New York (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedow and his Kazakh colleague, Nursultan Nazarbaev, continued their New York visit today where they are scheduled to address the General Assembly of the United Nations. Mr Nazarbayev will then travel to Brazil to advance Kazakhstan's foreign and economic policy interests in South America.
Mr Berdymukhamedow, the first Turkmen president to address the UN body, will spend five days in the United States, meeting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and US business leaders.
Berdymukhammedow’s presence at the UN is seen as important independently of what he might say because it indicates a desire to move away from the isolationist and despotic policies of his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December.
The current president has brought officials and business people to discuss with his US counterpart how to improve political and economic relations.
The United States are interested in Turkmen oil and natural gas sectors which have been dominated hitherto by Russia and China.
Washington has for years urged Turkmenistan to join projects to build pipelines along the bottom of the Caspian Sea that would bypass Russia entirely and bring Turkmen energy exports to Turkey, and on to Europe.
But the Turkmen president made it clear before he left that he wanted to promote all of his country’s products, including agricultural products, not only energy.
Discussions on energy are bound nevertheless to overshadow human rights and democratic freedoms, both of which are in a very poor state in Turkmenistan.
Some analysts agree though that some small improvements have taken place in the past nine month since President Berdhymukhammedow was elected.
On Monday the Turkmen leader addressed students at New York City’s Columbia University. In response to their questions he said that freedom of expression and press freedom were fully respected in his country and that religious and foreign NGOs could operate without hindrance, this despite the fact that Turkmenistan is considered one of the most oppressive countries in the world.
On specific questions concerning hundreds of people in jail for their political or religious belief, he said that he was not involved in the matter and that he trusted his officials who are reliable.
He announced an amnesty for 9.000 prisoners, many prisoners of conscience, who will be gradually released on each of the country’s holidays.
He also pledged reforms but said he would not dismantle his predecessor’s personality cult, confirming that the Rukhnama, or spiritual guide for living supposedly penned by the late Niyazov, would remain an integral part of Turkmenistan’s school curriculum, from kindergarten to high school.