11/15/2007, 00.00
TURKMENISTAN
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Turkmen gas industry opening to international markets

The country’s isolation is ending. With one the biggest natural gas reserves, the Central Asian nation wants Western investment to increase output and sales. A trans-Caspian gas pipelines is designed to counter Russia’s competition.

Ashgabat (AsiaNews/Agencies) – At least 500 investors and energy ministers from around the world have gathered in the Turkmen capital for a week-long conference which marks the end of a self-imposed isolation in the oil and gas sectors. For the past 21 years the Central Asian country was under the dictatorship of the late Saparmurat Niyazov and kept the outside world at arm’s length, except for Russia which bought most of its goods, at below market prices. The new president, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who was elected in February two months after Niyazov’s death, wants instead to open the country’s oil and gas industry to other markets, above all Europe.

The West in particular wants Turkmenistan, which borders Iran, to step up work on a US-backed trans-Caspian pipeline, to help Europe diversify gas imports away from Russia.

The mainly Muslim country is believed to lie on some of the world's biggest natural gas reserves, mainly under its vast Kara Kum desert. It plans to more than triple its gas production by 2030 from this year's planned 70-80 billion cubic metres of gas. But it needs international investments.

Last September Mr Berdymuhammedov was the first Turkmen president to participate in a UN General Assembly. In the United States he met US and European politicians and top oil and gas industry executives (Chevron, Mobil, Exxon, Shell, BP, etc.), who would like to have a crack at Turkmenistan’s energy resources.

Mr Berdymukhamedov said that his country wanted to turn the page and open up to international co-operation by introducing economic and political reforms.

Pledges of political openness are slow in coming though. The same can be said about religious freedom. Jehovah’s Witnesses have often been arrested, whilst various evangelical groups have been declared illegal.

From an economic point of view things also remain murky. If the president is making promises about opening up to the international market, his government has yet to publish the results of an international gas reserves audit conducted under his predecessor.

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