Turkmenistan to open WTO talks

By bne IntelliNews January 21, 2013

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Extending recent tentative moves to bring the country out of international isolation, Turkmenistan's government on January 19 announced plans to open talks with the World Trade Organization (WTO).

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov told a cabinet meeting that the issue of Turkmenistan's WTO entry should be considered, and instructed officials to set up a special commission on the issue and to open talks with the organisation.

According to state newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan, Berdymukhamedov ordered Deputy Prime Minister Annamukhammet Gochiyev to "examine the issue of Turkmenistan's joining the WTO." The Turkmen leader also ordered the government to "start negotiations with the WTO leadership about accepting Turkmenistan as a member," the newspaper added, but offered little detail, reports AFP.

The announcement comes two years after European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, during a visit to Ashgabat in January 2011, made a somewhat surprising proposal that Turkmenistan should look to join the trade bloc. "This will increase Turkmenistan's share in regional and global trade and have a positive impact on economic development, which is necessary for long-term prosperity and well-being," Barroso said.

The country's extremely closed and state-controlled economy, added to its questionable human rights record, hardly makes Turkmenistan a bastion of EU values. However, Central Asia has increasingly worked its way onto Brussels' agenda in recent years, given its potential to offer the EU a route to reducing reliance on Russian energy. One unnamed senior official at the EU said Brussels is ready to support the bid, according to Trend.az.

On the other side of the equation, Ashgabat is keen to diversify its export routes in order to leverage the development of its oil and gas reserves. Until the opening of a Central Asian gas route to China in 2009, the region was entirely dependent on Soviet-era infrastructure carrying exports through Russia to European markets.

Should it push the plan through, Turkmenistan would likely become the fourth Central Asian country to join the global trade club. Kyrgyzstan is already a member, while Tajikistan and Kazakhstan are on the verge of joining. Turkmenistan sits on what are claimed to be the world's fourth largest reserves of gas, and Turkey is discussing the possibility to start shipping that fuel to Europe via the planned TANAP pipeline, through which Azeri gas is set to transit.

Kyrgyzstan was the first of the republics to sign up, joining in December 1998. The WTO approved Tajikistan's accession in December, and the lower house of the Tajik parliament approved the accession agreement in January 2013. Kazakhstan, which applied to join the WTO way back in 1996, is also close to accession, WTO director general Pascal Lamy said on January 17. "Kazakhstan is at an advanced stage of its accession negotiation. My guess is that this could be doable this year," Lamy told journalists.

Kazakhstan would follow its fellow Customs Union founder Russia, which joined the WTO in August 2012. This means that several of Turkmenistan's main trading partners are now members of the WTO.

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