civilian and military tools to help Afghanistan stabilize and develop. I think – one of the things that we talked about quite a bit, was the [Obama] administration's policy review and the strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. I think we all believe that making Afghan people safe, helping them achieve a better quality of government, helping them find opportunities to develop – that's basically a humanitarian mission.

Question: So after this recent gas blast, pipeline blast, the gas pipeline that goes through Russia, there is a common spread idea that it will be very easy to now join Turkmenistan to Nabucco Project. Do you share this idea?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think each of the projects has to go ahead on its own merits. The basic principal though that I think we all agree upon – us and the countries of the region – is that of diversification. If you have problems with any particular line, whether the problems are technical or something else, you need to have other alternatives. And any country that wants to determine its own destiny and determine the use of its own resources has to have a variety of routes and a variety of options available to make its decisions.

Question: Have you discussed the issue of Nabucco at the meeting with the president?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: We didn't discuss specifically Nabucco, no. We have other people who work more specifically, in more detail on the oil and gas issues. And I am sure they will be visiting as well. I was here to talk about, sort of, the developing whole relationship on a broad basis, everything from education to energy, but not to push particular projects.

Question: Who will be heading the official delegation to be representing the United States at next week’s conference? Maybe the new Ambassador?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: (laughing) No, the head of our delegation will be George Krol, who is our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asia. He is an expert in the region and well-known here. We are working on a new ambassador. But that's a White House decision and it'll be up to White House to announce it when it's time.

Question: During this past two years, what is the situation with human rights in Turkmenistan? How would you describe it?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think we have seen some reform on the issues of democracy and human rights. Certainly if you only look backwards and you compare it to two or three years ago, things have improved. But we also know there are a lot of areas which need continued reform. So we talked about those – how to move forward with the new constitution and from the elections of last fall, into new elections this year and for the development of human rights generally. I talked to some people about the need to develop the legal system; talked with other about the situation of prisoners in this country – how to ensure that they are treated humanely. I think we were looking for areas where further steps can be taken, and talking about how to further develop democracy for all of the people of the country and respect for the rights of all the people.

Question: So, to your opinion, what are some spheres that still require improvements?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Well some of the things I've mentioned – the treatment of prisoners, the independence of the judiciary, the quality of elections, the competition in elections. I think there is an interest in developing local governance. And we will continue to work with people here who are working on those kinds of topics, and try to help them achieve their goals.

Question: Do you think Turkmenistan is ready for large investments? And what does Turkmenistan need to do to attract large American businesses to invest in Turkmenistan, such as the German company – Just today they signed an agreement on working on the Caspian Shelf to transport Turkmen gas to Europe. Maybe some American companies also can?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Good. I mean first of all, the reason I'm saying "good" is because of where we started out. For Turkmenistan to really develop its own potential they need to develop multiple opportunities and diversified routes. So every investment, every expansion, every new route is good for the independence and the opportunities for the country. American companies are the best in the world. They have the technologies…

Question: But they’re not here…

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: … I say humbly. I think they have a lot to offer. They are interested in long-term partnerships with Turkmenistan, working with Turkmenistan's Government and Turkmenistan's companies. And as we've seen elsewhere in the region, when they get involved, they can really help out and achieve good benefits and progress for all the parties. All of our companies have expressed interest and put forward various proposals. You asked what has to happen for American companies to start investing in here. I guess the answer I give is to sit down and work out a deal. But our companies are ready and they have a lot to offer.

Question: Since in Afghanistan, the United States is enhancing their presence in Afghanistan, maybe there is a chance for Trans-Afghan project as well? What do you think, if it's safe there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: There may be. I mean, the Trans-Afghan project made sense at one time. I think it can… these things can be done despite a certain level of insecurity. It certainly exists in other parts of the world. But whether companies, both the Turkmen companies and other foreign companies have to calculate the investment, and the cost and the return and the future price of gas, and the markets. I think at the right moment when it's economically feasible it'll be a good project.

Question: The question is related to Afghanistan. As you see the neighboring countries with Afghanistan, all of the Central Asian countries always lived in peace with Afghanistan, for centuries long. So and maybe it's time for the United States to look into this issue and try to attract, you know, then try to use the experience Central Asian countries have and involve them into this process?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think you're right. One of the areas of emphasis of the new Afghanistan strategy is to work on a regional basis with all the countries. And perhaps we've looked too often at the dangers that come out of Afghanistan – the drug smuggling or the terrorism. And clearly we have to deal with those dangers and help countries strengthen themselves to deal with those dangers. But at the same time there are real opportunities with Afghanistan – opportunities to develop irrigation and agriculture. One of the things we've talked about with other countries and I talked about here this time is how to connect electricity grids so there can be supply of electricity to Afghanistan. And then the bigger, I think, the longer-term opportunity, but one we're always working on is to try open up Afghanistan so that trade and ideas and energy can flow from the North to South, down to the sea. Using expertise of the region, using, talking to the countries of the region I think is an important part of developing those opportunities.

Question: Can you talk about the perspectives for the future of U.S.-Turkmenistan relationship?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think there is a lot of opportunity in the U.S.-Turkmenistan relationship. We can cooperate on Afghanistan, we can cooperate on energy. I've met young people who've already benefited from our cooperation on education. I'd like to see that expand. Agriculture is another area that's important here, that government is looking to reform and where we can help in getting involved. So I think we have a strong and healthy relationship already that's good for the country and good for the people. But I think there is a lot more we can do, particularly as the country moves forward with reform and opens up.

Question: Can you specify some perspectives in energy area?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think, first of all, we have companies that are ready to get involved here. They have extraordinary capabilities that could really help in terms of a long-term partnership with Turkmen companies. We are prepared to work with the government here and other governments to open up new routes, new opportunities. So that Turkmenistan can have a stable set of markets and enjoy the maximum benefit from its own natural resource. Thank you very much. Good to see you and good to see some of you again.

[This is a mobile copy of Turkmenistan-U.S. Relations]

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